Does the New Testament uphold the Old Testament prohibition against the common practice of getting tattoos? Should a Christian avoid getting a tattoo?
In Leviticus 19:28 God says, “You shall not make any cuttings in your flesh for the dead, nor tattoo any marks on you: I am the LORD.”
Why did God prohibit tattoos in the Old Testament?
Some commentators say the statement forbidding tattoos only refers to pagan customs for the dead. For example, the writers of the Zondervan NIV Bible Commentary believe that there is nothing “morally wrong” with tattooing, but that “these practices then, and also now in some places, were parts of heathen ritual” (vol. 1, 1994, p. 150).
Other commentators disagree. The Keil and Delitzsch Commentary on the Old Testament, for example, says in reference to this verse, “The prohibition … of tattooing … had no reference to idolatrous usages, but was intended to inculcate upon the Israelites a proper reverence for God’s creation.” The Jewish understanding of this command is that “the prohibition against all forms of tattooing regardless of their intent, should be maintained” (MyJewishLearning.com, “Tattooing in Jewish Law”).
To gain a more complete perspective, let’s consider how other passages and principles relate to this subject.
Our Creator tells us: “Consecrate yourselves therefore, and be holy, for I am the LORD your God” (Leviticus 20:7). “Consecrate” means to be purified and set apart from the world—as clean and holy people in service to God.
Tattooing has a very long history among the pagan cultures of the world, for different reasons at different times. But God called His chosen nation to come out from the world and be different in many ways.
Secular influence and the popularity of tattoos
Tattoos may be more accepted today, but it was not until the late 20th century that tattoos gained great popularity in the United States. Prior to that, tattoos were seen mostly on military men, criminals, bikers or other “tough” people.
Peer pressure has played a major role in tattoos through history. Whether due to identification with a tribe, pagan god, military group, prison group or gang, sports figures, entertainment icons or circle of friends, people often get tattooed for identity and acceptance.
But God tells His called-out people, “Do not love the world or the things in the world. If anyone loves the world, the love of the Father is not in him. For all that is in the world—the lust of the flesh, the lust of the eyes, and the pride of life—is not of the Father, but is of the world” (1 John 2:15-16).
Some argue that a tattoo is merely an adornment like jewelry. But jewelry can be quickly removed or changed; a tattoo cannot. Many have been tattooed (often under the influence of alcohol and peer pressure) later to regret it. Not surprisingly, tattoo removal is now a big business. But attempted removal is expensive, uncomfortable and not always successful; and scarring or skin variations often remain.
Health and other risks of tattoos
Tattooing also carries health risks, including allergic skin reactions (even years after getting the tattoo), bacterial infections, granulomas, scar tissue (keloids) and blood-borne diseases (including hepatitis B, hepatitis C, tetanus and HIV). The Mayo Clinic (a highly respected medical center in the United States) has documented these potential health problems connected with tattoos. Due to permanence and risk factors, most U.S. states either prohibit or require parental approval of the procedure for minors.
But even if tattooing continues to gain wider acceptance, is that proof of acceptance in God’s eyes?Despite increasing popularity, tattoos have far from unanimous approval. Many employers still do not want to see tattoos on their employees and representatives due to a negative stigma or image. In the professional world tattoos are still considered by many to be unprofessional and could keep an applicant out of some career opportunities.
Biblical teachings relevant to tattoos
But even if tattooing continues to gain wider acceptance, is that proof of acceptance in God’s eyes? Consider these passages:
- “Then God said, ‘Let Us make man in Our image, according to Our likeness” (Genesis 1:26).
- “Or do you not know that your body is the temple of the Holy Spirit … and you are not your own? For you were bought at a price; therefore glorify God in your body and in your spirit, which are God’s” (1 Corinthians 6:19-20).
Fashioned in God’s own image, our bodies are precious gifts from God. Refraining from unnecessary cuttings or marking them with tattoos shows respect for our bodies and our Creator.
As noted earlier, commentators are divided over whether the prohibitions against “cuttings in your flesh for the dead” and tattooing “any marks on you” as recorded in Leviticus 19:28 are applicable today. Some mistakenly dismiss this passage because it is in the Old Testament and they wrongly think that all laws of the Old Testament have been replaced with new laws. Others say it only applies to pagan practices for the dead; and therefore, it doesn’t apply to Christians who want a tattoo as body adornment or as a symbol of their Christian faith.
In response to these claims, it is important to remember that the instructions given to ancient Israel also apply to us today. Psalm 119:160 says, “The entirety of Your word is truth, and every one of Your righteous judgments endures forever.” Throughout His earthly ministry, Jesus upheld God’s law as revealed through the prophets in the Old Testament (Matthew 5:17-19; John 17:17).
Paul wrote: “All Scripture [not just the New Testament] is given by inspiration of God, and is profitable for doctrine, for reproof, for correction, for instruction in righteousness, that the man of God may be complete, thoroughly equipped for every good work” (2 Timothy 3:16-17).
Concerning ungodly conduct (part of the context of Leviticus 19:28), God also makes it clear that He does not approve of His people using pagan customs to worship Him (Deuteronomy 12:29-31). This is why members of the Church of God, a Worldwide Association, do not observe Christmas and Easter. Instead, we observe the holy days commanded by God (see “Biblical Festivals: Does God Want Us to Celebrate Them? Why?”).
Rather than following the customs and practices of the society around us, we are to be representatives of the coming Kingdom of God—and of Christ Himself.The belief that humans are free to incorporate pagan practices into Christianity is misguided thinking. God takes a dim view of human attempts to Christianize practices rooted in the non-Christian world.
Do not be conformed to this world
Even if the reference to tattoos in Leviticus 19:28 is directed solely to the way pagans mourned for the dead (something that cannot be definitely proven), the above-noted scriptures make it clear that avoiding tattoos is the preferable choice for Christians. In order to please God, we must walk—live our lives—in faith (2 Corinthians 5:7; Hebrews 11:6) that we are following His commands because “whatever is not from faith is sin” (Romans 14:23).
Rather than following the customs and practices of the society around us, we are to be representatives of the coming Kingdom of God—and of Christ Himself. “And do not be conformed to this world” (Romans 12:2). “Therefore ‘Come out from among them and be separate, says the Lord. Do not touch what is unclean, and I will receive you” (2 Corinthians 6:17).
Based upon the evidence from God’s Word and these principles, we believe a Christian should not get a tattoo. If a Christian already has one, it is his or her decision whether to leave it alone, cover it up or have it removed.
For more insight into this topic, read our blog post on “Should Christians Get Tattoos?”