Pastor Peter’s “Letter to My Grown Children: Christians and Tattoos”

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An open letter to my grown children

Hi guys,

Today, I will chat with you about tattoos.

One of you asked me about tattoos and I think it is good we talk about this trend in society.

In my generation, tattoos are associated with salty sailors, gangs, the yakuza, and the red necks of society. Today, it has become socially acceptable, and even trendy, to get a tat (or some exotic piercing). There are even company functions that are “tattoo nights.” I think most of these are temporary tats. Still, the idea of body art has clearly caught on.

The question I hear is “Can a Christian get a tattoo?” I think from the outset, that question is difficult to answer because of the way it is asked. I am more ready to discuss, “Should a Christian get a tattoo?” When we enter the world of “can” or “cannot” we enter the discussion of Christian absolutes. We like clarity, a simple “Yes” or “No” works better with many people. But that simple “Yes” or “No” is so fraught with “But …” that we are better off asking “Should” or “Shouldn’t.”

Another qualification before we begin is the term “Christian.” You know this term is overused in post-Christian countries like Europe and maybe also America. In language phenomenology, “Christian” is like a dead metaphor. People no longer remember that “Christian” was a derisive term like the “N’ word today, or that it means “belonging to Christ,” such as a slave belonging to a master. The reality of “Christian” having lost its original impact means we are better off using the more descriptive “disciple of Jesus.” So we ask, “Should a disciple of Jesus get a tattoo?”

1. Biblical evidence. There is one passage of the Bible that mentions tattoos specifically. It is Leviticus 19:28 “Do not cut your bodies for the dead or put tattoo marks on yourselves. I am the LORD.” It was common practice among the people of that time to shave their heads, cut or tattoo themselves as a sign of mourning (Jeremiah 16:6). There was no prohibition against shaving hair as a sign of mourning. This suggests to us shaving the head for mourning is acceptable, but cutting and tattooing are not. This distinction is important because all three are cultural elements but there is a prohibition against two and not the one. So it is not easy to dismiss the prohibition against tattooing as culturally specific. The argumentation is not absolute, but it weighs in favor of not tattooing the body as a sign of mourning.

Of course, this begs the question, “Is it ok to tattoo as art, or for some reason other than for mourning?”

The death of a loved one is traumatic. From the anguish of that trauma, a person tattoos himself to immortalize the dead on his own body. Now with that in perspective. The Jews were told, “Even in your greatest moment of personal anguish, do not tattoo yourself.” What is the implication? If they were told not to tattoo themselves in their moment of greatest anguish, should they tattoo themselves in moments of lesser anguish? Or without anguish? The argument from greater to lesser applies here. If at the moment of greatest anguish, God’s people are not to tattoo themselves, it means in moments of lesser anguish, they should also not tattoo themselves. This understanding is lived out among the Jewish people, who as a whole, did not tattoo themselves.

This begs another question, “We are not Jews. Do these laws apply to disciples of Jesus or to Jews only?” And, “Was there a religious significance to tattooing then that is no longer true today?’

The earlier verse says, “Do not cut the hair at the sides of your head or clip off the edges of your beard.” Most scholars today agree that this was a prohibition of a certain haircut adopted by their neighboring people, who cut off the sides and leave a turf in the center, and that the prohibition is connected to that. So, if a prohibition is directly linked to some cultural-religious significance no longer true today, that prohibition may be obsolete.

Tattooing is linked to mourning and not to a particular religious practice that we know of. Perhaps it may be, but it would be tenuous to argue from silence or some speculation. There is no evidence to suggest pagan religious tattooing as the background to this prohibition.

2. Biblical principles. The most relevant biblical principle we should draw upon to help us decide is the meaning of the body for the disciple of Jesus.

Some Christians incorrectly assert that the body is only a shell for the soul. The body has no value other than the soul it contains. That is Greek philosophy, not biblical truth. The Bible said from the beginning that God created Adam as body and soul, and it was very good. There is nothing wrong with the body God created. Sin brought death. The body itself is good.

When Jesus rose from the dead – in the body – and promises the same for us, he clearly demonstrates that our redemption will be body and soul. Our body will be resurrected to eternal life.

If we truly embrace the right theology of the body, we will recognize that what we do to our body is not a private-personal matter. God is involved. Whether it is gluttony, casual sex, drugs, anorexia, etc., God is watching it.

“Do you not know that your bodies are temples of the Holy Spirit, who is in you, whom you have received from God? You are not your own; you were bought at a price. Therefore honor God with your bodies.” (1 Corinthians 6:19-20).

At the resurrection, our bodies will be immortal and incorruptible. Whatever damage we do to our bodies in our sin against God will be cleansed and restored. I imagine if I have a tattoo, it will be gone. The tattoo is a human “adornment,” an attempt to improve the body God gives me. I think this is one time when adding to something takes away from it.

So, I don’t own my body. Do I have the right to mark it? What does the tattoo do for the disciple of Jesus? There is no suggestion it contributes to the disciple who seeks the Kingdom of God before all else.

Who is the Christian but one who belongs to Jesus Christ? Does a slave have rights over his own body? Not that I know of. If all of me belongs to Christ, including my body, my approach to self-mutilation takes on a different significance.

3. Practical consideration. Have you looked at the fashion of the past and go, “Eeeee, that is so ugly!”? It doesn’t matter if it was the afro, the bell bottoms, or that Elvis Presley hairdo. Our tastes change over time. The art of yesterday is off today. The art of today will be despised tomorrow. Even without consideration of faith, I would choose to learn from the past and observe that the body art of today can be despised tomorrow. Do I really want to do something so permanent to my body when fashion and art are so fickle?

Look at the people who have tattooed their loved ones on their body, only to go for laser removal of the tattoo. Are there people who regret their tattoo? Do we see people regret not having a tattoo?

Until today, a tattoo is still considered incompatible with the best professions. Officers in the military cannot have tattoos. Professionals who tattoo themselves immediately devalue themselves. (Remember that dastardly optometrist operating from Walmart with a tattoo and did a lousy job? I had always told myself it was stupid of me to go to this “doctor” with a tattoo.) Why do certain professions have to hide their tattoos in places that cannot be seen? Does it not in itself indicate some issue with tattoos?

Even if I were not a disciple of Jesus, I will still see the tattoo as a decision that is unwise and a mere following after the fashion of the world. It is a bad deal to do something permanent that is essentially not changeable, for literally no good reason.

Tattoo (Doug)Conclusion

Is there a compelling reason for a tattoo? If there are compelling reasons for a tat, it is worth even deeper consideration. At this point in my life, I cannot think of one. The lack of good reason for a tat must then be weighed against the reasons for not having one. The reasons not to have a tat are not absolute, but are substantial. If we are truly neutral in our consideration, and not thinking like a kid who must have his toy no matter what, we can see that the disciple of Jesus should not get a tattoo. The practical wisdom is reason enough. All truth is God’s truth. But when you add the biblical evidence and biblical principle, the evaluation is clear.

For me, the most important consideration is that my body does not belong to me. I have enough challenges to treat my body right in the best possible way. The last thing I need is to make it more imperfect with a tattoo. Yet, I don’t abstain as a matter of legalism but as a matter of love. I am to love the body God has given me. I am to love God supremely and to focus my energies on his Kingdom.

With all my love,

papa

Pastor Peter Eng, 11 July, 2015

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