I was curled up in the only empty chair I could find at Barnes & Noble, swigging a mocha and flipping through my favorite children’s books when Adam and Joel showed up.
Life is never dull with these two guys, so I closed the cover on Alexander and the Terrible, Horrible, No Good, Very Bad Day and prepared to be entertained. Adam and I chatted while Joel disappeared into the stacks and emerged with a pile of reference books. He was on a mission to find a Hebrew word or phrase — “because it looks cooler than Greek” — for the tattoo he was having done as a birthday gift to himself.
“I think you should get a tattoo of that verse in Leviticus that says not to get tattoos,” quipped Adam.
“Very funny,” Joel shot back, thumbing the pages of one dictionary, “Uh…. Here we go. I think I’ll get the Hebrew word for delicious tattooed across my back.”
“That one I’d help to pay for,” offered his roommate with a grin.
While Joel continued his search, Adam and I discussed our mutual opinion that nothing exists that’s meaningful enough to have permanently engraved upon our bodies. That’s been my official stance on tattooing for some time now, though I’ll admit it began as an excuse for avoiding an issue laden with cultural baggage.
You see, in the conservative Midwest community where I grew up, tattoos were associated with a class of people generally thought of as rough and uncouth. When I moved west, one cultural difference I quickly discovered was a greater tolerance — even a prevailing affinity — for tattooing and body piercing. Many people, churchgoers included, proudly sport body art, and I even discovered a Christian tattoo parlor.
Faced with the issue in a more neutral cultural climate, I began to collect bits of information — both theological and practical — to make up a more informed stance on the subject.
Not surprisingly, one of the most important treasures of my fact-finding expedition was the verse to which Adam had jokingly referred. Leviticus 19:28 says, “Do not cut your bodies for the dead or put tattoo marks on yourselves. I am the Lord.” My guess is that my hometown’s body-art bias stems partly from Christians holding on to this law. And why shouldn’t they? If the Bible says it’s wrong, it must be wrong.
But in the same chapter, there’s another law that says when you plant a tree, you can’t eat any of the fruit it produces for the first four years. I’m pretty sure that the same pious old ladies who whisper and sneer at a heavily tattooed biker don’t wait five years after planting a tree to gather fruit for an apple pie.
So the question of whether it’s OK to tattoo one’s self actually opens up a much larger question: Which Old Testament laws are we still required to obey? (Incidentally, the answer to that one is helpful in other debates as well, from homosexuality to capital punishment.)
The Westminster Confession of Faith doesn’t have much to say about tattooing, but it does speak quite concisely to this question about the law. Looking at the Old Testament law from an A.D. perspective, the Confession’s 19th chapter helpfully divides the law into three categories — moral, ceremonial and judicial.
In short, the moral law is forever binding because it expresses God’s character and is reiterated in the New Covenant. The ceremonial law, which includes the code for sacrifices and cleanliness, was fulfilled in the death of Christ, who is the ultimate sacrifice and the only purification we now need. It’s the third category, the civil law, that applies here, since that’s where the tattooing regulation falls.
The Confession describes the civil regulations as “sundry judicial laws, which expired together with the state of [the Hebrew] people; not obliging any other now, further than the general equity thereof may require.” In other words, these laws pertained to Israel as a nation and are not now binding since God’s people today are connected by a spiritual — rather than a physical — kingdom.
But there is that provision for “the general equity thereof,” which is worth discussing. It means that there is a general sense of fairness or rightness expressed in many of these laws, so even though we don’t have to follow them, there is often wisdom in applying them to our current situation.
To figure out what the “general equity” of the tattooing law might be, it helps to get at the root of the matter — to discover the spirit behind the law.
The footnote in my NIV study Bible clarifies the regulation by saying, “There was to be no disfiguration of the body, after the manner of the pagans.” So, like many of the civil laws, this one served partially to set the nation of Israel apart from the pagan nations around them. Since few in our world today actually get tattoos as a result of pagan religious practices, there’s really little to set ourselves apart from in that sense. That should make the local Christian tattoo aficionados breathe easier, since there seems to be no moral or spiritual mandate for avoiding tattoo parlors.
On the other hand, the Old Testament civil code was often way ahead of its time in making provisions for sanitation and good hygiene. Washing and sterilizing procedures that may have seemed arbitrary and excessive were actually right in line with what medical science would later “discover.” In that sense, there may have been a great deal of “general equity” in the prohibition of tattoos.
Consider the fact that people who have been tattooed in a commercial parlor are nine times as likely to be diagnosed with hepatitis C as those without tattoos. Or the fact that, even when needles are new or sterilized, the instruments holding them may be structurally impossible to sanitize, leaving a significant risk of infection. This risk is why the American Association of Blood Banks requires a one-year wait between getting a tattoo and donating blood.
Another health risk associated with tattooing is allergic reaction. While tattoo ink is regulated by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration, the pigments used to color the ink are not. According to the FDA, some color additives have been approved for use in cosmetics, but none have been approved for injection into the skin. Some of the additives used in tattoo ink are not approved for skin contact at all.
And since the ink is sold wholesale to parlors, manufacturers are not required by law to list the contents on the packaging. Which could easily leave one with a colorful new tattoo, a nasty allergic reaction, and very little recourse or hope of aid.
Aside from health reasons for avoiding tattoos, there are the scriptural principles of submitting our bodies to God and not placing too much stock in physical appearance (1 Corinthians 6:20; 1 Peter 3:3-4). That’s not to say that every tattooed person is vain, nor that being tattooed constitutes a failure to honor God with one’s body. But a person may be excessively proud of a new tattoo and be guilty of making his or her body an idol. (Of course, this could be equally true in the case of a new haircut or a newly toned physique.)
A more lasting form of unhealthy preoccupation with a tattoo likely occurs when the fad dies out, the ink fades or personal taste changes. Then the inked one is left with either a permanent reminder of bad judgment and bad stewardship, or with the costly, time-consuming and often scarring process of having the tattoo removed. I know few people more unhealthily preoccupied with their bodies than those who are chronically dissatisfied with an aspect of their physical being.
I don’t imagine that Joel will wrestle with either of these issues. His birthday has come and gone, and I haven’t yet tracked him down to see his new work of art. But my informal research project has left me satisfied that, as long as he weighs the risks and deems the decision wise, he is free in Christ to tattoo to his heart’s content.
As for me, the risks aren’t worth it, and I still can’t think of any image important enough to make into a permanent fixture. I think I’ll stick to the kind of tattoos that come in boxes of Cracker Jacks.
Copyright © 2003 Lindy Keffer. All rights reserved.