Over the course of my decade long tattoo journey I’ve been asked this sort of question more times than I can count. Usually it’s asked with a judgmental tone behind it; not too unlike when somebody asks “So, why do you have six toes on your left foot?” Or, “Why did you say you went to prison again…?” There was a time when somebody literally asked me if I got my tattoos in prison (I’ve never been to prison just for the record).
I have had a long journey with my tattoos. I currently count a dozen individual tattoos on my body. My first tattoo came almost 10 years ago when I was only 18 years old. When I was 18 nobody thought much of my tattoos and the reason nobody thought much about them is probably because nobody thought much about me in general; I was an 18 year old college student who listened to punk rock music and played rugby so people probably just thought it was typical for me to have ink. Nowadays, I’m a pastor at a conservative evangelical church so over my 5 and a half years of employment at my church people respond and react differently to the fact I have a half sleeve on each of my arms. The reason I get more of a response now is because people have higher expectations of me than they did a decade ago since I’m now seen as a leader. To put it plainly, our culture still has expectations for people in leadership and tattoos still wreck expectations, but I don’t really believe they should.
Many of you will expect a Christian blogger blogging on tattoos to provide a theological response or insight to the debate on tattoos. I’m not going to do that in this post and let me just give two reasons why: 1. I don’t actually believe there is much to debate (there is only one verse in the Bible that mentions tattoos and that is found in Lev. 19:28) & 2. Pastor Joe Thorn from Chicago just wrote a wonderful blog which he posted exactly one month ago today addressing concerns and theological issues surrounding tattoos and you can read it here: http://www.doctrineanddevotion.com/blog/tattoos I would say that I generally share his view and particularly the inclusion of Lev. 19:28 in the “Ceremonial Law” of the Old Testament which is no longer binding since Christ has inaugurated a New Covenant by the shedding of His blood on the cross, and therefore tattooing is a Christian liberty issue it is not an issue of following a legal requirement since the ceremonial stipulations are not binding on Christian believers in the same way the “Moral Law” is binding. I understand this is a technical and difficult theological discussion so I encourage readers to first read Thorn’s post and then do further reading on understanding the Old Covenant in light of the New from authors such as Vern Poythress, D.A. Carson, Tom Schreiner, and others…
Instead I want to address our attitudes towards tattoos and people who have them. Let me just share a bit of my journey. I grew up loving both rock music and football. I developed a love of tattoos at a very young age just by being immersed in what I loved. When I was 17 I became a Christian. When I became a Christian I was transformed by the renewing of my mind (Romans 12:1-3. When I became a Christian I was convicted of my sin by the Holy Spirit and I was radically convinced of the truth that Jesus Christ bled and died for me on the cross and that He has called me to follow Him and obey Him and His commands as I seek to glorify and honor him for the rest of my life! Did I cease to love rock music? NO! Did I cease to love football? NO! Did I cease to love tattoos? NO!
Even though it is true you are adopted into God’s family when you come to faith and given a new identity in Christ you don’t cease to be who you are as an individual since Christ intentionally made you with your specific gifts and abilities. Also, you don’t cease to find enjoyment in things God has created for your good and that he wants you to enjoy. Sure, there are a number of ungodly things you loved before Christ that you cease to love after being converted to faith in Christ, however, those are things that are unbiblical, unspiritual, and ungodly, but things like football, rock music, tattoos, hairstyling, movies, playing instruments, painting, and a laundry list of other unique interests you may have are not included with those ungodly things. The difference is that before Christ you may have idolized those things and worshipped them above God, but once you are IN CHRIST you still like them, but you now have the perspective to put those things in their proper order underneath God. For far too long the Christian community has thrown a cultural and traditional expectation onto Christian converts that isn’t actually biblical but is instead preferential. So we end up virtually saying to Christian converts out of the rock music community (just as an example), “Hey come with us-come to our camp we’ve got plenty of stuff for you over here.” Yes, they do need to come with us, and they do need to be a part of our community, but they need to do so in order to be equipped and empowered to go back into the rock music community and live on mission for Jesus there.
We need to change our attitudes for how we view people coming from subcultures to empower those people to minister in the places God has equipped them to belong rather than pulling them out of their places they are most useful and asking them to join our holy huddles. I understand this is mind-bending and troublesome for some, but we need to keep in mind that we are called to “Go and let our lights shine before all men so they may see our good deeds and glorify our God in heaven (Matt. 5:16).” How in the world will we be able to follow Jesus’ command if we are disengaging from the way in which God has created us? Keep in mind the call is for us to “let our lights shine before ALL men (in the greek language this includes all men it is not exclusive to men). This means the light needs to go to ALL men and women whether they fit into our minds’ view of how a “typical” Christian looks or not.
Now, how does this all fit in with tattoos? It changes the way we look at tattoos and people with tattoos and it needs to change the way we speak to and about people with tattoos. When I was in college I had a pastor whose first words to me were “Hey man wow you have a lot of tattoos…” Why? Why didn’t he just say, “Hello my name is Pastor so and so it’s nice to meet you?” When I was in college I once had a guest speaker to my class say to me point blank that I was more likely and willing to take the Mark of the Beast in Revelation because I have tattoos. He didn’t ask me what I thought about tattoos or the Mark of the Beast or my view of the book of Revelation; he just looked at me and made an assumption about me. I’ve heard multiple claims that the primary reason for the increase of tattoos in our culture is mostly because modern men and women seek to glorify themselves in their bodies. Why do some people say this? And I wonder if most people who think this way have asked any millennials why they have tattoos before they formulate their opinions? I’m sure they would find there is an element of truth to what they are saying, but that sort of statement is only a half truth. It is no different at all than saying people only go to the gym and workout on a regular basis because they ultimately seek to glorify themselves in their bodies, or people only go to the nail salon or hair salon because they want to glorify themselves in their bodies, or people only shop for nice jewelry and clothes because they want to glorify themselves in their bodies. Of course, there could be some truth to this, but to blanket statement suggest this accounts for a majority of tattoos is speculative at best and it ceases to gain any common ground and understanding with people who have tattoos for a plethora of reasons… people like me for example.
So what should a Christian’s attitude be towards somebody with tattoos? Let me give a list of ways we should think about people with tattoos.
- As Christians we should treat them first as human beings. I once worked with a guy at a Christian summer camp named Brian and Brian had a lot of tattoos. One day somebody asked my boss “What’s the deal with the tattoo guy and why do you employ him?” This person didn’t even bother to get to know Brian, but if he did he wouldn’t have needed to ask why my boss employed him because he would know how godly, personable, smart, and hard-working Brian is. Instead, this person just self-righteously assumed he didn’t need or want to get to know Brian and he questioned whether Brian was even a Christian. This highlights the need for us as Christians to treat people with tattoos primarily as human beings. I suggest meeting a person with tattoos and not commenting on them at all, but just looking at them in the eyes and saying “Hello my name is Brandon,” why would I suggest this? Well, isn’t this the way you introduce yourself to any other human?
- As Christians we should get to know them to find out who they are and where their faith lies. For far too long Christians have assumed most people with tattoos are from a rough background and they probably aren’t Christians. Go back and read Leviticus 19 and you will find that section of the ceremonial law also restricts the eating of flesh from animals… Lev. 19:26 literally reads in the ESV, “You shall not eat any flesh with the blood in it.” So why is it that Christians have not treated meat eaters in our society as if they were probably not Christians and that they probably come from a rough past? The answer is fairly obvious… Because our sub-culture has accepted meat eating, but we just haven’t accepted tattoos yet. We should get to know people with tattoos just as we would seek to get to know anybody else and we should reserve judgments on their backgrounds and their faith until we actually get to know them. Let’s take stances on people based on what we know of them rather than what we merely see of them.
- As Christians we should approach tattoos as we would approach other Christian liberties. I am not for even a moment suggesting our Christian faith doesn’t affect how we view tattoos! Of course our faith changes the way we approach tattoos, but we are not restricted from tattoos we instead have the liberty to have tattoos, but only in a godly and wise way. So, as Christians we should approach our friends and family who have tattoos in the same way we would approach our friends and family who practice other Christian liberties. Let me just use the example of movie watching. We wouldn’t want our Christian brothers and sisters to think they can just watch any old movie without it affecting their minds and views, so we as Christian friends help each other think through what movies are beneficial to watch and which ones aren’t and we discuss with one another why those movies are helpful or unhelpful to watch. In a very similar way, there are some issues surrounding tattoos we must continue to exercise wisdom on. Here are some for consideration: is the tattoo you are getting affordable? Is it sending a message you shouldn’t send as a Christian? Is it drawing attention to part of your body it perhaps shouldn’t? Is it helpful art in some way, shape, or form? Is there a possibility you will regret having it later on in life?
EXTRA: So you’re a Christian and you want to get a tattoo, or 2, or 3, or ……. My advice to you is 10-fold:
- The most important advice I can give you is to sort through the tattoo issue theologically and be firm in where you stand before you do anything at all. If you aren’t absolutely convinced in your conscience that it is your Christian liberty to have a tattoo then you have no business getting a tattoo.
- If you’re convinced in your conscience it is OK for you to have a tattoo as a Christian you are still in no rush to get one! This is what people don’t understand… There is no reason to rush a tattoo. I would suggest for your first tattoo have an artist stencil it for you first, then take that design and tuck it away in a drawer for an entire year. If after that year you still want that tattoo design then go ahead and get the tattoo.
- If you don’t have the money don’t spend the money. This is just simple economics and I’d say this about anything. If you don’t have the money to eat out don’t eat out. If you don’t have the money to join a gym then don’t join a gym. If you don’t have the money to pay for your tattoo design (and tip!) then don’t get a tattoo.
- There are some things you should never buy on sale and a tattoo is one of them. If you’re going to get a tattoo get a nice one. It will cost you extra money, but so what! We are talking about something that will be on your body for the rest of your life.
- If your husband or wife doesn’t want you to get one then don’t get one. When you are brought into a covenant with your spouse under God you are no longer free to make decisions on your own, but your decisions should be made alongside your spouse. When you are brought together the two become one flesh. So, for me it’s very simple… If my wife doesn’t want me to get a certain tattoo then I won’t get it.
- Make sure what you are getting tattooed doesn’t dishonor God. There are a lot of things you could get tattooed that look cool, but that isn’t a good enough reason to get it! It would be disastrous for you to tattoo something on yourself that dishonors God, and then later on in life you’re going to have to pay to have tattoo removal and I’ve been told that pain is excruciating.
- Modest is the hottest. If you’re getting tattoos so everybody can see how cool your tattoos are then you are somebody who probably shouldn’t have tattoos, because you aren’t mature enough to have them yet. I would guess a lot of the people who know me don’t even realize I have 12 tattoos and that’s because I’m intentionally modest about them. Even though I am absolutely 100 % clean in my conscience about having tattoos I understand there are some (pretty much exclusively in the older generation) who do not like that I have them. I do not fight with them! I try to be humbly modest around them and wear clothes that will not show my tattoos off whenever I’m in work contexts. I’d suggest people read Romans 14 before getting a tattoo. (This passage is the section on weak and strong consciences)
- If you are living in your parents’ home it really doesn’t matter if you think you are ready for a tattoo or not, because you are still under your parents rules. This drives me crazy about some millennials. You think because you’re over 18 and you are going to school it means you can do whatever you want… If you are living in your parents’ basement this is just not the case. 18 is an arbitrary cultural number, but the Bible would see it that until you are independent you are still in the home and subject to obey your parents. This means if you are still a dependent living at home and your parents don’t want you to get a tattoo then you are not free to get one.
- Tattoos can become addicting. When you get your first tattoo be careful, because tattooing can become an addiction and you may not know when to stop.
- Even though getting a tattoo and having a tattoo in and of itself is not a sin it is possible to sin by getting a tattoo and having a tattoo… In general, it is not a sin to have a tattoo just as it is not in general a sin to drink alcohol or eat potato chips. Having established this I would like to point out that it is possible to drink alcohol sinfully when you are controlled by wine rather than the Holy Spirit (Eph. 5:18). It is also possible that you eat potato chips in a sinful manner when you are a glutton who stuffs your face with potato chips when you are already obese or when you are already full (there is a reason why gluttony is one of the seven deadly sins). In a similar manner, it is possible that you can get a tattoo while sinning if you are doing so only to glorify yourself, only concerned with your own looks, without considering Christ and what he would want you to have tattooed. There is a tactful, artistic, beautiful, and even evangelistic way to have tattoos, but there is just as much a possibility to have tattoos that are boisterous, ugly, tacky, and sending the wrong message. Think all this out before getting a tattoo.