The Christian life is meant to be a life of obedience grounded in discernment. “Test all things; hold fast what is good.” (1 Thess. 5:21) Such discernment is not simply an inner sense of confidence, or a feeling of sagacity, but an active judging of all things for their meaning. The pursuit of meaning is the only way to obey in a world where meaning itself changes. A good test case for what this looks like is the question of tattoos.
There are a few lazy ways that Christians could attempt to shortcut the process of scrutinising the meaning of tattoos. They could ask the loaded question, “Would Jesus have worn a tattoo?” This hardly helps, because it trades on whatever mental pictures we have of Jesus, which usually excludes tattoos. The very foreignness of the idea excludes a positive answer, and ends the debate unfairly.
They could also simply quote Leviticus 19:28 : “You shall not make any cuttings in your flesh for the dead, nor tattoo any marks on you: I am the LORD.” Note, I do not mean it is lazy to quote this verse, as if it is meaningless or inconsequential to the debate. I mean it would be lazy to quote this verse as if it settles the debate. The use of a verse from Israel’s law brings with it a host of interpretive questions: what commands to Old Testament Israel apply to the New Testament Christian in the same sense? Just one verse earlier, Israelite men were told not to trim the edges of their beards or shave around the sides of their head. Does that apply? For that matter, all Israelites were to wear tassels with a blue cord on all of their clothes (Num 15:38). Are these laws fulfilled in Christ or not? Are these “moral” laws or ceremonial laws? Leviticus 19:28 is not a smack-down prohibition against tattoos. On the other hand, the burden of proof lands on those Christians who favour tattoos to explain why God did not want the Israelites to mimic the Canaanite practice, if the whole thing is amoral. Before you get a tattoo, you should have a pretty robust theology of how Leviticus 19:28 relates to the New Testament Christian.
Thirdly, lazy people could also quote Romans 14 and say “this is a matter of liberty and preference”. Says who? How is that determined? If a man wears a Speedo swimsuit to church, is that a matter of liberty and preference? If a member smokes legal cannabis outside the building prior to the Lord’s Supper, is that a matter of liberty and preference? We would have to say that even if such things are, they are more than that. They involve questions of wisdom, prudence, love for neighbour, and appropriateness. In other words, questions of meaning again surface. Indeed, all matters of conscience and preference remain matters to be judged for their meaning. Saying tattoos are matter of liberty or preference does not exempt us from doing the hard work of discernment; it actually makes it all the more urgent. To properly answer the question of tattoos, we have to ask, what do tattoos mean?
On the most superficial level, tattoos mean what their wearers say they mean: a quote, a name, a Bible verse, a symbol of identification, or simply an adornment they find attractive or enhancing to their appearance. Wearers decide on what they want the tattoo to say or symbolise.
On a deeper level, tattoos mean what they do. Tattoos are a mark of identification. Tattoos have been used for centuries as a visible sign of tribal membership. To get a tattoo is to get a permanent, public symbol of belonging. Here, the Christian should ask, “belonging to what?” A hundred years ago, almost no Christian would be found volunteering for a tattoo. What has changed? It has become cool, which is to say, fashionable. Christians may or may not adopt some of the world’s fashions, and will eschew others. The difference between being attractive in a modern world and being worldly is an important distinction. We must ask, when does the belonging identify you with an entire system devoted to the superficial, the sensual, and the self-glorifying (1 John 2:15-17)? We should always be careful of identifying with something which is passing away (1 Cor 7:31). The multi-million dollar industry of tattoo removal is testimony to how perspectives change when people reach a certain age and realise that they no longer want a permanent mark. Christians are marked by baptism, which is interestingly not a permanent, outwardly visible mark.
On a third (and related) level, tattoos mean what they are associated with. Associations do change with use, but that change is never overnight. For many years, tattoos would have associated you with Maori tribesmen or the counter-culture rebellion of the 60s and the decades that followed. In other words, the cultures that produced tattoos typically did not live under the lordship of Jesus Christ. Granted, evangelical copycatism is absorbing something associated with unbelief into the world of the church, so the association is no longer a clear violation of Ephesians 5:11 or 1 Thessalonians 5:22. But it is at least ambiguous. Those Christians who are prone to be early-adopters should ask if the association has genuinely changed so that their tattoo does not associate them with unbelief, and thereby confuse the conscience of either believer (1 Corinthians 8:10; 10:28).
On the fourth and deepest level, tattoos have an intrinsic meaning. This is the hardest meaning to discern, but yet it is the most universal across cultures, because it has to do with the very nature of a thing in God’s world. The meaning of colours, facial expressions, tones of voice are examples of intrinsic, natural meaning. Here we have to ask, what does it mean to permanently mark the human body? A theology of the body includes questions of modesty in dress, food and drink, sexuality, burial vs. cremation, rest and work, and embodied living. When it comes to marking the body permanently, we should ask, is this mark adornment or defacement? Does it consecrate the body to God or desecrate the appearance of an image-bearer? One way to ask this is to consider: will God raise our bodies up with the tattoos on them, or will He erase them? If God will erase them, what is meant by a permanent mark that will be erased by resurrection? Are we are cross-purposes when we make permanent what God will erase?
In eternity, there will be only one resurrected person who will permanently bear the marks of a body pierced: Jesus Christ. Memorials of His wounds will remain forever, so that we, His perfected people will rejoice and weep and give thanks. Through His eternal marring, our bodies will be eternally perfect. In other words, only one Person on heaven will have scars. We’d do well to ask if scarring our bodies with ink represents this pattern.
For the Christian who got a tattoo before salvation or during a time of immaturity, there is no condemnation in Christ. God receives you in His Son, and takes you as you are. Heaven will perfect our souls and bodies. But for those still considering it, you would be wise to ask questions of meaning. What does a tattoo mean stipulatively, conventionally, associatively, and intrinsically?