“You know, God forbids tattoos,” the old man said as he flashed that disapproving expression we tattooed folks know all too well. “It’s in the Bible.”
It was Saturday evening and I was on my way into the sanctuary for the first service of the weekend. Roughly half of my right arm is tattooed and, as usual, I was making zero effort to hide it. The old man, serving as a greeter and holding the door, apparently felt the need to educate me.
My first thought: Here we go again. I know it’s pointless to engage him; I have yet to meet an “old person” who is open to reconsidering their interpretation of the Bible based on the words of a tattooed youngster, but part of me still felt compelled to try.
I quickly buried my irritation and mustered up a kind, unassuming smile. “Leviticus 19:28, right?”
“That’s right,” the old man nods.
“Yeah, Leviticus has all kinds of strange rules in it,” I agreed. “What do you think about wearing wool and cotton together?”
He shook his head in dismissal. He was caught and he knew it, but, typically, he wasn’t about to admit it.
“Well, you should consider what God has to say about tattoos. That’s all I’m saying. Pray about it - you’ll see.” And with that, he dismissed our conversation and turned to greet other congregants. I continued into the sanctuary feeling the usual mixture of frustration and disappointment.
Here’s what I would have liked to discuss with that man.
What does the Bible really say about tattoos?
The most concise, accurate teaching I’ve heard on this issue comes from a short 4-minute video featuring Pastor Bruxy Cavey of The Meeting House. Pastor Bruxy identifies Leviticus 19:28 as the Bible verse that definitively forbids tattoos. The NIV translates this verse as, “Do not cut your bodies for the dead or put tattoo marks on yourselves. I am the Lord.” Seems pretty cut and dry, right? A closer look at this verse and the verses around it expose two flaws in assuming this verse forbids tattoos for Christians.
First, you’d have to completely dismiss the verses around Leviticus 19:28 in order to use it as biblical proof that Christians should not have tattoos. The verse immediately before, Leviticus 19:27, says, “Do not cut the hair at the sides of your head or clip off the edges of your beard.” Are Christians held to this standard? And a few verses before that, Leviticus 19:19 says, “Do not wear clothing woven of two kinds of material.” Are Christians held to this standard? If Christians aren’t held to other standards in this passage of Scripture, why would they be held to Leviticus 19:28? Theologian and senior pastor Greg Boyd sums up the problem well: “If we’re going to go to the Old Testament to determine what we can and cannot do, then we better be prepared to forbid wearing wool and cotton together, because the Old Testament is also against this (and several hundred other odd things).” Using Leviticus 19:28 to condemn tattoos does not demonstrate a responsible use of Scripture. The only explanation for this contradiction is our desire to defend cultural norms using biblical truth. Tattoos are still countercultural in American society, although we Millennials are slowing making them mainstream. (High five to my tattooed young people!)
Using the Bible to forbid tattoos also forces us to overlook Jesus’ fulfillment of the Law, the collection of rules found in Leviticus and other places in the Old Testament. Pastor Bruxy calls on Hebrews 8:13 to highlight this point: “By calling this covenant ‘new,’ he [Jesus] has made the first one obsolete; and what is obsolete and outdated will soon disappear.” Jesus served as the fulfillment of the Law; that covenant is now outdated, and the New Covenant professes freedom in Christ. In other words, Jesus is the reason Christians are no longer required to observe the Law, including its rules about things like growing out beards, wearing poly blends, and getting tattoos.
Should I make an attempt to hide them?
There are many compelling arguments that argue for and against visible tattoos in the workplace, church culture, schools, and beyond. When I got my first visible tattoo five years ago, I did so after serious consideration of all such arguments. I knew that a visible tattoo would either prevent certain job opportunities or resign me to a life of long sleeves. By that point in my life, I had already discovered that I don’t fit in (or enjoy) the large corporate environment, so I knew I didn’t want most of the jobs that would disqualify me for my visible tattoos. Even so, I knew visible tattoos would prevent at least a handful of jobs that I would want. I decided it was more important to live a life true to myself than to someone else’s idea of what I should look like, and I moved forward with my plan to get a visible tattoo.
I think it’s even more important to present my authentic self in a church environment. For many years I didn’t feel like I fit into the Christian subculture. I walked into church after church and everyone looked the same. Everyone was dressed similarly, of the same race, and usually of the same social status, too. I stuck out like a sore thumb. When I finally walked into a church and saw tattoos and a variety of styles, ages, and races, I knew I’d found a place that would make space for the “other.” The leadership of this church was just as genuine as its congregants, and I think it’s no coincidence that this church hosted my first encounter with the Holy Spirit.
These days, when I wear a tank top or short-sleeved shirt to church and my tattoos are showing, I know that I’m sending the same message that once comforted me. I’m saying, “There is space for you here. We welcome all kinds.” Jesus came to establish a church that is available to all -- to the marginalized, the poor, those who are hurting and distressed. I want to be a part of that church, tattooed or otherwise.