July 29, 2018 To Tattoo or Not to Tattoo?

To Tattoo or Not to Tattoo


Scripture reading: Leviticus 19:28


You shall not make any cuts on your body for the dead or tattoo yourselves: I am the Lord. (ESV)


[I. Introduction] Tattoos are becoming more popular in the culture than they have been heretofore. I was not raised in a Christian home, but my parents frowned upon tattoos and I recall that they were generally not looked upon favorably by most people. They are more accepted now than when I grew up, although there are still negative feelings about them, especially in the more cultured parts of society. But, what cultured people think ought to have little effect upon our decisions. I say “little effect” because there is a factor that has to do with what people think and it should be a consideration when considering whether …to tattoo or not to tattoo.


What cultured people think is not our directing influence. Our directing influence is the Bible. What the Bible reveals is what God has revealed because it is divinely inspired. A Christian lives by God’s word, not by our own desires.


We just read that God’s people “shall not…tattoo yourselves.” Does that not settle the matter? Actually, no. For some it does. It is true that this verse is explicit, plain, and clear. I respect any Christian who tries to live by every command of God, including this one. However, we should also recognize that not all laws found in the Old Testament are binding upon people today. This verse, though, is a good place to start when considering the reasons to tattoo or not tattoo. After all, God has spoken on the subject and we must give a sincere consideration to what he has said.


When considering the reasons to tattoo or not to tattoo I am only going to give the reasons why one should not tattoo their bodies. This is because I do not perceive there are any good reasons to do so. I said, “good reasons” not “any reasons.” The only reason that I think may be close to being a good reason is that it makes a person happy. Now, that is a reason but I do not think that it is a good reason all by itself. There are many, many things that might make us happy but they are either sinful or just an unwise course of action.


What are the reasons to not tattoo you?[1]


[II.] We should not tattoo our bodies because it may be a sin. What? “Pastor, what do you mean, ‘It may be a sin?’ It is either a sin or it is not. Which is it?” Let me explain.


There are two kinds of laws or commands in the Bible.  There is moral law, which reflects the character of God Himself. It lives in perpetuity. There is also ceremonial law, which was meant to communicate God’s gracious salvation to his people. The ceremonies pointed forward to Christ, such as animal sacrifices, or taught that God’s people must be holy, that is, different from the nations around them. As such, the ceremonial law was temporary. Whereas, the moral law is eternal.


A brief look at two passages will confirm the difference.

And Samuel said,

“Has the LORD as great delight in burnt offerings and sacrifices,

as in obeying the voice of the LORD?

Behold, to obey is better than sacrifice,

and to listen than the fat of rams.

(1 Samuel 15:22 ESV)

This passage draws a distinction between offerings and sacrifices and obeying other commands of God. These other commands must be different from offerings and sacrifices, otherwise the verse would make no sense. Offerings and sacrifices were ceremonies, important for their time.  The other commands that Samuel alludes to would be moral in nature.

For neither circumcision counts for anything nor uncircumcision, but keeping the commandments of God.

(1 Corinthians 7:19 ESV)

Again, circumcision was a ceremony that identified a person as a member of the covenant. The apostle Paul says that this particular ceremony and, by implication, all Old testament ceremonies, no longer account for anything. But, keeping the commandments of God does count. There is a distinction between ceremonial law and the moral law. All the moral laws of God, whether found in the OT or the NT, are applicable to us because the moral law will live forever.


(You will also see in literature a third category of divine law called civil law. These would be those laws that regulate life in community, such as penalties for various crimes. The Scriptures, however, do not make a distinction between so-called civil laws and others. The “civil law” category is man-made; but it can be convenient when discussing divine law.)


Therefore, we only have to identify whether the command found in Leviticus 19:28 is a ceremonial law or a moral law. If it is a ceremonial law then it is no longer binding and one could get a tattoo and not be in disobedience. If it is a moral law then we must still obey this command.


Which is it? I have good news and I have bad news. I am not going to ask you which you want to hear first because almost everyone says they want to hear the bad news first. I am going to tell you the good news first. The good news is that it is almost always easy to determine whether a commandment is ceremonial or moral.


For example, the seventh commandment, “You shall not commit adultery,” is clearly and easily identified as a moral command.  Likewise, with the eighth commandment, “You shall not steal.” The laws against incest found in Leviticus are also obviously moral. Incidentally, laws against incest are not repeated in the NT and do not need to be.


The ceremonial laws are just as easy to identify as the moral laws. We no longer make animal sacrifices. Why? Because those sacrifices pointed forward to Christ. Christ has come and sacrificed Himself. We no longer carry on those ceremonies. Likewise, with circumcision. It may still be a good idea to get male children circumcised for health reasons, but the act is no longer required by God.


So, the good news is that it is almost always easy to determine whether a commandment is ceremonial or moral. Notice I said “almost always.” There are a few, actually very few, commands where it is not easy to tell whether it is ceremonial or moral. It would be nice if every command in the OT (because that is where the problem usually arises) came with a little, red flag that identified it as moral or ceremonial. Well, there are no flags.  The bad news is that God’s command prohibiting tattoos is one of those rare directives where it is not easy to tell whether it is moral or not. There is a little more bad news than that.


Biblical scholars disagree on whether it is a ceremonial or a moral law. Each side gives seemingly good reasons on why it should be considered one or the other.  For example, those who are persuaded that it is a ceremonial law will point out that the verse immediately before verse 28 is clearly a ceremonial command – the Israelites were not permitted to cut the hair upon their temples nor to trim their beards. This is meant to be evidence that verse 28 is also ceremonial. Those who advocate for a moral understanding would reply that in the holiness code (i.e., the section of Leviticus where this command is found) Moses often mixes ceremonial laws with moral laws without distinction. Some would say that the very next verse, verse 29, is clearly a moral command. They will go on to give seemingly good reasons on why getting tattoos is immoral. I am not going to rehearse all the arguments here. They can get both long and complicated. The point is that conservative scholars disagree on this issue and both sides make good points.


What we should be careful of is this: making a decision based upon our desires rather than upon reasoning from the Scriptures in order to discern the will of God.


Let’s say that we do study this matter and decide that this prohibition is ceremonial and not moral.  You even think that you have been objective in coming to your conclusion (hard to do if you desire to get a tattoo, but let’s pretend that you are). How certain are you that your understanding is correct? Sixty percent? Seventy percent? I think we all would agree that no one would have absolute certainty. (I think we can have absolute certainty on many facts, including all the fundamentals of the Christian faith.) Let’s say that you think you are ninety-five percent sure that it is ceremonial. What if you are wrong?


If you are wrong then you sin by getting a tattoo. The Scriptures also teach that one can sin while they do not know they sin. Knowledge does not define sin (Genesis 20:1-9; 12:11-18). Lack of knowledge only lessons the severity of the transgression. Therefore, if we sincerely believe that Leviticus 19:28 does not apply to God’s people today and if it actually does and we get a tattoo then we have sinned.


The first reason, then, we should not tattoo our bodies is because it may be a sin.


{III.] We should not tattoo our bodies because it is a worldly practice.


15 Do not love the world or the things in the world. If anyone loves the world, the love of the Father is not in him. 16 For all that is in the world—the desires of the flesh and the desires of the eyes and pride of life—is not from the Father but is from the world[2]


Where did tattoos originate? What level of society promotes them? The answer to both of these questions is paganism. Tattoos originated in pagan cultures that knew not God. This is one of the reasons that God gave the prohibition to begin with – because it was the practice of the godless nations around them and God wanted his children to be different. Generally, who promotes tattoos? People that do not know the Lord our God: Hollywood, motorcycle gangs, and worldly people. (I know that there are actors who are Christian and there are even motorcycle clubs that are Christian. I am speaking in generalities.) It has only been the last 50 years or so that Christians even considered getting tattoos. In previous generations no Christian went out to get a tattoo. (If they did it was a very rare thing indeed.) None of this proves that it is wrong. Just because worldly people do things does not mean necessarily that it is wrong. However, it is evidence that the practice has worldly origins and is mostly practiced by worldly people. We should avoid worldly things.


[IV.] We should not tattoo our bodies because of the permanence of the act and the possibility of our minds and hearts being changed about it later. I am reminded of a song by Jimmy Buffet entitled A Permanent Reminder of a Temporary Feeling. Jimmy Buffet is a folk music artist with a definite country flavor. He is most known for his hit song, Cheeseburger in Paradise – a very funny song about a vegan who dreams about cheeseburgers. But in A Permanent Reminder of a Temporary Feeling he sings about a girl who gets a tattoo:


The Indian on her back was poised for an attack
She said a tattoo is a badge of validation
But the truth of the matter is far more revealing
It's a permanent reminder of a temporary feeling

Permanent reminder
Of a temporary feeling
Amnesiac episodes that never go away
It's no complex memento, it's not a subtle revealing
Just a permanent reminder of a temporary feeling


In a recent study by Dr Caroline Owen, a survey revealed that more than one-third of those who got a tattoo regretted it.[3] Do you realize that is a very high percentage when you consider that the effects are permanent? One can get a tattoo removed but it is expensive, painful, and you can tell that it was done. Another way of looking at it is that, compared to those who did not regret getting a tattoo, half as many did regret it! That’s a lot!


Considering how many people regret getting a tattoo, how do you know you will not be among that number? You do not. Hence, it is not wise to take a course of action that has a substantial likelihood you will regret later.


I said, we should not tattoo our bodies because of the permanence of the act and the possibility of our minds and hearts being changed. It’s not just that our minds may change. Our hearts may change too. When our heart changes we may have bad feelings about what we have done.  Many people suffer depression after getting a tattoo and then realizing that it can’t be undone, at least not easily. You can avoid depression and heartache by taking the wiser course of action and letting your skin be your skin.


[V.] We should not get a tattoo because the experts recommend against it. Who are the experts regarding skin? Yes, dermatologists. They have spent their entire lives, since graduating from college, studying human skin. Dermatologists overwhelmingly (just about all of them!) recommend not getting tattoos. Why? These are the reasons[4] they give:


  • The ink may travel to the lymph nodes. Ink from tattoos has been found in people’s lymph nodes. Tattoo ink contains traces of aluminum and chromium and these are toxic, especially when located in the lymph nodes which are more sensitive to foreign substances.
  • Many people experience allergic reactions to the ink and sometimes the reactions do not occur until years later. These reactions can include hives, bumps on the skin, and other bad effects.
  • Infections do occur in people who get tattoos because of the tattoos, despite antiseptic procedures and safeguards. Sometimes the infections are so serious that they require hospitilization, antibiotics, and surgery.
  • It has been proven that some serious blood-borne diseases, that have no cure, have been and continue to be contracted by getting tattoos. These include hepatitis B, hepatitis C, tetanus, and AIDS.
  • Seventeen percent of people who get tattoos get them removed and this can result in scarring.


[VI.] We should not tattoo our bodies because we are to obey our parents. There are some parents who do not think through the subject of tattoos carefully and so do not care whether their children get a tattoo. In those situations this reason would not apply. But, among Christian households, the vast majority of parents understand that it is unwise to get a tattoo and that it may be a sin. Hence, they counsel their children to not tattoo their bodies. If one goes against the counsel of their parents or a parent (one parent may not be wise) then one sins.


‘Honor your father and your mother, as the Lord your God commanded you, that your days may be long, and that it may go well with you in the land that the Lord your God is giving you. [5]


We should not tattoo our bodies because we are to honor our parents.


[VII.] We should not tattoo our bodies because it will cause us to lose opportunities of advancement. This is a very practical reason. This might be news to some, but employers will mostly not hire people with tattoos or body piercings.[6] Of course, this is not always true. If you are applying for a job in auto repair or sanitation then it likely will not make any difference. But if you are applying for a job that requires contact with the public, especially sales, then you are going to get passed over if you have visible tattoos. I used to be actively  involved in the hiring process at a prominent federal agency. When we interviewed people for a position we noted whether they had tattoos. If they did, they were not hired. Some of the military academies either forbid getting tattoos or will reject candidates if they have tattoos. The academies, of course, are for potential officers, not enlisted men and women.


People who get tattoos limit their opportunities for advancement in life. Why do that? There is no good reason!


[VIII.] We should not tattoo our bodies because tattoos are ugly. “How dare you say that, Pastor!!” Actually, I purposely used the word ugly to get a rise in you. I can be more accurate: We should not tattoo our bodies because most people find them unattractive, suggestive of poor character, and put-offish. This is especially true of women who get tattoos. But it applies to both.


More than one scientific study has shown that “When men saw the woman with the tattoo, they judged her as less athletic, less motivated, less honest, less generous, less religious, less intelligent and less artistic than when she displayed no tattoo.”[7]


It is simply a scientific fact that this is the impression people get when they see people with tattoos. Maybe the person who gets a tattoo is honest, is generous, is a person of genuine faith, is intelligent; but the impression people have is just the opposite. Why leave people with that impression? There is no good reason.


Actually, if one gets a tattoo, they restrict themselves of potentially good mates because of this phenomenon. Even before I became a Christian, there were two things that “turned me off,” to use a common vernacular, about women: cigarettes and tattoos. I would see an attractive woman and if she put a cigarette to her mouth I lost all interest. Likewise, if a I saw a tattoo. Several studies have shown that I was not alone in my perceptions. The man or woman of your dreams may pass you by!


We should not tattoo our bodies because most people find them unattractive, suggestive of poor character, and put-offish.


[IX. Conclusion] I have just given seven reasons why it is unwise to tattoo you:


  • We should not tattoo our bodies because it may be a sin.
  • We should not tattoo our bodies because it is a worldly practice.
  • We should not tattoo our bodies because of the permanence of the act and the possibility of our minds and hearts being changed about it later.
  • We should not get a tattoo because the experts recommend against it.
  • We should not tattoo our bodies because we are to obey our parents.
  • We should not tattoo our bodies because it will cause us to lose opportunities of advancement.
  • We should not tattoo our bodies because most people find them unattractive, suggestive of poor character, and put-offish.


Christ came to save us from our sins and the consequences of our sins. This message is not about either of those things. Christ came to give us a better life in the coming age. But Christ also came to give us a better life now. He did! Therefore, pastors and church leaders will help the members of a church live better lives. This message is not about salvation. It is about having a better life. Your life will be better if you do not tattoo you. These seven reasons are why.


If anyone is contemplating getting a tattoo, or if you know someone who is, then read and meditate upon these reasons (or give this message to someone). Are they not rational? Are they not true? I submit that they are. If they are then take them. Take them and live better.



[1] I have borrowed this phrase from Douglas Wilson. His very brief blog on this subject is found here: https://dougwils.com/books-and-culture/s7-engaging-the-culture/7-reasons-not-tattoo.html. Also, three of Mr. Wilson’s reasons are found in this sermon and taken from his blog.

[2] The Holy Bible: English Standard Version. (2016). (1 Jn 2:15–16). Wheaton: Standard Bible Society.

[3] https://www.medscape.com/viewarticle/780842

[4] https://www.activebeat.co/your-health/women/drawing-out-6-health-risks-of-tattoos/?utm_medium=cpc&utm_source=google&utm_campaign=AB_GGL_US_DESK-SearchMarketing&utm_content=g_c_226500890815&cus_widget=&utm_term=tatoodo&cus_teaser=kwd-388500989492&gclid=EAIaIQobChMIy-f7_-G63AIVB7nACh0XkApeEAMYAyAAEgKIkvD_BwE

[5] The Holy Bible: English Standard Version. (2016). (Dt 5:16). Wheaton: Standard Bible Society.

[6] All the reasons given for not getting tattooed apply equally as well to body piercings.

[7] https://www.psychologytoday.com/us/blog/head-games/201305/how-do-people-view-women-tattoos