Question: Many of the younger people (and some of the older ones) at our fellowship are getting tattoos. Some are saying that a tattoo can be used as a witnessing tool. What do you think about this?
Response: It must be noted that this appears to be growing in acceptance among professing Christians and with the profusion of "Christian" tattoo artists, someone voicing their disapproval may soon discover that they threaten another person's source of income (Acts:19:24-27). Further, it is commonly heard that those disapproving of tattoos appeal to Old Testament passages no longer applicable to believers. What do the Scriptures say concerning tattoos and body piercing?
It is important to see in what context the prohibition against tattoos appears. In Leviticus:19:26-29, the admonition against marking or cutting the flesh comes in a section that forbids eating blood, using enchantments, observing times, or prostituting one's daughter. No one would say that these instructions were abrogated because they are "Old Testament." Further, some would point to verse 27: "Ye shall not round the corners of your heads, neither shalt thou mar the corners of thy beard" and presume that this is a simple command regarding shaving. It is not. Elements of pagan worship include cutting or otherwise marring the face and body. Hair was cut from the face and head (Lv 19:27; Dt 14:1; 1 Ki:18:28). Both blood and hair had a role in idol worship and pagan ceremonies.
Further, since the Leviticus prohibition against marking the flesh comes in a sequence including eating blood, we know from Acts:15:20 that abstaining from eating blood is one thing specifically enjoined upon Gentile believers. Other passages in the New Testament also leave no doubt that believers are not to be involved with occult practices such as enchantments or astrology. It seems logical to conclude that God's intent concerning "marks upon you" covers more than pagan funeral rites.
It is difficult to see how one can avoid the pagan connections tattoos have. Scripture and history are unanimous in noting that the pagan priests of most cultures either inflicted ritual scarring or tattoos upon themselves. The Lord wants us to be different from the nations. The apostle Peter tells us (as Christians) that we are a "peculiar" or special, people (1 Pt 2:9). The fact that so many believers are getting tattoos shows no leadership on our part but rather a tendency to be little more than followers of trends.
God certainly has absolute ideas on how we, as His creation, can decorate or adorn ourselves. Consistently, throughout Scripture (1 Pt 3:3-5), God respects the inward adorning of humanity over external marks or signs. Paul spoke of bearing "in my body the marks of the Lord Jesus" (Gal:6:17). These were not self-inflicted wounds--persecutors inflicted every single one. "Thrice was I beaten with rods, once was I stoned, thrice I suffered shipwreck, a night and a day I have been in the deep" (2 Cor:11:25).
Finally, despite our best intentions, tattoos by their very nature draw attention to us. We don't need that. James warned about those who say they have faith, but their works deny it. One may have all kinds of evangelistic slogans liberally tattooed that allegedly proclaim one's faith. James didn't need to advertise. He said, "I will show thee my faith by my works" (Jas 2:18).
What is that work? "Pure religion and undefiled before God and the Father is this, to visit the fatherless and widows in their affliction, and to keep himself unspotted from the world" (Jas 1:27). May we take up that challenge.
Some have asked the question: "What about those who come to the Lord and are already covered with tattoos? What should they do? One of the blessings of the gospel is that the Lord receives us as we are. As the hymn so wonderfully puts it, "just as I am without one plea, but that thy blood was shed for me." Although we repented of the sins of the past as we came to Christ, we still have the same bodies we have always had, including tattoos. Some choose to keep their tattoos as a reminder of what Christ has delivered them from, but perhaps our tattoos are immoral or occultic in nature.
The Lord may call one into missionary service. Depending on the culture, our tattoos may very well be a stumbling block to those we are trying to reach with the message of the gospel. Paul discloses his heart for the lost: "Conscience, I say, not your own, but of the other: for why is my liberty judged of another man's conscience?...Give none offence, neither to the Jews, nor to the Gentiles, nor to the church of God: Even as I please all men in all things, not seeking mine own profit, but the profit of many, that they may be saved" (1 Cor:10:29-33). In such cases, there are certainly a number of alternatives for tattoo removal. Paul writes, "Ye are not your own: for ye are bought with a price: therefore glorify God in your body, and in your spirit, which are God's" (1 Cor:6:19-20). How indeed can tattoos glorify the Lord?