As we approach the Christmas season, people all over the world are decking halls with holly branches and donning gay apparel. Trees, lights, nativity sets, snowmen, St. Nicks, and reindeer are symbols that tell the story of Christ’s birth. It is truly good, right, and beneficial to decorate our property in this way. The very nature of humanity is symbolic, as we are created in the image of God (Gen. 1:27). Everything we think, say, or do is symbolic in some sense. It shouldn’t be a surprise that we are decorative people. Christians have a rich tradition of symbolism tracing back to our Israelite fathers, the flood, the garden of Eden, and even to the six days of creation. Symbols beget symbols. We create images and make associations with them. This is what God does, and we mimic him.
When it comes to body art, however, controversy arises. Tattoos and piercings are common in the broader culture and have become quite acceptable within the church, too. But you still hear claims that they are sinful, childish, and narcissistic. Most of the arguments are genetic fallacies, guilt-by-associations, hasty generalizations, and appeals to fear or consequence. These arguments may express valid concerns but they fail to prove anything objective. Neither do they address the biblical data. Similarly, arguments in defense of body art often lack biblical scholarship. How then should we approach this topic?
Meet Ryan Weaver, owner of Kingdom Tattoo in Decatur, GA. Weaver (40) has been a Christian for over 20 years and is known by many for his involvement in the late-90s Christian music scene, playing in groups such as Joe Christmas and the evangelistic World Against World. For 16 years, he’s been a professional tattooer. Weaver says he developed an interest in tattoos because of their aesthetic quality, while admitting that the music scene played a part. “I just thought they looked cool. Back then, getting tattoos was part of my culture but I definitely wasn’t looking for acceptance, especially not in Christian circles. They weren’t as accepted as they are today.”
Weaver has tattoos with content ranging from religion, family, and some “just because they’re fun.” He says he has never had a cover-up, and that he doesn’t regret any of his tattoos. “Each one has a memory attached to them, and it’s great to look down and remember the circumstances in my life surrounding the time I got them.” I asked Weaver if there were any limits to what he would tattoo on his clients. He responded, “I allow nothing vulgar, in no place vulgar. And I’m the judge of that.”
The biblical argument against body art stands or falls on how we interpret Leviticus 19:28. The verse says, “You shall not make any cuttings in your flesh for the dead, nor tattoo any marks on you; I am the Lord.” It isn’t enough to simply quote the verse, as many do. The immediate context of Leviticus 19 also prohibits mixed fabrics and disfiguring the edges of your beard. Christians are not bound to these prohibitions, therefore it must be proven that we’re still bound to verse 28. Likewise, our freedom in the New Covenant does not mean we’re free to practice anything we wish from Leviticus 19. We ought to obey when it tells us not to practice divination, prostitute our daughters, and more. Obviously, a better hermeneutic is needed. Weaver’s guidance is helpful:
“Context is everything. We often think we can just read the translation on the page and see how it speaks to us personally. You can’t get away with it that easy. There’s a lot of bad theology out there that’s widely accepted that’s just plain wrong. Scripture was not written to us, but it was written for us. A responsible approach to reading the Bible is to put each book back in its original context. Who wrote it? Who was it written to? How would they have understood it? I mean, we’re talking about ancient cultures that we don’t relate to anymore. We have to understand the history within Scripture, not just the words on the page.”
He continued by claiming that Leviticus 19:28 prohibits pagan rituals “for the dead,” not all forms of body art. The text certainly reads that way for piercings, and is confirmed by the fact that God commands piercings elsewhere (Gen. 17; Ex. 21; Ezk. 16). The wording isn’t as clear for tattoos. Does the law prohibit tattoos absolutely or only those for the dead? Pastors and commentators have no conclusive answer to this question. A literal translation – as well as certain structures within the text – could very well lend itself to Weaver’s explanation. Furthermore, Yahweh’s figurative use of tattoos in Isaiah 49:16 (“I have engraved you on the palms of my hands”) appears to conflict with an absolute prohibition.
If the exegetical case against tattoos is inconclusive, then perhaps it is a matter of Christian liberty and conscience. In keeping with 1 Corinthians 8 and various Christian confessions, we should not make absolute prohibitions when the Bible has not clearly done so. Why are we OK with permanent modifications for medical purposes but not those for beauty? Adam was told to tend and keep the garden; to make it even more glorious than God had. Beautifying creation is what we do. On what basis is the human body an exception?
None of this is to say that sin isn’t a factor in getting tattooed. Are you decorating your body to glorify God or to draw attention to yourself? Is it to be rebellious? To disobey your parents? Has it become an addiction? Does the content promote ungodliness? Depending on your answer, getting tattooed could very well be a sin for you. There may also be health and social risks. The element of permanence is a concern. Do you want to be associated with that image forever? Are you ready to accept whatever consequences may arise from it? Great wisdom is required to avoid rash decisions. “Tattoos aren’t for everyone,” says Weaver. “People get them for different reasons. Use your convictions about getting them, or not getting one at all.”