Q. In your guide to Paul’s Journey Letters, when you get to the end of Romans you ask about outward ways of identifying as a follower of Jesus. When we discussed this question in our group, the subject of tattoos came up. Most of the group members didn’t have a problem with them. But I thought Christians weren’t supposed to get tattoos. Doesn’t the Bible say, “Do not put tattoo marks on yourselves”?
I personally don’t think this one verse can be used as a proof-text against tattoos. The particular commandment you’re describing is found in Leviticus. It says in full, “Do not cut your bodies for the dead or put tattoo marks on yourselves.” The concern is with cutting or marking oneself as a pagan worship practice designed to appease or cultivate the spirits of the dead. (A similar commandment is found in Deuteronomy, “Do not cut yourselves or shave the front of your heads for the dead.”) So this is not necessarily a prohibition of using these practices for other purposes, including identifying oneself as a follower of the true God.
However, we need to be careful here. There are other things that are mentioned in the Bible only in the context of pagan worship, such as human sacrifice, that we shouldn’t conclude are acceptable in other contexts. We really need some indication that a practice can be used positively to honor God before we decide that any prohibition against it is really aimed only at pagan worship practices.
In the case of marking the body, in one of his visions Ezekiel sees a man with a “writing kit” whom God tells, “Go throughout the city of Jerusalem and put a mark on the foreheads of those who grieve and lament over all the detestable things that are done in it.” This image is echoed in Revelation when God “seals” the 144,000; later in that book we learn that they had the Lamb’s name and his father’s name “written on their foreheads.” Jesus also says in Revelation, in his letter to the church of Philadelphia, about anyone who remains faithful, “I will write on them the name of my God and the name of the city of my God . . . and I will also write on them my new name.” So Ezekiel and Revelation use the symbol of God marking or writing on his servants as a positive sign of protection and identification.
However, these passages really can’t be used as proof-texts in favor of tattooing, any more than the one in Leviticus can be used as a proof-text against it. This isn’t just because Ezekiel and Revelation are highly symbolic books and it’s often difficult to know how literally to take their imagery. Rather, it’s because those two books, like Leviticus, are recording the warnings and encouragement that God gave his faithful people over the centuries as examples and instruction for us today. We’re not supposed to turn any of this into rules, but rather use it to become familiar with the ways of God so that we can discern how to follow those ways in our own place and time.
On questions such as whether followers of Jesus can get tattoos, we do well to be guided by the counsel in the very part of the Scriptures that prompted your group’s discussion—the end of Romans. Paul writes there, “I am convinced . . . that nothing is unclean in itself. . . . Let us . . . make every effort to do what leads to peace and to mutual edification. . . . Whatever you believe about these things keep between yourself and God.”
In other words, a tattoo is really just ink on the skin, not something spiritually dangerous in itself. But a person who’s deciding whether to get a tattoo should ask how this would build up other believers and how it would make for peace within the community of Jesus’ followers. And whatever a person decides on a question like this, they should have a well-considered position that they keep mainly as a private conviction between themselves and God, and grant others freedom to follow their own convictions.