This question keeps getting brought up on Confessional Lutheran Fellowship every week or so. Each time it does a huge debate breaks out as if nobody has seen it before. So for this reason I am going to address it. The answer is of course no, it’s not a sin to get a tattoo. It doesn’t even matter, you can do it or not. It’s a wisdom issue not a sin issue. Even still, I’m going to break down the reason why and address the passages that are used to claim it is a sin.
Before reading this though I recommend you read an older post on the Law of Christ covering the distinction between old and new covenant law. I will reference and build upon those concepts but I won’t be presenting them again with detail in this post.
There are three common passages that I see used by well meaning Christians to identify tattoos as a sin, I will present and address them one at a time. Even if you run into someone using another passage the same principles should apply.
Doesn’t Leviticus ban Tattoos ?!
Wow! That seems rather straight forward! The Bible says not to get a tattoo so I guess we shouldn’t!
No actually it’s not that simple.
First off even the above passage on it’s own is speaking in a narrow sense to ceremonies for the dead, not tattoos in general.
Secondly, the Bible has many old covenant laws that don’t apply anymore and this is one of them. For more on this I recommend reading through my post on the Law of Christ. But to summarize, the scripture teaches that old covenant law is obsolete.
New Covenant moral law is most objectively identified by cataloging what the apostles prescriptively taught after the cross. You can go back to the old covenant to help with defining your terms when a crossover exists but it’s not a prescriptive source of law. One thing that you can point out to people who misuse this verse in Leviticus is to read the verse that comes right before it:
So if you’re going to follow verse 28 that means you should also follow verse 27 and not get certain haircuts. You also need to grow out a patriarch beard and look like Moses. Actually that last one sounds pretty cool if you ask me, but you shouldn’t go around telling everyone it’s a law. Additionally, Paul gives a heart stopping rebuke to anyone who would turn to old covenant law today.
But doesn’t “you’re body is a temple” mean no tattoos??
The second verse I see used most often is one that I have addressed before in an older post on 1 Cor 6:19 rebuking the manner in which SDA twist it.
The idea here is that since your body is a temple, it is therefore a sin to do anything unhealthy. Besides the obvious anachronisms one must employ for such a understanding, the primary problem with this is it’s methodology. The passage isn’t talking about healthful living it’s talking about sinning against your body. Specifically Paul is rebuking sexual sin. Don’t take my word for it, read the context for yourself:
When someone makes this about issues of health rather than issues of sin that are already plainly condemned as sin elsewhere in scripture their flaw is in the methodology. Specifically, one must insert the concept of “X” into the text from their imagination that is not already present. In this case it’s tattoos. If one were to apply this methodology consistently they would be unable to confess the Christian faith.
For example, I could cite passages about the Trinity, Deity of Christ, and Virgin Birth then simply assert that they are all actually talking about NASCAR and end up a heretic. Of course that’s absurd, but it’s employing the same methodology. One cannot insert whatever premise they want from their imagination. We don’t do this with any other form of literature on the planet, but for some reason we come to the Bible and it’s assumed to be a sound practice.
But but but…. Doesn’t jewelry mean the same thing as tattoos?
This one is less common but I have seen it brought up so I’ll address it here. The passage that some like to use is one in which Peter is rebuking the sin of vanity.
This is a very bad passage to use against tattoos. For starters Paul is addressing women about vanity and their behavior with regards to an unbelieving husband. This doesn’t mean the same can’t apply to men, it’s just silly to rip it out of context like that. Essentially he is instructing them to let their husband see the new Spirit created within them by God (Eph 4:24).
While it would be fair to argue that this passage teaches vanity as a sin, which can be corroborated by comparing it to other passages, one can’t even single out the specific examples Paul cites as inherently sinful abstract from vanity. The two are connected in the text.
Would it be fair to say that if one is vain in their tattoos it is a sin?
However that would apply to anything. It wouldn’t even mean that one sinning in vanity with tattoos needs to have them removed. It would just mean they are called to repent of their vanity and be forgiven. This is called soundly applying a Biblical principle in the greater context of Law and Gospel.
As I stated at the outset tattoos are not inherently sinful. If one wants to argue that they are they need to present a clear prescriptive text after the cross that quotes and or reaffirms Leviticus 19:28 in the new covenant. Such a verse does not exist which means the teaching isn’t Biblical. If you are personally convicted against tattoos for your own reasons of conscience then you shouldn’t get one, but that doesn’t give you the license to bind other peoples consciences either.
In my opinion, the reason many try to make extra laws is because on some level they see the scripture as insufficient. The Bible has plenty of laws that it commands people to follow, even in the new covenant. We don’t need new ones, we already fail at keeping the laws we have, what we need is our risen Lord and Savior to forgive and justify us in his blood that was shed on the Cross for all of our sins.