[Updated June 2, 2016] While frowned on in Western culture up through much of the past century, tattoos—designs or words etched into the skin with permanent ink—have more recently become widely accepted as a popular trend in Western culture, especially among young people. So are tattoos okay? And how should those with tattoos be received in a congregation of the United Church of God?
Bible verses on markings in the flesh
There are figurative mentions in Scripture of writing in the flesh in a positive light. In Isaiah 49:16 Isaiah 49:16Behold, I have graven you on the palms of my hands; your walls are continually before me.
American King James Version×God says of Zion to show He won’t forget her, “See, I have inscribed you on the palms of My hands” (see also Song Of Solomon 8:6 Song Of Solomon 8:6Set me as a seal on your heart, as a seal on your arm: for love is strong as death; jealousy is cruel as the grave: the coals thereof are coals of fire, which has a most vehement flame.
American King James Version×and Job 37:7 Job 37:7He seals up the hand of every man; that all men may know his work.
American King James Version×, which speak of a seal impress or stamp on the heart, arm and hand). God said His commands were to be a sign between the eyes and on the hands (Exodus 13:16 Exodus 13:16And it shall be for a token on your hand, and for frontlets between your eyes: for by strength of hand the LORD brought us forth out of Egypt.
American King James Version×; Deuteronomy 6:8 Deuteronomy 6:8And you shall bind them for a sign on your hand, and they shall be as frontlets between your eyes.
American King James Version×; Deuteronomy 11:18 Deuteronomy 11:18Therefore shall you lay up these my words in your heart and in your soul, and bind them for a sign on your hand, that they may be as frontlets between your eyes.
American King James Version×)—figurative of the mind and actions. And elsewhere He says that His laws are to be written on our hearts (Hebrews 8:8-10 Hebrews 8:8-10 8 For finding fault with them, he said, Behold, the days come, said the Lord, when I will make a new covenant with the house of Israel and with the house of Judah: 9 Not according to the covenant that I made with their fathers in the day when I took them by the hand to lead them out of the land of Egypt; because they continued not in my covenant, and I regarded them not, said the Lord. 10 For this is the covenant that I will make with the house of Israel after those days, said the Lord; I will put my laws into their mind, and write them in their hearts: and I will be to them a God, and they shall be to me a people:
American King James Version×). This should be of foremost concern to us.
Of course, approving of something in a metaphoric sense does not necessarily make it acceptable in a literal sense. Jesus spoke of plucking out our eyes or cutting off our hands or feet if they cause us to sin (Matthew 5:29-30 Matthew 5:29-30 29 And if your right eye offend you, pluck it out, and cast it from you: for it is profitable for you that one of your members should perish, and not that your whole body should be cast into hell.
30 And if your right hand offend you, cut it off, and cast it from you: for it is profitable for you that one of your members should perish, and not that your whole body should be cast into hell.
American King James Version×; Matthew 18:8-9 Matthew 18:8-9 8 Why if your hand or your foot offend you, cut them off, and cast them from you: it is better for you to enter into life halt or maimed, rather than having two hands or two feet to be cast into everlasting fire. 9 And if your eye offend you, pluck it out, and cast it from you: it is better for you to enter into life with one eye, rather than having two eyes to be cast into hell fire.
American King James Version×), and He meant this in only a figurative sense. He certainly did not mean for us to actually mutilate our bodies.
As to literally writing in the flesh, some translations of Isaiah 44:5 Isaiah 44:5One shall say, I am the LORD’s; and another shall call himself by the name of Jacob; and another shall subscribe with his hand to the LORD, and surname himself by the name of Israel.
American King James Version×show people in the future writing on their hands or arms that they belong to the Lord. However, others maintain that this refers to writing this with the hand in testimony. And this could again be purely metaphoric in either case. In Genesis 4:15 Genesis 4:15And the LORD said to him, Therefore whoever slays Cain, vengeance shall be taken on him sevenfold. And the LORD set a mark on Cain, lest any finding him should kill him.
American King James Version×, God set a mark on Cain to protect him, but we don’t know what this was.
On the negative side, the Bible does contain a statement forbidding incised markings in the skin, or tattoos, in Leviticus 19:28 Leviticus 19:28You shall not make any cuttings in your flesh for the dead, nor print any marks on you: I am the LORD.
American King James Version×—but the precise intention of this particular statement is a matter of debate.
The command against tattoos in Leviticus
Set amid a number of precepts concerning God’s people being set apart to Him as holy, Leviticus 19:28 Leviticus 19:28You shall not make any cuttings in your flesh for the dead, nor print any marks on you: I am the LORD.
American King James Version×says, “You shall not make any cuttings in your flesh for the dead, nor tattoo any marks on you.” Many believe that the prohibition against tattoos here is only in the specific context of particular pagan practices—that the tattoos referred to are those that, like the cuttings, are for the dead (that is, as part of idolatrous mourning customs and attempts to induce the gods to help the dead in the afterlife). Particular head shaving and beard trimming mentioned just before in the same context ( Leviticus 19:27 Leviticus 19:27You shall not round the corners of your heads, neither shall you mar the corners of your beard.
American King James Version×)—right after divination and soothsaying Leviticus 19:26 Leviticus 19:26You shall not eat any thing with the blood: neither shall you use enchantment, nor observe times.
American King James Version×)—undoubtedly refers to pagan customs of creating patterns with pagan religious meanings (see also Leviticus 21:1-6 Leviticus 21:1-6 1 And the LORD said to Moses, Speak to the priests the sons of Aaron, and say to them, There shall none be defiled for the dead among his people: 2 But for his kin, that is near to him, that is, for his mother, and for his father, and for his son, and for his daughter, and for his brother. 3 And for his sister a virgin, that is near to him, which has had no husband; for her may he be defiled. 4 But he shall not defile himself, being a chief man among his people, to profane himself. 5 They shall not make baldness on their head, neither shall they shave off the corner of their beard, nor make any cuttings in their flesh. 6 They shall be holy to their God, and not profane the name of their God: for the offerings of the LORD made by fire, and the bread of their God, they do offer: therefore they shall be holy.
American King James Version×; Deuteronomy 14:1-2 Deuteronomy 14:1-2 1 You are the children of the LORD your God: you shall not cut yourselves, nor make any baldness between your eyes for the dead. 2 For you are an holy people to the LORD your God, and the LORD has chosen you to be a peculiar people to himself, above all the nations that are on the earth.
American King James Version×).
However, some take Leviticus 19:28 Leviticus 19:28You shall not make any cuttings in your flesh for the dead, nor print any marks on you: I am the LORD.
American King James Version×to be a general proscription against tattooing by the specific wording of the verse, while others see it as particularly forbidding tattoos as pagan worship practice, yet with this having the effect of a general prohibition since the Israelites were not to adopt any practices derived from pagan worship but were to keep such things out of their lives altogether (see Deuteronomy 12:1-4 Deuteronomy 12:1-4 1 These are the statutes and judgments, which you shall observe to do in the land, which the LORD God of your fathers gives you to possess it, all the days that you live on the earth. 2 You shall utterly destroy all the places, wherein the nations which you shall possess served their gods, on the high mountains, and on the hills, and under every green tree: 3 And you shall overthrow their altars, and break their pillars, and burn their groves with fire; and you shall hew down the graven images of their gods, and destroy the names of them out of that place. 4 You shall not do so to the LORD your God.
American King James Version×; Deuteronomy 12:29-32 Deuteronomy 12:29-32 29 When the LORD your God shall cut off the nations from before you, where you go to possess them, and you succeed them, and dwell in their land; 30 Take heed to yourself that you be not snared by following them, after that they be destroyed from before you; and that you inquire not after their gods, saying, How did these nations serve their gods? even so will I do likewise. 31 You shall not do so to the LORD your God: for every abomination to the LORD, which he hates, have they done to their gods; for even their sons and their daughters they have burnt in the fire to their gods. 32 What thing soever I command you, observe to do it: you shall not add thereto, nor diminish from it.
American King James Version×). Still, it may be that what is directly forbidden in Leviticus 19:28 Leviticus 19:28You shall not make any cuttings in your flesh for the dead, nor print any marks on you: I am the LORD.
American King James Version×is only tattooing done for any religious or superstitious purpose.
Nevertheless, it does not now appear to be provable from this verse whether tattooing is forbidden only in terms of particular pagan practice or more generally. For that reason, it seems best for individuals to treat the prohibition as a general one to avoid possible violation here. In doubtful matters, any actions a person takes must be done in full confidence of faith that it’s allowed by God. Even when something is actually acceptable of itself in God’s eyes, if one thinks it might not be permissible and does it anyway, that would be a sin for that person (compare Romans 14:23 Romans 14:23And he that doubts is damned if he eat, because he eats not of faith: for whatever is not of faith is sin.
American King James Version×).
Regardless, those who seriously consider Leviticus 19:28 Leviticus 19:28You shall not make any cuttings in your flesh for the dead, nor print any marks on you: I am the LORD.
American King James Version×would likely have a hard time concluding with certainty that tattoos are okay in view of it.
Applying other biblical principles
Other scriptural principles bear on this subject as well. One is the issue of avoiding offense and not leading others to violate their own consciences in uncertain matters. As Romans 14 further states, you should not “do anything by which your brother stumbles or is offended or is made weak [in terms of conscience]” (Romans 14:21 Romans 14:21It is good neither to eat flesh, nor to drink wine, nor any thing whereby your brother stumbles, or is offended, or is made weak.
American King James Version×; compare 1 Corinthians 8:9 1 Corinthians 8:9But take heed lest by any means this liberty of your’s become a stumbling block to them that are weak.
American King James Version×; 1 Corinthians 8:13 1 Corinthians 8:13Why, if meat make my brother to offend, I will eat no flesh while the world stands, lest I make my brother to offend.
American King James Version×). As there are many in the fellowship of the Church who consider getting a tattoo a violation of Scripture, this is a good reason for not getting one. It might be upsetting to others and could even encourage some to get tattoos without their being certain that it’s okay to do so.
Yet, as is also brought out in Romans 14, members should not sit in judgment or contempt of one another in such matters. So those opposed to tattoos should not be judgmental or contemptuous of those who have them or think they are acceptable—though the imagery and message of some tattoos could well be a point of offense to address.
Furthermore, even many in society, despite increasing acceptance, still view tattoos negatively. And we are to “lead a quiet life” and “walk properly [and in wisdom] toward those who are outside” (1 Thessalonians 4:11-12 1 Thessalonians 4:11-12 11 And that you study to be quiet, and to do your own business, and to work with your own hands, as we commanded you;
12 That you may walk honestly toward them that are without, and that you may have lack of nothing.
American King James Version×; Colossians 4:5 Colossians 4:5 Walk in wisdom toward them that are without, redeeming the time.
American King James Version×). Tattoos, especially if highly visible and garish, can give one a bad reputation, which we are to avoid. Some tattoos are even referred to as “tramp stamps.” Related to this is the principle of modesty, that any adornment be “with propriety and moderation” (1 Timothy 2:9 1 Timothy 2:9In like manner also, that women adorn themselves in modest apparel, with modesty and sobriety; not with braided hair, or gold, or pearls, or costly array;
American King James Version×)—as opposed to having some ostentatious display drawing attention to oneself.
Of course, attitude plays a role in this. Some may just intend a tattoo to be a small private reminder of the name of a loved one or some positive value. This is clearly better than having an overtly wrong attitude and motivation. God is definitely not pleased when a young person is expressing rebellion toward parents and their values, or when a person is trying to look seductive or wild, or to shock people, or is expressing independence from society and resentment toward moral standards.
On the other hand, religious people may have good intentions in getting a tattoo with religious meaning. But as we’ve seen, Leviticus 19:28 Leviticus 19:28You shall not make any cuttings in your flesh for the dead, nor print any marks on you: I am the LORD.
American King James Version×seems to forbid tattoos for religious reasons—particularly as Deuteronomy 12:29-32 Deuteronomy 12:29-32 29 When the LORD your God shall cut off the nations from before you, where you go to possess them, and you succeed them, and dwell in their land; 30 Take heed to yourself that you be not snared by following them, after that they be destroyed from before you; and that you inquire not after their gods, saying, How did these nations serve their gods? even so will I do likewise. 31 You shall not do so to the LORD your God: for every abomination to the LORD, which he hates, have they done to their gods; for even their sons and their daughters they have burnt in the fire to their gods. 32 What thing soever I command you, observe to do it: you shall not add thereto, nor diminish from it.
American King James Version×forbids pagan religious acts from being used to honor God. Moreover, it must be remembered that the second of the Ten Commandments forbids the use of engraved images in worshipping God. And many religious symbols today, such as the cross, fish and triangle, are derived from pagan religion and should not be used by Christ’s followers as part of worship.
Another scriptural principle is that we are to take care of our bodies, which belong to God as our Creator and Redeemer (1 Corinthians 6:19-20 1 Corinthians 6:19-20 19 What? know you not that your body is the temple of the Holy Ghost which is in you, which you have of God, and you are not your own?
20 For you are bought with a price: therefore glorify God in your body, and in your spirit, which are God’s.
American King James Version×). We should try to maintain good health, doing our best not to injure, pollute or abuse our bodies for no good reason. And getting tattoos can have associated health problems. Viral infections like Hepatitis B and C and HIV from non-sterile equipment and needles are prominent, and these are associated with increased risk of certain cancers. Inks contain chemicals that can cause allergic and other reactions. Furthermore, tattoos can also make it more difficult to detect and treat skin cancer. And of course the more tattoos one gets and the larger they are, the greater the risks.
Exercising wisdom and broader perspective
Still another principle found repeatedly in Scripture is the need to exercise wisdom. And there are many aspects to wise decision-making.
The Bible tells us that in any major decision we should “count the cost” (Luke 14:28 Luke 14:28For which of you, intending to build a tower, sits not down first, and counts the cost, whether he have sufficient to finish it?
American King James Version×). We need to think through the impact the decision will have on our lives—both short and long term, weighing the pros and cons. Another point of wisdom is found in Proverbs 22:3 Proverbs 22:3A prudent man foresees the evil, and hides himself: but the simple pass on, and are punished.
American King James Version×and Proverbs 27:12 Proverbs 27:12A prudent man foresees the evil, and hides himself; but the simple pass on, and are punished.
American King James Version×: “A prudent person foresees danger and takes precautions. The simpleton goes blindly on and suffers the consequences” (New Living Translation).
What does that mean in terms of getting tattoos? Let’s remember that tattoos are permanent— at least almost permanent. They can be surgically removed, but that is quite expensive and often painful. And many who get tattoos come to regret them. So try to imagine and consider all the reasons you might later regret a tattoo. Some common ones are:
- Health problems
- Damaged reputation
- Objections by employers, making it more difficult to get a desired job or promotion
- Objections by someone you hoped to date or even marry
- Having a tattoo of someone with whom you are in a relationship and later you are no longer in that relationship
- A change in your values—what seems important now might later be unimportant or even in conflict with your new values
- Getting tattooed because of peer pressure, and before long those peers are not around
- What was stylish at one time (a tattoo with a particular design) is no longer stylish
- Getting old with sagging skin: “Will I still like this tattoo at age 60? What will it look like then?”
Of course, far more important than what other people think is what God thinks. We must be wholeheartedly seeking Him. While there are not very many scriptures that directly relate to getting tattoos, carefully reading and rereading the entire Bible has a profound effect on a person’s mind and heart. It changes one’s values and perspectives on life dramatically. And we must also be regularly praying to God, asking for His guidance through these issues.
Those who get tattoos or already have them
With all the various principles in mind, our counsel is that it is better that a person not get tattoos. At the same time, Christians should learn to love one another and fellowship together in peace. There should be no ostracism or sitting in judgment of each other regarding differences of opinion where the Bible is not explicit.
For those who already have tattoos, they are most welcome to be in worship and fellowship with us. They do not need to have their tattoos removed, nor do they need to cover them up except for those that present something vulgar, demonic or offensive. (At certain events, however, such as our youth camps, we do require that all tattoos be covered.) If any who have gotten tattoos in the past perceive that they sinned in this matter and are repentant over it, God is loving and compassionate—and quick to forgive and accept them. Let us all be quick to receive one another in the same spirit.