Let me begin by saying that God takes you from where you are, and not from where you should have been. If anyone is in Christ, there is no condemnation. If anyone is already tatted up, and the thing is done, then thank God that in Christ there is no condemnation.
But the fact that there is no condemnation in Christ does not mean that in Christ there is no such thing as a bad idea.
I know that there are godly individuals who don’t have the same view of tattoos that I do, and I would not apply everything I write below to them. This is not a one-size fits all argument. I know that someone who 2 Cor. 10:17 tattooed on his forearm will not be affected by my #5, for example.
So this is a post meant to exhort those who are contemplating what I would regard as a bad idea. Here are seven reasons for thinking so.
1. Let us begin at the beginning. What does the Bible say?
“You shall not make any cuts on your body for the dead or tattoo yourselves: I am the Lord” (Lev. 19:28, ESV).
The point here is not to say, “here’s the verse, that settles it.” Rather it is to say, “Here’s the verse. You are 21-years-old and are thinking about getting a barbed wire tattoo around your bicep. How settled and mature is your understanding of the relationship of Old Testament law to the question of Christian ethics? What is the likelihood that you might ever come to change your views on that question? And if you are already inked, does that create any pressure to not be open-minded about this pressing theological question?
2. What else does the Bible say?
“Love not the world, neither the things that are in the world. If any man love the world, the love of the Father is not in him. For all that is in the world, the lust of the flesh, and the lust of the eyes, and the pride of life, is not of the Father, but is of the world” (1 John 2:15–16).
All the energy in the tattoo industry is coming from the world. This is a thing, it is a fad, it is a fashion, and it is all these things because of what the world is doing. If no unbeliever in the last hundred years had ever gotten a tattoo, you can be assured that it wouldn’t be such a thing among us. That being the case, how confident are you that this is not simply yet another massive display of evangelical copy-catism? Before you go under the ink, ask yourself if you would be able to lead a thorough Bible study on a very important question that runs this way: what are the differences, if any, between being cool and being worldly?
3. What else does the Bible say?
“Honour thy father and thy mother, as the Lord thy God hath commanded thee; that thy days may be prolonged, and that it may go well with thee, in the land which the Lord thy God giveth thee” (Deut. 5:16).
The chances are excellent to outstanding that if you are a Christian contemplating a tattoo this would also mean that you are a Christian contemplating distressing your parents. When factoring this element in, don’t allow yourself to argue to yourself that a tattoo “doesn’t necessarily dishonor them.” The Bible doesn’t tell you to not necessarily dishonor them. It says to honor them. It says to listen to their wisdom. “My son, hear the instruction of thy father, And forsake not the law of thy mother” (Prov. 1:8).
I don’t believe that any human authority is absolute, but parental authority and wisdom is certainly significant. In deciding to get a tattoo, are you granting your parents’ reluctance and distress the weight and significance that you should? And how do you know?
4. The tattoo removal business is a multi-million dollar industry, and growing. Most of their clients are in their 30’s and 40’s. How confident are you that you will not be in that number a decade from now? and how confident are you that you are not creating real challenges for those guys because of the number and/or intricacy of the tatts you are getting now? Will your opinions change? Will your aesthetic values change? Will your spelling improve? Are you inking yourself into a corner?
5. Tattoos are a way to “commit” yourself to something. The point is to make people think, “Whoa, he really did that.” You have done something that appears to be an irrevocable step. You are an “all-in” kind of guy. But if you cash this out, what you have is “all of the dedication, none of the accomplishment.” Another name for that is boasting, or showing off.
Let your yes be yes, and your no be no. If you have to swear on a stack of Bibles to make people believe you are serious, then it is time to address the deeper problems. If you need to ink a Bible verse on you to make them think you believe it, then I would urge you to expend your energies elsewhere.
6. Henry Van Til taught that culture is religion externalized. If this is the case, as at least all Kuyperians among the Reformed would grant, then why have we given ourselves over to this cultural expression that has a distinctively pagan heritage, and does not have a distinctively Christian one? Why do modern Christians have an intense desire to look more like a Maori tribesman than like Edith Schaeffer? This is a cultural phenomenon, and we should want to know a lot more about the hidden cultural drivers.
7. And last, one of my fundamental concerns has to do with the relationship of tattoos to ours baptisms. The fundamental external mark of a Christian is baptism, and it is striking that this is a mark that dries invisibly. The mark of our older brothers, the Jews, was a cutting of the flesh. Just as the Old Testament sacrificial system was replaced by the simplicity of bread and wine, so also the mark of circumcision was replaced by baptism (Col. 2:11). So all Christians are already marked in our baptism. This is the mark of Christ on our bodies.
Tattoos are a tribal phenomenon. So the perennial question is always, by what standard? What tribe?
This means that when a Christian heads down to the parlor, I would suggest he is doing one of two things — consciously or not. He is either trying to erase his baptism or he is trying to supplement it. He is trying to replace the mark of Christ or he is trying to improve the mark of Christ. We shouldn’t want to do either.