I stated in my earlier post on tattoos that there are Christians I respect who differ with me on the subject, and Joel McDurmon would certainly be in that number. And, just so you know, another example would be Jeff Durbin and the Apologia guys. My appreciation is specific, not generic. Now in order to provide me with an opportunity for more respectful engagement on the topic, Joel posted a little respectful engagement of his own. You can read his responses to my 7 reasons to rethink the ink here.
I am not going to walk through this point by point, but rather make three observations that I believe generally cover the waterfront.
A Good Idea at the Time
First, Joel included with his argument a picture of a tattooed hand, reproduced here on the right, with a tattoo declaring allegiance to the 1689 London Baptist Confession. And that pretty much sums up all my “it seemed like a good idea at the time” concerns. For someone like me who served as baptistic minister for about 16 years, and as a Calvinistic baptistic minister for the last 5 of those 16, this just makes me want to tattoo Q.E.D. on the palm.
Imagine being a Reformed Baptist pastor wrestling with the arguments for paedobaptism (and there are some, work with me here) and every night looking down on that tattoo on your left hand. The only thing you could perhaps say is that you were not going to let your left hand know what your right brain was doing.
Do you really want to ink yourself into a corner? That corner might be doctrinal, aesthetic, or something else embarrassing, like the girlfriend you thought would agree to marry you. How many of us have been part of conversations where there is a great deal of hilarity over photos of your parents or grandparents in the seventies? How much hooting was there? We have not yet brought up the eighties hair, or the sixties bell bottoms. But — and here is the cash value — when you grow up you can always get a haircut, and you can burn the bell bottoms. We can laugh at the funny clothes because the funny clothes are all gone now. They can’t hurt us anymore. But we can’t laugh out loud at tattoos in the same way because Uncle Murgatroyd is alive and present, along with his Stryper Farewell Concert Tour tat, and laughing out loud would be bad manners.
Suppose there were something you could have done back then that would make those fashionable sideburns of the moment permanent? Suppose you could make that orange shag carpet a perpetual feature of the house you built until the house had to be torn down? Suppose, egged on by your buddies, you could decide that the style of glasses you wore in high school would be what you had to be wearing in your sixties? Or, to bring it down to the point, suppose you got a tattoo.
To use Andrew Lytle’s great phrase, we pride ourselves on being modern men, but we are actually momentary men. The vibe of the present moment is transiency itself, but it wants to speak to us as though it were the law of the Medes and Persians. You might say in response that you could pick something that, Lord willing, you would never be ashamed of — like “grass withers, the flower fades, but the Word of the Lord remains forever.” Yes, the sentiment is right on, but what font are you going to use? I have a pretty good guess — it will be a font that a bunch of people in 2016 like. And will snort at in 2036. Take a look at the nice font from 1957, and click on it for more where that came from.
Henry Van Til said that culture is religion externalized. Chesterton said that we should never tear down a fence unless we knew why it had been put up in the first place. Put those two things together.
Before developing this point, I want to acknowledge a danger that flows from taking the position I am arguing for here. A living faith results in a living culture, but more than once in the history of civilization living cultures turns into a beautiful but dead coral reefs. When a religion externalizes, it can take a bad turn and become a hardened, dead, and legalistic thing. I grant it.
There is such a thing as legalism with regard to lipstick, sashes, tattoos, make-up, elaborate hair designs, and so on. But the fact that a blind legalist can foolishly object to a rubber-banded pony tail does not affect whether or not the apostle Peter warned Christians to pay attention to the way they dress (1 Pet. 3:4; cf. 1 Tim. 2:9). So yes, the heart of the legalist is all wrong, but the legalist who wants Christians to live “separated lives” is not creating rules ex nihilo. He has biblical material to work with. We are supposed to do something with it.
So the non-legalist should beware, when answering the legalist, not to use any arguments that would work equally well on some pious woman trying to follow Paul and Peter’s instructions to her. The verses mean something.
So then, worldviews work their way out over time. You cannot be a Kuyperian and claim cathedrals and Bach cantatas and modern science as downstream consequences of the Christian faith, and then say that reasoning in a similar way about tats is arbitrary and capricious. Inking and piercing are characteristic pagan phenomena. Can we talk about why that might be? And might we have the discussion before a third of the body of Christ is already inked? Staying free of such things has generally been characteristic of God’s covenant people, both Jewish and Christian — and the exceptions, like pierced ears for demure Christian women, are strikingly modest.
In short, the presence of the gospel in a society for hundreds of years will have a necessary impact on dress, hair, adornment, etc. The wooden legalist thinks that one particular display of such an outworking is the only possible one, and there is certainly rigidity in his folly. But it is just as foolish to say that there are no possible outworkings, and notice the plural.
Nowhere in the New Testament does it prohibit the deacons from presenting the offering at the front of the church by dancing around the communion table, cutting themselves with knives. But it would not be legalism to wonder to yourself, and perhaps aloud, “who else in the Bible does things like that?”
One of the things I appreciated about Joel’s post was his description of how difficult the discernment of worldliness can be. He is exactly right — it is difficult. But being difficult makes it no less obligatory.
“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. And the world passeth away, and the lust thereof: but he that doeth the will of God abideth for ever” (1 John 2:15-17).
“Ye adulterers and adulteresses, know ye not that the friendship of the world is enmity with God? whosoever therefore will be a friend of the world is the enemy of God” (Jas. 4:4).
Not only is this a hard task, but the Bible itself tells us it is a hard task. And it explains part of the reason why it is hard.
“But solid food is for the mature, for those who have their powers of discernment trained by constant practice to distinguish good from evil” (Heb. 5:14, ESV).
You don’t need constant practice to know that murder and rape are wrong. You don’t need constant practice to know there is something wrong with a life of unbridled greed. Even nonbelievers know that.
But we are told in this passage that there is a distinction between good and evil, and that the ability to make that distinction is the prerogative of mature Christians, who have been practicing constantly. The implication is that they have been practicing for years, for decades.
The problem, as I know well, is that if you grant this principle, every legalist is going to set up shop as that “mature Christian,” and is going to tell you that he is the one who has been “constantly practicing” and that he KNOWS that seventh chords are forged in the cauldrons of Hell, and that anybody who knowingly plays one is headed straight for the bad place, apart from sincere repentance. Okay, that’s a problem.
But the fact that foolish people will claim to be wise does not mean that there is no such thing as wisdom. Nor does it remove this statement from Scripture that says that we should labor to become the kind of Christians who see things that other Christians do not yet see. The Bible is telling us here that we should want a wisdom that will not be immediately obvious to everyone.
The danger in pointing out things like this is that you run the risk of looking like you are making things up, ad libitum. Yes, it can look like that. But is it?
Someone might say that they don’t believe this principle applies to tattoos. I believe it does, but leave that aside for a moment.
What does it apply to? What ethical issues should we refer to our fathers, who have known Him who was from the beginning?
I certainly do not think we should give unrestricted authority to anyone. I don’t want some Reformed Sanhedrin of graybeards telling me to get Leon Russell off my playlist. Great. But such things as respect for this kind of moral authority are not on an on/off switch — they are on a dimmer switch. God commands the fathers to make certain things known to their children, that they should make them know to their children (Ps. 78:5-6) so that they might hope in God. But in the next breath He says the goal is that this new generation of believers “might not be as their fathers” (Ps. 78:8). We are to imitate our fathers, and we are to turn away from our fathers. And we are to know when to do the one, and when to do the other. Embrace their wisdom, reject their follies.
So I believe that Heb. 5:14 applies to tats, plugs, rings, and so on. But the applications won’t fall out of the sky on us. The applications will come as the result of charitable Christian debate, and a willingness to change if shown from the Word of God that your opponent has a point.
So if you were thinking about getting a tat, I would ask only one thing. Wait until after a biblical debate that you have made a point to follow carefully.
And many thanks for Joel for the good interaction.