Tattoos are more popular today than ever before. According to surveys, roughly 3 in 10 Americans have at least one tattoo. With the rise of tattoo reality shows and a more expressive youth culture, tattoos have become mainstream.
However, for Christians, deciding whether to get inked can be more complicated. The Bible prohibits tattoos in the Old Testament, which leads some Christians to condemn all tattooing.
But with no direct command against tattoos in the New Testament, other Christians believe they have freedom in Christ to get tattoos if they choose. What’s the real story?
Let’s take a thoughtful look at what the Bible says about tattoos.
The Old Testament Law Against Tattoos
In Leviticus 19:28, Moses records God’s instructions against tattoos: “Do not cut your bodies for the dead or put tattoo marks on yourselves. I am the Lord.” This command comes in a section dealing with pagan mourning rituals and spiritual uncleanness.
The Israelites lived among cultures like the Canaanites who cut, tattooed, or otherwise mutilated themselves in rituals to mourn the dead. These extreme mourning customs were tied to idolatrous beliefs about death and fertility gods. God strictly forbade His people from imitating such practices.
The context suggests God prohibited tattoos to keep the Israelites spiritually pure and set apart for Him. Tattooing was likely an inherently pagan practice they were to avoid. As Christian commentator Matthew Henry notes, “The Israelites are here forbidden to imitate the idolatrous customs of the heathen…[God] forbids the tokens of their mourning, their idolatrous mourning…by cutting or printing marks in their flesh…the superstitious will not be restrained from those things which they have a mind to by the utmost prohibitions from God that can be given them.”
Are Old Testament Laws About Tattoos Still Binding?
Clearly, Leviticus prohibits tattoos. But how should Christians interpret and apply this today? To answer, we must understand the different types of Old Testament laws and how they apply after Christ.
Theologians commonly divide the Mosaic Law into 3 categories:
Moral laws reflect God’s timeless standards for right and wrong.
Ceremonial laws governed Israel’s worship and religious practices, often symbolizing spiritual truths.
Civil laws covered social and judicial policies for Israel as a nation.
Which category does the tattoo law fall into? Most likely ceremonial. The prohibition protected Israel from pagan influence and symbolized spiritual purity. Nowhere does Scripture portray tattooing itself to be inherently immoral.
Ceremonial aspects of Old Testament law were fulfilled by Christ (Colossians 2:16-17). This does not make them irrelevant; they teach us rich truths about human sin, our need for cleansing, and God’s holiness. But they are no longer binding regulations upon Christians.
So Leviticus 19:28 does not appear to be a timeless moral law or universal ban against all tattoos. The ceremonial law against tattoos reflected God’s concern for Israel’s spiritual purity and separation from pagan nations at that unique time.
What Does the New Testament Say About Tattoos?
Interestingly, the New Testament nowhere prohibits tattoos or references the Levitical ban. Some Christians take this as evidence that the tattoo law was among the ceremonial rituals and customs fulfilled by Christ.
The closest New Testament parallel comes in 1 Corinthians 6-7. When discussing sexual immorality, Paul says to glorify God with your body because “you were bought at a price. Therefore honor God with your bodies.” He calls us to moral purity. But he does not prohibit tattoos or any other specific outward practice - he focuses on the heart.
Guiding Principles When Considering Tattoos
Since Scripture alone does not definitively settle the tattoo debate, thoughtful Christians come to different conclusions. Many avoid tattoos as an act of conscience before God. Others feel complete freedom in Christ to get tattoos if done appropriately. Whichever view you hold, these biblical principles can help guide decisions about tattoos:
Pray and seek God’s wisdom. Ask the Holy Spirit to guide your heart and mind. Scripture encourages seeking God about any life choice that is not clearly defined as sin (James 1:5).
Make sure any tattoos align with Christian values. Avoid tattoos associated with immorality, paganism, vulgarity, or ungodly messages. Focus on art that uplifts Christ and reflects biblical truth, purity, and reverence for God.
Consider edification over personal freedom. While you may have liberty in Christ to get a tattoo, also consider how it impacts others. Will this build others up or possibly influence weaker brothers and sisters to stumble (1 Corinthians 8:9)?
Maintain priority on the inner person. Our deepest identity is in Christ, not external appearance. Avoid viewing tattoos as necessary for self-worth or acceptance. “Charm is deceptive and beauty is fleeting, but a woman who fears the Lord is to be praised” (Proverbs 31:30).
Make tattooing decisions carefully and reverently. Because tattoos are permanent, put extensive forethought, prayer, and counsel into it. Consider starting with a small tattoo to confirm it is the right choice for you.
What Really Matters Most
Tattoos are not specifically forbidden or condemned in Scripture. They can hold deep personal meaning for believers in Christ. Yet the New Testament also emphasizes spiritual over outward adornment, caution over questionable practices, and avoiding offense over personal freedom.
As Christians, our highest call is to love the Lord with all our heart and love our neighbor as ourselves (Matthew 22:37-39). Our witness for Christ matters far more than any particular choice about tattoos. When Christians show grace and extend freedom to one another on debatable issues, it displays the love of Jesus beautifully to the watching world.
The Bible does not definitively prohibit all tattoos for Christians today. Prayerful consideration and seeking biblical wisdom are advised. The Holy Spirit can guide each believer’s conscience on whether getting a tattoo is right for you as you walk with Christ.