by Dr. Jerald C. Joersz
Q: Tattoos are all around us. As a 60-something lifelong Lutheran, I’ve never liked them or wanted one. Recently someone in my church strongly disagreed with me about this. On the basis of the Bible, what should we say about this practice?
A: As far as I am aware, only once do the Scriptures mention what might well be a practice of tattooing. Tattooing was present in ancient cultures, including those surrounding the people of Israel. (For more on this, see Encyclopedia of Religion and Ethics.) In response to pagan practices, God commanded Israel in Lev. 19:28: “You shall not make any cuts on your body for the dead or tattoo yourselves: I am the Lord.” Only here do the Hebrew words translated tattoo (or “tattoo marks” in the NIV) occur in the Bible.
The Concordia Commentary on Leviticus (CPH, 2003), taking into account the ancient context of this passage, provides these instructive comments:
The Israelites were forbidden to observe those mourning customs that involved mutilation either of their hair (19:27) or of their bodies (19:28). No reason is given for their prohibitions, except that gashes were not to be made on their bodies for the dead (19:28; cf. Deut. 14:1). These acts of self-mutilation were meant to link the living mourners ritually with the dead. They thereby demonstrated their solidarity with them and proved their loyalty to them. These common pagan practices were forbidden because they encouraged ancestor worship and the cult of the dead (415–16).
Whatever the exact reasons might have been for the prohibitions in Lev. 19:28, Christians are free from the ceremonial laws governing ancient Israel’s religious and worship life (called Levitical laws). They had only a temporary and time-bound purpose. Referring to such laws, St. Paul said of them: “These are a shadow of the things to come, but the substance belongs to Christ” (Col. 2:17). The Gospel frees Christians from such regulations, which are, therefore, no longer in force.
Your question reminds me of how easy it is for us to turn our personal likes and dislikes into positions we think God favors or prohibits—even though God’s Word is silent or makes no binding rules on a matter for us today. We are certainly free to express our opinions or offer our counsel about such things, even while we seek not to impose our will on others as if it were God’s will. Probably the majority of persons today who obtain tattoos do so merely for cosmetic or decorative reasons.
Any possible health risks (e.g., skin infections, hepatitis) involved with a practice such as tattooing obviously should be taken into account as we remember that our bodies are a gift from God to be cared for and honored (1 Cor. 6:20). But decisions in this area are best left up to individuals with encouragement to seek the wise and informed counsel of their pastors and others.
> Gallup reports that, in 2005, teenagers felt a person should be at least 19 years old before getting a tattoo.
About the Author: Dr. Jerald C. Joersz was formerly the associate executive director of the LCMS Commission on Theology and Church Relations.
Send your questions to “Q&A,” c/o The Lutheran Witness, 1333 S. Kirkwood Road, St. Louis, MO 63122-7295. Please include your name and address. All questions will be considered, but none can be answered individually.