A correspondent writes:
I was wondering what the church has to say about getting tattoos? The
only reference I’ve heard of in the bible is from Leviticus:
"Do not cut your bodies for the dead or put tattoo marks on yourselves.
I am the Lord." – Leviticus 19:28
what does the church have to say about this practice, is it lawful or
The Leviticus passage is part of the Mosaic Law, which is not binding on Christians (or anybody else these days). Originally the Mosaic Law was binding on the Jewish people only; now it is binding on nobody except insofar as it repeats things that are part of the moral law, having been superceded by Christ.
Many of the precepts of the Mosaic Law are ceremonial and do not belong to the moral law. Their purpose, in many cases, is simply to make the Israelites culturally distinct from the Canaanites who surrounded them. This is one such command. The Canaanites cut their bodies for the dead and made tattoos as part of their religious practice, and this command forbids that in order to make the Israelites unable to participate in Canaanite religious practices.
A prohibition on tattooing is not part of the moral law, however. From a moral perspective, there is no reason why one cannot color one’s skin, which is what tattooing amounts to. One can apply color to one’s skin by make-up (as is common among women), magic markers (as is common among children), press-on tattoos (as are common in Crackerjack boxes), or with real tattoos. The mere fact that the ink goes into the skin in the latter case does not create a fundamental moral difference.
Of course, in doing this there are moral considerations to be factored in: (1) One should not use the tattoo to transmit an immoral message, (2) one should not use an unsafe process to get the tattoo (e.g., dirty tattoo needles that might be carrying who knows what diseases), (3) and one should be generally prudent about getting a tattoo (e.g., what effects will getting this tattoo have on your relationships with others? if you break up with your girlfriend, do you really want her name still on your arm? do you really want a permanent tattoo when they have temporary ones now?). However, the Church doesn’t have a problem with tattooing in principle.