In Herman Melville’s classic novel, Moby Dick, a character named Ishmael is forced to share lodgings with an unknown man. When he wakens in the night, he is terrified at the sight of his roommate—a savage, covered head to toe in tattoos.
As S. M. Hutchens writes in Touchstone magazine, readers in Melville’s day did not have to be told that this man was a pagan; his tattoos made it obvious. Readers understood that tattooing one’s body was not a Christian practice.
Especially was this true among Calvinist-leaning Christians of New England, who stressed the continuing applicability of Old Testament law, which, in Leviticus, forbade tattooing marks upon one’s body.
But today, 160 years later, even some conservative Christian authorities don’t think the ban on tattoos applies. This law, they declare, has been superseded by the coming of Christ. They consider tattoos an area of Christian freedom. Well, maybe they’re right—I’m not a legalist.
But as tattoos proliferate in the Christian church, we ought to begin to think a little more seriously about them.
First, let’s remember that God forbade the Israelites from tattooing their bodies because this was a practice among the pagans. God wanted His people to be set apart, and not mimic the customs and behaviors of the gentiles. And the New Testament tells us to treat our bodies as temples of the Holy Spirit. They are not raw material on which we simply carve graffiti.
Second, tattoos today point to the principal things in which people locate their identity—membership in the Navy, for example, or maybe a gang or a tribe. Even young women who mark their bodies with flowers or butterflies are aspiring to a certain identity. Hutchens writes, “These things, however, are in fact not principal things and through which we are not meant to mark our identity.”
Christians need to ask themselves as well an important question—that is, what are (or should be) the marks of a Christian?
According to the New Testament, the marks of believers are faithfulness, patience, kindness, fortitude, and love. Hutchens writes these marks alter, not the skin, but the countenance of believers—so much so, he says, “that the faces of the saints can be distinguished by those who look upon them.”
In other words, the marks of the Christian ought to be spiritual—etched into our souls—not etched onto our bodies.
Some believers argue that there’s nothing wrong with a Christian-themed tattoo, like the cross. And Christians who get them do so out of love of Christ. But believers ought to ask themselves which sort of mark God would prefer. Tattoos last a lifetime—unless they are painfully removed. But the spiritual marks of a Christian last through all eternity.
In the end, Hutchens writes, many Christians reject tattoos, not because the Old Testament prohibits them. Instead, an “understanding of the higher and the lower, the superior and the inferior…[keeps] Christians from emulating what remains for that reason a pagan practice.”
And this is what we are going to remind our friends and our kids if they’re thinking about getting a tattoo or, even worse, a body piercing—God would prefer us to carry the true and visible marks of a Christian: faith, hope, and love.