I’m a Christian Pastor. I Have Tattoos. I’ll Probably Get More Tattoos. Here’s Why…

Modest Hits Tour

Modest Hit #3 I'm a Christian Pastor. I Have Tattoos. I'll Probably Get More Tattoos. Here's Why...
(Originally published on October 4, 2012)

blog - tattoo (my second)I recently celebrated my 31st birthday by getting another tattoo. Notice I said “another”. That means there has been at least one prior. And I clearly don’t look at it/them as a mistake. I’ll explain why in a minute.

But first, I’d like to point out two negative views on tattoos which are at opposite ends of the spectrum, both of which I’ve had to address before on a couple of occasions.

1) “Real Christians Shouldn’t Do That”

A very kind, supportive, and faithful southern Christian gentleman asked me about tattoos a number of years ago, before I had any. His daughter had mentioned that she was interested in getting a tattoo and he wanted me to talk to her about how this would be against God’s will. I started by suggesting that since she was still a legal dependent of her father, this was an issue of respecting her God-given authorities as much as anything (4th Comm; Eph. 6:1-3). I proceeded by asking the man why he felt tattoos were against God’s will. He said something about how “Doesn’t God forbid it, in the Old Testament?” So we opened our Bibles to Leviticus 19:28, a section regarding tattoos that is often pointed to by people who recognize the authority of the Bible’s words but who don’t recognize the reality of the Bible’s setting, context, and writing style. Lev. 19:28 says, “Do not cut your bodies for the dead or put tattoo marks on yourselves. I am the Lord.” Right there it was. Was he right? I asked the man, however, to read the preceding verse, “Do not cut the hair at the sides of your head or clip off the edges of your beard.” (Lev. 19:27) I gently, kindly, and firmly told him that if he wants me to be a consistent and faithful Bible teacher and tell his daughter that tattoos are evil, according to his logic, I’m going to have to call him to repentance for his recent haircut.

We went on to have a good conversation about how God gave some laws to his people in the Old Testament for the purpose of guiding them away from the idolatry and wickedness of the neighboring people. We further discussed that if certain morally neutral practices of our culture were associated with the worship of false gods, that they’d generally be a good thing to stay away from as well. So, for instance, while I could put a menorah on my dinner table and suggest that I just “like the pretty candles”, it’s been so closely associated with Judaism for so long that it’s likely not wise.

Close association to the worship of false gods may, at one point, have been associated with tattoos. Fifty years ago, tattoos were most commonly associated in American society with gangs who, arguably, worshiped false gods of violence, drug use, and sexual immorality. But times have changed. In September 2006, the Pew Research Center conducted a survey which found that 36% of Americans ages 18–25, 40% of those 26-40 and 10% of those 41-64 had a tattoo. They’re not all in gangs :). Furthermore, a little informal research at my local workout facility would tell you that tattoos are now seemingly the norm for most Americans under 40.

There’s no biblical mandate and little cultural taboo concerning tattoos. Therefore, self-righteous legalism against tattoos ain’t doing anything good for the church.

2) “You’re Doing That To Try To Be Cool”

The other negative view I’ve gotten against tattoos is that a pastor who gets tattoos is attempting to acquiesce to modern culture and be “cool”.

Look, my Ford Escape has a decal of a cat and a rabbit that my wife put on the back window. I think the “attempts at cool” ship sank a while back.

I get it.  Attempts by churches (or pastors) to be cool, or look cool, or talk cool, are a little stomach-turning to me too. I once saw a billboard where a church advertised “Here’s what OUR pastor wears on Sunday”, followed by a picture of a proud, heavy-set, middle-aged man dressed from head to toe in denim. I think the church was trying to suggest that they don’t have a stuffy, enforced dress code. Okay. But, if in an attempt to be edgy and counter-traditional, they honestly think that a picture of a man draped in denim would coerce me to come to their church, or go anywhere for that matter, they’re mistaken. I couldn’t care less what your pastor is wearing, as long as he’s wearing something.

Most attempts by churches (or pastors) to come off as “cool” are fairly embarrassing. Since what is defined as “cool” is so often dictated by a culture tainted by sin, a church, in many ways, may look very different from that. In other ways, it maybe can/should look similar to the culture. What’s embarrassing is when you try too hard to be overly cultural (hip & trendy) OR counter-cultural (self-righteously rigid & stodgy). In either case, you’re trying too hard at the wrong things.

If you really care about sharing the gospel, you’ll be serious about understanding your culture and intentional about meeting the people of your culture where they’re at, but you won’t treat your culture like a false god that you too must bow down to.

Gluttony for cultural relevance ain’t doing anything good for the church either.

The REAL Reason for the Tattoos

It’s simple. COMMITMENT. I think it’s necessary to regularly remind myself of the importance of commitment in a world that’s terrified by it. Tattoos, for the most part, are a visual, physical lifelong commitment.

Our culture (particularly Gen X’ers & Gen Y’ers), as mentioned earlier, is getting an unprecedented amount of tattoos. InkedMiami Ink, and LA Ink have all been very popular shows on cable TV in recent years. Why do you think this is? While there might be a number of reasons, let me propose one:

In an era that I have no doubt will be characterized, historically, by hyper-relativity which leads to an extremely noncommittal attitude toward anything and everything, I think it’s clear that young people are demonstrating their longing for commitment, through tattoos.

It’s really not much different from how, despite attempts by recent generations to make our lives increasingly private, this generation of young Americans have launched head first into social networking. You simply can’t hinder relationship when, biblically speaking, you were built for relationship. Likewise, the increasing societal presence of tattoos on young people is demonstrating that you simply can’t hinder commitment when, biblically speaking, you were built for commitment.

The Bible has a great deal to say about commitment (or “covenants”). For instance, the Bible promotes a commitment in marriage that our culture simply doesn’t know. I can’t count how many times I’ve heard people say something to the effect of “Why do we need a piece of paper (i.e. marriage certificate) to prove that we love each other?”  What they won’t say, but really mean, is, “We love each other but we don’t want to completely close off all of our other options yet.” So, I’ll say, “Well if you have true marital love, that means that you want to be together for the rest of your lives. What damage then is there in getting a piece of paper?” If you refuse to get that piece of paper, you’re simply and clearly declaring that you’re just not THAT committed to the other person. This would logically mean that you don’t truly love them to the degree that you could, because the essence of true love, according to the Bible, is sacrificial commitment to the good of another. By and large, our culture doesn’t see much of that and doesn’t really get that, but still craves that, because we were designed for that.

Finally, only in Jesus can we understand true commitment. Jesus was utterly committed to us, sacrificing his entire life. And he seeks, in us, that same sort of commitment.  He said to another man, “Follow me…..No one who puts his hand to the plow and looks back is fit for service in the kingdom of God.” (Luke 9:59, 62) God didn’t give you a spirit of timidity or relativity or non-commitment. He gave you his Spirit. So in the name of Jesus, according to the will of Jesus, guided by the Word of Jesus….“Commit your way to the Lord; trust in him and he will do this: He will make your righteousness shine like the dawn, the justice of your cause like the noonday sun.” (Psalm 37:5-6). 

My Recent Tattoo

By the way, if you’re wondering, the tattoo featured in the picture above are the words, in Greek, from the end of 1 Peter 1:12, “Even the angels long to look into these things.” In short, these words suggest that the gospel of Jesus is so magnificent and beautiful that the angels can’t even take their eyes off of it. And if that’s the case (and those angels are that much smarter than me), how could I possibly ever think of tiring of the gospel’s beauty.

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15 thoughts on “I’m a Christian Pastor. I Have Tattoos. I’ll Probably Get More Tattoos. Here’s Why…

  1. sara says:

    Even though I am not against tattoos (i have contemplated a lot and think many are beautiful) the real fact is that inking up our bodies can in fact cause health issues (skin cancer.) We are taking a cosmetic risk of infecting ourselves with HIV, Hep B etc…risks small? Im sure they are. But none the less a risk. In the Lev verse, the same sentence goes on to say “cutting out bodies for the dead.” Do we still go about doing this? Again..not coming down as “this is sin” but makes you wonder. Is it also OK then to put those huge holes in our earlobes, permanently disfiguring the bodies God have us. Also, as Christian leaders, we are to give no offense. Just a few things to consider. Again I think there are so many pretty ones out there….I even kept a pinterest of tattoos I considered getting….but through prayer and knowing what i know now above all the above I mentioned I just think God wants me to do that. This post also reminds me of a Mark Driscoll post. I guess we maybe can’t come down and outright and say God says its a sin…but if we knew something could very well hurt our bodies or offend our Christian neighbor…is it worth it?

    • Curious says:

      I’m kind of on the same page as you with this. I think tattoos look wonderful and have contemplated getting them myself, though I personally wonder if it is wise. Part of me thinks these laws weren’t just an avoidance of the other nations and their gods, but also for reasons apart from this, perhaps as a way to keep them ‘pure’. I’m not sure how ink tattoos are different than scarification tattoos else than degree and sometimes wonder if this would be acceptable to God. I guess it’s worth a deeper look.

  2. James says:

    Nice article!

    Did you have your tattoo(s) when you went through seminary? I only ask because I had earrings (two in the left, one in the right) as I went through my synod’s college to be a teacher and concerns were expressed that my appearance could affect my ministry as a teacher. So did anyone ask you something similar?

    Ultimately, I did get rid of them before I left to go to my first call as a teacher… but my pesky tattoo wouldn’t come off. 🙂

  3. roxanne says:

    Yes “pesky tattoo wouldn’t come off.” I am searching for answers on the Christian tattoo issue. The article I read before this one’s parting comment is “One with a heart for God, with a desire to live separated from the ways of wordily practices of our society, will be quick to see how unbecoming Christian tattoos are. Those who have gotten tattoos while in a life of sin, should not feel marred for life or second rate. Although we can still see their tattoos, they are covered in Christ’s blood and unseen by God.” I do not love my tattooed family and friends any less, but I do not understand why a Christian would want something permanently installed on their body (most likely applied by a artist that would have no problem applying a satanic tattoo on another); even a Bible verse as this pastor has.

    • James says:

      When it comes to adiaphora, it seems to me that the attitude behind the act is what counts rather than the act itself.

  4. roxanne says:

    Just pray about what you are defending and encouraging. I’m just asking, is it addicting? My niece just got one, and when I asked her why, she said that she thought about it for a long time. She’s only 20 yrs. old and has been away to college, so I’m thinking it was peer pressure. I’m sorry if I don’t think the way you do, so please be gentle with me. I just want to know what is behind all these tattoos. And if it is addicting please be honest with me. One adult beverage is harmless to most, but is a problem to many. It may not be wise to play with this.

    • James says:

      If you get tattoos because of peer pressure, then that would be unwise. Anything done rashly and without thinking is typically foolish, especially tattoos since they are so permanent. However, if you think about it for a long time, use all of the experience and wisdom that you can muster, and have come to a conclusion that glorifies God, then it would be okay. I don’t know your niece, but you’d have to ask her.

      There is nothing wrong with alcohol in and of itself, but do I know of some people that stay away from alcohol because they know they have problems with gluttony and self-control. Other people side with Benjamin Franklin who is to have said that beer is proof that God loves and wants us to be happy! Don’t forget that Jesus’ first miracle was to take a party and make it better.

      Honestly, I couldn’t tell you if tattoos are addicting or not. I have one and that’s it. It’s the Greek word for ‘cross’ that you find on the cover of the Beck translation of the Bible (http://farm2.static.flickr.com/1183/1259083030_5049d5bf6d_o.jpg).

      • roxanne says:

        I agree with everything that you said, except I’m confused; didn’t you write “I recently celebrated my 31st birthday by getting another tattoo. Notice I said “another”. That means there has been at least one prior.”
        And who puts any thought into tattoos? If they did there would be a lot less. And it is really hard to say that the tattoo is a mistake, it ‘is’ permanent and against human nature to admit such a big mistake, ‘my opinion’. So a person gets another one to try and make themselves feel better,’I don’t know, just trying to figure it out’.
        I’m glad you are being patient with me and answering.
        Thank you

      • James says:

        Oh, I’m a different James than the Pastor James Hein who writes this blog. He is the one that has multiple tattoos. I’m the one that first posted on October 21, and I’m the one that has been chatting back and forth with you.

        “And who puts any thought into tattoos?”

        I certainly did.

        So you said that you were searching for answers on Christians and tattoos. What have you come up with so far?

    • James says:

      You’re right, it certainly does seem to be a generational thing right now to have tattoos. It seems like there can be three general outcomes attitudes of someone who has gotten a tattoo:

      1. Someone makes a poor decision about getting a tattoo and then is dishonest when they tell other people if they’re happy with it.

      2. Someone makes a poor decision about getting a tattoo and then is honest when they tell other people if they’re happy with it.

      3. Someone makes a good decision about getting a tattoo and then is honest when they tell other people if they’re happy with it.

      Roxanne, thanks for chatting as well.

  5. roxanne says:

    not many put thought (Prayer) into it. That is what I asked my niece. She told me she was confident with it. I ask her what ‘confidence’ without God is? She said ‘foolish’. I didn’t want her to think I would call her foolish, so I said “going it alone is Risky.” “Just don’t be too proud to run back to Jesus when you need help.”
    Too many Christians use the ‘my body is a temple and what temple doesn’t have art?’

    One Minister wrote: It is to harm the creation, the body, that God has made.
    One might as well throw globs of paint on a Michelangelo painting (or even just paint a smaller picture on top one of his). Tattooing began as a scarification process. Cuts were made in the body, and irritants rubbed in, so that when the cuts healed, scars would be noticeable. Tattooing is classified with scarification. It is harmful to the body. In fact, it has in the past been outlawed because it became the means of spreading hepatitis and other diseases. However, refined and “safe” it has become, it is still an invasion and alteration of the body as God has made it.

    I’m not applying this to non Christians of course.

    I just want a Christian with Tattoos to be honest about them and not defensive. I feel it is hard for a person to be honest with how they really feel about a tattoo, because they can not change or get away from it.
    I know that I have always been glad when a ‘bumper sticker’ got old and had to be removed. I’ve only had (2) and probably wont get another because I’ve changed.

  6. roxanne says:

    Thank you James for chatting with me. I have a daughter-in-law, who I love very much, with many tattoos. I don’t want her to feel bad or get defensive, so I can’t ask her these questions. It is very rare to see someone that isn’t tattooed.

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