Sunday, April 30, 2006

4/30/06, Tattoos and the Word of God (TATWOG)

and Various Responses

As mentioned below, this paper by TE G. Price of Albany Covenant Reformed Presbyterian Church of Albany, New York. accompanied and was a larger exposition of the question in a sermon of the same date.

In response to it, see also:
5/8/06, The New Paganism (TNP), A Response to TATWOG 
5/12/06, A Brotherly Inquiry about The New Paganism which not only informs us that TATWOG is the approved position of the RPNA(GM) - "At the present time, the paper written by Pastor Price represents the Session’s position on the matter of tattoos." - but also engages in some Socratic question begging.
5/26/06, Fwd: A Brotherly Inquiry re. The New Paganism
Carnal Graffiti and the Word of God: Disproved and Disapproved, A Brief and Delayed Follow up to The New Paganism
12/24/06, Of the "Public Sin" of An Unqualified Condemnation of Paganism (Among Other Allegations)


[ April 30, 2006]

Since I briefly addressed the subject of tattoos in a recent sermon (entitled, “A Happy Person Has A Good Reputation” Ecclesiastes 7:1-6 [p.4]), I would like to further elaborate on the subject at this time. Sometimes in a sermon there is not enough time to properly address an incidental topic (like that of tattoos) when most of the space is devoted to the main ideas of the text. When a subject does not receive a proper amount of space in a sermon (due to time constraints), it might appear to the hearers that there was very little support for the position presented. I hope to clarify and elaborate on the matter of tattoos in this brief paper.

Although I am personally no great fan of tattoos, as a Pastor I must seek to interpret God’s Word in a way that is faithful to the specific text and faithful to the whole counsel of God. I must set aside my personal feelings about the subject of tattoos, and rather seek to understand whether there is warrant in God’s Word to prohibit (in an absolute sense) the use of tattoos. I know that this is a subject that can generate a lot of emotion as it relates to our Christian testimony (on the one side) and to our Christian liberty (on the other side). It is always a delicate matter to seek to faithfully balance our Christian testimony and our Christian liberty. That, however, should be our goal as Christians who trust, love, and obey Christ.

Tattoos and Pagan Origins

There is little doubt in my mind that tattoos (or any outward markings on the body) had their origins in the religious rituals of pagans as a part of their mourning rites for the dead. For we find explicit prohibition from the Lord to refrain from such marks on the body in Leviticus 19:28:

“Ye shall not make any cuttings in your flesh for the dead, nor print any marks upon you: I am the LORD.”

Matthew Poole comments on this verse: “Which the Gentiles commonly did both in the worship of their idols, and in their solemn mournings…” (_Matthew Poole’s Commentary On The Bible_, MacDonald Publishing Company, Vol. 1, p. 240).

Likewise the divines who worked on the Westminster Annotations agree when they address this verse: “That is, you shall not make or receive any impression upon your flesh, or skin, as tokens of Idolatry, or superstition…” (_The Westminster Annotations_, Vol. 1, Leviticus 19:18).

It would seem to be the universal judgment of commentators that these marks, impressions, scratches, cuts, or tattoos were forbidden because of their direct relationship to religious circumstances and practices of false religion at that time. God did not want His people to bring the religious practices of the pagans into their worship or ceremonies surrounding the dead. In other words, it was the religious circumstances of that time that provided the basis for God’s prohibition against these marks--not that tattoos were necessarily unlawful in themselves. For the tattoo may be indifferent in itself while specific circumstances may make that which is indifferent unlawful (for example, the religious association of tattoos with the pagan rites of the dead)[p.1].

It should also be noted from other passages in God’s Word that there were additional religious and superstitious practices used by pagans that God likewise expressly forbids His people to import into their worship or mourning rites: cutting their hair evenly in a circle (Leviticus 19:27), trimming their beards (Leviticus 19:27), and shaving the hair that grows between their eyes or eyebrows (Deuteronomy 14:1). These practices are just as expressly forbidden by God as making marks upon the skin (tattoos), and are apparently forbidden for the same reasons—their association with the pagan worship and rites of mourning.

Calvin noting all of the pagan practices forbidden by God (cutting their hair evenly in a circle, trimming their beards, shaving the hair that grows between their eyes or eyebrows, and cutting or marking themselves) in Leviticus 19:27,28 and Deuteronomy 14:1 states the reason why God’s people were forbidden each of these religious rites:

“And especially that they should avoid all ceremonies whereby their religion [the religion of the pagans—GLP] was testified. For experience teaches how greatly the true worship of God is obscured by anything adscititious [added or derived from outside—GLP], and how easily foul superstitions creep in [the worship of God—GLP]” (_Commentaries On The Four Last Books of Moses_, John Calvin, Baker Book House, Vol. 2, p. 52).

Thus, the superstitious mourning rites of the pagans were not necessarily condemned because they were unlawful in themselves, but because of the direct association they had with the religious worship of the pagans. The words of George Gillespie are to the point

“So that from this law [Leviticus 19:27,28 and Deuteronomy 14:1—GLP] it most manifestly appears that we may not be like idolaters, no not in things WHICH ARE IN THEMSELVES INDIFFERENT, when we know they do use them superstitiously. What warrant is there for this gloss, that the law forbids the cutting round of the corners of the head, and the matting of the corners of the beard, to be used as signs of immoderate and hopeless lamentation for the dead, and that in no other sense they are forbidden? Albeit the cutting of the flesh may be expounded to proceed from immoderate grief, and to be a sign of hopeless lamentation; yet this cannot be said of rounding the hair, marring the beard, and making baldness, which might have been used in moderate and hopeful lamentation, as well as our putting on of mourning apparel for the dead. The law says nothing of the immoderate use of these things, but simply forbids to round the head, or mar the beard for the dead; and that because this was one of the rites which the idolatrous and superstitious Gentiles used, concerning whom the Lord commanded his people, that they should not do like them, because he had chosen them to be a holy and peculiar people, above all people upon the earth. SO THAT THE THING FORBIDDEN, IF THE GENTILES HAD NOT USED IT [SUPERSTITIOUSLY—GLP], SHOULD HAVE BEEN OTHERWISE LAWFUL ENOUGH TO GOD’S PEOPLE, AS WE HAVE SEEN OUT OF CALVIN’S COMMENTARY” (_A Dispute Against English Popish Ceremonies_, George Gillespie, Naphtali Press, 1993 [1637], p. 185. CAPS have been added for emphasis).

Let us draw this point to a conclusion. If one of those practices was absolutely forbidden for all time, then all of those practices were likewise absolutely forbidden for all time. If it was an absolute moral prohibition to mark oneself on the body because it was unlawful in itself, then it was likewise an absolute moral prohibition to cut one’s hair in a circle, trim one’s beard, and shave the hair between the eyes or eyebrows because these practices were unlawful in themselves. Yet, a faithful and consistent interpretation of God’s Word and faithful commentators and divines from the past unite their voices in declaring that these practices were not unlawful in themselves, but became unlawful due to the direct association they had with pagan worship and superstitions[p.2].

Since I do not believe there is today in our cultural setting a direct association with pagan practices in cutting the hair in a circle, in trimming of the beard, in removing the hair between the eyebrows, or in marking oneself with a tattoo (as there once was in ancient Israel), and since I do not believe these practices are unlawful in themselves (but rather are indifferent), I do not believe it is immoral or unlawful to use any of these practices as long as one can do so to the glory of the Lord (1 Corinthians 10:31).

I would suggest another example in which the religious pagan origins of something we use everyday are clear and acknowledged by all: the names of pagan gods given to the days of the week. The sun, moon, and planets were worshipped in the various pagan religions of the ancient world, and the days of the week reflect this fact: Sunday is for the worship of the sun; Monday is for the worship of the moon; Tuesday is for the worship of the god, Tyrs (or in Old English, Tiu); Wednesday is for the worship of the god, Woden; Thursday is for the worship of the god, Thor; Friday is for the worship of the goddess, Frige; and Saturday is for the worship of the god Saturn (the god of time). Likewise, we see the same relationship between pagan gods and the months of the year: January is for the worship of the god, Janus; February is for the worship of the god, Februus; March is for the worship of Mars, the god of war; April may be for the worship of the goddess, Aphrodite; May is for the worship of the goddess, Maia; June is for the worship of the queen of the gods, Juno; July is for Julius Casesar; August is for Caesar Augustus; September-December are simply the numbers 7-10 in Latin due to the fact that the Latin calendar began in March as the first month of the year. Now if we cannot use tattoos because of their pagan origins and associations from the past, neither can we use the names associated with the days of the week and months of the year. However, we do not intend (at the present time) to use these names for the days of the week or for the months of the year in any religious sense, but only in a civil sense. Do these names of days and months directly have a religious connotation in our use of them today? For the vast population of English speaking people, I do not think so. Samuel Rutherford states that the days of the week (though having pagan religious origins) are not used for religious and superstitious purposes now, but only for civil purposes. Therefore, they are lawful for us to use.

“The names of days to signify civil times and things out of religious state is necessary now: and the Holy Ghost doth use for civil signification such terms as … the ship whose sign is Castor and Pollux [the twin gods regarded as special patrons of sailors—GLP] yet these were heathen names, and most superstitious, and cannot be used in a religious state” (_The Divine Right Of Church Government and Excommunication_, Samuel Rutherford, 1646, “A Dispute Touching Scandal and Christian Liberty”, p. 54. Spelling has been modified to conform to contemporary standards).

Thus, if the circumstantial elements associated with the religious and superstitious worship of false religion are dropped in their present use and the present use is of a civil nature (rather than a religious nature), then a “step” haircut made in rounding out the hair around the head, a trimming of the beard rather than letting it grow out naturally, a shaving or plucking of the hair between the eyebrows, using the days of the week and months of the year that are named after the gods of pagans, and making a tattoo are not unlawful in themselves. However, any of these practices may be sinful due to various circumstances. If we do not practice these things to the glory of God, it is sinful. If we do not practice moderation, it is sinful. I know there is no specific instruction as to what is moderate and what is immoderate. God, Himself, did not give us such a specific set of guidelines, so I will not presume to do so either. However, we must personally seek to avoid excess and extremes in these matters as general guidelines of prudence. If we have the attitude that we do not care who is offended by what we do (even if it is lawful in itself), it is sinful because we are not walking in love. If we pass judgment on one another because one engages in a practice that is indifferent in itself, it is sinful. If the content of a tattoo (whether in words or in pictures) is immoral as determined by the Law of God, then obviously the tattoo is sinful. But in such a case, it is sinful because of the circumstances, not because a tattoo is sinful in itself[p.3].

Tattoos And The Sixth Commandment

Some may object to tattoos not so much due to the pagan origin of tattoos, but due to the possible health problems that may follow: infection from needles, allergic reactions to the ink, and any pain associated with the process.

There was always the possibility of infection from earrings which the Israelites used for adornment (as well as the possibility of infection even today from dirty needles used to pierce ears). Yet the mere possibility of infection or the reality of some pain associated with piercing the ear did not make the practice of wearing earrings unlawful for the Israelites (Genesis 24:22; Exodus 32:3; Isaiah 61:10; Ezekiel 16:11; Luke 15:22) nor do these possible consequences make pierced ears unlawful for us as well. Incidentally, an historical study of earrings from ancient times will reveal that they did not use clip-on earrings. The earrings of ancient times had hooks to put through the ears. Likewise, just as some may be allergic to ink, so some may be allergic to certain metals put into their pierced ears. And yet the possibility of allergic reaction did not mean that earrings were forbidden.

Using the same health concerns associated with tattoos as stated above, any form of cosmetic surgery that is not absolutely necessary to life would be likewise condemned (whether cosmetic surgery to repair a burn on the skin, or to repair some cosmetic deformity obtained from birth or through an accident). For such examples of cosmetic surgery (and many more no doubt) are not necessary to life. Cosmetic surgery in such cases is for the physical appearance and adornment of a person. However, it is clear that cosmetic surgery may lead to infection or allergic reactions to medications and certainly will produce pain. And yet, most (if not all) of us, would likely say that cosmetic surgery in such cases (as mentioned above) is lawful and even profitable.

Tattoos And Vanity

Some may also object to tattoos because they are vain and promote the vanity of those who have them. Sadly, vanity is something that can adhere to whatever we do by way of outward adornment (whether it be the modest clothing we wear, whether it be the modest makeup women use, whether it be the modest hair styles we receive, whether it be the modest jewelry we wear, whether it be the modest perfumes/colognes we use, or whether it be the modest tattoos one may have). The fact that one may receive a tattoo out of vanity does not condemn the tattoo in itself. Again what condemns the tattoo is the circumstance—in this case, the circumstance of vanity. But if we were to do away with everything over which we were possibly vain, we would likely be running around completely nude. For vanity is not ultimately in the object itself, but ultimately in the very soul of man.


I may have left many questions unanswered, but I hope this further elaboration from the sermon I preached might be helpful in clarifying the biblical principles that we ought to use in addressing such issues. As I said at the outset, I am no friend to tattoos personally. No one will likely see me sporting a new tattoo anytime in the future. They simply do not appeal to me. However, I must say that the Word of God does not absolutely condemn the use of tattoos or pierced earrings as unlawful in themselves. It is the circumstances that make a tattoo or earring good or evil, not the tattoo or earring in themselves.

If one does not want to wear a tattoo or an earring for the reasons stated above, no problem. However, to absolutely condemn the use of an earring (upon the basis of Leviticus 19:28: “You shall not make any cuttings in your flesh for the dead”) or to absolutely condemn the use of a tattoo (upon the basis of Leviticus 19:28: “Nor print any marks upon you”) is an error and contrary to the testimony of Scripture, sound reasoning, and the testimony of our Reformed forefathers [p.4].