Question and Answer
I have seen it argued on the sole basis of one Biblical text, Leviticus 19:28, that it is a sin to get a tattoo. Is it appropriate to make such a leap in taking this particular civil law given to Israel by God and making it a mandate for the church today? Do the original context of Leviticus 19:28 and the hermeneutical principles by which we understand the current relevance of the civil laws of Israel support such a leap?
I would agree that for the majority of believers getting a tattoo would not be wise, considering the expense and permanency of such actions, and the difficulty or impossibility of reversal. However, must we not also be careful to safeguard the principle of Christian liberty and not attempt to bind the conscience of a believer contra the Scriptures as understood by the Westminster Confession and Reformed hermeneutical tradition?
The OPC does not take stated positions on such things as dress, jewelry, or bodily markings. The only matters on which the OPC makes declarations is in answering charges or protests brought to it from its presbyteries and churches. There is nothing on the matter of tattoos in our secondary standards (Westminster Confession of Faith and Catechisms) or, as far as I know, in the decisions and declarations of the Orthodox Presbyterian Church..
I believe you are correct in what you say about Leviticus 19:28. The clear context of Leviticus 19 is God's holiness, and the holiness to which his people are called. They are to be separated from the surrounding nations. God's people must forsake idolatry, temple prostitution, spiritual mediums, fortune tellers, and the various bodily markings of the other nations, including hair styles and bodily markings (tattoos and scarification).
The command to be set apart as God's people from the sinful idolatries of this world remains. It can be argued, however, that tattoos (along with sideburn-cutting and beard-shaving, cf. Lev. 19:27, and "eating meat with the blood still in it," cf. Lev. 19:26) do not have the same meaning today and thus the specific commands against them expired along with the Israelite state.
Our Westminster Confession of Faith, Chapter 19, "Of the Law of God," distinguishes between God's abiding moral law, and the civil and ceremonial laws given to the Israelites. In section 4 of this chapter, the Westminster Divines write this:
To [Israel] also, as a body politic he gave sundry judicial laws, which expired together with the State of that people; not obliging any other now, further than the general equity thereof may require.
I would agree with you that we must be careful to maintain the important principle of Christian liberty which the Reformed Faith has cherished.
Now to get down to details. I don't think Leviticus 19:28 strictly forbids tattooing as it is practiced today. Consider Deuteronomy 14:10 (English Standard Version), an important parallel passage, and related comments from The Reformation Study Bible (Ligonier Ministries, 2005):
"You are the sons of the LORD your God. You shall not cut yourselves or make any baldness on your foreheads for the dead. For you are a people holy to the LORD your God, and the LORD has chosen you to be a people for his treasured possession, out of all the people who are on the face of the earth."
Deut. 14:1. You shall not cut yourselves ... for the dead. See Lev. 19:28, where the same rules are given. Details of this custom are unclear, but it doubtless involved practices associated with ancestor worship and pagan ritual mourning. Because Israel was chosen by God, as His special possession (v. 2; 26:18), Israel was to be different and was to reject all pagan religion and associated rituals. (p. 265).
And consider also Leviticus 19:28 (ESV) and comments from The Reformation Study Bible:
"You shall not make any cuts on your body for the dead or tattoo yourselves: I am the Lord."
[Lev.] 19:28. Mutilation of the body created by God was incompatible with holiness, for the holy God is perfect life (Deut. 14:1 note). (p. 180)
Thus mutilation of the body or tattooing associated with pagan rituals of mourning "for the dead" (a phrase occurring in both Lev. 19:28 and Deut. 14:1) are indeed clearly forbidden by God, but such practices do not equate with the modern practice of tattooing. Nor are people disobeying God's commandments today by cutting their sideburns, shaving their beards, or ordering their steaks rare!
Indeed, we need to be sure that what we do is not an act of idolatry. And idolatry comes in many forms today—alcoholism, drug addiction, or putting anything above God and his Word. But there is no clear prohibition in Scripture against cutting our hair or tattooing our bodies as inherently sinful, even though we may decide against getting a tattoo on the basis of taking other issues into consideration, such as whether we are being wise with our bodies or good stewards with our money when we get a tattoo; just as many Reformed people would not agree with the fundamentalist that smoking is inherently evil, but may still conclude that there may be good reasons to avoid the practice for reasons of health, all other things being equal.
I hope that this consideration of the topic has been helpful.
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