Among the contested issues within churches today is what the Bible says and means as it pertains to tattoos, a topic that proves challenging given that they have become normalized in culture.
The most explicit scriptural condemnation of tattoos appears in Leviticus 19:28 which reads: "Do not cut your bodies for the dead or put tattoo marks on yourselves. I am the LORD."
Some read that passage as God expressed a desire for His people to be set apart for Himself, as tattoos were tied to occult practices like sorcery and other pagan religious practices.
The surrounding verses reveal that forbidding tattoos is but one of many things associated with pagan peoples that the God of Israel prohibits such as making daughters into prostitutes, and turning to mediums and necromancers.
"Anyone getting a tattoo really needs to ask themselves, why am I getting this and what is the meaning of this tattoo? Is the tattoo an expression of witchcraft, idolatry or pagan symbolism?" asked Jay Haizlip, pastor of The Sanctuary Church in Orange County, California, in a 2013 Huffington Post essay.
"I lean toward the belief that it is not forbidding all expressions of tattoos. Culturally and specifically here in the US, tattoos, over the last 20 years, have become more socially acceptable," he said, referencing Pew research claiming approximately 40 percent of millennials have tattoos.
Writing at Crosswalk.com, Liberty University Professor of Apologetics Will Honeycutt explained that injecting ink underneath the skin to make pictures is materially different than the kinds of tattoos referred to in the Old Testament. The passage in Leviticus, he said, is literally translated "And a cutting for the dead you will not make in your flesh; and writing marks you will not make on you; I am the Lord."
The word "writing" refers to inscribed or engraved symbols or words and it is the only time in Scripture where it is used, and the work "marks" — also used here alone — has an uncertain root, leaving its meaning uncertain, Honeycutt continued, noting that "tattoo" did not enter into the English language until the late 1700s.
"This is probably why the KJV, written in the early 1600s, is closer to the literal translation saying, 'ye shall not ... print marks upon you.'"
The cultural backdrop against which this divine prohibition was given was when Israel, after being rescued from slavery, was situated between Egypt and Canaan, he went on to say.
Archaeological findings show that Egypt routinely marked its women on the breasts, thighs and abdomen, which was thought to be a good luck charm of sorts to protect the birthing process.
Women were frequently tattooed of the pagan fertility goddess, Bes, which lends credence to this theory, Honeycutt said.
So while it is not expressly condemned, he urged Christians to think hard about their motives for getting tattoos.
"If it is in rebellion to parents, it is clearly not acceptable," he said, citing Ephesians 6:1-3, a New Testament's reiteration of the Fifth Commandment.
"And while artistic self-expression can be OK, our primary motive for anything we do should be to glorify God (1 Corinthians 10:31). This means seeking to honor and draw attention to him, not ourselves.
"Getting a tattoo for purposes of witness may be acceptable, but remember, this is not the primary or most effective way to evangelize. It is in no way a substitute for verbally communicating the gospel. You are not fulfilling the Great Commission simply because you have a tattoo of a Bible verse."