In a recent interview with World Religion News, Hillsong New York Pastor Carl Lentz spoke candidly on a number of issues, including those who criticize him for having tattoos. Referring to a passage in Leviticus 19:28, Lentz said it’s important to hold a balanced view of the Old Testament moral code, neither dismissing it out-of-hand, nor holding to every, single instruction.
Lentz said his approach to Old Testament commands is to “put up the Old Testament, then put a cross in the middle, then put up the New Testament and anything that comes through the cross is eternal. Anything that stops is the Old Testament. For example, blood sacrifices of animals stopped because of Jesus. Honoring your wife as God honors his church comes through the cross. So that is our scope for all Scripture interpretation.”
For many evangelicals over the age of 30, tattoos were once culturally considered unbiblical. Anyone who attended church services with a tattoo was someone with “a past.” This was largely due to the Leviticus verse Lentz referenced which reads “Do not cut your bodies for the dead or put tattoo marks on yourselves. I am the LORD.” However, Life Church Pastor Craig Groeschel says that this verse doesn’t apply to tattoos as we know them today.
“In the context of Leviticus 19, the Israelites had just escaped from Egyptian bondage and God was telling them don’t take on the pagan practices of Egyptians. When Egyptians would die they would cut into the body to let out life blood. Some would tattoo pagan gods on themselves, and God was saying ‘don’t do that.’ Leviticus also says don’t trim your hair or beard, and other things that we do everyday.”
Both Lentz and Groeschel, via slightly different angles, are claiming that scriptural interpretation of the Old Testament has to be held in tension, where readers are able to parse which dictates still apply and which ones don’t. In Lentz’s case, he feels strongly that the command against tattoos “died on the cross.”
“If [an Old Testament command] died on the cross then it needs to die in our theology. Tattoos are a no-brainer. Are you kidding me? Jesus was pretty clear in every detail. Whether it is diet, whether it’s image…that stuff died on the cross. Now it becomes a matter of personal conviction. So now if I don’t believe these tattoos devalue the temple that is the Holy Spirit, my body, I am doing it. If I do then I don’t, but I am not going to turn my conviction necessarily into theology or doctrine.”
Pastor and author Jarrid Wilson says when considering a tattoo, there are three important questions to consider:
- Why would I get a tattoo? or Why did I get a tattoo?
- Who will my tattoo glorify? or Who do my tattoos glorify?
- What would my tattoo say about me? or What do my tattoos say about me?
Wilson believes that while most tattoos do not violate the Leviticus 19 command against idolatry, some can and do. Moreover, Wilson says that because our bodies are temples to the Lord, we should make sure that whatever tattoo we have should bring glory to him, either artistically or in its message.
There are still many church cultures that either discourage or outright prohibit tattoos. A quick Google search of “tattoos church prohibited” will lead to multiple articles from churches outlining why the Bible is against tattoos. One such church, Elmwood Baptist Church in Brighton, CO, says that tattoos in the Bible are always associated with witchcraft and claims that “up until just a few years ago, virtually everyone, including the most liberal Christian, knew that tattooing and piercing was clearly forbidden by the word of God.” Whether they believe this means people should not have piercings in their ears is unclear.
Of even greater importance than the specific debate over tattoos, though, is the question of biblical interpretation. Is Lentz right, that every Old Testament command either dies or lives on through the cross? Does cultural interpretation show that Leviticus 19:28 isn’t applicable to today’s society? Or are both of these approaches cultural relativism, watering down the truth of the Bible?
It’s these questions, and the tension evangelicals dwell in as they answer them, that are vital as the church attempts to engage the world around it.