When thinking and talking through the issue of Christians and tattoos we need to appeal to Scripture and sound theology, but we need to do so carefully. It's easy to for people on either side to cherry pick proof texts to support their position without treating each passage fairly and in it's own unique context. There are two bad examples I have seen come up a number of times.
Jesus' Thigh Tattoo?
On his robe and on his thigh he has a name written, King of kings and Lord of lords. (Revelation 19:16, ESV)
Some people point to the image of Jesus' second coming in Revelation 19, the Holy, conquering Lord of glory, and the "name written" on his "thigh" as a tattoo. At best it is unclear if this is a tattoo, but it seems much more likely that this name, "King of kings and Lord of lords" is written on his garment. John records that the name was written on his robe and on his thigh, and it seems most likely that the lower part of the robe, covering the thigh area, carried the name. I haven't yet come across any scholars who argue this was a tattoo, but if you know of such a reference I'd be interested in reading it.
Your Body a Temple?
Or do you not know that your body is a temple of the Holy Spirit within you, whom you have from God? You are not your own, for you were bought with a price. So glorify God in your body. (1 Corinthians 6:19-20, ESV)
One of the most common passages of Scripture brought up to argue against tattooing the body (at least in my experience) is 1 Corinthians 6:19-20. The argument is that our bodies are not our own, we belong to God body and soul, and the body we have functions as a temple of the Holy Spirit. So, we must glorify God with our bodies, and tattoos work against this.
The problem with this argument is that it begs the question. Yes, we must glorify God with our bodies, but this passage does not address whether or not tattooing dishonors God or the body. In fact the context moves us in another direction.
Flee from sexual immorality. Every other sin a person commits is outside the body, but the sexually immoral person sins against his own body. Or do you not know that your body is a temple of the Holy Spirit within you, whom you have from God? You are not your own, for you were bought with a price. So glorify God in your body. (1 Corinthians 6:18-20, ESV)
Paul is confronting sexual sin in the church, and argues that sexual immorality defiles the body/temple. Using this passage to argue against tattoos (or smoking, or eating red meat) does injustice to the text and leads us away from the powerful truths reveled therein.
How we treat the body matters. We do belong to God, body and soul. We are wholly his because he has created us and redeemed us. We are doubly his. So how do we glorify God in the body we possess? We must look to Scripture as our authority in all faith and practice. Godliness is directed and determined by the word of God. As I have read through Scripture for the past twenty-three years I am persuaded by Scripture (not its silence) that tattoos are permissible.
But that does not mean one should get them. In fact when people tell me they are thinking of getting tattoos I try and talk them out of it. I'll explain why in the next post.