Tattoos and exeJesus in the New Testament

People with tattoos are viewed negatively.  This is probably the most common argument I’ve heard against getting a tattoo.  And I agree. We generally are. There’s no questioning it. Back when we were church shopping and I had to visit a church, I used to always wear my Guiness T-Shirt. Not only was it a shirt supporting an alcoholic beverage, but it left my tattoo visible. Two immediate strikes. It made church attendance very interesting.  I got to see how the people in that church treated someone who for all appearances was likely an outsider.  Side-note: It was always fun to see the looks on peoples faces when they saw the tattooed guy in the Guiness shirt reading his Greek New Testament.  I didn’t do this to be antagonistic.  I just wanted to see how each church would treat me if I showed up that way.  Let me tell you, that approach took a few churches out of the running for me.

Yeah, I’ve taken selfies. I also wear pink on occasion. No, you cannot have my man card.

Anyway…I can’t contradict this statement. It’s mostly true. But in spite of my agreement with the statement, I don’t find it to be a compelling argument against tattoos.  Why should someones decision to treat me a certain way be a persuasive determining factor in my behavior?  Why should I care if someone sees my bright red tattoo and thinks I’m evil?

“You should avoid everything that even looks like evil!”

That’s the typical Christian answer, at least.  This is a paraphrase of 1st Thessalonians 5:22: “Abstain from all appearance of evil” (KJV). Notice I quoted KJV.  Why?  Because most of the other translations read a little differently.  Here’s a sampling:

Abstain from every form of evil. (ESV, NASB)
Stay away from every form of evil. (NET)
Stay away from every kind of evil. (HCSB, NLT)
Throw out anything tainted with evil. (The Message*)
reject every kind of evil. (NIV)

The word in question is appearance (εἶδος), which means “the external appearance, form, figure, shape” according to Thayer’s. It’s used 5** times in the NT and if you read those passages it’s pretty clear that the word doesn’t mean “perception as opposed to reality.”   No, that’s not what Paul is saying. He’s saying that you should avoid every type of evil, or perhaps every face of evil. There is no innocent or appropriate evil.  There is no mask it can put on that makes it acceptable.  There is no kind of evil that’s okay, or safe. If something is evil, avoid it…even if it seems like it isn’t very harmful.  The word for abstain (ἀπέχω) is helpful here.  Used this way (middle voice) it means “to hold oneself at a distance.”  So to give a paraphrase of the passage, “Whenever evil appears, keep your distance.”  This is in sharp contrast with the way in which it is normally used, i.e. “Avoid anything that might be perceived as evil.” Paul isn’t cautioning against the way people perceive things, but against the way things actually are.  Put another way, in this text he doesn’t care what people think of his actions.  He cares about the actual moral character of his actions.  If someone wants to thing those actions are wrong, that’s their problem.  Thus, the way this text is normally used (against tattoos or otherwise) does not represent Paul’s intentions.

But let’s consider for a minute that I’m completely wrong.  Just think for a moment about what it would mean if this text actually meant “avoid anything that even appears evil.”  Well, evil can sometimes be in the eye of the beholder.  So who’s eye are we concerned with?  What opinion is it that counts here?  Is it other believers?  Is it potential converts?  This interpretation of the passage falls on its face.  Consider, for instance, Galatians 2 and the conflict between Peter and Paul (2:11-21).  Peter was avoiding Gentiles when the Jews were around.  He was avoiding the appearance of evil and so ostensibly obeying what Paul says in 1st Thessalonians 5:22 (though it was written yet).  Sure the action itself wasn’t evil.  But he had his reputation to uphold.  He couldn’t let people think that he was a dirty sinner.  Does Paul congratulate him for this?  Is Paul happy that his pal Peter has avoided all appearances of evil?  “When Peter came to Antioch, I had a face-to-face confrontation with him because he was clearly out of line.” (Galatians 2:11, Message***).  Earlier in his letter Paul puts it this way, “For am I now seeking the approval of man, or of God? Or am I trying to please man? If I were still trying to please man, I would not be a servant of Christ.” (1:10, ESV).  Clearly a concern for what other people might think of us isn’t actually an appropriate motivation for a Christian in all decisions.  Perhaps it may be some of the time (Romans 14 comes to mind), but it is definitely not all the time.

There are tons of reasons to not get a tattoo.  You shouldn’t do so out of rebellion.  You shouldn’t do so out of spite.  You shouldn’t do so on a whim.  You shouldn’t do so to make other people happy.  But all those qualifications can rule out all sorts of innocuous things…like how you dress.  A Christ-follower does need to be careful how they conduct themselves.  But it’s high time we stop condemning or thinking less of our brothers and sisters (and those outside our community of faith) who have some ink…unless it’s tribal.  😉


*If you’re going to have a problem with me using the Message, you can read my defense of it here in a guest post I did for a friend.  While you’re there, click on some links and enjoy Crystal’s blog.  She’s pretty awesome.

**Luke 3:22, Luke 9:29, John 5:37, 2nd Corinthians 5:7 and the text in question 1st Thessalonians 5:22.

***Told you I’d use it.  🙂

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