I used to consciously make excuses for people’s way of life lest I judged them. Let’s say I see a young man all tatted up in church, I quickly assume he got the tattoos in his past life. I mean … he couldn’t have possibly made marks on his skin knowing that the bible frowns on it right? I chose to give such people the benefit of the doubt. It made things easier for me. I did this ignorant of the fact that giving people the benefit of the doubt in such situations was equal to doubting the benefits of the Grace of God.
Tattoos. Body piercings. Cross-dressing. Are all these acceptable in the sight of God? It is stated categorically in the book of Leviticus that all these are (or used to be) unacceptable to God. Do these commands have a backing in the New Testament?
First of all, I need to state this: the Law does not in any way refer to the 10 commandments alone. The law is a dispensation. It is a mentality (which means it transcends time frames). It is a determinant of the relationship between man and God. The law is God giving men the chance to be acceptable in his presence. Therefore there are more laws the Israelites had to adhere to than the 10 commandments Moses took on Mount Sinai. These laws are outlined in the book of Leviticus and other Old Testament books. Jesus is described in the bible as ‘the lamb that was slain before the foundations of the earth’, meaning, he was destined to die for the sins of the world before creation. But we all know God works according to times and seasons. Therefore the Law was an interim measure to restore man to a shadow of the fellowship he had with God in Eden. It wasn’t time for Jesus to come and die for the sins of mankind yet so God put in place an interim measure to bridge the gaping chasm sin created between God and man.
Not every law given in Leviticus and Deuteronomy has a spiritual bearing. If this is all you would walk away with after reading this post, I would be exceedingly glad. God gave three kinds of laws in Leviticus: Ritual Laws, Laws concerning the Priesthood and Purity Laws. In this post, we will dwell largely on the purity laws. These laws didn’t only make a man spiritually acceptable in the sight of God, most of them, if adhered to, actually made man physically acceptable in the presence of God. This is because God used to manifest himself to these people physically so physical cleanliness was very important. The Law was put in place to reveal the imperfection of man. For if God gave man one law in Eden and man broke it, he clearly wasn’t expecting men to be able to keep many laws. The truth is, it was all in the build up to the arrival of the promised Messiah.
Ok so back to the laws. It doesn’t take much critical analysis to notice that some of these laws were simply personal-hygiene laws. They still fall under the purity laws anyway, because they keep the body clean just as adherence to sexual laws would make a man spiritually clean before God. For example, the law prohibited the Jews from touching the flesh of dead animals. The law also states in Leviticus 15 that a man who discharges semen (in his sleep) and a woman in her menses are both unclean. Both are expected to bath and wash their clothes and anybody who touches either the cloth or the beds they slept on is also unclean. In Deuteronomy 23, the bible says that the children of Israel were prohibited from easing themselves in the camp. But rather they were instructed to go outside the camp, dig a hole and afterward cover up their excrement. These are clearly hygiene laws.
Now here comes the controversial laws. In Leviticus 18:28 the Israelites were warned against making marks on their skin (tattoos). Deuteronomy 22:5 speaks against cross-dressing. The question then is, why do some Christians have tattoos on their skin and are bold enough to attend church services with their skin looking like the map of a swampy area? Why do Christian women wear trousers? Why do Christian men wear earrings? Are they ignorant of what the bible says about cross-dressing?
In Galatians 5:6, it says:
For in Christ Jesus neither circumcision nor uncircumcision accounts for anything but only faith working through love.
Circumcision is the mark of the covenant the Jews had with God. It involved the physical cutting away of the foreskin of the manhood. Therefore, circumcision was pretty much a big deal in those days. Acts 15 addresses this issue too. Paul had come across a group of believers in Antioch who believed one would have to be circumcised to become a Christian. Hence he traveled all the way back to Jerusalem to meet up with the elders of the church to discuss this very issue. Some of the remarks of the elders were astounding. Peter asked ‘now, therefore why tempt ye God, to put a yoke upon the neck of the disciples, which neither our fathers nor we were able to bear?’. He said this in reference to the issue of circumcision – which basically stands for keeping the law. He calls it a yoke! It means the very moment we choose to follow the law we have willingly thrown a yoke around our necks. James made a similar submission at the council. None of them implied that Grace is a license to sin. No! Far from that. What I’m saying is grace is a better reason to live right than the law. Grace empowers you to do the right thing other than following a bunch of laws.
From the verse we read from Galatians, it says that neither circumcision nor uncircumcision accounts for anything. Which means whether you are circumcised or uncircumcised it really doesn’t matter. Whether you have tattoos or not, it really doesn’t matter. Whether she wears trousers or not it really doesn’t matter. It even amazes me that the people who say it is sinful to have tattoos don’t realize that the verse that speaks against tattoos is preceded by a verse that speaks against shaping your hair as a guy. I have shaped my hair by the way. Am I guilty of any sin because of this? Will I go to hell because of this? Can a mere hairstyle outdo and undo what Christ did on the cross? Certainly not! This is what happens anytime we try to judge people by the law, we end up implicating ourselves. Little wonder the bible says that whoever keeps the whole law but breaks one of them is guilty of all. As simple as that. So if you are going around judging men for piercing their ears, braiding their hair, tattooing their skin etc. yet you have shaped your hair, you are as guilty as you claim they are. You break the entire law by breaking one. If you have a toilet in your home, please know that you have broken the law (refer to Deut. 23). A lady who goes to church in her menses or a man who goes to church the morning after having wet dreams has also broken the law. This is tiring already! Even typing it out is tiring!
This is why Grace is the solution. After the death of Christ, we are totally changed from the inside out. We are born anew. Already acceptable in the sight of God on Jesus’ score. God is pleased with you. Therefore we don’t have to follow a bunch of rules to be pleasing in the sight of God. We don’t have to follow the law to attain righteousness. We are already righteous. Does this in any way mean we can do whatever pleases us? Definitely no! The only thing is, whatever we do that will ever please God should stem from his grace and not by works – so the glory goes back to him.
Going back to Paul’s epistle to the Galatians he told them they’ve been called to a life of freedom, nevertheless, they mustn’t use this freedom as an opportunity for the flesh. Interesting. Which means we are at liberty to do certain things but we mustn’t do them because we want to please our flesh. At another place Paul says ‘everything is beneficial but not everything is helpful (edifies)’. A tattoo doesn’t mean you are of the devil. Piercing your nose doesn’t mean you are hell-bound. We are at liberty to do these things, but we mustn’t let it be a quest to merely please our flesh. ‘Oh facial tattoos are in vogue so I need to get one’. That is wrong!
Also, we are admonished to desist from such things for the sake of the weaker brethren in the faith. There are some people who aren’t mature enough to understand the gospel of Grace and the freedom it comes with. Such people would be compelled to judge when they see another Christian fully exercising his liberties without constraints. They might just tag you a sinner and it is not their faults but yours. You should know better.
Sometimes we need to understand these things also from a cultural point of view. I’m saying so because even in Acts 15, culture was at the center of the debate the disciples had. There are certain things that are acceptable in one culture and totally abhorred in another. In the ghettos in America, having tattoos is no big deal. Therefore when someone from this kind of background comes to Christ, he would be inclined to having even more tattoos. Let’s take for example Scottish men in kilts. They wear skirts because it is a cultural norm in Scotland. A man wearing a skirt is largely regarded worldwide as cross-dressing. Are we saying all Scottish men are not possible candidates of God’s grace? Can’t a Christian Scottish man wear his skirts to church and feel at ease to worship God? Why do we want to put a yoke around their neck (as Peter would say)?
I personally do not like tattoos and piercings. Nevertheless, not mine, but the will of God be done. In the New Testament, circumcision is of the heart and not by the law (Rom 2:29). So it is not about what you have written on your skin but how much of God’s word is inscribed on your heart. It isn’t about the number of piercings you have in your ears and nose, it is about how much you keep your eyes fixed on His nail-pierced hands. It isn’t about cross-dressing but it is solely about putting on the righteous garment you obtained by grace and keeping it clean. You can wear a crucifix with the cross hanging so low that it touches your knee when you bend, if you still don’t carry your cross daily and follow after Jesus, you are merely burdening your neck.