Dealing with debatable matters
In the previous article we saw that God communicates to us progressively through the Bible. So Old Testament (OT) verses need to be understood in view of the additional knowledge we have in the New Testament (NT). In doing this we can look for examples, warnings, encouragement and hope in the OT which are consistent with the messages given to churches in the NT. In the case of Leviticus 19:28, which prohibited the Jews having tattoos, the tests for a tattoo today could be: Is it consistent or inconsistent with being devoted to God? Is it linked to idolatry? Does it display the fruit of the Spirit or an act of the sinful nature? What is the motivation behind the tattoo?
Now we will look at how the teachings of the NT apply to this topic, which provides further insight into how we can apply the teaching of Scripture to our daily lives. The previous article stated that tattooing was not mentioned specifically in the NT. However, some people think the following verses could refer to tattoos. During the time of tribulation after true Christians are taken to heaven, the false prophet will force “all people, great and small, rich and poor, free and slave, to receive a mark on their right hands or on their foreheads, so that they could not buy or sell unless they had the mark, which is the name of the beast or the number of its name. This calls for wisdom. Let those who have insight calculate the number of the beast, for it is the number of a man. That number is 666” (Rev. 13:16-18TNIV). Also, when Christ returns to earth to put down His enemies and to set up His kingdom, “On His robe and on His thigh He has this name written: KING OF KINGS AND LORD OF LORDS.” (Rev. 19:16).
As the word translated “mark” (Strongs #5480) is a scratch or etching; something engraved or stamped it looks like it could be a literal mark on the skin. However, this is only an inference. The word translated “written” (Strong’s #1125) usually refers to something written in a book, scroll, or on a board. However, it may be symbolic not literal, like the sword out of His mouth (v.15). Obviously, there can be various views on the “mark” and the “writing”.
In a situation that is not sinful, whether to get a tattoo can be considered to be a debatable matter where Christians may have different opinions and convictions. These are secondary matters that are not essential to the Christian faith. The bible distinguishes between essentials and non-essentials in the Christian faith. The essentials or fundamentals or primary matters are things which all believers should agree on. They are the tests the Bible quotes for recognising false teachers and false ideas about things such as the person and work of Christ; the good news of salvation “by grace … through faith .. not by works” (Eph. 2:8-9); and the inspiration and authority of the Bible as God’s revelation to us.
Apart from such foundational truths, there are many other things in the bible that are not as clear and not as easily understood. These are non-essentials or secondary matters. Romans 14:1 – 15:7; 1 Corinthians 8 and 1 Corinthians 10:23-33 are key passages on this topic. In Romans 14:1 they are called “disputable matters” (Rom. 14:1TNIV) or “doubtful things” (NKJV), but as the Greek word used (Strongs #1261) means “discussion” or “debate”, I prefer to call them “debatable matters”. We can debate them, but shouldn’t dispute them. In these instances as the Bible allows for differences of opinion, we must also allow for differing opinions. Romans 14 addresses whether to eat food that has been offered to idols or whether one day was more sacred than another, which were issues in the first century AD around the Mediterranean. As Paul wrote, “The kingdom of God is not a matter of eating and drinking, but of righteousness, peace and joy in the Holy Spirit” (Rom. 14:17), what counts in God’s kingdom is not what we eat or drink, but lives characterised by practical righteousness, peace and joy.
The first example in this chapter concerns eating meat, “One person’s faith allows them to eat everything, but another person, whose faith is weak, eats only vegetables.” (Rom. 14:2). When the book of Romans was written, many Gentile believers (those with no Jewish ancestry) had previously participated in pagan worship which included animal sacrifices to pagan gods. The animals that were sacrificed were usually sold as meat on the open market. So for those who had been saved out of this lifestyle the question became whether they should eat the meat sacrificed to these idols. By eating this meat, were they participating in the idolatry of pagans? This was a hard question for many. And desiring not to participate in idolatrous practices, many of these Gentile Christians became vegetarians. Only in that way could they assure themselves that they were not eating meat sacrificed to idols.
Paul says that the weak believer, with a strict conscience, ate only vegetables whereas the strong believer’s faith allowed them to eat this meat because they understood that the idols to which the meat had been offered were not gods at all – only pieces of wood, stone or metal. Therefore, as they ate the meat with that understanding, they were not participating in idolatry.
The second example has to do with observing special days as holy days, “Some consider one day more sacred than another; others consider every day alike” (Rom. 14:5). Those who had been saved out of a Jewish tradition of Sabbath days and festivals were apt to make a great deal out of those observances. However, others not coming from that background felt that every day was the Lord’s day, and that none were more special than others. This created problems in the early church. How were believers to live together who did not agree in every detail? How are we, today, to deal with other believers whose opinions differ from ours?
When I was young smoking, drinking alcohol, playing cards, movies and dancing were viewed as being sinful and taboo. In some circumstances this is true, but in others they may be debatable maters. The Bible gives principles that can help us determine God’s will in debatable matters. It is clear that these principles are important because of the numerous references to them in the New Testament.
First, we are to honor God with our bodies (1 Cor. 6:19-20). When Paul said to “flee from sexual immorality”, he gave the following reason: “Do you not know that your bodies are temples of the Holy Spirit, who is in you, whom you have received from God? You are not your own; you were bought at a price. Therefore honor God with your bodies” (1 Cor. 6:19-20). This means considering questions such as: Will it honor or dishonor God? Will His reputation be enhanced or harmed? Will God be exalted or disgraced? Will others think less of God, His church or of His word? Is the motive to draw attention to ourselves (1 Tim. 2:9)?
A related principle is that whatever we do should be done for the glory of God. When Paul discussed whether to eat meat that had been offered to idols he concluded, “So whether you eat or drink or whatever you do, do it all for the glory of God” (1 Cor. 10:31).
The Welfare of Others
Next we are to consider the welfare of others by putting the following three principles into practice.
Acting in love (Rom. 14:15)
With regard to debatable matters, Paul wrote, “‘I have the right to do anything,’ you say—but not everything is beneficial. ‘I have the right to do anything’—but not everything is constructive. No one should seek their own good, but the good of others” (1 Cor 10:23-24). In this area, although there is freedom of action, acting in love means that we consider the impact on others, particularly those whose conscience is weak or strict (1 Cor. 8:7). As a result of this we may need to modify our behaviour and not enjoy all the liberties that we could otherwise.
Acting in love means forbearing those with a stricter conscience, not insisting on doing what we want without considering the views of those around us, in order to build them up; “We who are strong ought to bear with the failings of the weak and not to please ourselves. We should all please our neighbors for their good, to build them up. For even Christ did not please Himself …” (Rom. 15:1-3a).
The practice of acceptance features in the passage in Romans, which begins with “accept those whose faith is weak” (Rom. 14:1). Those whose convictions allow them more freedom are to accept those with stricter consciences on debatable matters. Despite our differences of opinion with regard to debatable matters, believers should accept one another just as Christ has accepted us; “Accept one another, then, just as Christ accepted you, in order to bring praise to God” (Rom. 15:7).
Our fellowship with one another shouldn’t depend on one’s viewpoint on such matters. As Christ died for all believers and they have been accepted as His children, we should accept them as well (Rom. 14:15). The call to the Christian is to accept every other believer without having to pass judgment on every opinion they hold. In other words, we are to allow for differing opinions, because differing opinions do not necessarily mean a differing faith.
With regard to debatable matters Paul wrote, “Let us therefore make every effort to do what leads to peace and to mutual edification” (Rom. 14:19). This means promoting peace and spiritual growth and determining whether the matter would help or hinder the harmony of believers.
Furthermore, the welfare of others involves avoiding the following three situations in debatable matters.
Paul also wrote, “Accept those whose faith is weak, without quarreling over disputable (or debatable) matters” (Rom. 14:1). One way of accepting other believers is to not engage in disputes about their strict views and not force our convictions on them (Rom 14:22). We can share our opinion, but it is important to give others space to grow and to allow for the possibility that we may be wrong.
Those with a strong conscience shouldn’t despise those with a strict conscience; “The one who eats everything must not treat with contempt the one who does not” (Rom. 14:3a). On the other hand, those with a strict conscience are not to judge others as being sinners; “the one who does not eat everything must not judge the one who does, for God has accepted that person” (Rom. 14:3b).
As far as our service goes as the Lord’s servants we are all accountable to Him, not to each other (Rom. 14:4, 10-13). This means respecting each other’s opinion as we can have differing views on what pleases the Lord (1 Th. 4:1). We are to allow for differing conclusions of honest believers seeking the mind of Christ, without criticism, without contempt, and without judgment (Rom. 14:10). Don’t judge one another critically to put others down (Rom. 14:13). React with love not criticism. Remember, God has accepted them. He is the judge in these matters, not us.
Note that these verses are dealing with debatable matters. We can certainly make judgements about matters that involve the fundamentals of the faith and sinful behaviour.
Don’t hinder spiritual growth
There are many references to not stumbling a weaker believer (Rom. 14:13, 15, 20-21; 1 Cor. 8:9-13; 1 Cor. 10:32-33). This means refraining from doing something that is not forbidden in Scripture if it hinders the spiritual progress of those with a strict conscience, by causing them to act against their conscience. Otherwise, both parties sin.
Don’t let debatable matters destroy the work of God. Paul even extends this principle to unbelievers because he wanted them to accept Christ as their Savior; “Do not cause anyone to stumble, whether Jews, Greeks or the church of God—even as I try to please everyone in every way. For I am not seeking my own good but the good of many, so that they may be saved” (1 Cor 10:32-33). It’s loving and unselfish to think of others above ourselves (Rom. 14:15; 15:1-2).
Order in the Church
When he was addressing disorder in the meetings of the church in Corinth, Paul wrote; “For God is not a God of disorder but of peace—as in all the congregations of the Lord’s people” and “everything should be done in a fitting and orderly way” (1 Cor. 14:33; 40). In this situation, Paul imposed some boundaries to ensure there was order instead of disorder.
Some debatable matters can affect the unity or functioning of the local church. Because the local church is to operate in an orderly way, in the case of debatable matters that directly affect the unity or functioning of the local church, there should be boundaries on what is taught and practised. In these situations, what is taught and practised within the church needs to be consistent and it will not always match everyone’s opinion because after all, we can have various opinions on these topics.
As tattoos are permanent, consider whether we and our family will still want or regret a tattoo in many years time. Also, because images affect our thoughts, any tattoo or image that we focus on should be true, honourable, right, pure, lovely, admirable, excellent and praiseworthy and not obscene (Eph. 5:4; Phil. 4:8). For example, it could symbolise a Biblical truth which benefits our relationship with Christ.
Finally, our body is like an instrument or tool that can be used for good or sinful purposes (Rom. 6:13). The important question is whether we are giving our bodies to God, not whether we have a tattoo or not (Rom. 12:1).
Lessons For Us
When considering tattoos and other debatable matters such as food, drink, clothes, standards of living and entertainments, we can ask the following questions: Will it honor or dishonor God? Are we acting in love?
Are we accepting one another regardless of their views on matters of secondary importance? Will it help or hinder the harmony of believers? Are we judging believers on matters of secondary importance? Will it hinder the spiritual progress of a weaker believer? Will it promote order or disorder in the local church?
Let’s apply these NT principles to the debateable maters in our daily lives.
Written, August 2009
See the other articles in this series:
– What does the Old Testament say about Christians getting tattoos?
– What does the Bible say about Christians getting tattoos?
A tattoo is a permanent marking made by inserting ink into the layers of skin to change the pigment for decorative or other reasons. Tattooing is a tradition among indigenous peoples around the world. The symbolism and impact of tattoos varies in different places and cultures. We are looking at this topic because it gives us an example of how we can apply the teaching of Scripture to our daily lives.
God has communicated to us in words that are recorded in the Bible. The Bible is a progressive revelation of God’s dealings with humanity, which is divided into two main parts: the Old and New Testaments. The Old Testament (OT) records events up to the birth of Jesus Christ (B.C.) and was written in the Hebrew language to the Jewish nation. It begins with the creation of the universe and the first people Adam and his wife Eve and the fact that they disobeyed God. Because this rebellious pattern has been inherited by us all, we are all under God’s judgement. According to the OT, God chose the Jewish nation to be His special people, but they were unfaithful.
The New Testament (NT) records events after the birth of Jesus Christ (A.D.) and was written in the Greek language to Christians. It describes Jesus as the Son of God who came to pay the punishment for our rebellion by giving up His life. All those who recognise that He died for them and accept His offer of a future eternal life in a world without sadness, sickness, decay or death become His followers who are called Christians. The NT contains principles for living as a Christian.
The Jewish Bible is the OT, while the Christian Bible is the OT plus the NT. So, although the OT was not written to Christians it is the first part of their Bible, which provides the context for the NT.
In order to understand the meaning of any words we need to understand the text or words themselves and the context or how they are used.
The only specific mention of tattoos in the Bible is a command given to the Jews about 3,450 years ago; “Do not cut your bodies for the dead or put tattoo marks on yourselves” (Lev. 19:28NIV). The text is clear; it says don’t get tattoos. If that’s the complete answer to our question, we can stop now and finish early!
If you think that is the answer, then you would also need to obey the following commands which occur in the same chapter:
- “Do not wear clothing woven of two kinds of material”, which would require removing many items from your wardrobe (Lev. 19:19).
- “Do not cut the hair at the sides of your head or clip off the edges of your beard”, which would require the cultivation of bushy sideburns and beards (Lev. 19:27).
- “Observe my Sabbaths”, which would require keeping the Sabbath day as in OT times (Lev. 19:30).
So, in order to understand the context of this verse we will look at when it was written and why it was written.
When was it written?
The book of Leviticus is a series of commands that ends with; “These are the commands the LORD gave Moses on Mount Sinai for the Israelites” (Lev. 27:34). It contains instructions given to the Jews as they travelled from Egypt to Canaan. As they were to be God’s people in that age, He gave them the ten commandments and many other instructions on how to live. The book of Leviticus was an instruction manual for the Jewish priests, who were from the tribe of Levi and so were called “Levites” (Ex. 32:25-29; Num. 8:5-22). That’s why it’s called Leviticus.
As Christians are God’s people today, and as God doesn’t change, the instructions in Leviticus may apply in some way to Christians today. However, as this was over 1,400 years before Christ lived on earth and founded the Christian faith, we would also expect that these instructions may apply in a different way to Christians today compared to how they applied to the Jews, or they may not apply at all.
Why was it written?
In order to understand the reason and circumstances for a verse, we can look at the verses nearby. Two main reasons are given for the instructions in Leviticus 19. The first reason was the requirement to be holy and the second reason was to not follow the wicked customs of the Egyptians and the Canaanites (Lev. 18:1-5, 24-30; 20:22-24, 26). They were commanded to “Keep my requirements and do not follow any of the detestable customs that were practiced before you came and do not defile yourselves with them” and to “Be holy because I, the LORD your God, am holy” (Lev. 18:30; 19:2).
The Hebrew word translated “holy” (Strongs #6918) is an adjective that describes something or someone as being “pure” or “devoted”. God is holy because He alone is pure and sinless. The Jews were to be holy in the sense that they were to be devoted to God. They were to show this by obeying His commands given in the OT (Ex. 19:5-6).
They were to be a nation that didn’t worship idols or offer child sacrifices or practice sexual immorality like the other nations (Lev. 18; 19:4; 20:1-5). Holiness is the key theme in Leviticus and it was to characterise the Jewish nation.
The Meaning for the Jews
What did “Do not cut your bodies for the dead or put tattoo marks on yourselves” mean when Moses was alive (Lev. 19:28)? A similar verse says, “You are the children of the LORD your God. Do not cut yourselves or shave the front of your heads for the dead, for you are a people holy to the LORD your God. Out of all the peoples on the face of the earth, the LORD has chosen you to be His treasured possession” (Dt. 14:1-2). Self-inflicted wounds were symbolic of self-sacrifice as an extreme method of arousing a pagan god to action. For example, the 450 prophets of Baal in Elijah’s day slashed themselves with swords and spears until their blood flowed (1 Ki. 18:28).
So the tattoos were associated with people cutting their bodies and with pagan gods. As the “tattoo marks” described in Leviticus 19:28 were related to false religious practices, they were prohibited because God did not want the Jews to be identified with idolatry. The principle associated with this command is that God’s people were not to be involved with idolatry and false religious practices, which was backsliding and deserting their Jewish faith.
Examples, Warnings, Encouragement and Hope
How should we interpret the OT today? According to Scripture, Christians are not required to obey Old Testament laws. Because Christ has fulfilled the law by paying the death penalty for everyone’s sin (Mt. 5:17; Rom. 10:4), the Old Testament laws have been set aside and are obsolete (Eph. 2:15; Heb. 7:18; 8:13) and believers are not under the laws received by Moses, but under God’s grace (Rom. 6:14; Gal. 3:23-25).
The following verses throw more light on the purpose of the OT. When Paul wrote about the need for self-discipline and self-control in the Christian life to be rewarded for faithful service, he thought of the examples and warnings from the history of the Jewish people (1 Cor. 10:1-13). “Now these things occurred as examples to keep us from setting our hearts on evil things as they did” and “These things happened to them as examples and were written down as warnings for us” (1 Cor. 10:6, 11). Also, “Everything that was written in the past was written to teach us, so that through the endurance taught in the Scriptures and the encouragement they provide we might have hope” (Rom 15:4TNIV).
So, when OT laws are interpreted in terms of their context and the doctrines of the New Testament, useful principles and examples may be derived from these laws (1 Cor. 10:6-11; 2 Tim. 3:15-1). They can also be a source of encouragement and hope (Rom. 15:4; Heb. 11). In this sense, the OT has a message for Christians. A test of the examples, warnings, encouragement and hope we find in the OT is that they must be consistent with the teachings of the NT. It’s like looking through polarised sunglasses, where only light in a particular plane is transmitted. Of course, the OT also contains references to the coming Messiah, which we can see by hindsight (Col. 2:17).
What examples and warnings can we learn for our everyday life from the Jewish prohibition on tattoos?
The Meaning for Christians
As it is not mentioned in the New Testament, the practice of tattooing is not specifically prohibited for Christians today. However, a comment on Revelation 13:16-18 and 19:16 is given in the next article in this series.
We are Christians living in 2009, not Jews travelling from Egypt to Canaan many years ago. Also, believers are under the new covenant, not the old one.
The two main reasons for the instruction in Leviticus were: the requirements to be holy, and not to follow the wicked customs of other nations. The first reason is repeated in the NT: “As obedient children, do not conform to the evil desires you had when you lived in ignorance. But just as He who called you is holy, so be holy in all you do; for it is written: ‘Be holy, because I am holy.’” (1 Pt. 1:14-16); which quotes from Leviticus 19:2. Christians are also to be devoted to God and to show this by obeying His commands in the NT.
The second reason is also repeated in the NT. The Bible teaches that true believers display the fruit of the Spirit instead of the acts of the sinful nature and do not sin continually and habitually (Gal. 5:19-23; 1 Jn. 3:4-10).
So the overall reasons for the instruction still apply today. They are universal timeless principles. However, today a tattoo is usually a means of self expression and a personal decoration that is not associated with idolatry.
The meaning of Leviticus 19:28 for Christians is that God’s people are not to be involved with idolatry and false religious practices, which would be backsliding and deserting their faith. In this case, the faith is the Christian faith, not the Jewish faith. This is consistent with the New Testament teaching that believers are to have nothing to do with idolatry (1 Cor. 10:7, 14; 1 Jn. 5:21) and not desert their faith, which is apostasy (Heb. 3:12).
Lessons For Us
What to know
There is a difference between the OT and the NT. Because the verses in the OT were written primarily to Jews and not to Christians, they may have no direct application to us today. As God communicates to us progressively through the Bible, OT verses need to be understood in view of the additional knowledge we have in the NT (Lk. 24:25-27).
What to do
When reading the OT, look for examples, warnings, encouragement and hope that are consistent with the messages given to churches in the NT. In the case of Leviticus 19:28, the questions that could be considered before a Christian gets a tattoo are: Is it consistent or inconsistent with being devoted to God? Is it linked to idolatry? Does it display the fruit of the Spirit or an act of the sinful nature? What is the motivation behind the tattoo?
These are factors we should consider when applying the OT to our daily lives.
Written, August 2009
See the other articles in this series:
– What does the New Testament say about Christians getting tattoos?
– What does the Bible say about Christians getting tattoos?
A tattoo is a permanent marking made by inserting ink into the layers of skin to change the pigment for decorative or other reasons. Tattooing is a tradition among indigenous peoples around the world. The symbolism and impact of tattoos varies in different places and cultures.
The only specific mention of tattoos in the Bible is a command given to the Jews in about 1450 BC when they were travelling from Egypt to Canaan: “Do not cut your bodies for the dead or put tattoo marks on yourselves” (Lev. 19:28 TNIV). According to Scripture, Christians are not under Old Testament Law. When Christ fulfilled the Law by paying the death penalty for sin (Mt. 5:17; Rom. 10:4), the Old Testament Law was set aside as obsolete (Eph. 2:15; Heb. 7:18; 8:13), and believers are not under it, but under God’s grace (Rom. 6:14; Gal. 3:23-25). However, when specific laws are interpreted in light of their context and the New Testament, useful principles may be derived from them (1 Cor. 10:6-11; 2 Tim. 3:15-17).
The context of Leviticus 19:28 is a set of laws that prohibited Jews from following the pagan practices of the Egyptians and the Canaanites (Lev. 18:1-5, 24-30; 20:22-24). These laws mainly related to sexual immorality, spiritualism and witchcraft and other areas of personal conduct that were to distinguish God’s people. The punishment for disobeying them is given in Leviticus 20. As the “tattoo marks” described in Leviticus 19:28 were associated with false religious practices, they were prohibited for these Jews because God did not want them to be identified with idolatry. The New Testament also teaches that believers are to have nothing to do with idolatry (1 Cor. 10:7, 14; 1 Jn. 5:21) and apostasy (Heb. 3:12).
Some other commands in Leviticus 19 are also no longer associated with idolatry: “Do not wear clothing woven of two kinds of material” (19:19), and “’Do not cut the hair at the sides of your head or clip off the edges of your beard” (19:27). Since it is not specifically mentioned in the New Testament, the practice of tattooing is not prohibited for Christians today, but the principle of not being identified with idolatry and not backsliding would still apply.
Today, a tattoo is usually a decorative means of self expression and personal decoration that is not associated with idolatry. In a situation that is not sinful, whether to get a tattoo can be considered a debatable matter, like whether to eat food that has been offered to idols or whether one day is more sacred than another (Rom. 14:1-6). The Bible gives five principles that can help us determine God’s will in situations like this.
First, we are to honor God with our bodies (1 Cor. 6:19-20). In other words, will a tattoo honor or dishonor God? Is the reason for getting one to draw attention to ourselves (1 Tim. 2:9)? A related principle is that whatever we do should be done for the glory of God (1 Cor. 10:31). Will He be exalted or disgraced? Will others think less of God, His Church or His Word because of what I do?
Second, it is sinful to cause believers with weaker consciences to stumble by violating their conscience (Rom. 14:13-14, 20-21; 1 Cor. 8:7-13). In this instance we should refrain from doing something that is not specifically forbidden in Scripture if it hinders the spiritual progress of a weaker believer. Paul even extends this principle to unbelievers because he wanted them to accept Christ as their Savior (1 Cor. 10:32-33). It’s loving and unselfish to think of others above ourselves (Rom. 14:15; 15:1-2).
Third, with regard to tattoos and other matters of secondary importance, we shouldn’t judge others because they are accountable to the Lord and not to us (Rom. 14:4, 10-12). This means respecting each other’s opinion as we can have differing views on what pleases the Lord (1 Th. 4:1).
Fourth, make every effort to do the things that lead to peace and spiritual growth (Rom. 14:19). Will what we do help or hinder the harmony of believers?
Fifth, despite our differences of opinion with regard to matters of secondary importance, believers should accept one another just as Christ has accepted us (Rom. 15:7). Our fellowship with one another shouldn’t depend on one’s viewpoint on such matters.
As tattoos are permanent, consider whether having a tattoo will be regretted by you and your family in years to come. Also, because images affect thoughts, any tattoo that you might get should focus on what is true, honorable, right, pure, lovely, admirable, excellent and praiseworthy, and not obscene (Phil. 4:8; Eph. 5:3-5). For example, it could symbolize a Biblical truth which represents your relationship with Christ.
Finally, our bodies are like “instruments” or tools that can be used for good or bad purposes (Rom. 6:13). The important question to ask is whether we are using our bodies for God, not whether we have a tattoo or not. Romans 12:1-2 says this: “I urge you, brothers and sisters, in view of God’s mercies, to offer your bodies as a living sacrifice, holy and pleasing to God … Do not conform to the pattern of this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your mind.”
Published July 2010
See the other articles in this series:
– What does the Old Testament say about Christians getting tattoos?
– What does the New Testament say about Christians getting tattoos?