Sunday, June 12, 2016

To tatt or not to tatt?

Doug Wilson recently did a post condemning tattoos: 

For the record, I don't have any tattoos, so I don't have a vested interest in this dispute.

I will skip his first objection because I've dealt with that in the past:

I wish to hone in on four of his objections:

The tattoo removal business is a multi-million dollar industry, and growing. Most of their clients are in their 30’s and 40’s. How confident are you that you will not be in that number a decade from now?

Certainly there are people who impulsively get a tattoo, only to regret it later on. Of course, that can be a problem with impulsive behavior generally. 

If, on the other hand, you get a Christian tattoo, why would you wish to remove it at a later date–unless you became an apostate? 

All the energy in the tattoo industry is coming from the world. This is a thing, it is a fad, it is a fashion, and it is all these things because of what the world is doing. If no unbeliever in the last hundred years had ever gotten a tattoo, you can be assured that it wouldn’t be such a thing among us. 

i) That's a hasty generalization. There are Christians who get Christian tattoos. Is the world getting Christian tattoos? Even if it did, that might be a promising development. 

People get tattoos for worldly motives…except when they don't get tattoos for worldly motives. It's true…except when it's false. A useless generalization because it's so unreliable. 

ii) In addition, God uses preexisting customs like circumcision, communal meals, and sacred ablutions, as covenant signs. These didn't originate in Judaism or Christianity. Does that make circumcision, baptism, and communion worldly?

Given the proliferation of tattoos in the general culture, we need to be careful not to prejudge people by tattoos. Not to form our first impression of people by tattoos–even inappropriate tattoos. In terms of Christian outreach, we should avoid making hasty, superficial prejudgments. It's automatic to judge people by their appearance. While that's not always wrong, it's something we need to be much more guarded about.

And last, one of my fundamental concerns has to do with the relationship of tattoos to ours baptisms. The fundamental external mark of a Christian is baptism, and it is striking that this is a mark that dries invisibly.

By that logic, it would be wrong to wear a T-shirt with a Christian message or Bible verse. 

I saved his worst objection for last. 

The chances are excellent to outstanding that if you are a Christian contemplating a tattoo this would also mean that you are a Christian contemplating distressing your parents. When factoring this element in, don’t allow yourself to argue to yourself that a tattoo “doesn’t necessarily dishonor them.” The Bible doesn’t tell you to not necessarily dishonor them. It says to honor them. It says to listen to their wisdom. “My son, hear the instruction of thy father, And forsake not the law of thy mother” (Prov. 1:8). 
I don’t believe that any human authority is absolute, but parental authority and wisdom is certainly significant. In deciding to get a tattoo, are you granting your parents’ reluctance and distress the weight and significance that you should? And how do you know?

That objection is bizarre on so many levels:

i) It begs the question. If getting a tattoo breaks the fifth commandment, then, by definition, tattoos are forbidden. Yet Wilson assumes the very thing he needs to prove. He offers no exegetical evidence that getting a tattoo dishonors your parents. Instead, he takes that for granted, then uses that loaded definition as a prohibition against tattoos. But that's getting the cart before the horse.

ii) He equates dishonoring your parents with making them experience reluctance or distress. Again, though, he offers no exegetical justification for supposing that's how Scripture defines dishonoring your parents. By that logic, if a child converts from Mormonism or Roman Catholicism to evangelicalism, he violated the fifth commandment. Imagine how distressed his parents will be by his repudiation of their Mormon or Catholic faith. 

iii) He equates honoring your parents with submission to parental authority, yet he says nothing to restrict that to underage children or minors living at home. I agree that honoring your parents is a lifelong obligation. But it hardly follows that obeying your parents is a lifelong obligation. Does he think grown children living on their own have a standing duty to submit to their parents? What about married children? What about married children with their own kids? Does he think grown children have a duty to seek parental approval or permission for all their decisions? Perhaps that's part of his patriarchal philosophy. 

iv) It's presumptuous of him to suppose that parents generally will be distressed by a child (what age?) getting a tattoo. What about kids who get tattoos because their parents have tattoos? 

v) Even with respect to minors living at home, given all the dangerous or depraved things that minors can be involved with these days, if getting a tattoo or Mohawk represents the limits of their teenage rebellion, parents should be grateful.

vi) Not only are there commands to kids, but commands to parents: "Don't exasperate your kids" (Eph 6:4; Col 3:21). Prudent parents draw the line on things that really matter. 


  1. Dear Steve,

    The objection you identify as Wilson's weakest may actually be his strongest.

    The issue has a pastoral context. Doug is in a university town. He founded a new classical college in that same town. There are scads of students in his church.

    What do we know about college students? They are technically and legally adults, but they continue to rely on their parents for a great deal of support--financial, car maintenance, moving help, etc. Many if not most college students are also seeking to establish their independent identity, and the easiest way to do that is to take whatever their parents' preferences and beliefs are, and do a 180. Parents don't drink == I must drink, and drink often. Parents don't smoke == time to light up. Parents don't approve of tattoos == Let's get a tattoo! Parents are conservative Republicans who support capitalism == Let's support Bernie Sanders/Ron Paul/fill in the blank and say Bush brought the Towers down! It isn't rational, of course, but it is easy. Who wants to do the hard of work of self differentiation when there's an easier way? Are college students known for their commitment to hard work?

    Given this reality, it's wise for Wilson to pry into motivations. He won't be right every time, but he'll be right enough of the time for it to do some good. If you reorient the eager first-time-away-from-home Christian college punk away from do-the-opposite-of-Mom-and-Dad and consider his actions and how they will affect his parents who continue to support him, you might also steer his soul away from other poor choices and reactionary thinking.

    You will object that Wilson does not lay this out, his post is unclear, and I am reading too much into what he is saying. Fair enough. I'll take the hit. I still think I'm on the right track.

    Finally, you write, "Prudent parents draw the line on things that really matter." True. Personally, I'm not settled on the tattoo question. I don't feel strongly either way; like you, I would put this under the "doesn't really matter" column. But if it doesn't really matter, and one knows he will cause his parents distress and alarm over getting a tattoo, why get the tattoo? The "does it really matter" issue goes both ways, both for the tattoo-getter and the tattoo-objector. If prudence is what we're interested in, perhaps an act requiring a not-inconsequential sum of Mom and Dad's money in order to put a permanent mark on one's skin that will cause alarm from Mom and Dad should be the thing that gets negotiated away. Dropped for the sake of prudence, so that more consequential issues (like religion) could be dealt with more effectively.

    Perhaps the eager student should bear with his parents as the weaker brethren.


    1. Unless the content is inappropriate, I think a tattoo is adiaphorous.

      As you frame it, the issue is more about college students who study out of state.

      Why should parents take a tattoo personally? It's not about them in the first place. That's a problem with parents who identify with whatever their kids say and do, as if their kids, even grown children, are just extensions of themselves. Some parents are prone to be control freaks. It's not so much the kid who needs to wean himself from Mom and Dad, but vice versa. Surely there's a point at which parents as well as kids should cut the apron strings.

      There's a valid question of spending parental funds on a tattoo. That's a frivolous use of someone else's money. What if the student is working a part time job, spending his own money on the tattoo?

      You've proposed a dilemma in which a grown child should consult his parents first. But if he's so immature that he ought to seek parental permission to get something as innocuous as a tattoo, how can he be trusted to study out of state? As you know, there are much more inviting temptations than getting a tattoo.

      The best way to lose your kids is to cling to them too tightly. That's a recipe for rebellion and alienation. If you want your kids to remain a regular part of your life, you have to let them slip the leash and roam free–especially above a certain age.

      Parents who are too controlling provoke the very thing they fear: kids who walk away and never look back. Above a certain age, it's natural and proper to chafe at parental control freaks. In the long run we have to make it on our own in this life. A degree of independence is good and necessary. If anything, the complaint nowadays is about helicopter parents and boomerang kids.

      But thanks for your intelligent feedback.