Many Adventists love to cite Leviticus 19:28 and 1 Corinthians 6:19 to say the Bible strictly forbids tattoos, some saying they are outright sinful. They see this opinion as being in accordance with SDA doctrines around lifestyle and behavior—such as the complete abstinence from alcohol, no wearing jewelry, and eating a vegetarian lifestyle.
The problem with their use of this verse is that it has nothing to do with the modern practice of tattooing nor is it giving normative prescription to all people in all times and places. They are citing from the Levitical Priesthood requirements and making it a normative universal command. In doing so, they end up proving too much because the immediate verse before that says to not cut ones hair or trim their beard (Leviticus 19:27) yet no Adventist adheres to this or stands against getting a haircut.
And this is the problem with selectively citing passages out of context. The act in view in Leviticus 19:28 had to do with pagan practices of marking oneself for the dead—a pagan religious ritual that was practiced by the surrounding nations of the day. God wanted His people to not partake in this but to be set apart. The modern art of tattooing has nothing to do with religious ritual and marking oneself for the dead.
Interestingly enough, Adventist scholars, and even current worldwide SDA Church president Ted Wilson, rightly recognize the issue with these verses being used this way. Adventist scholar Angel Rodriquez notes:
Often the tattooing mentioned [in Leviticus 19:28] is interpreted as referring to a pagan expression of mourning. But this is not clearly indicated in the text. And as far as I can tell, ancient mourning rituals did not include tattooing. The prohibition may refer to religious tattooing.Angel Rodriquez, “Marked,” 2012
1 Corinthians 6:19
The problem with Adventists using this verse is that it has nothing to do whatsoever with jewelry or tattooing, but fornication (1 Corinthians 6:15-18). Tattoos are not what Paul has in view at all. He explains that the body is the temple of the Holy Spirit and when one commits fornication as a born again believer, it is a sin against one’s own body where the Spirit dwells.
Modern day tattooing goes beyond simply artistic expressions but is often utilized in medical 3D reconstructive procedures where someone has been maimed (such as breast cancer patients), microblading of eyebrows on those with alopecia, and a variety of other uses.
Tattoos are a matter of Christian liberty and freedom. They can be sinful for a variety of reasons, such as getting one for the wrong motives, but in these instances, the tattoo itself isn’t what is sinful, but the motives behind getting it. If one has a guilty conscience over tattoos, they should avoid getting one as it is a sin to going against one’s conscience (Romans 14:23).