Are Christian Tattoos the New Circumcision?

All month I’ve been writing about how our culture views identity in contrast to a Christian vision of identity. Our culture says identity is something each individual constructs for himself. Scripture and experience say identity is something we receive from another (article 1). Our culture increasingly uses name calling to marginalize and demean, but God uses name calling to elevate and empower (article 2). Our consumer culture calls us to display our identity through the brands we purchase, and sadly much of the American church has followed this model (article 3).

In this final article about identity, I want to discuss why displaying our Christian identity through external branding is both meaningless and possibly dangerous. To do that, we need to talk about something unexpected—circumcision. It’s a topic one finds throughout the Bible, but we don’t like to talk about it. I believe it is essential to understand both how our culture thinks about identity, and why God calls us beyond the superficial display of brands. Let’s begin all the way back in Genesis.

“You want me to do what to where?” I can just imagine Abraham’s reaction when he heard God’s commandment. “This is my covenant,” the Lord said. “Every male among you shall be circumcised. You shall be circumcised in the flesh of your foreskins, and it shall be a sign of the covenant between me and you” (Genesis 17:10-11).

It’s difficult to overstate the importance of circumcision to the identity of ancient Israelites. It was the identifying marker of God’s people. In fact, to be uncircumcised was seen as a rejection of one’s Jewish identity. Abraham was told that any male not “cut in the flesh of his foreskin” was to be “cut off” from his people. Get it? Who says God doesn’t have a sense of humor?

Because the absence of a foreskin carried so much meaning in the ancient world, in a real way it was the prototype religious/consumer brand—an external mark of one’s identity; a visible symbol that provoked feelings of national and religious pride in the imaginations of God’s people.

So, imagine the shock of his Jewish audience when the Apostle Paul wrote, “For neither circumcision counts for anything nor uncircumcision” (1 Corinthians 7:19). These were blasphemous words coming from a Jew. After all, Paul himself was a self-described “Hebrew of Hebrews…circumcised on the eighth day.” Why would he reject the most sacred mark of Jewish identification—repeatedly? Why would he tell a community of Christ-followers that “if you accept circumcision, Christ will be of no advantage to you?” (Galatians 5:2)

Paul rejected circumcision because he understood that external branding was meaningless if it did not reflect an internal reality. In Romans 2, he argues that real circumcision is not outward and physical, but inward and spiritual—“circumcision is a matter of the heart.” God’s people, past and present, have exhibited a chronic problem of focusing upon external branding to construct their identity. We have always needed frequent reminders about what matters most—a heart marked and set apart for God.

Paul’s vehement opposition to circumcision at the time was in response to Jewish Christians commanding non-Jews to be circumcised if they wished to be followers of Christ. All their lives these Jews had been formed to view their spiritual identity as a matter of external branding, and they were uncritically carrying this perspective into their new identities as Christians. But Paul recognized the danger of this thinking. A focus on external marking (circumcision) would result in the neglect of internal devotion, and this contradicted the intent of God in the old covenant and the teaching of Christ in the new covenant.

We face a similar danger today. We’ve been shaped all our lives by a consumer culture in which identity is constructed through external brands. We express who we are with the brands we consume. When we become a follower of Christ, we can uncritically carry this understanding into our new identity as a Christian. This is so common now that a recent headline on the satirical Christian site, The Babylon Bee, might not be far from the truth: “Man Gets Cross Tattoo in Lieu of Sanctification.”

There may be nothing sinister about a Christian tattoo or a WWJD bracelet. We are not intending to undermine Jesus’ emphasis on the heart, but our imaginations have been wired to think of identity as an external construction. We harmonize the gospel with this conventional view whenever we express our faith by wearing Christ-branded t-shirts or when we attach a chrome fish to our tailgate. If Paul were addressing contemporary consumers rather than ancient Jews, I think he might re-write his epistle this way: For no one is a Christian who is merely one outwardly, nor is branding outward and physical. But a Christian is one inwardly, and branding is a matter of the heart.

This is not a prohibition against Christian brands. And it’s worth noting that, strictly speaking, Paul was not against circumcision. In fact, he had his companion Timothy circumcised for a pragmatic reason, and he spoke against a practice whereby Jewish men had their circumcision reversed in order to assimilate into Roman society. Yeah, that was a thing.

Paul’s problem was assigning any real significance to an external mark, and he feared his young converts would be stalled in their spiritual growth by conforming to a culture focused on externalities. His goal was to draw their focus off circumcision altogether and toward the heart. He plainly says, “For in Christ Jesus neither circumcision nor uncircumcision counts for anything, but only faith working through love” (Galatians 5:6).

Likewise, Christian-branded products count for nothing. Nothing! They simply don’t matter. They cannot contribute to the internal work of Christ in our hearts, and no amount of religious products makes us Christian. However, being immersed in a culture that’s wired us to focus on externalities means the avalanche of Jesus-junk marketed at Christians does carry a danger. It tempts us back to conventional thinking, a focus on externalities, and a neglect of the heart. So, if displaying Christ-branded products offers no spiritual benefit, and if they carry a potential for stalling our spiritual growth, wisdom calls us to focus our energies and resources elsewhere.

Rather than putting on a “Tommy Hellfighter” t-shirt, a “Got Jesus?” bumper sticker, or “Jesus is My Homeboy” underwear (all real products), why not follow Paul’s advice and focus our energy toward putting on “compassionate hearts, kindness, humility, meekness, and patience” (Colossians 3:12). This is how our identity is revealed, not by the brands we display, but by faith working through love. Jesus said, “By this all people will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another” (John 13:35). Christ’s true people are branded with love.


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