Henna is a plant that grows in South Asian and North African countries. Since ancient times, it has been used to color skin, hair, fingernails, leather, and wool. Henna is also used to make dyes or pastes for the art of creating temporary tattoos. Since henna makes tattooing simpler and henna tattoos are temporary, many people are open to getting a henna tattoo, including those who would never consider getting a traditional tattoo.
Tattoos have been a subject of growing controversy for the past century as tattooing becomes more mainstream. Thirty years ago, tattoos still carried a stigma. In the days when American culture mostly adhered to a Judeo-Christian worldview, tattoos symbolized rebellion and defiance of that worldview. Tattoos, for the most part, were symbols of the debauchery a person had lived through, and women, in particular, avoided getting tattoos because of the message they implied.
Today, however, Western culture attaches no societal stigma to tattoos and therefore sees no reason to avoid them. Christian art has mushroomed, and it is quite common to see crosses, Scripture verses, and other religious symbols tattooed on moral, Christ-honoring people.
As a nod toward the trend, but without committing to a lifetime of ink, henna tattoos are now an option. Henna tattoos offer the same “look” that permanent tattoos do but wash off within a few days or weeks, depending upon the amount and quality of the henna dye used. So the question of the appropriateness of a henna tattoo becomes more nuanced, even for those rejecting permanent tattoos.
The first question that every Christian should ask about any lifestyle decision is this: will it honor the Lord? A second question must always follow on its heels: could it cause someone to stumble whom God wants me to serve in some way? Jesus phrased these two questions in a slightly different way when He was asked about the greatest commandments. He said, “Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind.’ This is the first and greatest commandment. And the second is like it: ‘Love your neighbor as yourself.’ All the Law and the Prophets hang on these two commandments” (Matthew 22:37–40). So a Christian should be willing to forgo any kind of tattooing if there is a chance that it will dishonor the Lord or place a stumbling block in the path of someone else. We may enjoy our freedom in Christ, but along with that freedom comes the responsibility to protect those around us who have doubts about that freedom.
Another consideration is the motive behind getting a henna tattoo. As Christians, we should make decisions about our appearance based, in part, upon the message it conveys. No one can see our heart motivation, but we can and should expect that people will make assumptions about us based on how we present ourselves. If we paint our faces, put on red foam noses, don rainbow wigs, and wear outlandish clothes and oversized shoes, then we can expect people to assume we are clowns. They are not being “judgmental.” They are making involuntary judgment calls based on the message our appearance sends. We can say, “We’re not clowns,” all day long, but our external appearance strongly argues otherwise.
When people cover their bodies in tattoos of any kind, they may not know how others perceive them. Not everyone they interact with has the same viewpoint as they do, and they may never realize how their tattoos affect someone they want to impact for Christ. As Christians, we want people to see Jesus in us. If anything about our appearance, including henna tattoos, is distracting to that message, we should be willing to avoid it for the sake of our testimony.
Because henna tattoos are temporary, they don’t necessarily carry the same message that permanent ink tattoos may. Getting a henna tattoo is similar to drawing on our skin with a Sharpie marker. Many people with ink tattoos later regret getting them, and removal is difficult and costly. That isn’t a problem for henna tattoos, as they simply wear off. If tattooing goes out of fashion, as most fads do, thousands of people will be stuck with ink tattoos, while those who experimented with henna have no lasting reminders.
Is getting a henna tattoo a sin? No, not in all cases. Is it the best choice? A practical rule to follow about any decision is to ask ourselves this: if Jesus was coming to my house this week, would He want to participate in this? Would He like what I’m doing? Might He ask me to limit my freedom in order to keep a brother from stumbling (1 Corinthians 8:9; Galatians 5:13)? Am I making “every effort to do what leads to peace and to mutual edification” (Romans 14:19)? When that is the plumb line for our lives, we can make decisions with confidence, knowing we are staying within the path God desires for us.