Why was circumcision such a controversial point in the early church? And why should believers even care about it today?
Outside of a few recent high profile court cases involving divorced couples fighting over whether their son should or should not be circumcised, circumcision is certainly a non-issue for most people in the western world. The situation was certainly different, however at the time of the early church. The question of circumcision in the New Testament was a hot issue. Certain Jewish believers argued that Gentiles had to be circumcised if they want to be saved, while Paul and others strongly disagreed (cf. Acts 15:1-2, 5; Gal. 5:2-3, 12). The argument became so contentious that the leaders of the church called a council in Jerusalem to come to an official decision on the issue (Acts 15:6-21).
While a council in Jerusalem to discuss the issue probably seems as odd as a modern court case on the issue, the topic under discussion was far more significant than merely the act of circumcision itself. Circumcision was merely the outward symbol of two far more reaching and extremely significant questions for the future of the church: 1) What is the defining mark of a Christian?; and 2) what aspects of the Jewish law are obligatory for Christians?
To understand the significance of circumcision, it will be helpful if we are acquainted with the historical context in which this controversy arose.
Approximately one hundred and seventy years before Jesus’ birth, during a time of severe Jewish persecution, circumcision had become a prized symbol of national and religious identity. At the time, Palestine had fallen under the jurisdiction of Antiochus Epiphanies IV. In an attempt to unite his kingdom more closely together, Antiochus not only decreed that all his subjects should adopt the religious practices of the Greeks, but he banned, on the penalty of death, the practice of the most distinguishing external aspects of the Jewish faith: circumcision, Sabbath, food laws, and the cultic services at the temple. While many Jews were willing to compromise on these issues, others rose up in defense of their ancestral customs. The latter not only took up the sword against Antiochus, they also turned it against fellow Jews who were willing to play the turncoat. And of all the ancient laws, circumcision became the defining criterion of whether a person was seen as a faithful son of Abraham.
Why circumcision, and not some other law like the Sabbath? Because of all the Old Testament laws, circumcision was, so to speak, the most black and white. A man was either circumcised, or he wasn’t. It was simple, and straightforward.
Circumcision continued to be a badge of identity long after the Jews defeated their Syrian rulers, gained their own independence, and eventually came under the rule of the Roman Empire. During the brief years of their independence, zealous Jews not only forced all uncircumcised Jews in Palestine to be circumcised, but they also required it of every man—whether he was Jewish or not—living in the surrounding nations who fell under Jewish jurisdiction. And among some Jews, the mere act of circumcision came to be seen as an automatic passport for salvation.
The question of identity was not an issue among the earliest Christians, since they were all Jewish. But as a growing number of Gentiles began to join the church the question of identity became a concern. How “Jewish” did a Gentile believer have to be a Christian? What aspects of the Jewish law did a Gentile believer need to follow? These are the two basic questions that concerned the council in Jerusalem.
Questions for Discussion:
- Why was circumcision such a focal point in the dispute between Paul and certain Jewish Christians? Read Gen 17:1-21, Gal. 2:3-5, 5:2, 6, Acts 15:1, 5.
- Although the answer is only implicit in the summary of the council in Acts 15, what is the defining mark of a Christian (cf. Acts 15:11; Gal. 2:16; Rom. 3:28)? Why is faith a better identifying mark of a Christian instead of some other outward action?
- In Paul’s day some Jews and Christians mistakenly placed too much importance and significance on the outward sign of circumcision instead of the inner quality of faith. What outward aspects of the Christian life might believers be tempted to over emphasize today as the “sign” of a genuine Christian? How can we avoid placing anything other than faith in Jesus at the center of the Christian life?
- Of all the various Old Testament ceremonial laws, what four regulations did the council in Jerusalem find to be obligatory for Gentile believers? See Acts 15:20, 29; 21:25. What terminology did the early church see in these specific laws that indicated they were obligatory for Gentile and Jew alike? Read Lev. 17:7-15; 18:19-26.
- Some Christians mistakenly assume that since the Sabbath is not mentioned in Acts 15 as a law to be kept, it is no longer obligatory for Gentile believers today. What evidence in the New Testament indicates that the moral law of Ten Commandments is still binding upon God’s followers today? Consider Matt. 5:17; Heb. 4:9; Rev. 14:12.
- How would you answer the question, “What must I do to be saved?”