“Is the debate over circumcision in the early church relevant for Christians today?”
- Galatians 2:1-14 – Paul and the apostles agreed that circumcision was not necessary for Gentiles.
- Galatians 5:2-6 – Circumcision is not a prerequisite for becoming a Christian.
- Acts 16:1-7 – Paul is not opposed to circumcision in and of itself. Timothy is circumcised.
Key Points and Questions:
The Issue of Circumcision: Why were some Jewish believers so insistent that Gentiles be circumcised, while Paul and others strongly disagreed (cf. Acts 15:1-2, 5; Gal 5:2-3, Gal 5:12)? While this question may sound highly irrelevant to us today, understanding this issue is essential to appreciate fully Paul’s message in Galatians.
The issue of circumcision in Paul’s day has nothing to do with personal hygiene. It all goes back to God’s instruction to Abraham to circumcise all his descendants (Genesis 17) as a sign of the covenant He had made with him. The problem was that in Paul’s day circumcision had become such a highly prized symbol of national and religious identity that it had overshadowed the covenant it was supposed to have signified. Circumcision had become the end all. In the earliest days of the church, this issue was not essential since Christians were Jewish. But when Gentiles started joining the church, some Jewish believers insisted they submit to circumcision first. While the argument in the church was about circumcision, the real issue centered on what was the defining mark of a Christian? Was faith in Christ sufficient for salvation? Or did Christians have to do something else in addition?
- While the question of circumcision is no longer the same issue it was for Christians in Paul’s day, what modern forms of “circumcision” threaten the all-sufficiency of Jesus?
- Paul claims that giving into the demands of the false brothers regarding circumcision would have resulted in slavery and bondage for Christians. How was this true, or was Paul just being overly dramatic?
- Paul refers to his opponents as “false brethren” in Gal 2:4. How can “brothers” be false? Are there false brethren today? If so, how would Paul describe them?
- Although Paul stresses the importance of unity in the first half of Galatians two, later in the chapter he tells how he publically rebuked Peter in Antioch. Is Paul’s behavior inconsistent with his emphasis on unity? Or was Paul right to confront Peter publicly?
- If Paul was so opposed to circumcision in Galatians that he refused to have Titus, a Gentile, circumcised (Gal 2:3), why did he consent to circumcise Timothy later in Acts 16:3?