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  Should Christians be Circumcised?

"I discovered an interesting verse in my devotionals recently. In Galatians 5:2 Paul writes that Christ is of no benefit for those who are circumcised. He also said in 5:3 that if we are circumcised we are required to keep the whole law.' Does that mean I've got to keep the Jewish laws for salvation? That's what it seems to say to me."

Now here's a good one to wrestle with for those who take the Bible literally. Even in the larger context of Galatians 4 through 6 Paul insists that if you keep any one point in the "law" you are bound to the whole law and Christ is not efficacious for you. Now since the vast majority of Christian men have been circumcised, and insist that their sons be circumcised, then the implication is that by this action we have chosen to reject the salvation of Christ. Indeed the passage states specifically, "Listen! I, Paul, am telling you that if you let yourselves be circumcised, Christ will be of no benefit to you" (Galatians 5:2). Seems quite straight forward.

And Paul's words here are straightforward if you take the passage in its literal form; however, it might be helpful, especially for those of us who have been circumcised, to seek to understand more fully what Paul meant by this as opposed to what the words literally say.

The act of circumcision is a surgical procedure as well as a ritual act. In Christ's day a male who was born a Jew was taken to the temple on the eighth day and a priest performed the act of circumcision. Circumcision was an ancient sign of the covenant between God and the Hebrew people and it was later required by the law in Leviticus 12:3. Today a valid Jewish circumcision is performed by a rabbi and is a ritual of great celebration for the family. Indeed, the surgical circumcision performed by medical staff in hospitals is today not deemed a bona fide circumcision. A close friend of mine converted from Christianity to Judaism and, although he had been surgically circumcised, he had to be ritually circumcised by a rabbi before he could be considered orthodox.

However, Paul makes no distinctions and certainly the Gentiles (non-Jews) were not being circumcised by orthodox Jewish priests in order to become Christians--an orthodox priest would not have administered the rite to a proselyte of Christianity. Thus those Christians in Galatia being circumcised must have received the rite from someone other than a priest, i.e., it wasn't considered a valid Jewish circumcision anyway--except in the minds of those receiving the rite.

For those who can look at the scriptures from a non-literal point-of-view then, must reinterpret this passage for today. In doing so we first place the passage in the setting of its writing, sometime in the first century. The intended audience of Paul's letter was the church in Galatia, a church that was being plagued by those who insisted that to be a Christian one had to be a Jew first. Paul's answer was, "Not so!" To be a Christian one had only to be a follower of Christ and to follow the one great commandment, to love your neighbor as yourself (Galatians 5:14). In other letters Paul stresses that true circumcision is of the heart, not the flesh; however, Paul himself insisted that Timothy be circumcised (Acts 16:3) so that he would be accepted by the Jews of Galatia--a definite contradiction to this letter to the Galatian church. However, for Paul this act of circumcision was an act of love, not law, done so that Timothy could preach the gospel and be heard by the circumcised Jewish population.

The crux of the matter is this: although this passage states that the circumcised are without the benefits of Christ, what Paul means is that one who embraces the law (any of the law) without respect to Christ's call to love, they are truly without Christ at all. So no, just because you've been circumcised does not mean you have to keep the whole law, but to be a follower of Christ, either circumcised or uncircumcised, you must love God and love your neighbor without reservation--which is the sum of the law and the prophets.

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