Coptic Orthodox Diocese of the Southern United States

Circumcision: The First Major Dispute in the New Testament Church

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"Was anyone called while circumcised? Let him not become uncircumcised. Was anyone called while uncircumcised? Let him not be circumcised. Circumcision is nothing and uncircumcision is nothing, but keeping the commandments of God is what matters" (I Corinthians 7:19).


Celebrated on Tobe 6th, the glorious Feast of Circumcision is one of the seven minor feasts observed by the Coptic Orthodox Church. This feast commemorates the circumcision of our Lord Jesus Christ Who was born according to the flesh; and was circumcised on the eighth day, in fulfillment of the law.

Circumcision in the Old Testament

During the days of Moses, the ancient rite of circumcision was related to puberty and preparation for marriage. On his way back to Egypt, Moses stopped " a lodging place on the way, the Lord met Moses and was about to kill him. But Zipporah took a flint knife, cut off her son's foreskin; and touched Moses feet with it" (Exodus 4:24-26). Moses' wife, Zipporah said, "Truly you are a bridegroom of blood to me" (Exodus 4:25).

Most Biblical accounts believe her to be saying "...bridegroom of blood by circumcision." Through this incident, God was abruptly reminding Moses that the penalty for uncircumcision was to be "cut off from His people" (Genesis 17:14). Thus, this rite of circumcision, or the covenant of belonging to God did not begin with Moses; but with Abraham and his descendants who were commanded to circumcise every male on the eighth day after birth. Because at that time, circumcision was considered a covenant signifying belonging to God, it was generally performed at the earliest time possible.

Circumcision in the New Testament

After the redemptive act of our Lord Jesus Christ on the Holy Cross, circumcision took a different turn along the road of practices and observances. It was no longer the bodily circumcision, but that of the heart in faith, hope, love, and readiness to follow the Lord Jesus Christ and become His disciple laboring for the advancement of His Kingdom "but he is a Jew who is one inwardly; and circumcision is that of the heart, in the Spirit, not in the letter; whose praise is not from men but from God" (Romans 2:29).

Justin the Martyr (c.160) wrote, "The inability of the female sex to receive fleshly circumcision proves that circumcision was given for a sign. It was not given as a work of righteousness."

Tertullian (C.197) stated, "We do not follow the Jews in their peculiarities in regard to food, nor in their, sacred days, nor even in their well-known bodily sign."

During the early days of the New Testament Church when the Gentiles were becoming believers, they were forced to accept the Jewish Law and all of its provisions, particularly circumcision. For many of non-Jewish descent, it was a source of contention and one which faced St. Paul in his evangelization of the gentiles. It was the first major dispute in the New Testament Church.

St. Paul writes to the Corinthians:
"Was anyone called while circumcised? Let him not become uncircumcised. Was anyone called while uncircumcised? Let him not be circumcised. Circumcision is nothing; and uncircumcision is nothing, but keeping the commandments of God is what matters" (I Corinthians 7:19).

This issue of the necessity for circumcision has been adamantly addressed by St. Paul in his letter to the Galatians...He instructs the Galatians to ignore those who insist that Jewish traditions are compulsory for Christians to follow and apply. Further, St. Paul insists that faith in the Lord Jesus Christ is far more important than the works of the law.

The further justification for the gentiles entering into the Church disregarding the Jewish traditions was the descent of the Holy Spirit upon them. While St. Peter was preaching to Cornelius and his friends, and family, "the Holy Spirit fell upon all who heard the Word" (Acts 10:44). The circumcised (Jewish) believers with St. Peter were astounded that those in attendance were "speaking in tongues and extolling God" a sign which St. Peter considered as a gift of the Holy Spirit "being poured out even on the gentiles" (Acts 10:45-46).

This one time outpouring of the Holy Spirit over the gentiles, was most probably destined to demonstrate to the Jews the validity of the gentiles salvation. It was typical for the gift of the Holy Spirit to follow the Sacrament of Baptism, but in this particular incidence it did not follow the Sacrament of Baptism, but rather came before it. Some Biblical scholars consider this Holy Spirit outpouring on the gentiles their atypical baptism.

Resolution of the Dispute

Although the controversy surrounding circumcision began in Antioch, it was to be resolved in Jerusalem...

"From there they sailed to Antioch, where they had been commended to the grace of God for the work which they had completed. Now when they had come and gathered the church together, they reported all that God had done with them, and that He had opened the door to faith to the gentiles. So they stayed there a long time with the disciples" (Acts 14:26-28).

The dispute over circumcision was taken to the Council in Jerusalem where the apostles and elders could resolve the doctrinal dispute in an official forum... St. Paul, the faithful servant "gave no offense in anything, that the ministry be not blamed" (II Corinthians 6:3). He, together with St. Barnabas, humbly agreed to allow their work among the gentiles to be judged by God through the common agreement of the Council for the sake of unity in the Church. St. Paul's missionary work was appropriately judged by the Apostolic Council agreeing that gentile converts need not be circumcised.

The practice of resolving disputes through Council remains the same in the Coptic Orthodox Church today. The Holy Synod, at present, composed of His Holiness the Pope and all its Orthodox bishops, constitute this council which resolves doctrinal disputes; thus confirming that from ancient times to the present, the Church policy has remained unchanged.

Practical Implications

The Glorious Feast of Circumcision recalls to our minds a later circumcision rite which denotes a sign of belonging to God and to His service rather than a concern for puberty or marriage.

It is often said that each of us is called to a life of faithful service to God. This is certainly true of St. Paul. God's voice may have resounded within his inner prayers and conversations; so great was his spiritual level of faithful service. He was in constant faithful service using his talents of preaching and teaching to lead others to the Lord Jesus Christ. St. Paul was courageous yet humble in the face of adversity.

The Lord said to Ananias concerning St. Paul, "He is a chosen vessel unto Me to bear My Name before the gentiles and kings and children of Israel" (Acts 9:15).

In the Holy Book of Sirach 2:1, Joshua, the son of Sirach, is advised that a faithful servant should be determined. "My son, when you start serving the Lord, you should prepare yourself for difficulties."

The signs of faithful servanthood were demonstrated by St. Paul through humility and forbearance in tribulations, which overcame cultural disparity. The spiritual faithfulness of a great servant of the Lord Jesus Christ does certainly emphasize to each of us that salvation is for all those Christians who hold fast to the Lord Jesus Christ's teachings not a birthright of a particular culture.

"Blessed is the man who has not walked in the council of the ungodly, and has not stood in the way of sinners, and has not sat in the seat of evil men. But his will is in the law of the Lord, and in His Law he shall meditate day and night. He shall be like the tree which planted by the streams of water, which shall yield its fruits in its due season, and its leaf shall not scatter, and in everything he does he prospers" (Psalms 1:1-3).

As we commemorate this Glorious Feast, let us remember the covenant of belonging to God undertaken by Abraham, the father of a nation, and the New Testament teachings of St. Paul the good and faithful servant who taught us the basic premises of evangelization; praying to the Lord, as did St. Paul, to help us faithfully walk the journey worthy of the calling, with which we have been called.

Bishop Youssef,
Bishop, Coptic Orthodox Diocese of the Southern United States

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