There is no reason for tying circumcision to a humanistic Jewish birth celebration. Despite its historic importance, it is simply inappropriate in the same way that female segregation is inappropriate. – Rabbi Sherwin Wine (1)
Watch out for those wicked men – dangerous dogs, I call them – who say you must be circumcised. For it isn’t the cutting of our bodies that makes us children of God; it is worshipping him with our spirits. – Phil 3:2-3
Americans take religion very seriously. Our nation was founded by deeply religious groups who came to these shores from Europe to worship in freedom and according to their own conscience. While circumcision was never a part of the religion of this country’s founders, a few groups have settled here whose religious traditions include the blood rite of penile circumcision. Let us examine the religious reasons for circumcision and see if we can fit them into an ethical framework.
If you are a Christian, you are entirely free of any religious reason for circumcision. In fact, historically, Christians have been specifically forbidden to practice circumcision. I suspect that when some misinformed Christians imagine that they have a religious reason for circumcising their children, they are really just grasping for additional excuses to follow the false medical indoctrination they have received their entire lives. Some circumcised Christian males who use this excuse may simply be looking for another rationalization for what unfairly happened to them when they were born.
Christians who mistakenly think that they have a religious justification for circumcision out to read the New Testament. Here, it is clear that the early Christian Church, under the guidance of Paul, abolished circumcision. Throughout his epistles, Paul took every opportunity to condemn circumcision, as the following quotations prove:
Behold, I, Paul, tell you that if you be circumcised, Christ will be of no advantage to you. – Galatians 5:2
And even those who advocate circumcision don’t really keep the whole law. They only want you to be circumcised so they can brag about it and claim you as their disciples. – Gal 6:13
For there are many who rebel against right teaching; they engage in useless talk and deceive people. This is especially true of those who insist on circumcision for salvation. They must be silenced. By their wrong teaching, they have already turned whole families away from the truth. Such teachers only want your money. – Titus 1:10-11
It is true that Jesus was probably circumcised, but this is because his parents were Jews. Jesus was denied any choice in the matter. Besides, Christians are hardly required to copy everything that happened to Jesus. Jesus never advocated circumcision. After all, the earliest Christians – the ones who actually walked with Jesus – abolished circumcision. And they did it for good reason.
What did Jesus think about circumcision? In the fascinating apocryphal Gospel of Thomas, Jesus is asked by his disciples about circumcision:
His disciples said to him: Is circumcision useful or not? He said to them: If it were useful, their father would beget them from their mother already circumcised. But the true circumcision in the Spirit has proved useful in every way. (2)
The founders of Christianity believed that God himself condemned circumcision as a blasphemy invented by foolish men. The New Testament Apocryphal Book of Esra reports the word of God, which came to Esra, the son of Chusis, in the days of Nebuchadnezzar thus:
When you bring offerings to me, I will turn my face from you; for your feasts and new moons and circumcisions of the flesh have I not asked. (3)
Early Christians took the abolition of circumcision very seriously, and the early Church quickly passed laws banning circumcision under penalty of death. The original Church laws against circumcision read:
Roman citizens, who suffer that they themselves or their slaves be circumcised in accordance with the Jewish custom, are exiled perpetually to an island and their property confiscated; the doctors suffer capital punishment. If Jews shall circumcised purchased slaves of another nation, they shall be banished or suffer capital punishment. (4)
The Church was also very concerned about Jews circumcising Christians or citizens of any other sect. Consequently, they passed laws protecting people from such an assault. The Church law states:
Jews who circumcise a Christian or commit him to be circumcised, their property shall be confiscated and they shall be perpetually banished. (5)
All forms of sexual mutilation – both circumcision and castration – have been banned by the Church as insults to God. According to the teachings of the early Church, circumcision is blasphemy because it implies that God made a mistake when he created the human body. The Apostolical Canons of the Church state:
He who has mutilated himself, cannot become a clergyman, for he is a self-murderer, and an enemy to the workmanship of God.
If a layman mutilate himself, let him be excommunicated for three years, as practicing against his own life. (6)
The enlightened holy men who worked hard to establish, spread, and safeguard Christianity strongly condemned circumcision. These were the early Fathers of the Church, such as St. Augustine, who wrote:
Accordingly, when you ask why a Christian is not circumcised if Christ came not to destroy the law, but to fulfill it, my reply is, that a Christian is not circumcised precisely for this reason, that what was prefigured by circumcision is fulfilled in Christ. Circumcision was the type of the removal of our fleshly nature, which was fulfilled in the resurrection of Christ, and which the sacrament of baptism teaches us to look forward to in our own resurrection. The sacrament of the new life is not wholly discontinued, for our resurrection from the dead is still to come; but this sacrament has been improved by the substitution of baptism for circumcision, because now a pattern of the eternal life which is to come is afforded us in the resurrection of Christ, whereas formerly there was nothing of the kind. (7)
The other great Church Fathers, such as St. Cyril (8), St. Jerome (9), John Chrysostom (10), St. John of Damascus (11), St. Justin Martyr (12), Lactantius (13), Origen (14), Tertullian (15), and St. Ambrose (16), reaffirmed the ban on circumcision for Christians. Origen said quite plainly:
The rite of circumcision…which began with Abraham…was discontinued by Jesus, who desired that His Disciples should not practice it. (17)
Speaking of circumcision, St. Ambrose wisely observed:
Nature has created nothing imperfect in man, nor has she bade it be removed as unnecessary. (18)
Over the centuries, the Catholic Church has passed many laws banning the circumcision of children and adults. (19) Martin Luther preached against circumcision on many occasions. (20) Even more recent branches of Christianity have taken a firm stand against circumcision. The Book of Mormon (21) and the Doctrine and Covenants (22) both condemn and forbid circumcision.
The traditional Christian response to circumcision has always been to reject it as an insult to the wisdom of God in designing the human body.
*For more information and resources on the subject of Christianity and Circumcision see this list.