Is it wrong for Christians to be Circumcised?

Jay Dee

Is it wrong for Christians to be Circumcised?

Jul 15, 2019

A few weeks ago, I received a question through our Have a Question page. Normally I would just answer them in our monthly questions round up, like this one, but this question had so much history to go through and it’s so polarizing in Christian

A few weeks ago, I received a question through our Have a Question page. Normally I would just answer them in our monthly questions round up, like this one, but this question had so much history to go through and it’s so polarizing in Christian culture that I thought I’d dedicate an entire post to it. Here’s the question:

Is it wrong for Christians to be circumcised?  Why do some Christians circumcise their boys?  Did Christians always practice circumcision?  Why do they do it today?  What should you do if you have been?

Good afternoon Jay Dee,

I have a question about circumcision.  I feel that it is unchristian, yet it is not talked about how it actually goes against God’s design of our bodies. Unfortunately, I was circumcised as a baby, as many American boys are, I have seen a lot of people online and in social media that are intactivists trying to bring awareness about this to try and get parents to stop doing this.

I was wondering if you had heard about foreskin restoration? I have read about it online, it is not the same as having your actual foreskin but man men have reported after completely restoring either through a device or through manual methods just by stretching your slack skin that is left over your glans.

I was wondering if it would be considered morally correct to do this to get your body back to what God made it to have a closer relationship with your wife and to have more sensation in your body part that was harmed by the circumcision?

Sorry if this is a confusing question but thank you for your time and consideration!

There’s a lot in here, but I think it breaks down to a couple basic questions:

  1. Is circumcision immoral?
  2. If it is, and you’ve been circumcised, should you seek to undo it?

Now, Christianity is all over the place on this and the reasons given are all over the map.  So, I’m going to first share some history, and then what I believe.

Because Christianity is so at odds on this topic, many people are going to disagree with me. Of that I have no doubt.  The vast majority of my readers are in the US, and the US by far leads the world in circumcision rates.  You’ll see why further down, but the reason I bring it up now is that my readership is heavily leaning in one direction here, so I’d frankly expect a large percentage of the people reading this to come to it having an opposing view.

But, it’s a discussion that needs to happen.  People have questions, and too often we tend to simply rely on tradition and man-made doctrine rather than actually talk about it. As well, the rest of the world has questions and are judging Christianity by our actions, and when we can’t give a rational reason for why we do something other than “well, I was…” then Christianity looks foolish.

So, I’m going to stick my neck out, rightly or wrongly, in the hopes that it can start a discussion so people can hopefully decide rationally.  If you disagree with me, I welcome your views and comments below for all to read.  You are of course welcome to circumcise or not as you see fit.  Just know why you are or aren’t doing it.  That’s all I ask.

Let’s start with what circumcision is, a brief recap of history to see where it started, and why there is such a polarization about it among Christians.

What is circumcision?

Circumcision is the removal of the foreskin from the human penis. In the most common procedure, the foreskin is opened, adhesions are removed, and the foreskin is separated from the glans. After that, a circumcision device may be placed, and then the foreskin is cut off.

Wikipedia

Or if you prefer Fray Tuck’s explanation from Robin Hood: Men in Tights:

Basically, a section of the foreskin is removed from the penis.  

Why do circumcision?

This is my covenant, which you shall keep, between me and you and your offspring after you: Every male among you shall be circumcised. You shall be circumcised in the flesh of your foreskins, and it shall be a sign of the covenant between me and you. He who is eight days old among you shall be circumcised. Every male throughout your generations, whether born in your house or bought with your money from any foreigner who is not of your offspring, both he who is born in your house and he who is bought with your money, shall surely be circumcised. So shall my covenant be in your flesh an everlasting covenant. Any uncircumcised male who is not circumcised in the flesh of his foreskin shall be cut off from his people; he has broken my covenant.”

Genesis 17:10-14

God asked Abraham to circumcise himself, the males of his family, and all his offspring.  In short, in order to be considered a Hebrew, you had to be circumcised.

Sidenote on the topic: there’s an accounting in Genesis 34 wherein Dinah, the daughter of Jacob and Leah was raped by a Cananite.  Her rapist decided he wanted to marry her, so her brothers told the rapist that he, and his entire household, had to be circumcised if they wanted to marry Hebrew women.  That seemed fair to the Cananites, so they performed the circumcision, and while they were still healing, Dinah’s brothers came into their house and killed all the men and took the women, children, livestock and everything.  

So, the Jews have continued with circumcision since that time, and it wasn’t really a problem until the gospel started being spread to the gentiles.

Gentiles and Circumcision

If you don’t know, gentiles are most of us.  Basically anyone who isn’t a Jew.  So, those who were born Jewish and converted to Christianity (if it can be called a conversion at that point, it’s more of a continuation in my mind) felt that in order to be included in God’s promises, the gentiles had to be circumcised.

Paul, the apostle tasked with bringing the gospel to non-Jewish people was teaching against circumcision.  It got him into a fair bit of trouble.

Paul addresses the issue with the church in Corinth:

Was anyone at the time of his call already circumcised? Let him not seek to remove the marks of circumcision. Was anyone at the time of his call uncircumcised? Let him not seek circumcision.

1 Corinthians 7:18

In short, if you’re circumcised when you come to Christ, it’s fine.  Don’t try to hide it.  If you aren’t, that’s fine too, don’t bother getting circumcised.  

Why?  Because there’s a new covenant:

And he took bread, and when he had given thanks, he broke it and gave it to them, saying, “This is my body, which is given for you. Do this in remembrance of me.” And likewise the cup after they had eaten, saying, “This cup that is poured out for you is the new covenant in my blood.

Luke 22:19

Our covenant is about Jesus’ death and resurrection.  

Paul also didn’t make Greek disciples become circumcised:

Then after fourteen years, I went up again to Jerusalem, this time with Barnabas. I took Titus along also. I went in response to a revelation and, meeting privately with those esteemed as leaders, I presented to them the gospel that I preach among the Gentiles. I wanted to be sure I was not running and had not been running my race in vain. Yet not even Titus, who was with me, was compelled to be circumcised, even though he was a Greek.

Galatians 2:1-3

Now, some did get circumcised, so that the Jews would talk to them, but it wasn’t out of an obligation to the law.  They were willing to make the sacrifice to win souls when they were preaching to non-Christian Jews.  But when preaching to the Greeks, there was no need to do that.

In fact, Paul even argues that if you do practice circumcision out of a desire to keep the law, then you’ve rejected the grace that comes from Jesus’ sacrifice:

Look: I, Paul, say to you that if you accept circumcision, Christ will be of no advantage to you. I testify again to every man who accepts circumcision that he is obligated to keep the whole law. You are severed from Christ, you who would be justified by the law; you have fallen away from grace. For through the Spirit, by faith, we ourselves eagerly wait for the hope of righteousness. For in Christ Jesus neither circumcision nor uncircumcision counts for anything, but only faith working through love.

Galatians 5:1-11

He explicitly states that for Christians, circumcision counts for nothing.

After these letters, Paul is warned about the Jews getting upset that he’s teaching parents not to circumcise their children:

You see, brother, how many thousands there are among the Jews of those who have believed. They are all zealous for the law, and they have been told about you that you teach all the Jews who are among the Gentiles to forsake Moses, telling them not to circumcise their children or walk according to our customs. What then is to be done? They will certainly hear that you have come.

Acts 21:20b-22a

They suggest doing some purification rights to quell the anger of the Jews, but before he could finish the week long ceremony, they had him arrested for teaching things contrary to Judaism.  Actually, they were beating him with the intent to kill him when a cohort of Roman soldiers happened by and broke up the lynch mob.  The Romans actually arrest him, seemingly for disturbing the peace, and he spends pretty much the rest of his life in some state of arrest (imprisoned, being transported, shipwrecked, then under house arrest).

Point is, he really upset the Jews by teaching this, but, to me, it seems clear that Paul spent a fair bit of energy in teaching Christians they don’t need to circumcise their boys.  Arguably going so far as to say they should not.

Circumcision in Christianity after the first century

After the accounting in the Bible, it doesn’t get mentioned too much it seems.  I did find this statement from the Council of Florence in 1442 by Pope Eugene IV in a public decree:

Persons who practice circumcision risk loss of eternal salvation.

So, the official view of the church at the time seems to have been against circumcision.  Other than that, it wasn’t discussed because it wasn’t an issue.  The Circumcision Reference Library stated this:

The Roman Catholic Church has never issued an official policy specifically regarding non-therapeutic neonatal male circumcision as it has been practiced primarily in the English-speaking nations in the Twentieth Century and now the Twenty-first Century. The Church, however, has a strong moral statement on amputations, mutilations, and sterilizations.2 Circumcision falls under both amputation and mutilation, so it is clearly covered by this policy. Catholics generally are required to respect bodily integrity.2 Lack of respect for bodily integrity is viewed as a violation of the Fifth Commandment, Thou shalt not kill.3

The new (1994) Catechism of the Catholic Church at paragraph 2297 states in part:

“Except when performed for strictly therapeutic medical reasons, directly intended amputations, mutilations, and sterilizations performed on innocent persons are against the moral law.”

The Circumcision Reference Library

In short, before the 1900s, no one was talking about it in Christianity, because no one was doing it, and even after that, it was only in English speaking nations.  Basically, it was considered non-existent for most of Christian history.

Circumcision in the modern age

That all changed in the early 20th century.  And here’s what often happens in people’s minds.  Something massive changes, but after a couple generations, it becomes “the way it’s always been”.

So, here’s what happened as near as I can tell.

Firstly, early in the 20th century (1900s for people who have trouble with centuries) they started noticing that the Jewish people were getting fewer diseases than others, particularly sexually transmitted types of diseases and infections.  At the time, one theory was that it might have to do with circumcision.  This lead to the theory that circumcision is healthier.  

These days, the prevailing theory is that the Jewish tendency to keep a close community – not have sex with non-Jewish people, or really even commune with non-Jewish people, helped insulate them against the infections and diseases the rest of the world was getting.  But, again, at the time, the idea was circumcision.  Not that circumcision doesn’t help against STIs and STDs, some research shows it does, just not enough to explain the differences they saw in the Jewish communities.

Secondly, surgery was starting to become fashionable and the wealthier families were having their babies delivered by doctors rather than midwives.  Midwives wouldn’t perform a circumcision, but a doctor was likely to recommend it based on the contemporary theory that circumcision helped protect against diseases and infections.  So, circumcision became a sign of wealth.  

During the 1930’s about 50% of American boys were circumcised as a result of this trend.

Then in the post-war economic boom, jobs started coming with benefits that covered delivery and circumcision by a doctor.  Of course, since circumcision was a sign of wealth by now, everyone wanted their boy to have an upper hand in society.  Plus, it was free surgery (all the rage at the time with the invention of new anesthetics).  

During this period, the rate of circumcision in America jumped to 90%.  And when 90% of the population is circumcised, there’s a massive bias towards keeping the status quo as well as rationalizing the decision.

That continued for a little while.  Largely just in the UK, US and Canada – English speaking countries.  I’m not sure why just them.  Perhaps the theory of circumcision helping ward off infections didn’t cross the language barrier well.  

Then, in the UK, the government came out with the National Health Service – government health benefits.  When trying to decide if circumcision was covered or not, new data had come out showing there wasn’t any correlation between circumcision and sexually transmitted diseases and infections in non-Jewish populations, and the doctors couldn’t reach a consensus on whether or not it made a medical difference.  So, the government decided not to cover circumcisions.  As it was now an out-of-pocket expense, the fashion waned.

However, in the US, this was still covered by job benefits, and so the fashion continued.  Canada followed the UK and it’s not covered, at least in my province (Ontario).  As such, rates in Canada dropped as well.  In fact, in 1996, The Canadian Paediatric Society opposed routine circumcision of newborns.

Back in the US, well, doctors get paid a lot for circumcisions.  The going rate, from what I can tell is about $150-200 per and you can do 4 to 5 in an hour if your schedule is booked.  It’s not in the medical industry’s best interest in America to give up a potential $1000/hour rate and tell you it’s not necessary.  

Nevertheless, the rates are dropping slowly.  I believe in the US, it’s somewhere around 50%.  Canada is around 30% and the UK is somewhere around 10%.

Is circumcision a net health benefit?

It’s hard to say.  People can’t agree.  Doctors can’t agree.  Countries can’t agree.

The UK health system says it’s not worth covering.  The American Academy of Pediatrics says the benefits outweigh the risks … but the benefits are not great enough to recommend doing it for all newborn boys.  We already saw Canada’s response above (not recommended), and Germany has actually outlawed ritual circumcision without specific medical cause as of 2012 and Iceland is considering following suit.  

Does circumcision have a medical benefit?  Yes.  How much of a benefit is highly contested and the benefits shown are not always as great as they seem.  For example, circumcision is correlated with lower risk of penile cancer.  But the risk of penile cancer is already very low.  So, that’s not a huge benefit.  It may also help with herpes, and HIV.  In some African countries, this is a huge benefit.  Here in Canada and I’m guessing in the US, it’s not as large a risk.  So, the health benefits are different depending on where you are.  Also it depends on your lifestyle.  I’ve only had one sexual partner – my wife.  She’s only had one – me.  I don’t really worry about STIs, STDs, HIV or HPV.  Never have.  My hope is that my children will follow suit.  Time will tell.

Does circumcision have risks?  Yes, everyone agrees there are risks.  Circumcision accounts for 1.3% of neonatal deaths in the US.  There is a 1 in 500 chance of infections or hemorrhage.

So, do the benefits outweigh the risks?  You have to decide for yourself.  

Is circumcision immoral?

Is it wrong for Christians to be Circumcised?  I believe Paul's writings show that the covenant requiring circumcision doesn't apply to Christians and that choosing to follow that law is a rejection of the grace we receive through Christ. 
 History shows Christians only started Circumcising relatively recently, and out of health, status and financial reasons rather than theological ones.

So, that’s the how and why of circumcision.  On to the hard question: Is it immoral?

For me, choosing to circumcise for religious reasons would be a rejection of grace.  

For me, choosing to circumcise because the father is, seems like a needless surgery, like giving a baby a nose-job just so it will match their mother’s nose when there’s nothing wrong with the one they have.

For me, choosing to circumcise because it’s “fixing a design flaw” is calling God a bad creator.

For me, choosing to circumcise because it helps against STDs and STIs is hypocritical in a lot of cases because parents generally don’t talk to their kids about sex, but they’re willing to surgically alter them to protect them from it.  I’d rather teach my children how to pursue a single partner for life and teach them about how STDs and STIs work, because circumcision, while it may help a bit, isn’t 100% effective.  Nothing is, except monogamy for life by both spouses.

For me, yeah, I think it’s immoral.  I couldn’t do it in good conscience.  That said, I know others can and do, and they feel right and justified in their choice.  I won’t judge you for your choices based on your beliefs.  I have no right to hold you accountable to something you don’t believe in.  I just disagree.

But if you’re a new parent considering it, I ask that you actually consider it.  Don’t just go along with tradition or what your parents did or what the doctor offers.  Make a decision for yourself, so you can explain to your son why you did it, if he asks.  Because if he asks one day and believes it was wrong, you better have a better answer than “Oh, I don’t know, because the doctor offered.” or you may have a very angry son on your hands.  Or worse, you’re one of the unlucky few whose son dies from complications just because you went along with it.  That would be devastating.

Should you undo your circumcision?

If it were me, I probably wouldn’t.  Medical intervention always has a risk associated with it.  You may already be experiencing the risks of one.  Do you want to try for another?  You’ll have to decide for yourself.

Did circumcision make a difference to how sex feels?  Who knows.  There isn’t really a good way to test that.  If it did, you could lose even more feeling with more surgery.  Or, it could improve the feeling, I don’t know.

But unless it doesn’t feel good now, I probably wouldn’t risk it myself.  Again, your choice.

In another email exchange, the reader brought up that there are non-surgical ways to stretch the foreskin again using a device, or your own hands.  His research indicated that it can take years to get your foreskin back.  I don’t think there’s anything wrong with trying that.  Just seems like a lot of time to spend for potentially no gain.

As for trying to restore it to feel closer to God or your wife, to me, it is a waste of time.  For one, God is not going to keep away from you for something your parents did, assuming it was wrong.  He’s interested in your heart more than your penis.  I can’t quote a verse for that, but I feel pretty sure on that principle.  The closest I can find is Paul’s words:

Was anyone at the time of his call already circumcised? Let him not seek to remove the marks of circumcision. Was anyone at the time of his call uncircumcised? Let him not seek circumcision.

1 Corinthians 7:18

In other words – leave it alone.

Likewise with your wife.  Couples have amazing sex lives and intimacy even if they’re missing a penis entirely, or any feeling below the waist.  A small piece of skin is not going to change your ability to have a fulfilling marriage.

So, there you have it.  A history lesson and my thoughts on circumcision.  I hope it can be of use to someone.  If you disagree, you’re welcome to comment below, if you can be civil.  If you can’t, just close the browser and walk away.

If you have a question of your own you’d like discussed, you can contact me here, or submit it anonymously on our Have A Question page.

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