Paul, Circumcision and the Modern Church

Recent vigorous debate on this site regarding whether the Jerusalem Council adopted a “twin track” approach to the ceremonial law and circumcision has prompted me to form some thoughts on the ceremonial law, and on the continuing value of circumcision.

The Fading Away of the Ceremonial Law

We usually think of the ceremonial law as having been immediately canceled by the death of Christ.  We base this on the fact that, at the moment of Jesus’ death, God supernaturally ripped the veil between the holy place and the most holy place.  Ellen White adds a dramatic detail that underscores the suddenness of the change:  the lamb escaped!

With a rending noise the inner veil of the temple is torn from top to bottom by an unseen hand, throwing open to the gaze of the multitude a place once filled with the presence of God.  . . . The most holy place of the earthly sanctuary is no longer sacred. All is terror and confusion. The priest is about to slay the victim; but the knife drops from his nerveless hand, and the lamb escapes. Type has met antitype in the death of God's Son. The great sacrifice has been made. DA 757

But although the change from the Old Covenant to the new was sudden in a theological sense, for the early Christian church it was a gradual process that lasted decades.  The first covenant was fading away, gradually vanishing (Heb 8:13).

And the early Church had difficulty letting it fade away.  If anyone should have been clear that the Old Covenant was to fade away, it was Peter.  Peter was given a dramatic dream (Acts 10:9-16), visited the godly Roman centurion Cornelius (Acts 10:17-43), witnessed the Holy Spirit given to Cornelius and other gentiles (Acts 10:44-48), stated that God had chosen him to take the gospel to the gentiles (Acts 15:7), and had begun to “live in the manner of the gentiles” (Gal. 2:14).  Yet even Peter had moments of backsliding into ritual law-keeping and Jewish exclusiveness, for which Paul had to reprove him (Gal. 2:11-16).

Even more surprising is that Paul also continued to participate in ceremonial rituals that he should have understood belonged to the Old Covenant.  The incident that led to his arrest and imprisonment was his participation in a Nazirite ritual that involved several animal sacrifices, including a sin offering of an unblemished lamb (Acts 21:15-36; Num. 6). And this was not the first time Paul participated in this ritual (Acts 18:18).  So even Paul, who was foremost in preaching and teaching that the Old Covenant was fulfilled by the cross of Christ, had a difficult time leaving it completely behind.  How could Paul, who knew that Jesus was the real sacrifice to which all the others had been pointing, have participated in another bloody lamb ritual? 

Paul’s Motive in Participating in the Temple Ritual

In his defense, let it be said that Paul was acting out of the very best of motives:

When we think of Paul's great desire to be in harmony with his brethren, his tenderness toward the weak in the faith, his reverence for the apostles who had been with Christ, and for James, the brother of the Lord, and his purpose to become all things to all men so far as he could without sacrificing principle--when we think of all this, it is less surprising that he was constrained to deviate from the firm, decided course that he had hitherto followed.  (AA 405)

Why did Paul do it?  Because he wanted to falsify what was being said about him:  “They have been informed about you that you teach all the Jews who are among the Gentiles to forsake Moses, saying that they ought not to circumcise their children nor to walk according to the customs.”  (Acts 21:21) This was a lie.  Please note what the Spirit of Prophecy says about this:

The brethren hoped that Paul, by following the course suggested, might give a decisive contradiction to the false reports concerning him.  (AA 404, emphasis added)

The report that Paul was teaching the Jews that they ought not circumcise their children was false.  Paul never said that, and it was to rebut this lie that Paul was induced to participate in something that he should not have agreed to.

The Need for a Doctrinal Statement on Circumcision

I have studied the issue of circumcision for years, and am convicted that the Seventh-day Adventist Church should have a doctrinal statement encouraging circumcision as part of a healthy lifestyle. 

Now, I can hear some objecting that circumcision was part of the Old Covenant, part of the ceremonial law that was “nailed to the cross” (Col. 2:14; PP 365), and hence not binding upon Christians in the Christian era.  This may be true, but it is equally true of the distinction between clean and unclean animals. (See, e.g., Gen. 8:20; Rom. 14; 1 Cor. 10:25-27). Yet the fact that this distinction was part of the ceremonial law has not stopped us from adopting a doctrinal statement directing Adventists to abstain from eating unclean meat. 

Why?  Because the distinction between clean and unclean meat is not merely part of the ceremonial law; it was also based upon important health principles:

“the distinction between articles of food as clean and unclean was not a merely ceremonial and arbitrary regulation, but was based upon sanitary principles. To the observance of this distinction may be traced, in a great degree, the marvelous vitality which for thousands of years has distinguished the Jewish people.” PP. 562 (emphasis added).

Unclean meat is dangerous and has killed millions.  The 1918 influenza epidemic, which killed at least 50 million people, was likely caused by an “ancestor” of the H1N1 flu virus, which originates in birds and then mutates in pigs; humans contract it when they handle pigs and pork. AIDS, which has killed 30 million, has been traced to a virus spread by killing and selling monkeys for food. Ebola, a recent outbreak of which killed over 5,500 people, is believed to have come from handling and eating fruit bats. Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome (SARS), an airborne viral disease that during a 2003 outbreak killed 775 people, was traced to China, where people were handling and eating the civet cat and the horseshoe bat.  Eleven million people contract trichinosis every year from eating pork.  Eating shellfish kills 150 to 200 people a year in the U.S. alone.  Clearly, it is of crucial importance to avoid unclean meat.

Because the danger of unclean meat is so well understood and verified by modern science, it is part of our belief system on healthful living to avoid these things.  Fundamental Belief # 22 states, “Along with adequate exercise and rest, we are to adopt the most healthful diet possible and abstain from the unclean foods identified in the Scriptures.” 

Now, just as with the distinction between clean and unclean meat, the rite of circumcision was not a merely ceremonial and arbitrary regulation, but was also based upon sanitary principles. 

The Health Benefits of Circumcision

In affluent Western countries, we take for granted that everyone has access to daily showers, but in the history of the world, how often has this level of cleanliness been available? When uncircumcised men do not have access to washing facilities, an unsanitary, germ-laden paste called “smegma” builds up between the foreskin and the shaft.

Such conditions are prevalent in wartime, when soldiers often go weeks between showers. During WWII, some 150,000 American troops had to be hospitalized due to foreskin issues. General John Patton stated, “Time and money could have been saved had prophylactic circumcision been performed before the men were shipped overseas.” Many soldiers developed balanoposthitis, a bacterial or fungal inflammation of the foreskin and glans. Had these men been circumcised, the problem would have been virtually nonexistent. Australia actually sent urologists to circumcise its troops fighting in North Africa.

But there are many benefits to circumcision that manifest even under optimal sanitary conditions.  During the first year of life, when the foreskin is difficult to retract, uncircumcised males suffer urinary tract infections at a rate ten times that of circumcised baby boys. Men who are circumcised as babies also have a substantially lower chance of getting penile cancer. According to the National Institutes of Health, circumcised men are far less likely to become infected with genital herpes, and the human papilloma virus (HPV).  (When transferred to female sexual partners, HPV often leads to cervical cancer.)  A study of 15,000 infants found neonatal preventive circumcision to be highly cost-effective, considering the estimated number of averted cases of infant urinary tract infection, and lifetime incidence of penile cancer, balanoposthitis, phimosis, HPV, genital herpes, and AIDS.  A 2012 study found that circumcised men were 15% less likely to develop prostate cancer.

Circumcision and AIDS

Over forty studies have shown that circumcision dramatically lowers the risk of contracting AIDS. Three recent large-scale studies in Africa have shown that circumcised men are 50 to 60 percent less likely to contract AIDS than men with intact foreskins.

To understand why circumcision lowers the risk of contracting AIDS, researchers studied the microbiomes of circumcised versus uncircumcised men by swabbing and developing cultures from the swabs. They found that circumcised men harbored dramatically fewer anaerobic bacteria, that is, bacteria that live in low oxygen environments. They also had 81% less penile bacteria overall compared to the uncut men.

As to why this reduction in bacteria halves the risk of AIDS, researchers hypothesized that a chronic high burden of bacteria disrupts the function of specialized immune cells known as Langerhans cells. Normally, Langerhans cells grab pathogens and turn them over to other immune cells to be destroyed. When overwhelmed by a chronic overload of bacteria, however, the Langerhans cell begin presenting pathogens to non-immune cells instead of immune cells, thus acting as a vector to insert the AIDS virus rather than as a defense against it.

Based upon these studies, an international African program, launched in 2008, succeeded in convincing 1.2 million men to be circumcised.  Three independent modeling groups extended historical trends and then compared those simulations to actual reported new infections.  The mathematical models suggested that between 21,000 and 33,0000 AIDS cases had been averted by the circumcisions. 

Because AIDS educators have been not successful in convincing all adult African men to undergo circumcision, UCLA researchers in 2009 used U.S. Government funds on a program to convince uncircumcised African men to wash their genitals after sex.  There was no report on whether the program succeeded in getting men to wash, much less on whether washing alone led to lower rates of AIDS.

Importantly, the connection between circumcision and reduced risk of AIDS is not limited to Africa.  In a United States study of heterosexual men attending an STD clinic, uncircumcised men were over three times as likely to contract HIV as circumcised men. In an analysis of clinic records of black men attending an STD clinic, among heterosexual men with known HIV exposure, circumcision was associated with a 58% reduction in HIV infection, roughly the same rate as in Africa.

No Loss of Sexual Pleasure

The best scientific evidence available suggests that there is no loss of sexual pleasure from circumcision.  A November, 2013, in the Journal of Sexual Medicine reviewed 36 studies with primary data from over 40,000 participants. The meta-analysis found that circumcision had no adverse effect on sexual function, sensitivity, sensation, or satisfaction.  And women seem to prefer that their partners be circumcised.  A 2014 survey found that 54% of women prefer a circumcised man, 33% had no preference, and only 3% preferred an uncircumcised man.

Why Circumcise on the Eighth Day?

Why did God direct Abraham to circumcise newborn males on the 8th day (Acts 17:12)?  Why so specific?

First, when a child is born, the lower portions of the nervous system, the spinal cord and brain stem—which control kicking, grasping, crying, sleeping, and feeding—are well developed, whereas the higher regions, the limbic system and cerebral cortex—which control conscious thoughts, feelings, memories, and voluntary actions—are largely undeveloped. These facts of developmental biology mean that a newborn, although possessing reflexes, has no ability to feel (in an adult sense), perceive, or remember the brief process of being circumcised.

Second, vitamin K facilitates the liver's production of proteins that are essential to coagulation, the blood-clotting cascade. Because of near-sterile intestinal tracts, newborn babies do not produce vitamin K, and are susceptible to bleeding. But during the fifth through the seventh days, vitamin K begins to be produced. One of the proteins essential to the blood-clotting cascade is prothrombin (Factor II). By the eighth day, the amount of prothrombin present in the bloodstream is elevated above normal, typically the only day in the male’s life when this will be true. So, by the eighth day, the blood-clotting mechanism is functioning well, reducing the risk of hemorrhage during the minor surgery of removing the foreskin.

The best time to perform a circumcision is, (1) before the baby has developed the ability to process perceptions and form memories, but (2) after the blood-clotting mechanism is fully functional.  Both these conditions are met on the eighth day.  (My daughter-in-law is an OB-GYN who sometimes does circumcisions; she states that babies cry longer when they are hungry than they do from circumcision.)

Clearly, a greater than human wisdom directed Abraham to circumcise on the eighth day.  The fact that modern science is just now coming to understand the reasons for circumcision on the 8th day, as opposed to earlier or later, is a compelling argument that an omniscient Deity inspired the Scriptures. 

Which brings us back where we started.  It was exactly this divine wisdom that Paul did not want to subvert.  He never told the Jews not to circumcise their children.  This was a slander, and it was to rebut this slander that he was induced to participate in a Nazirite temple ritual that he would have been better off to avoid. 

Proposed Statement for Fundamental Beliefs

I propose that the following new wording (in bold) be added to Fundamental Belief # 22:

“It also means that because our bodies are the temples of the Holy Spirit, we are to care for them intelligently.  Males should be circumcised in order to avoid disease.  Along with adequate exercise and rest, we are to adopt the most healthful diet possible and abstain from the unclean foods identified in the Scriptures.”

In the comment section following the statement of the Fundamental Belief, there could be a brief discussion of circumcision.  For example:

The foreskin seems to have been created for a sinless world, but the function it was to have served is not understood.  In today’s fallen world, it seems to have little purpose other than to trap pathogens and spread disease.  If a male baby is to be circumcised before the 8th day, he should be given a shot of vitamin K to stimulate production of clotting factors and prevent bleeding. (Citations to scientific studies)

In addition to adding a sentence to the statement of fundamental beliefs, I recommend that evangelists and church workers begin to educate on the health benefits of circumcision, just as we educate on the health benefits of avoiding meat from unclean animals.  Both these issues are of more urgent importance in third world countries, where sanitation is often not up to the level of Western countries.  I also recommend that the floating free clinics created by Dr. Lela Lewis, now known as “Your Best Pathway to Health,” have medical personnel available to counsel on and perform circumcision.  The details of this renewed emphasis can be worked out later, but it is now time to acknowledge the health benefits of circumcision.


In the early days of the Christian Church it was necessary for Peter and Paul to teach and preach against the ceremonial law, both to break the power of legalistic righteousness, and for Christianity to become distinct from Judaism.  But it has now been two millennia since the beginning of the Christian era, Christians have long since ceased to feel any obligation to the ceremonial law, and Christianity has long been distinct from Judaism.  It is now time to acknowledge the divine wisdom that established circumcision as a sign between God and Abraham.  We should do this not because we are trying to manufacture a legalistic righteousness, but because we want to glorify God in our bodies and prevent the spread of disease.