Oneness and the Circumcision Controversy at Ephesus


By John Helmke


We long to be “an Acts 2 church” focused on verses 42–47. It was a time when controversy was not yet mentioned and the scandal of Ananias and Sapphira’s fraud was still three chapters off. “Every day they continued to meet together … enjoying the favor of all the people. And the Lord added to their number daily” (v. 47). It was not long, however, before conflict raised its ugly head in what we might call “The Circumcision Controversy.”


Church planning and organization is always challenging work. In the context of internal controversy a leader is often caught between the rock of realism and the hard place of denial. Were you to read Ephesians for the first time after reading Romans and Galatians, you might think Paul, who could write so boldly, was in denial of that controversywhen writing to the Ephesians.


“The blood of the martyrs is the seed of the church” (Tertullian). External persecution strengthens our faith and resolve. On the other hand internal controversy, like a malignant cancer, eats at the community’s heart. In his letter to the Galatians Paul attacked conservative Jewish Christians who were raising internal controversy, insisting Gentile converts be circumcised. For them Paul’s practice was too liberal. Any change in their literal interpretation of the law governing circumcision was, as some might say today, compromising syncretism and judged to be condemned.


The Old Testament records a liberal practice of circumcision. The heart of Israel needed to be circumcised (Deuteronomy 10:16; 30:6; Leviticus 26:41; and Jeremiah 9:26). Even Israel’s great law giver, Moses, was liberal in handling circumcision throughout its forty year sojourn in the wilderness. An entire generation was not circumcised and it fell to Joshua to organize the mass circumcision of this generation upon entering the Promised Land (Joshua 5:7). Writing Galatian Christians, Paul reflected this liberal practice, “In Christ Jesus neither circumcision nor uncircumcision has any value. The only thing that counts is faith expressing itself through love” (Galatians 2:3).


In Ephesians we find little evidence of this circumcision controversy. Circumcision is mentioned only once to identify Gentile readers, “… called ‘uncircumcised’ by those who call themselves ‘the circumcision’ (that done in the body by the hands of men)” (2:11). Paul appears impatient to put this controversy behind him, insisting that in Jesus Christ every wall of separation is broken down (2:14). Was this denial on Paul’s part? Was Ephesians intended for circulation beyond Ephesus, and did Paul fear what might result when other churches read about this controversy? Was Ephesians written to honor the martyred Paul late in the first century when the church’s attention was drawn to external persecution and away from the internal circumcision controversy?


In the same letter to the Ephesians Paul demonstrates another alternative that has value for handling conflict in the church for his day and our own. It is the counsel of Proverbs: “A gentle answer turns away wrath” (15:1). Reading Romans chapters two, three, four and fifteen, and the six chapters of Galatians, we might think circumcision was hotly debated in the market place of that day. That may not be so. Until the issue was raised by Paul’s conservative critics, biblical literature indicates a restrained approach to circumcision practiced by the prophets and Jesus which Paul’s restraint in Ephesians reflects. Circumcision is mentioned only in six of the thirty-nine Old Testament books, only in one book of prophecy, Jeremiah, and there only once: “… the whole house of Israel is uncircumcised in heart” (9:25–26). The other books are all historical: Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, Deuteronomy and Joshua.


Faithful Jewish parents approached circumcision as their obligation and had their eight-day-old sons circumcised. We read in Luke 1:59 John was circumcised on the eighth day. The same is noted of Jesus in Luke 2:21. Most Jewish parents seemed happy to let the theologians (the scribes and the Pharisees) debate the origin and meaning of circumcision. Teachers of the law were eager to do this. Their discussions, recorded later in the Talmud, included fantastic legends concocted to account for why the Bible nowhere tells us Moses was circumcised.


Perhaps the most bizarre legend is one embellishing the circumcision of their son by Moses’ wife Zipporah (Exodus 4:24–26). This legend claims it was Moses who was circumcised. In Exodus we are puzzled to read that God wanted to kill Moses. The legend elaborates on this, claiming that God sent an angel to swallow him whole leaving only his genitals exposed. Zipporah quickly cut off his foreskin. Then God commanded the angel to spew him out, which the angel did. Zipporah then smeared the bloody foreskin on Moses’ “feet” calling him, as Exodus relates, “A bridegroom of blood.” And Moses went on his way back to Egypt. (B.P. Robinson, “Zipporah to the Rescue,” Vetus Testamentum 35, no. 4 [October 1986], quoted by Jonathan Kirsch in his provocative biography of Moses).


It was Paul’s conservative critics who raised the divisive Circumcision Controversy. There is no evidence the word circumcision (peretome) appeared in Greek literature before Paul. With the exception of the two passages in Luke’s Gospel cited above, circumcision is never mentioned in the Synoptic Gospels. In the Gospel of John circumcision appears only in chapter seven. There Jesus’ concern was to set the record straight. It was Abraham to whom God first gave the covenant and commanded circumcision as the sign of that covenant (Genesis 17:10). It was not Moses, as many then believed. Jesus’ point is repeated by Stephen (Acts 7:8) and Paul later (Romans 4:11).


Paul defended the freedom of the Gospel in his letter to the Galatians. Ephesians implies the Gospel needs no human defense, for it is God’s own plan from before the foundation of the world (1:4). Ephesians allows the Gospel to do its work. That work is to bring the universe (panta re, i.e., all things) together in Christ (1:10), not just Christian advocates for the law. Our struggle is not “against flesh and blood” (6:12), a reference to those Christian Jews who would cut flesh and draw blood to fulfill the law by circumcision. Paul’s adversary and our own is “the ruler of the kingdom of the air” (2:2), Satan himself, described by the prophet Isaiah (14:12–15).


The Gospel motivated Paul to take seriously the relationships his people enjoyed. In Ephesians, having described the power of the Gospel in chapters one through three, in the remaining chapters he describes how human relationships are fulfilled in one head, Jesus Christ. Knowing how quickly the Gospel can be distorted into law and personal relationships broken in the process, Paul practiced the freedom he taught in Galatians, having his disciple Timothy circumcised lest the venom of his critics be felt by Timothy’s Jewish mother Eunice and grandmother Lois (Acts 16:3). When it was Titus’s turn, however, Paul refused to cave in to pressure from his critics (Gal. 2:3). On still another occasion, Paul demonstrated the freedom of the Gospel by submitting to the purification rites of his Jewish Christian critics (Acts 21:21–26). Neither denial nor fear on Paul’s part is to be found in his letter to the Ephesians. He would not cause conflict by foolishly flaunting his freedom. When attacked, however, by his conservative Christian critics, Paul stood firm for the sake of the Gospel, for freedom in his Lord Jesus Christ.


Oneness and the end of controversy will never be fully realized in this fallen world. Paul writes that the oneness we enjoy in Christ is both “of the Spirit/spirit” for us to keep (Ephesians 4:3) and “of the faith” for us to reach for (Ephesians 4:13). Let no one claim absolute certainty in anything but God’s love revealed in his Son Jesus Christ. Always seeking oneness, our focus is on the Gospel, which is both gift and reward, God’s blessing and our challenge. Confronted by controversy within, we submit to Christ, recognizing we are, as Martin Luther taught, at one and the same time both justified and sinful (simul justus et peccator).


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