The first major controversy the early church dealt with strikes the modern reader a strange. Rather than debating who Jesus was or beginning to develop the doctrine of the Trinity, the first major theological problem they need to solve was the status of the Gentile who has faith in Jesus. Are Gentiles converting to Judaism? If so, at what level should they keep the Law? Are they “God Fearers”? Are they Proselytes? If there is an implied secondary status for the Gentile believers, how does that status effect their participation in the church?
Why was circumcision of Gentiles such a controversial issue? In Acts 13-14 Paul had success among Gentiles and established several churches with mixed congregations of Jews and Gentiles. Some Gentiles may have been “God Fearers” who worshiped in the synagogues, but others may have been converts from paganism with no grounding in the ethics of the Hebrew Bible. Jews would have continued to keep the Law as Christians, but what about these Gentiles? Should they “fully convert” and submit to circumcision?
This was not a minor difference in practice. It was seriously controversial for several reasons. First, circumcision was a major factor in Jewish identity. Prior to the Maccabean revolt, the practice of circumcision was suppressed and families that had their son circumcised were put to death (1 Mac 1:60-61). Some Jews forcibly circumcised Jewish boys if their families did not follow the tradition (1 Mac 2:46). This imposition of circumcision was described as “They rescued the law out of the hands of the Gentiles and kings” (1 Macc 2:48). Given the rising Jewish national of the middle first century, it is not unexpected some Jews might insist on circumcision for all people claiming to be Jews, including the new Messiah Jesus movement.
Second, for many in the Greco-Roman world, circumcision was one of the most ridiculous practices of the Jews. Marital, for example, seems to find a great deal of humor in the Jewish practice (Epigrams 7.35.3-4; 7,82, 11.94). The practice was seen as a strange mutilation of the flesh and a sign of extreme dishonor. For this reason, some Jewish men underwent surgery to reverse the makes of circumcision (1 Macc 1:15, see for example Neil J McEleney, “Conversion, Circumcision and the Law,” NTS 20 : 319-341.)
Third, Paul was teaching his Church in Galatian there is neither Jew nor Gentile in the Body of Christ (Gal 3:28). If Gentiles convert to Judaism, then the church is Jewish; if Jews rejects the Law and behave like Gentiles, then the church is “Gentile.” Paul’s point is God is creating something different than Judaism in the present age. The “church” is not a form of Judaism nor is it a Gentile mystery religion. The church in Paul’s view transcends ethnicity (neither Jew or Gentile), gender (neither male or female) and social boundaries (neither slave nor free).
For Paul, if the Gentiles are forced to keep the Jewish boundary markers, then they have converted to Judaism and they are not “in Christ.” This would have been radical in the first century Jewish world, but it is still remarkably difficult for Christians two thousand years later. There is a perception people have to “act like a Christian” to be right with God. There are certain “boundary markers” defining who is “in” and who is “out.” Most of the time these are unacceptable behaviors: matters of food and drink, entertainment, etc. While doctrine is important as well, I have seen more exclusion based on how someone looked before finding out what they believe.
I do not want to reduce the controversy over circumcision to a trite discussion over whether Christians can get tattoos. Acts 15 represents the first time Christians thought about what the people of God were in the new age of the Spirit. To what extent does modern Christianity elevate practice to the level of a boundary marker? Do we still exclude people from the Body of Christ on the basis of ethnicity or social status? How does the decision of Acts 15 speak to these issues?