graphic website title banner

Timothy's Circumcision —and Evangelical Freedom

Dr. Gary Gilthvedt

Date unknown

Does Luke's circumcision of Timothy "because of the Jews" (Acts 16) mean that Lutherans should surrender core Christian truths "because of a drive for visible structures of Christian unity"?

St. Luke reports, in Acts 16:3, that Paul took Timothy, "and had him circumcised because of the Jews who were in those places...." Timothy was a believer of whom other believers in Lystra and Iconium spoke well, a disciple, son of a Jewish mother and a Greek father.

Can this episode in Paul's missionary history be reconciled with the attitude against law observance that Paul demonstrates with such vehemence in his Letter to the Galatians? We might notice three things about the texts in question.

First, in Acts 15 the question of the necessity of circumcision for salvation had been forthrightly settled in the negative. Gentiles who were `turning to God' (15:19) need not be troubled about this matter. It would not be required of them to undergo the standard Jewish covenant marking. They would be saved through the grace of the Lord Jesus (v. 11), according to Peter's speech, just as the apostles and elders were also saved. Thus, the question of circumcision here relates to salvation for the Gentiles.

Second, Timothy is neither fully Gentile nor completely Jewish. As the son of a Jewish mother it might have been expected that he had already undergone circumcision, but in fact he had not. He is somewhat outside the pale of those for whom the decision of Acts 15 was made and yet by virtue of his birth was in line for what was expected for Jewish males. Nor was he fully Gentile in the same sense as those of whom Paul wrote in Galatians. According to Luke, when it was not a question of salvation Paul felt free to allow circumcision for Jewish people as a practical easing of Christian mission. And yet Paul, corresponding to the conference decision of Acts 15, steadfastly refused to elevate the practice to the level of importance that it had in Judaism, and he never allowed it to be a test of legitimacy for faith and unity in the church. That was the struggle in Galatia.

Third, The Paul of Acts, Luke's Paul, is more congenial to law observance than is Paul's Paul. In Acts 21:21 it is reported to Paul that rumors had him encouraging Jews not to practice the law nor circumcise their children. To overcome this bad press Paul is encouraged to undergo the Jewish rights of purification, thus proving his friendship with the law and overcoming the strained relations reported by James and other Jerusalem elders. Luke reports that Paul complied! And yet on one very important point both Acts and Paul agree that circumcision is not required for Gentile Christians.

What we seem to have in this instance is the distinction between a matter of secondary importance, something inconsequential or non-essential for belief itself, and Christian essentials. If something does not matter for faith then it is OK to do it. But if a non-essential is made to matter for faith, then you must not do it, lest the object of faith be rendered insufficient.

Gary Gilthvedt

Fergus Falls, MN