Was Paul an Intactivist?

This is yet another post where my love for Israel, and Gods word collides with my mom heart.  This is a parenting topic, but it certainly expounds on Jewish roots themes!

Circumcision is a loaded parenting topic for our generation.  If you are unfamiliar to this issue, a political and parenting movement has formed called "intactivism" - combining the words "intact" and "activism,"  which is exactly as is sounds, activism against circumcision, in favor of leaving the foreskin intact.

Can a parent choose to not have an infant son circumcised and not be an intactivist?  Certainly.

The personal and individual parenting choice is not what I'm concerned about,  rather this discussion is related to the movement seeking to ban circumcision options.

This is a study on Paul's position on the issue of circumcision, and why I do not believe intactivism as an ideology is supported by scripture.  This is not a discussion of whether or not parents should circumcise their sons. 

In a previous post, Intactivism, Anti-Semitism, Bullying and a Loving GodI share a some general theological concerns that I have about the intactivist position,  which I believe to be in opposition to a biblical world view.  The harsh stance involved with intactivism comes against something God commanded the nation of Israel,  and calls good in His word.  Also this movement has a strong foundation in antisemitism, which runs counter to scripture.  What I didn't delve into in depth was the New Testament perspective on this issue and seek to do so in this post. 


It is not uncommon within the intactivist movement to see the argument, "Paul was an intactivist."  But is that true according to God's word? 

First, let's understand where this view of Paul as the intactivist comes from.  

In Galatians Chapter 2, Paul describes a scenario in which he needs to address a problem regarding coerced circumcisions of new gentile believers.  Paul states clearly that Titus is not forced to be circumcised through his instruction (v. 3):

Paul continues on in that chapter and upon noticing that Peter, "who used to eat with the gentiles" changed and  "began to withdraw and hold himself aloof, fearing the party of the circumcision" (v. 12) offers Peter a public rebukes:
“If you, being a Jew, live like the Gentiles and not like the Jews, how is it that you compel the Gentiles to live like Jews?" (v.14).
Later Chapter 5 brings his teaching to its thesis:  
5 It was for freedom that Christ set us free; therefore keep standing firm and do not be subject again to a yoke of slavery.
Behold I, Paul, say to you that if you receive circumcision, Christ will be of no benefit to you. And I testify again to every man who receives circumcision, that he is under obligation to keep the whole Law. You have been severed from Christ, you who are seeking to be justified by law; you have fallen from grace. For we through the Spirit, by faith, are waiting for the hope of righteousness. For in Christ Jesus neither circumcision nor uncircumcision means anything, but faith working through love.
If we were to let this passage stand along, v. 2 above causes this passage to sound as an eradication of the practice of circumcision, and keeping any measure of the law.  In sound bible study practice, however, we want to look at the whole of scripture to understand the Lord's heart on an issue, and when we place this particular issue within the whole of scripture, a more clear truth emerges. 

Was Paul the first intactivist? 

I can confidently and firmly give you a clear "no" which we will look at in God's word as it relates to 1) Paul's actual practice regarding circumcision,  then we will 2) evaluate Paul's ideology as compared to the intactivist both in terms of a) procedure and purpose, and b) Paul's view of the natural world.     

1) Paul's Actual Practice Regarding Circumcision

After Paul gave the the teaching to the church of Galatians that is used by the intactivist movement to support their perspective, with the example that he instructed Titus to not be circumcised, he actually circumcises Timothy with his own hands.  See Acts 16:1-3:
Paul came also to Derbe and to Lystra. And a disciple was there, named Timothy, the son of a Jewish woman who was a believer, but his father was a Greek, and he was well spoken of by the brethren who were in Lystra and Iconium. Paul wanted this man to go with him; and he took him and circumcised him because of the Jews who were in those parts, for they all knew that his father was a Greek.
It is taking strong liberties with God's word to taunt the teaching that Paul was an intactivist, based alone on this decision to circumcise Timothy.  And, to view the Galatians passage as support for intactivism as an ideology presents Paul as making contradictory or hypocritical decision between how he related to Titus and Timothy.  This is where (and why) we need to be honest to the spirit of God's word presented in these passages.  An incomplete presentation of the text gives a wrong presentation of the spirit behind the text, and the greater principle the Lord wants us to see, which we'll address in the next section.

No matter what your personal parenting choice might be, or your position on this issue as a healthcare provider, anyone who professes Christ needs to show integrity (like how I did that?) to rightly divide God's word. Its important to be honest that Paul did not eradicate circumcision in one breath, and then break his own law by circumcising Timothy in the next. 

2) Evaluating Ideologies

The next issue to evaluate in understanding that Paul was not an in activist is that of ideology.  Paul held to a biblical world view and his reasons for presenting teachings on circumcision different from the intactivists in a) procedure and purpose, or b) how he views the natural world. 

a) Procedure and Purpose

Intactivism is a movement founded on the principles of keeping genital integrity,  for the sake children's rights, parent's rights (as they relate to hospital policy), sexual pleasure,  and the risks associated with a procedure they believe to be only cosmetic, both physical and psychological.   The extreme end of of this movement believes circumcision to be genital mutilation and an abusive practice and even advocates for legislation banning this procedure.  In all, the intactivist position takes strong offense at the procedure of circumcision.  

As an ideological issue, Paul does not address any of these concerns.  No where in the bible does Paul discuss the procedure, which he would have been trained in performing as a Pharisee.   And while the bible, at large, does have various passages that discuss the actual procedure,  it is never presented in a negative light, throughout the whole of God's word.  No where in the bible, including the Paul's specific teachings, is there ever any offense at the procedure of circumcision. 

In the case of his teachings on circumcision, Paul was only concerned about the purpose behind the decision, however, not as it related to health care, but solely as it related to the gospel! 

In context, we need to look at what is happening with the early church as revealed both in how he related to the issue of circumcision regarding Titus, and then his decision to circumcise Timothy.  

Galatians 2 opens by telling us that Paul returned to Jerusalem after an interval of 14 years, because of a revelation he had received in which he needed to go and explain what he had been preaching to the gentiles. 

In the time that he was away, we learn that a confusion was present:
 "because of the false brethren secretly brought in, who had sneaked in to spy out our liberty which we have in Christ Jesus, in order to bring us into bondage."  v. 4
The "false brethern" were either non-believers posing as "brothers" in the faith, or those who had fallen into a wrong teaching.  Either way, they brought a false message:   
"Unless you are circumcised according to the custom of Moses, you cannot be saved.” (Acts 15:1)
The idea was that the gentiles must first become Jews in order to receive the Jewish Messiah, which was a distortion of the truth.  We are saved by grace through faith, and the false brothers were bringing a false teaching that said justification was found in keeping the law, hence his charge in Galatians 5, about falling from grace by coming under this false teaching.  

In fact, this false teaching was not even biblical truth prior to Yeshua's death and resurrection.  In Romans 4,  inspired by the Holy Spirit, Paul tells us this about Abraham: 

For we say, “Faith was credited to Abraham as righteousness.”  How then was it credited? While he was circumcised, or uncircumcised? Not while circumcised, but while uncircumcised; and he received the sign of circumcision, a seal of the righteousness of the faith which he had while uncircumcised, so that he might be the father of all who believe without being circumcised, that righteousness might be credited to them, and the father of circumcision to those who not only are of the circumcision, but who also follow in the steps of the faith of our father Abraham which he had while uncircumcised.  Romans 4:9-12
Circumcision was never God's plan for salvation.  Abraham was credited or as some versions say, justified, by faith and faith alone.  Circumcision was an act of obedience for the Jewish people, but even under the law, it was not a precursor for being saved.  

The teaching presented by the "false brothers" was well beyond the truth of scripture, and the circumcisions taking place were coerced as noted by the language in Galatians 2. Yet, Titus was not compelled or forced by the false teaching to be circumcised through the instructions of Paul (v.3).  He nor Paul submitted to this teaching,  and this was for the full purpose "that the truth of the gospel would remain with you." (v.5).  In the case of Titus, it was for the sake of the gospel that he was not circumcised. 
Obviously, the teaching being pushed by the false brothers stirred up a great deal of trouble in the early church.  This resulted in "The Counsel of Jerusalem" in which the elders determined by way of the Holy Spirit that the gentile believers needed only to 1)
abstain from things contaminated by idols  2) abstain from fornication 3) abstain from what is strangled 4) abstain from blood (Acts 15:19-21).

Those points are the only measure of the law that the gentiles were to be held in account, so clearly,  it is not commanded for Gentiles to keep the law of circumcision, clarifying the distortion presented by the false brothers.  The elders did not, however, prevent the willful choosing of joining in with their Jewish brothers in Yeshua by keeping any further measure of the Law that helped to grow their faith in the Messiah, or aid in spreading the gospel.  

Paul's decision to circumcise Timothy, after The Counsel of Jerusalem, is indication of this.  

Ultimately, his choice to do so was inspired by the same spirit that led him to instruct Titus to abstain.  Titus was Greek by birth, through both of his parents, and to be circumcised  would have presented a confusion to the gospel, particularly in light of the false teaching in circulation.  Timothy, on the other hand, had a Greek father, but was Jewish through his mother's lineage.  Even though she raised him as Jewish, he had not been circumcised, which Paul presumed to be a possible stumbling block for the non-believing Jews with whom they would interact on their travels. 

Often when relating to the non-believing Jews, Paul took a more conservative approach to the law in order to show, as a living example, that the New Covenant in Messiah Yeshua, Jesus Christ, did not contradict the Torah or Tanach, the Law and the Prophets.  In the case of Timothy, it was for the sake of the Gospel that he was circumcised.

Also, what I find significant is that this measure brought Timothy fully into Paul's life as a "spiritual son."  According to the Torah, the command to circumcise was one the Lord gave for parents to provide for their sons.  If a Jewish man was uncircumcised it was through the disobedience of his parents. (Visit the link on Intactivism in the intro of this post for a fuller discussion on this as it relates to Moses).  In the New Testament, we have examples of both Mary and Joseph living in obedience to this command by circumcising Yeshua, Jesus, in Luke 2: 21-39, and Elizabeth and Zechariah circumcising John in Luke 1:59-66.  Paul carried out an act of a very Jewish life by circumcising Timothy. 

In terms of ideology, 
Paul was not offended by the procedure of circumcision. He was solely concerned about the truth of the Gospel, and moved in that spirit of freedom and truth, both in his instruction for Titus to remain uncircumcised, and for Timothy to become circumcised.  The heart of the matter was the same in both contexts.  Therefore, Paul did not share the ideology of an intactivist in terms of the circumcision procedure.   

 b) Paul's view the natural world. 

Within Natural and Attachment parenting and the birth choice movement comes the basic idea, in an un-nuanced form that natural = good and unnatural = bad.  This concept is only accurate to a point, which as believers we should understand.  The bible does not support the idea that the natural world is intrinsically good at present.  Rather, we learn in Gen 3: 17-18 that because of Adam's sin: 

Cursed is the ground because of you; In toil you will eat of it All the days of your life.18 “Both thorns and thistles it shall grow for you;
What was good at creation was marred by sin and no longer in perfect conditions.   This applies to all creation, our bodies and all that grows and lives on the earth.  We are in a position that is broken and imperfect, until the time of Messiah Yeshua's return when He will make all things new.  Meanwhile, we have been charged with the creative commission, to be fruitful and multiply, and subdue the  earth, learning and using the Lord's natural systems to their greatest potential, and using our creativity to innovate.  (Gen 1:28).  That charge was given before the fall, and labors of the our efforts intensified afterward, but also our acts of innovation can be an expression of grace in best using a broken system.

When the Lord gave the law, He did so through the prophet Moses, admonishing His people: 
40 So you shall keep His statutes and His commandments which I am giving you today, that it may go well with you and with your children after you, and that you may live long on the land which the Lord your God is giving you for all time.” (bold emphasis mine)  Deut 4:40
The Law was part of the means the Lord granted to the nation of Israel to subdue the earth and bring order to the Land that He had promised the decedents of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob.

If I could interject this teaching on Paul for a moment to share my own opinion, I believe that the command to circumcise was part of this plan for subduing the earth, both in a natural and super natural sense.  Its very presence in scripture is the essence of critique on the notions of the natural ideal, indicating that we are more than flesh, more than mammals, but unique in all creation.  

The Lord created the male body from the dust of the earth.  He blew His own breath into that body for life.  Yet in Genesis 17 He commanded that something natural, the foreskin, be removed as a sign of His covenant, in order to set apart a people who with birth His son, who would, through his shed blood, fulfill the command to subdue the earth by redeeming us from sin - an intervention on the natural progression of creation - a plan formed before the foundation of the world.   That the Creator God would command a natural part of the body, that He created, to be removed is offensive if our view of the natural world is out order.  Perhaps, though, that is exactly why He purposed that flesh: to be removed, unveiling a plan to set apart a people to birth His son.   

Besides the spiritual implications, in preparing a people to birth His son, the Messiah, there are natural implications as well. 

The Lord knew about that natural body and He knew how to protect it from disease.  The command to circumcise is the oldest command given the nation of Israel, granted *before* the Lord brought forth Isaac from the womb.  Just four generations later, they fled to Egypt during a famine where they grew into a large and numerous people over a span of 400 years.  For 400 years, they circumcised their sons, they grew into a nation, and then they were granted the full portion of the law. 

To restate from the previous section:  Even under the Law, they were not saved through the law,  or by being circumcised.  It was through faith in God that Abraham was justified, and then his circumcision followed.  The flesh was not removed before his justification, but after.  (See Romans 4) (This does not mean the Jewish people are saved today through faith that does not recognize Yeshua's work on the cross - another discussion for another time).  The Torah practice of circumcision does not contradict any of the words Paul spoke to the Galatians in the 5th Chapter.  Again, In no time in history was circumcision ever a means of salvation, yet the Creator God commanded thus forth.

If this practice was as harmful, risky, and dangerous as the intactivist proponents claim, then why would a loving God command His chosen people to do something that was harmful?  And why did they thrive?  Especially in conditions that were far less sanitary that we have today.  If natural is better, thus an uncircumcised penis is better, then why did a God who desired that it may go well with you and with your children command his people to remove the foreskin?  Does He not know what is best for the bodies that He made?  All of this is not to say that every parent should circumcise their sons, but do you see how this idea moves away from a biblical world view, in how it speaks of something the Lord our God commanded? 

Paul does not discuss the law as a means of health and wellness, but he does speak forth:
16 All Scripture is inspired by God and profitable for teaching, for reproof, for correction, for training in righteousness; 17 so that the man of God may be adequate, equipped for every good work.  2 Tim 3:16-17
And this, he spoke under inspiration of the Holy Spirit before the New Testament was canonized. In context, this passage is speaking of the Old Testament.  Here, Paul upholds the law as purposeful even within the new covenant. 

Likewise, Paul upholds the understanding granted in Genesis, affirming this in Romans 8:19-22:
For the anxious longing of the creation waits eagerly for the revealing of the sons of God. 20 For the creation was subjected to futility, not willingly, but because of Him who subjected it, [i]in hope 21 that the creation itself also will be set free from its slavery to corruption into the freedom of the glory of the children of God. 22 For we know that the whole creation groans and suffers the pains of childbirth together until now.
That natural is not intrinsically better than the unnatural, post the fall of man, the present era in which we dwell.  All creation waits in corruption to be freed from sin and restored to its original state.   And Paul also admonishes that it is not to be worshiped: 
20 For since the creation of the world His invisible attributes, His eternal power and divine nature, have been clearly seen, being understood through what has been made, so that they are without excuse. 21 For even though they knew God, they did not honor Him as God or give thanks, but they became futile in their speculations, and their foolish heart was darkened. 22 Professing to be wise, they became fools, 23 and exchanged the glory of the incorruptible God for an image in the form of corruptible man and of birds and four-footed animals and crawling creatures.
24 Therefore God gave them over in the lusts of their hearts to impurity, so that their bodies would be dishonored among them. 25 For they exchanged the truth of God for a lie, and worshiped and served the creature rather than the Creator, who is blessed forever. Amen. (bold emphasis mine)  Romans 1:20-25
Paul is essentially explaining here that when human kind neglected to see God through creation, and filled their understanding with their own false speculations, this led to the worship of nature - this is the birth of animism, paganism, new paganism, pantheism, etc.  The resultant curse is that their bodies would be dishonored among them.   This perspective relates directly to the curses for disobedience found in Deut 28, of which I explain in my Placentophagy post. 

It is critical for believers in Yeshua, Jesus, to keep creation and our ideals about the natural world in their appropriate place as it relates to God, and always...  ALWAYS...  worship the creator, and not the creation. 

This perspective on the brokenness of the natural, again, is a biblical world view held by Paul, an ideology not shared within the intactivist movement. 

Where Does This Leave Us? 

The intention of this post was not to determine pros and cons of circumcision, or to make a statement as to what choice parents should make.  You have to decide that on your own.  When looking at the word of God on this matter, its evident that we have freedom to choose.  Even as the mother of a circumcised son, I believe with my whole heart that the Lord can be glorified through either decision, just as He was gloried through both Titus and Timothy.  We are free to leave our sons with their foreskins, and we are free to have them circumcised.  The only place of problem would be for a parent who believes circumcision = salvation.

When it comes to adopting the intactivist perspective, however, I do think its clear that this does not align with a biblical world view.  While Paul's teachings, as well as the decision at the Jerusalem Counsel, certainly grant freedom to remain uncircumcised, one can not use the teachings of Paul to justify an intactivist perspective on this issue any more than one can use the teachings of Paul to say that every baby boy should be circumcised.  In doing so, it is not taking the whole of scripture into consideration, and imposing a concern on the scenarios in scripture that doesn't exist, thus presenting a false teaching. 

Can you have an uncircumcised son or husband and not be an intactivist?  Absolutely. 

Where it veers off into a difference of ideology is a slippery slope, but I would charge that you can ask the Lord to show you if your opinion is appropriately submitted to His word, or if you have allowed another world view to shape your perspective.  He will speak to you.   

The danger of holding a wrong world view on this topic is that it can allow for, or indicate, a distortion in an understanding of scripture, an understanding of the character of God, and it has had a history of inflaming anti-semitism.  Likewise, to hold the intactivist perspective means that one is likely infringing on the biblically granted freedom of others to make a wise and prayful choice of their own.  What I've experienced is that often those who hold this view speaking out in a way that is abusive and coercive to those who hold a different position or made a different choice (its happened to me).   Unfortunately some even end up manipulating God's word in order for it to fit this perspective rather than allowing scripture to stand alone.  In that case, the intactivist is operating out of the same spirit that Paul rejected in the "false brethern" from Galatians -- the ones who were coercing circumcision.  Think that through a little.  

Whatever your personal choice is on this issue, it is imperative to let God's word stand alone. 

But DO make a prayerful and informed decision.  I'd like to suggest that if you are unsure what to do, ask the Lord to show you if your family is to go in the way of Titus or the way of Timothy.  Study them in the word, see how the Lord speaks to you in scripture.  Also, look at evidence.  And what I mean by that is to make sure you are evaluating scholarly academic research studies that are credible, not just mom-blogs or websites that have "circumcision" in the URL.   

I do believe we are free to be uncircumcised, but I do not believe the intactivist position originates from a biblical world view whatsoever.  Because of that, I'd also like to suggest that parents issue discernment when evaluating material that comes from that movement.  If its root is anti-God, then its fruit will be deceptive.  Source check and weigh facts, and in the end, make a decision that you feel comfortable with all around.
Also, I would like to note that Christian and Jewish  sources that hold to an almost mystical understanding of health benefits should also be discerned properly.   The bible gives freedom to choose on this matter, and does so for a reason. 

I hope this has been helpful for you, in clearing out some confusion by looking at God's word.  In this lengthy study, I did not even breach the concept of "circumcision of the heart" which is a beautiful discussion worth blogging on another occasion! 

He admonishes Timothy, "all scripture is inspired by God and profitable for teaching…" (2 Tim 3:16-17). Likewise, to the Romans, he explains, “through perseverance and the encouragement of the Scriptures we might have hope."  (Romans 15:4) - See more at: http://www.etzhazayit.blogspot.co.il/2016/01/pharisees-in-land-look-at-paul-and-law.html#sthash.EWJn6fPM.dpuf


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