Outraging Jewish and Muslim groups, a German court recently ruled that infant male circumcision causes “bodily harm” and that “a child’s right to physical integrity trumps religious and parental rights.” Some are wondering whether this decision will be overturned by a higher court. Others are raising questions about religious liberty in Germany. This also raises the questions, “What do the Bible and modern science teach us about infant male circumcision?” And, “What importance does circumcision have for true Christians today?”
Anciently, God prescribed that the male descendants of Abraham were to be circumcised on the eighth day after birth (Genesis 17:10-14). Interestingly, this is generally when a baby boy’s vitamin K levels peak, thus allowing speedy healing.
Is infant male circumcision actually a form of “bodily harm,” as the German court has found? Is it a practice that leaves emotional as well as physical scars, for life, as some opponents claim? Or, is it a practice that actually brings health benefits? A February 2012 study published by the Open Journal of Preventive Medicine reported that “over their lifetime up to half of uncircumcised males will suffer a medical condition” that circumcision would have prevented.
The report also noted that infant circumcision “provides immediate protection” against common pediatric conditions such as renal parenchymal disease, phimosis, paraphimosis and balanoposthitis, as well as a 96 percent decrease in urinary tract infection at age 6 months. Additionally, the study noted, infant circumcision leads to a lifetime decrease in the risk of several types of cancer, whether or not the circumcised male is sexually active or promiscuous.
Furthermore, as the Centers for Disease Control (CDC) has acknowledged, both UNAIDS and the World Health Organization promote male circumcision as helpful in preventing STDs and AIDS (CDC Congressional Testimony, September 29, 2010), and the CDC also reports that “male circumcision has also been associated with a number of other health benefits (CDC Fact Sheet, February 2008). One study of 136,000 boys born in U.S. Army hospitals between 1980 and 1985 showed that of 100,000 circumcised, fewer than one-fifth of one percent experienced even minor complications, none fatal, while the 36,000 uncircumcised boys had ten times the number of complications, including two deaths (Wiswell & Hachey, 1993).
To those who believe in a loving Creator God, such scientific studies are no surprise—they simply demonstrate His wisdom and care for His creation. The Apostle Paul noted that God gave His laws for the benefit of ancient Israel (Romans 7:12). He did not set the Israelites apart through a practice that would do them grave harm; rather, He intervened as their Healer (Exodus 15:26). Even so, today’s Christians need to remember that salvation and spiritual perfection are not attainable “by the flesh” (Galatians 3:3). God commands “spiritual Israel” to worship Him in the Spirit and in truth (John 4:24).
As Paul explained, the Old Covenant contained numerous “fleshly ordinances imposed until the time of reformation” (Hebrews 9:1; 10). And, as Acts 15:23-29 and elsewhere reveal, physical circumcision is not required for salvation under the New Covenant. In fact, Paul preached fervently against those who were proud of their physical circumcision and who sought to promote it to others as if it were a spiritual requirement or a sign of higher status (Philippians 3:2-3).
The important point is that—whether male or female—under the New Covenant, Christians are to be spiritually circumcised of the heart (Romans 2:29). Christians demonstrate spiritual circumcision by showing their devotion to God and His Law (1 Corinthians 7:19; 1 John 5:2-3) and by being conquered by God “inwardly” (Romans 2:25-29). True Christians are thus “circumcised with the circumcision made without hands, by putting off the body of the sins of the flesh by the circumcision of Christ” (Colossians 2:10-11).