“Look, Joe, I agree with you that Christian parents should not be circumcising their babies, but please don’t ask me to take a public stance against it.”
This is the message I hear quite often from Christian pastors around the country, whose churches range from living rooms to megachurches.
But what would make them say that?
Well, speaking out against circumcision can be very difficult, especially if you’re in a position of organizational leadership. Let’s look at six reasons below:
1. Because he* doesn’t want to speak out against a common American custom that many people in his congregation might think is normal.
[*Author’s note: I am using ‘he’ in this article due to the fact that a) the majority of American pastors are male, and b) the topic of male vs female authority in the church might be controversial for some of our readers.]
Think about it. He has a congregation to keep happy.
It’s one thing if he’s speaking out against things that are generally considered unchristian, unbiblical, or against theology. Even some controversial social causes, given the beliefs of the denomination, might be well-received by most people if they heard it in a sermon.
But if you speak out against something that many of the congregants have a favorable opinion of, or have chosen for their sons, that might not be taken too well.
And if you anger the congregation, your email box fills up fast with complaints. Do this enough times, and attendance drops.
2. Because he has bills to pay.
If attendance drops due to congregants leaving to go elsewhere, then those people aren’t tithing there anymore. Less tithing means budgets don’t get met. When budgets don’t get met, services and ministries don’t get the funding they need.
I recently heard of a pastor that told a member of his congregation that he disagreed with the idea that circumcision was harmful. When probed, it was revealed that an influential elder in the church was a prominent local doctor, who said the practice was fine. Do you think the pastor wants to take a stand in direct opposition to the local authority figure who probably contributes a hefty part of his time, talent, and treasure to his church? Of course not. This way of thinking might be convenient, but it is a perfect example of confirmation bias.
Let’s be frank: Facts are seldom convenient.
3. Because of the negative social outcomes of confronting individuals in the church.
Let’s look closer at the doctor/elder scenario from before. Besides potentially reducing the church’s financial resources and the other strengths that each member brings, there are social repercussions of confronting people who believe circumcision is beneficial or just not particularly harmful.
How might that potential conversation undermine the pastor’s authority? What would other church members say if they heard about it? How much church gossip does it take to put a pastor’s job security on the line?
Aside from that rabbit hole, this also exemplifies a logical fallacy called “appeal to authority”, which is where we take the opinions of people presumed to be the authority on a topic at face value instead of researching it ourselves.
In this case, let’s look at the elder/doctor:
- This is a Midwest USA church. That means a high circumcision rate.
- If this doctor is an elder in the church, he is probably older.
- If he’s in family practice, it means he has probably performed many circumcisions.
- If he’s never been challenged on this belief, especially with all of the latest evidence that suggests circumcision is harmful and unethical, then he is probably deeply entrenched in his views.
He has a lot to lose if he’s wrong. Would you want to be the guy that challenges him on this issue? Me neither.
Even if your church is led by a pastor that is confident in his own decision not to circumcise his sons, he might not think he knows enough about the issue to speak out to others about it. Or, he might fear that the congregation would not believe him anyway because he is not a doctor.
Maybe he has tried to speak to congregation members in a low key way and has been ignored or met with confusion or resistance by the people whose sons he tried to save. Why face all these consequences if no one will listen to you anyway? Why risk alienation based on something that the local community might consider a non-issue?
For that matter, how much does having someone you care about ignore your advice affect your relationship with them? If you’re in a position of spiritual authority over them, how would their decision to disregard your advice cloud your judgment of them in the future?
4. Because if he’s an American born in the latter half of the 20th century, he’s probably circumcised himself.
Circumcision in the United States hit a high in the 70s and 80s of around 70% of boys, according to most figures. If your pastor is an American-born man between the ages of 30 and 60, chances are very likely he was circumcised at birth and has never known what having a foreskin, which was what he was designed by God to have and enjoy, is like.
If he isn’t circumcised, he’s one of the fortunate ones, but that’s probably not something he’ll readily share. After all, have you ever known a pastor that would freely discuss this topic? I thought not. Boundaries, man.
A lot of circumcised men in the United States know nothing about the process of circumcision, what is removed, or what the foreskin is supposed to be there for. Your pastor might be one of these men – it’s not that he feels he can’t say anything, it’s that he doesn’t know he should say something.
I’m always hesitant to use the adage “ignorance is bliss,” but it’s fitting in this case. Many men don’t know what they don’t know, and what they do know has always been ‘good enough,’ even if they’ve been suffering from side effects their whole life and don’t know they were designed by their Creator to have a better, fuller experience of sexuality.
In fact, we published a blog post last year in which we examined the major titles in the field of Christian marital intimacy, such as Intended for Pleasure, A Celebration of Sex, and The Act of Marriage and found that the authors had no understand of the benefit of being intact, or that the foreskin contributes substantially to the pleasure of both partners.
5. Because he might have circumcised his own sons.
Circumcision is still common in many parts of the country. Statistically, if your pastor has sons, especially if your church is in the Midwest, your pastor probably circumcised his own sons. Even if you have a younger pastor, the rate is still hovering around 50% across the country, more in the Midwest than in the West, South and Northeast.
While a ‘lay’ family (a mom or dad speaking to another mom or dad) may feel comfortable saying to another family that their son is or is not circumcised and why or why not, saying it from a pulpit or in a church council meeting would be another matter entirely.
If he takes a public stand against it, this might mean revealing too much information about his sons, which would be pretty disrespectful to their privacy. For example, if he comes out and says he regrets having done it to his own sons given his new understanding of the ethical issues, then he reveals sensitive details. If he says he would never do it to his own sons, or in fact has not, he reveals just as much. It’s a catch-22.
The one way around this is if his sons were old enough to consent to that information being shared, and encouraged him to do so. Suffice to say this is not something that most young men are OK with. Otherwise, there might be some pretty heated conversation that night at the dinner table.
6. Because of Genesis 17
Many Christians get this one wrong, and we’ve covered it many times before in the blog. Just because circumcision is in the Bible originally as a commandment from God to Abraham does not mean it is profitable, healthy, or ideal for anyone.
For example, read this article. The circumcision command was for a specific reason and a specific time in a specific place. It is not applicable, beneficial, or appropriate to still claim it as a Christian practice.
On the contrary, circumcision is not practiced by Christians in any other part of the world, with very few exceptions.
Indeed, many early theologians denounced the practice, such as Justin Martyr, Martin Luther, Ambrose, Calvin, and others. Most notably, Paul heavily denounces the practice throughout the entire New Testament.
However, your pastor’s theology or education might not include this knowledge.
7. Because his oversight won’t let him talk about it
Some pastors are not allowed to speak about certain topics in their sermons, regardless of their personal views, due to their church bylaws, head pastor’s decision, oversight committees, denominational credos, or other sources of church authority. Indeed, the entire decision-making process on social issues and the church’s stance might be well above his head.
This doesn’t mean he doesn’t have a decided opinion on the subject, or that he isn’t open to learning more, it just means that he is supporting the vision of his church, respecting his leadership, and, speaking frankly, protecting his job.
What you can do if you’re a pastor who is reading this:
First of all, welcome.
We’re glad to have you here, and hope this blog post has resonated with you, or at least has challenged you to consider this issue differently.
If you feel led to let your ethical voice be heard regarding this matter but have to speak carefully, we have suggestions on which ideas to focus on.
For example, circumcision could be clarified as an issue that is not a salvation issue, but also that it is absolutely not biblically necessary for Christians.
It could also be addressed from a position that some things are acceptable in mainstream culture, but that we as Christians are to eschew certain practices when they interfere with our understanding of God’s will and design.
Furthermore, circumcision has been demonstrably shown in recent years to not be medically necessary, or even beneficial, but this might be a leading factor in many couple’s decision to circumcise. This could be worked easily into an example of how God’s perfect design and plan for his children rise above what some people claim is the medical rule of law.
Now, many pastors, hopefully most, are comfortable preaching from the pulpit or speaking in a church meeting about circumcision being spiritually the furthest thing from being required. Many, hopefully most, are teaching their congregation in a more general way that they must evaluate cultural practices from a biblical perspective and reject those that don’t match up with the teaching of the Bible. That is a great start towards Americans understanding and therefor rejecting routine/cosmetic circumcision.
The medical aspect may be the trickiest. What does a pastor say if a couple consults him about this issue, or if he dares to bring it up to an expecting couple? What makes his idea superior to a doctor’s recommendation? What if he doesn’t know all the details of all the studies? We recommend the following:
What pastors can focus on
Focusing on what the Bible tells us (your area of expertise!) is probably the strongest argument in your position.
God created our bodies very good, we are stewards of God’s creation and ought to use our power to protect and preserve the things in our care. It is worth learning about God’s creation so we can care for it- improper care is one of the main causes of foreskin problems.
If pressed on the medical/hygiene myths (which you most likely will be), you can be confident in these statements which are very unlikely to change even if a new study or headline comes out that you haven’t heard about:
- Almost all non-Muslim and non-Jewish men in the world are intact
- Most intact boys never experience a problem with their foreskin
- Families that follow care recommendations like ‘when intact, don’t retract’ rarely experience problems.
- Causing physical pain and risking human life without medical need is a moral concern with great ethical impact.
We hope that whether you are shouting it from the mountain tops (or the pulpit) or quietly counseling expectant families, you will honor God by speaking the truth and leading your congregation to also say ‘How great are your works, LORD’ (Psalm 92:5).