Council at Jerusalem
The Council at Jerusalem was the first council of the Christian Church. It was held at Jerusalem to consider the matter of circumcision sometime in 48-50 A. D., after Paul's first missionary journey with Barnabas and before his second missionary journey with Silas. The Council included apostles and elders of the Church. James, the half-brother of Jesus, Peter, Paul, Barnabas and Silas are identified as being present, among others.
Some men had come down from Judaea who said, "Unless you be circumcised after the manner of Moses, you cannot be saved." (This was the circumcision party, now known as Judaizers.)
Paul and Barnabas had a massive disagreement and argument with them, so it was decided to go up to Jerusalem to settle the question.
The apostles and elders met to consider the matter. Peter said,
"Men and brethren, ye know how that a good while ago God made choice among us, that the Gentiles by my mouth should hear the word of the gospel, and believe.
"And God, which knoweth the hearts, bare them witness, giving them the Holy Ghost, even as he did unto us;
"And put no difference between us and them, purifying their hearts by faith.
"Now therefore why tempt ye God, to put a yoke upon the neck of the disciples, which neither our fathers nor we were able to bear?
"But we believe that through the grace of the Lord Jesus Christ we shall be saved, even as they."
Peter evidently was aware of the pain, complications and other risks that are a part of circumcision.
It was then decided that James should write a letter to the Gentile believers.
Letter to the Gentiles
Forasmuch as we have heard, that certain which went out from us have troubled you with words, subverting your souls, saying, Ye must be circumcised, and keep the law: to whom we gave no such commandment:
It seemed good unto us, being assembled with one accord, to send chosen men unto you with our beloved Barnabas and Paul,
Men that have hazarded their lives for the name of our Lord Jesus Christ.
We have sent therefore Judas and Silas, who shall also tell you the same things by mouth.
For it seemed good to the Holy Ghost, and to us, to lay upon you no greater burden than these necessary things;
That ye abstain from meats offered to idols, and from blood, and from things strangled, and from fornication: from which if ye keep yourselves, ye shall do well. Fare ye well.
The goal of the letter was to obtain harmony by ensuring that Jews should not offend the Gentiles by requiring circumcision and the Gentiles should not offend the Jews by certain practices offensive to Jews, described above.
Judas Barsabbas and Silas were then dispatched to the Church at Antioch with the letter to the Gentile believers.
The doctrine of the Christian church with regard to the lack of necessity of circumcision was thus established and remains unchanged in the 21st Century.
Paul, shortly after the Council at Jerusalem, returned to Antioch, from where he wrote a letter to the churches in Galatia. In that letter he explained that Christians are saved by faith, not by circumcision:
Behold, I Paul say unto you, that if ye be circumcised, Christ shall profit you nothing.
For I testify again to every man that is circumcised, that he is a debtor to do the whole law.
Christ is become of no effect unto you, whosoever of you are justified by the law; ye are fallen from grace.
For we through the Spirit wait for the hope of righteousness by faith.
For in Jesus Christ neither circumcision availeth any thing, nor uncircumcision; but faith which worketh by love.
Position of the Roman Catholic Church
The Roman Catholic Church expressed its viewpoint on this issue in 1442.
It [The Holy Roman Church] firmly believes, professes and teaches that the legal prescriptions of the old Testament or the Mosaic law, which are divided into ceremonies, holy sacrifices and sacraments, because they were instituted to signify something in the future, although they were adequate for the divine cult of that age, once our lord Jesus Christ who was signified by them had come, came to an end and the sacraments of the new Testament had their beginning. Whoever, after the passion, places his hope in the legal prescriptions and submits himself to them as necessary for salvation and as if faith in Christ without them could not save, sins mortally.
It does not deny that from Christ's passion until the promulgation of the gospel they could have been retained, provided they were in no way believed to be necessary for salvation. But it asserts that after the promulgation of the gospel they cannot be observed without loss of eternal salvation. Therefore it denounces all who after that time observe circumcision, the sabbath and other legal prescriptions as strangers to the faith of Christ and unable to share in eternal salvation, unless they recoil at some time from these errors. Therefore it strictly orders all who glory in the name of Christian, not to practise circumcision either before or after baptism, since whether or not they place their hope in it, it cannot possibly be observed without loss of eternal salvation.
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