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Conflict: Then and Now

by Joy A. Schroeder

Our present-day church is afflicted with controversies and divisions. Some arguments deal with important matters of church teaching, worship practices, and the authority of Scripture.Other divisions are caused by personality conflicts, difficult individuals, and bitterly quarreling factions within our church communities. We might be tempted to yearn for a “golden age” when things were simpler and more peaceful. However, there was never a time when the church was free of conflict. What did the earliest Christians fight about?

Interpreting God’s Law

A recurring controversy in the New Testament was the question of obedience to the laws found in the Hebrew scriptures, especially circumcision for Gentile (non-Jewish) men wishing to become Christian. The Lord commands circumcision in Leviticus 12:3. It is a sign of God’s covenant with Abraham and his descendants (Genesis 17:9–14).

Christianity began as a movement with Judaism.Since the earliest followers of Jesus were Jews, the question of circumcision was not initially a problem. The men were already circumcised. However, very soon after Jesus’ resurrection, people questioned whether men who wanted to become part of the church needed to be circumcised. And they asked whether all believers—whether male or female—needed to follow Jewish dietary restrictions and other rules. The Apostle Paul, who opposed requiring circumcision for new believers, used strong language to write about this topic. But why was circumcision so hotly contested in the early church? What was at stake?

The Rev. Dr. Joy A. Schroeder, an ELCA pastor, teaches church history at Trinity Lutheran Seminary and Capital University, both in Columbus, Ohio.

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