The matter of circumcision became a contested issue as the early Christian church was finding its feet. To appreciate why, we first need to understand that this had grown to be a most important element within Judaism. Between the time of the Old and New Testament, Seleucid King Antiochus IV attempted to stamp out Judaism, in part by forbidding the practice of circumcision among the Jews. This rite had become so vital to the identity of God’s people that they chose to die rather than yield to this pagan order.
Similarly, in the days of the New Testament the Sabbath was guarded very aggressively by the Jewish rabbis. Nothing resembling work was to be done. But if the eighth day after a boy was born was a Sabbath, circumcision was permitted (John 7:22). So it follows that New Testament notables with deep roots in Judaism, like John the Baptist, Jesus, and Paul, were circumcised (Luke 1:59; 2:21; Phil 3:5).
Given the importance of circumcision, Jews who became believers in Jesus were slow to relinquish the practice. And given the nature of the rite, Gentile believers in Jesus were slow to adopt it unless required to do so. Consequently there was a cultural divide among those who came to know Jesus as their Savior in the first century-Gentile believers and “circumcised believers” (Acts 10:45). The brought the early Christian church to an uneasy crossroads that required the wise council of senior Christian leaders in Jerusalem (Acts 15:1-5). The options were clear: (1) all Christians could be required to undergo circumcision, (2) all Christians, including Jews, could be directed to remain uncircumcised, or (3) the matter could be left to personal discretion. While certain directives were put into a letter from this council of Christian leaders for distribution to the churches at large, there was no demand for circumcision (Acts 15:23-29). The council left the matter to the discretion of each believer. Paul seems to capture the essence of their thoughts in 1 Corinthians 7:18-20. Liberty and expediency guided Paul, who called for the circumcision of Timothy but not of Titus (Acts 16:3; Gal 2:3).
But the matter did not go away and had to be addressed in the Epistles to the Romans, Corinthians, Galatians, and Colossians. The circumstances varied a bit in each case, but the bottom lines was that certain Jews insisted that faith in Jesus as the Savior from sin was not saving faith unless accompanied by the rite of circumcision (Rom 4:9-12; 1 Cor 7:18-20; Col 2:11; 3:11). The language of the Bible against this premise takes its strongest tone in Galatians: “Mark my words! I, Paul, tell you that if you let yourselves be circumcised, Christ will be of no value to you at all” (Gal 5:2; 2:3-5; 6:12-13).