A few years ago, a brilliant young post-graduate scientist began attending our church services. She started her journey to explore Christianity. Her upbringing was anything but religious, which made her thoughts on faith fresh—and occasionally conflicted. Before too long she asked if we could sit down and talk. She had questions.

Over coffee we discussed all sorts of things: science, theology, politics, resurrection, and the Portland Trail Blazers. It was enjoyable. But I could see her reaching for the real question as the conversation went on. Finally she asked what had been on her mind the whole time: "Can I be a Christian and still believe in evolution?"

Circumstance and "circumcision"

What would lead us to believe that a scientist must reject evolution before embracing the good news of Jesus? Why wouldn't we expect them to become agents of God's grace in the very tension that many stumble over?

In 1 Corinthians 7, Paul rambles through instructions for those who've recently converted to Christianity. One of his statements should make attentive observers of the text do a double-take. Paul writes, "Was a man already circumcised when he was called? He should not become uncircumcised. Was a man uncircumcised when he was called? He should not be circumcised" (v.18).

Finally she asked what had been on her mind the whole time: "Can I be a Christian and still believe in evolution?"

The latter portion of this teaching makes sense—Paul often admonished Gentile converts, directly opposing the Judaizers, that they shouldn't become cultural Jews (via circumcision) in order to follow Jesus. Circumcision, for Paul, was a cultural conversion rather than a heart conversion. After all, Paul wasn't after circumcision of the penis; Paul was after what he called "circumcision of the heart" (see Rom. 2:28-29). Such theology makes sense to contemporary Protestants and evangelicals, who long ago rejected any kind of work-based salvation. But it's the first half of Paul's assertion that catches the modern reader off guard: Why would Paul instruct circumcised converts to not become uncircumcised?

Quite a story (possibly) hides behind this little verse. Whether out of embarrassment, or fear of persecution, or conversion to Christianity, some first-century Jews were eager to reject Judaism and their Jewish culture. In some cases, circumcised males would actually become uncircumcised to hide their cultural identity. They went through an excruciating practice known as "epispasm." The procedure served as a kind of skin graft to undo circumcision. One could effectively become uncircumcised if they so desired. European Jews even resurrected the practice during the Nazi persecutions to escape death.

Whether epispasm is what Paul had in mind here is unclear. But it's clear that Paul rejected the idea that conversion to Jesus was cultural. If a Jew turned to Christ, he said that they should remain a Jew and follow Jesus. If a Gentile came to Christ, he said that they should remain in their cultural context and follow Jesus. Whoever a convert might be, Paul writes, they should "remain" (v. 20) in their context after their conversion.

Paul's hope was that upon conversion to God's grace, the newly redeemed would "remain" in the very cultural place where they were redeemed. Paul desired sellers of purple dye to remain sellers of purple dye, centurions to remain centurions, virgins to remain virgins, and married people to remain married people. Why? Because it is only as the church remains in the various parts of the world where new Christians resides that the gospel continues to spread.

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