“Do you not know that a little leaven leavens the whole lump? 7 Therefore purge out the old leaven, that you may be a new lump, since you truly are unleavened. For indeed Christ, our Passover, was sacrificed for us. Therefore let us keep the feast, not with old leaven, nor with the leaven of malice and wickedness, but with the unleavened bread of sincerity and truth” (1 Cor. 5:6-8).
I have been leading a small group of women through the book of 1 Corinthians, and this week we came to Chapter 5. This chapter tackles the ancient (and modern) issue of how the church is to address flagrant, unrepentant sin—sexual and otherwise–in a body of believers. The Apostle Paul draws a clear distinction between two standards—one that applies to the family of God and another that applies to the pagan, unbelieving world. Followers of Jesus should not behave according to the spirit of the world or the age but be consistently directed by the conviction of the Holy Spirit and the wisdom of the word of God.
The metaphor Paul chooses in this context is leaven. This is not yeast, but a lump of fermented dough that is used to bake a batch of bread. Only a small amount is necessary to produce a large batch of puffy loaves of bread. Paul rebukes the church members receiving his epistle for allowing a man to remain in their fellowship after disclosure that he’d been having incestuous relations with his father’s wife. He warns that if they allow this sin of one man to remain unaddressed, the sin will permeate the flock and defile the entire church.
Being a true scholar of the Torah, Paul brings their remembrance to the unleavened bread of the Passover event. In the Law of Moses, we find this instruction:
“Therefore you shall sacrifice the Passover to the Lord your God, from the flock and the herd, in the place where the Lord chooses to put His name. You shall eat no leavened bread with it; seven days you shall eat unleavened bread with it, that is, the bread of affliction (for you came out of the land of Egypt in haste), that you may remember the day in which you came out of the land of Egypt all the days of your life” (Deut. 16:2).
The yearly sacrifice, accompanied by unleavened bread, was to be kept very holy. It reminded them of the Lord’s rescue from captivity. It reminded them that they were a people set apart from the world. It was a commemoration of their full dependence upon God for their very survival. It was a joyful but humbling feast, nothing “puffed up” about it.
Leaven is used metaphorically a few other times in Scripture, usually with the negative connotation of the insidious, expanding qualities of sin, whether in an individual or in a body of believers.
Jesus also uses the metaphor of leaven to refer to false doctrine, particularly the contorted and exploitive teachings of the religious leaders of his day. He warned his disciple to “take heed and beware against the leaven of the Pharisees and Sadducees (Matt 16:6). The Pharisees were dangerous to the spread of the gospel because of their oppressive legalism, and the Sadducees for their love of ecclesiastical prestige and wealth. Jesus did not want his followers puffed up with pride because of presumed religious correctness or a perception of elite social status. He knew it would bloat and corrupt their characters. His was a gospel for sinners, for the poor in spirit, the meek, the mourners, those hungry and thirsty for righteousness. Plain and unleavened.
Paul writes to the Corinthians, “Do you not know that a little leaven leavens the whole lump? Therefore purge out the old leaven, that you may be a new lump, since you truly are unleavened. For indeed Christ, our Passover, was sacrificed for us. Therefore let us keep the feast, not with old leaven, nor with the leaven of malice and wickedness, but with the unleavened bread of sincerity and truth (1 Cor. 5:6-8).
I understand this figuratively; I love a good piece of leavened, freshly baked bread. But this Scriptures teaches me not to become leavened. When I discern that something has crept into my heart that might seem small and insignificant, but there is a conviction about it, I am instructed to purge it out. If I do not, it might expand and take control, and spread to negatively affect others who are influenced by my ministry and walk. And I am instructed to be attentive to doctrine. Right, biblical, Christ-centered, truth-and-grace-centered doctrine matters.