A little leaven (1Co 5)
These words are often quoted as supplying the reason for the
rooting out of false doctrine. The application made of them is this: 'Just as
leaven, given time, permeates and changes the whole mass of dough, so also any
single difficulty in any ecclesia will inevitably ruin the otherwise good
character of the rest.'
However, what Paul is talking about in this chapter is bad
behavior, not false ideas. The context is the case of incest: "sexual immorality
among you, and of a kind that does not occur even among pagans: A man has his
father's wife" (1Co 5:1).
This open flouting of all moral restraints on the part of one
was aggravated by the permissive, even proud and defiant, attitude of the
ecclesia: "And you are proud! Shouldn't you rather have been filled with grief
and have put out of your fellowship the man who did this?" (1Co 5:2).
In the entire chapter there is no hint of doctrinal error.
This simple fact alone makes it clear that the words quoted are being made to do
duty for a purpose other than their original intention.
Objection to a general application of this saying ("A little
leaven leaveneth the whole lump") is also made in the following:
"Long experience shows that whereas nothing contributes to the
lowering of tone in an ecclesia like persistent bad behaviour, it is possible
for the community to immunize itself almost completely from the cranky ideas of
one member, be he never so good a propagandist. Paul's words [however] are
absolutely true in the field of morals" (HAW, Tes 43:312).
In the case of Corinth, what made the sin "leaven" was the
proud willingness to allow its influence to affect the whole of the ecclesia.
And even should we talk of doctrinal divergence as "leaven", then it is still
true that one false teacher does not introduce the "leaven" singlehandedly. He
usually has to have the approbation of the arranging brethren or the whole
ecclesia. In supporting this deviation in their midst, and taking no steps to
correct or isolate the problem, it is in fact they who are introducing the
"In the case of 1Co 5 the evil was not only unrepented of, it
had not been repudiated by the ecclesia, although it was the case of open and
manifest sin. The second epistle, however, shows the response of the ecclesia to
rebuke, and also (so at any rate many would interpret it) the restoration of the
repentant sinner (2Co 2:5-11; 7:8-11)... It is, as Paul showed, the ecclesia's
responsibility to judge open sin, and to repudiate it while doing all possible
for the recovery of the sinner (1Co 5:12,13)" (LGS, Chdn 105:218,219).
As to those who resort to this passage for proof of the
necessity to separate from error, how often have they been as eager and
energetic to seek the reclamation of the brethren whom they brand in the most
infamous terms? If we follow the apostle's example (supposedly) in purging out
any who offend, then we must endeavor to follow his example also in fervently
seeking their reinstatement. This, in the case of "false doctrine", would
involve a most serious effort to bring about reunion of the divided sections of
the brotherhood -- especially when the ones who "caused" the divisions by their
peculiar ideas have now in some cases been dead for years.
A further point must be made in regard to 1Co 5: even if this
passage may be used of those who teach wrongly concerning the first principles,
it still goes no further than demanding that the single ecclesia purge out its
own "leaven". There is no hint that failure to do so would result in the
Corinthian ecclesia being expelled from the worldwide association of all her
"If the application so often put on this passage be granted,
it becomes a terrible ground of censure of those who apply it thus. For, if the
leaven of false teaching really leavens so drastically, how is it that the
writings of the 'spiritually decadent' are read, scrutinised, criticised, and
discussed so vigorously? If such activities do not 'leaven' some who are
doctrinally 'pure', why should they be so damaging to others?" (HAW
It is in the nature of leaven, and indeed it is the only
reason for ever using the figure, that it changes the basic nature of any
material with which it comes into contact. If this proves not to be the case
with something that is called "leaven", then the whole argument with regard to
that divergence -- whether in morals or doctrine -- collapses.
Using this criterion, certain retroactive tests may be made.
The Christadelphian body has experienced many grievous divisions, ostensibly to
excise "leaven" from pure dough in each case. If the thesis were correct that
those errors or so-called errors would have a leavening influence on the rest,
then it should be true that the body that contained such leaven would be by now
thoroughly leavened. But this is just not the case! What has actually happened
many times is that the teaching, or perhaps action, that aroused so much
indignation in other ecclesial circles far removed from the center has quietly
sunk into oblivion, never again to trouble anyone except those who separated
themselves prematurely and who, to justify their separation, continue to be
exercised about a long-dead issue.
One of the main historical reasons for one "pure fellowship"
group's separation from the main body of believers was the queer ideas of a
rather eccentric brother; this brother circulated several pamphlets on the
nature and sacrifice of Christ in the early part of the 20th century. His
uncertain speculations were not summarily repudiated by more responsible
brethren elsewhere (though neither were they accepted), and the pages of the
break-away periodical were for years filled with denunciations of the leavening
nature of his work. Some 90 years have now passed since all this began, and one
occasionally still reads criticisms of this brother and of his "toleration" by
others. But his writings have completely vanished, and no one else has to our
knowledge ever taken up those ideas he so weakly articulated. It was told me by
another brother who once belonged to one of the separated ecclesias that, in his
travels, he had visited the old ecclesia of that long-dead brother. The ecclesia
met in a hall with an extensive library, and our friend began a search therein
for some of the brother's questionable writings. He found none and so asked a
brother of that meeting where they were kept; this brother in fact was a
relative of the original perpetrator of the questionable ideas. "Oh, we wouldn't
have that sort of thing around here!" was the immediate reply. And so it seems
that the only ecclesias where the old "leaven" still exists are those who
supposedly "purged" it out in the first place, but who still keep a few
"fragments" under wraps on the "top shelf" to demonstrate to later generations
how terrible it really was!
Returning to a more positive conclusion here, we should
endeavor to make an application of these verses to ourselves individually, for
certainly this was Paul's intention, as 1Co 5:8 would indicate: "Therefore let
us keep the Festival, not with the old yeast, the yeast of malice and
wickedness, but with bread without yeast, the bread of sincerity and
"To this day the Orthodox Jew is ruthless in the exclusion of
all leaven (or yeast) from his home for the seven day feast [ie, of Passover];
even to the extent of using a special set of cutlery, crockery and cooking
utensils lest a trace should be left on that normally used. In many cases this
is merely a slavish adherence to the letter of the law but we can take a lesson
from it. Should we not be just as diligent and just as ruthless ourselves with
our lives, with our thoughts, words and deeds to exclude from them anything
savouring of malice or evil? Bearing in mind the nature of the evil which Paul
had in mind at this time the warning is surely not to be lightly passed over
when we live in a world rapidly becoming as morally degenerate as was the world
by which the brethren and sisters at Corinth were surrounded. Such moral
depravity must at all costs be kept at bay, and the only way this can possibly
be done is by each one purging from his or her heart the old leaven that as a
community we may be a new lump, as we are unleavened" (E. Toms, "Christ Our
Passover", Dawn 21:280,281).