The Agora
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40. “A Little Leaven” (1 Corinthians 5)

“Your glorying is not good. Know ye not that a little leaven leaveneth the whole lump? Purge out therefore the old leaven... the leaven of malice and wickedness” (vv. 6-8).

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.’

It needs to be emphasized that what Paul is talking about in this chapter is bad behavior, not false ideas. The context (do some folks ever look at context?) is the case of incest:

“a fornication among you, and such fornication as is not so much as named among the Gentiles, that one should have his father’s wife” (v. 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 ye are puffed up, and have not rather mourned, that he that hath done this deed might be taken away from among you” (v. 2).

In the entire chapter there is no hint of doctrinal error. This simple fact 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” (H. Whittaker, “Block Disfellowship: Is It Taught in the Bible?”, The Testimony, Vol. 43, No. 512 — Aug. 1973 — p. 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 leaven.

“In the case of 1 Corinthians 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 (2 Cor. 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 (1 Cor. 5:12,13)” (L.G. Sargent, “Why Not Ask?”, The Christadelphian, Vol. 105, No. 1247 — May 1968 — pp. 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 that 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 that must be made in regard to 1 Corinthians 5 — as has been already made for other passages: 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 sister-ecclesias.

And finally....

“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?” (Whittaker, op. cit).
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 this 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 seventy 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 v. 8 would indicate:

“Therefore let us keep the feast, not with old leaven, neither with the leaven of malice and wickedness, but with the unleavened bread of sincerity and truth.”

We could do no better than conclude with the following quotation:

“To this day the Orthodox Jew is ruthless in the exclusion of all leaven (or yeast) from his home for the seven day feast [i.e., 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”, The Dawn Ecclesial Magazine, Vol. 21, No. 12 — Dec. 1960 — pp. 280,281).
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