Two Strains of Yeast

In his epistle to the Galatian churches, Paul forcefully confronts the error of justification by works, the false, anti-Gospel notion that Christians are obligated to obey the Law of Moses in order to merit salvation, and consequently must undergo the circumcision ritual as a sign of their obligation.

You who are trying to be justified by the law have been alienated from Christ; you have fallen away from grace. For through the Spirit we eagerly await by faith the righteousness for which we hope. For in Christ Jesus neither circumcision nor uncircumcision has any value. The only thing that counts is faith expressing itself through love.

You were running a good race. Who cut in on you to keep you from obeying the truth? That kind of persuasion does not come from the one who calls you. “A little yeast works through the whole batch of dough.”

Galatians 5:4-9

A little yeast. The principle of yeast is that it is a living organism, which multiplies and spreads to occupy the whole lump of dough. Yeast is often used as a metaphor for sin and corruption in Scripture. Paul uses the same metaphor elsewhere:

Your boasting is not good. Don’t you know that a little yeast leavens the whole batch of dough?

1 Corinthians 5:6

In this context, the meaning of the metaphor is the same (allowing a little bit of error will result in corrupting the whole church), but the issue being addressed is completely different. In Corinth, the problem wasn’t the threat of legalism, with its scrupulous attention to detail and duty and requirements. In Corinth, the issue was permissiveness (at least in Chapter Five, the immediate context): the church was “proud” to be so inclusive as to accept without rebuke a man who was living in open sin. The Corinthian church was plagued with many other problems: factions, jealousy, intellectual and spritual pride, gluttony and selfishness, and disorder in worship. Whatever “yeast” they had permitted into their midst had multiplied and infected every corner of the church.

I think back to the words of Jesus:

“Be careful,” Jesus said to them. “Be on your guard against the yeast of the Pharisees and Sadducees.”

Matthew 16:6

When the disciples failed to understand his parabolic way of speaking, he clarified:

“How is it you don’t understand that I was not talking to you about bread? But be on your guard against the yeast of the Pharisees and Sadducees.” Then they understood that he was not telling them to guard against the yeast used in bread, but against the teaching of the Pharisees and Sadducees.

Matthew 16:11-12

The “yeast” is the teaching, the doctrine of the Pharisees and Sadducees. (Note: in Luke’s account, the Sadducees are omitted, while Mark’s account substitutes “Herod” in their place.)

But the Pharisees and Sadducees were hardly united in their doctrine. In fact, about the only thing they ever agreed on was that Jesus had to be eliminated, since he so strongly opposed the teachings of both groups. What did they teach? We know the Pharisees well; Paul himself was (as Saul) one of them. Some others of them also became followers of Jesus, but they brought their teachings into the church with them:

Then some of the believers who belonged to the party of the Pharisees stood up and said, “The Gentiles must be circumcised and required to keep the law of Moses.”

Acts 15:5

An important, watershed moment in the history of the early church is about to unfold. The Pharisee believers have a strong case: These new Gentile believers have really accepted the Jewish Messiah, and should be brought into the community of Israel, with all its attendant responsibilities. But in the council that follows, that position loses. It is Peter who rises up to declare the decision in favor of grace, the position advanced by Paul and Barnabas at the outset of the meeting. This decision (and the letter that was sent out to the churches in the provinces) effectively neutralized the incipient “yeast” of Pharisaical teaching that could have severely changed church history if left unchecked.

But there is another strain of yeast, the “yeast of the Sadducees” (or Herod). The Sadducees were the religious liberals of the time. They were the men of science, who rejected the supernatural (angels, demons, the resurrection). Jesus, in one of his few direct addresses to them, said “You are in error because you do not know the Scriptures or the power of God” (Matthew 22:29). Soft-pedaling the Torah and pooh-poohing the miraculous were their stock-in-trade.

The Sadducees also happened to occupy the seats of power in the Temple, a result of their being friendly to some degree with the political leader (Herod) and the occupying Romans. When it came time to eliminate Jesus, they found a willing co-conspirator in the Roman forces led by Pilate.

The Sadducees sought political power and prestige, because (absent any belief in the supernatural), this life is all they had. They sold out their religious heritage in order to make a compromise with the world around them. To use a different analogy, their salt had lost its saltiness. They wanted to be “players,” important men, men of renown and action and fame and wealth.

It is this strain of yeast that infected Corinth. To the extent that we can theorize about a single cause for all the error on display in that church body, we can say that pride is behind it all — the pride of gaining followers, of having prestige, of having an in-crowd, of flaunting a wicked lifestyle because of an abuse of grace.

This kind of yeast manifests itself in ambitious but immature believers being given leadership roles, in the desire of certain groups to cloister themselves in their theological isolation, and in the elevation of pop psychology and business strategy as substitutes for sound apostolic doctrine. For those of us who (like me) are always vigilant against the Pharisees’ yeast, this other strain can come as a surprise.

As Christians, especially those of us charged with leadership and protection of the flock, we need to be aware of both strains of yeast – that of the Pharisees (creeping legalism, performance-based discipleship, the false notes of duty) and that of the Sadducees (worldliness, politics, factions, cheap grace and easy-believism) that would spread through the church if left alone. Grant us discernment, O Lord!

O Jesus, keep me on the narrow road

For danger waits for me on either side:

The frozen caves of ice lie to my right

A bitter land of Pharisees and law

And to my left a thick and blinding fog

Where compass needles spin, for lack of north.

But here the sunshine beams along the road

And though the way is sometimes choked with thorns

I trust your grace to lead me to its end

Where rocks and thorns give way to streets of gold.

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