How Much Leaven Does It Take to Leaven the Whole Lump?

By Hal Snyder

Like so many other questions, this one has two answers. The short answer is what Paul observed in 1 Corinthians 5:6: just “a little” bit. The long answer really deals with answering a more complex question: how “much” is “a little”?

The context of Paul’s answer was the sin of fornication (1 Cor. 5:1) that was being sanctioned by the Christians at Corinth — a young man was living as husband-and-wife with his step-mother! That fornication is a sin is obvious from such Scriptures as Romans 1:29, 1 Corinthians 6:18, 2 Corinthians 12:21, Galatians 5:9, and 1 Thessalonians 4:3. Under no circumstances can fornication ever merit God’s approval. It is always wrong.

Most readers can see that Paul is using “leaven” as a metaphor for “sin” and is in essence saying that just a little sin contaminates the local body of Christ and the souls of those who make up the church. Notice that the Greek word for “sin” is hamartano (a verb), and it literally means “to miss the mark” (W.E. Vine’s An Expository Dictionary of New Testament Words, 1046). When our Marines shoot at targets on the rifle range, the bull’s eye is the ten ring. Everything in the bull’s eye counts ten points towards their marksmanship score. Although the nine ring is right next to the bull’s eye, a bullet through this ring counts only nine points towards their score regardless if the bullet strikes above the bull’s eye or if it falls below (or to either side). Nine is almost ten, but it misses the mark of ten by a single point.

People fail to hit the mark by one of three ways: by failing to do those things which they should do (some folks call this a sin of omission, like not visiting the widows and orphans of James 1:26), by doing those things they shouldn’t do (some folks call this a sin of commission; the New Testament term for this is paraptoma, which is translated “trespass” and means “a deviation from uprightness and truth” (Vine, 1166), or by going “beyond that which is written” (1 Cor. 4:6), which can also be termed a sin of commission. The New Testament term for this last way is parabaino, which is translated “transgress” and means to go beyond (Vine,   1161). “Lawlessness” (anomia or “disregard for the law” (Vine, 647) is similar to trespass, but both indicate rejection of God’s will and substituting one’s own will for God’s.

Before making the spiritual application, let’s notice briefly what has happened to those who are a part of the Restoration Movement that was stated in the late 1700s and early 1800s in America — a movement that sought to restore the church of Christ to its New Testament purity.

Just prior to the American Civil War, two things happened to influence Christians: the melodeon (or organ) was introduced into the worship service of the church in Midway, Kentucky, and the American Christian Missionary Society was founded (in Cincinnati, Ohio). These two digressions began a division of believers into two groups known as “progressives” and “conservatives.” This division became permanent when the 1906 United States census recognized the former group as the Disciples of Christ (Christian Church) and the churches of Christ (which was composed of the “conservative” element of the American Restoration Movement).

While the churches of Christ continued striving to be the church of the New Testament, the Disciples grew into a full-fledged denomination. During the period immediately following World War II through the late 1950s and middle 1960s, faithful “conservatives” resisted the “liberal” digressions of institutionalism and the sponsoring church arrangement.

In a book compiled by Mac Lynn, Churches of Christ in the United States (Brentwood, TN: Morrison and Phillips Associates, 1994), conservative congregations are identified as being “Non-institutional: oppose church support of institutions and the sponsoring church concept of benevolence and missions” (93). Lynn does not identify “liberal” congregations, but he provides several identifying marks of an “anti.”

Liberal brethren saw (and continue to see) nothing wrong with human institutions doing the work that God gave his church (in such areas as caring for widows and orphans).

Most of those who earlier supported institutionalism also embraced the sponsoring church arrangement, which manifests itself in the areas of benevolence and evangelism. As for the “antis,” they see nothing right with having separate Bible classes, using multiple containers for the Lord’s sup- per, or using a located preacher. Both of these digressions have one thing in common — they “go beyond that which is written” (2 Cor. 4:6) and thus “abideth not in the doctrine of Christ” (2 John 9).

Now for the spiritual application. Just as much as the congregation at Corinth was sanctioning fornication, brethren who today sanction the practices of liberalism or anti-ism endanger their eternal souls, for what they teach and practice is not the “doctrine of Christ” and, thus, they have not God (2 John 9). In addition to jeopardizing their souls, they threaten the collective influence of their congregation (Rev. 2:1-5).

In Paul’s day, it was quite common for the heathen to practice fornication as a form of religious observance. Even though the fornication at Corinth was identified by Paul as being a “little” thing, since its continued practice would potentially destroy the souls of the Corinthian brethren, Paul directed the Corinthians to “purge out therefore the old leaven” (1 Cor. 5:6a) before others became influenced by the behavior of the fornicators.

Today, some brethren sanction a “little” liberalism (in the form of the sponsoring church arrangement, which is often used as a euphemism for a mini-missionary society, or institutionalism of any sort). Worse yet, when brethren sanction error, they become “partakers” in the “evil deeds” (2 John 11) of those practicing error, and, thus, share in the guilt of their sin. Whenever faithful brethren learn of such digression, our duty is two-fold: warn those practicing error (for they “cause divisions . . . contrary to the doctrine ye have learned”) and after identifying them, we are to “avoid them” (Rom. 15:17).

The Holy Spirit, through the inspired apostle Paul, commanded that Christians have Bible authority for the things they do: “Whatever you do in word or deed, do all in the name of the Lord” (Col. 3:17).

So long as we do Bible things in Bible ways, and call Bible things by Bible names, we will have God’s approval (2 John 9b).

How “much” is “a little”? The answer remains the same as it was nearly 2,000 years ago: just a “little.”