As we keep the 2020-21 Holy Day season, we have put leavening out of our homes and are eating unleavened bread for seven days. We have long understood leavening as a metaphor for sin since the fermentation process is symbolic of spiritual corruption, based on what Paul wrote in 1 Corinthians 5:6, “Do you not know that a little leaven leavens the whole lump?”
We do indeed know that and rehearse it every year as we keep the Days of Unleavened Bread. However, our observance this year in the United States and many other nations has been subject to restrictions due to the coronavirus pandemic. The silver lining on this cloud hanging over us is that we can learn a vital but largely overlooked lesson about sin that is most relevant to this Holy Day season, namely the pervasive nature of sin and how to help prevent sin from spreading.
This classic statement about leavening appears also in Galatians 5:9, where it refers to the rapid spread of false teachings (see also Galatians 1:6). Similarly, Jesus warned His disciples to “take heed and beware of the leaven of the Pharisees and the Sadducees,” which he explained as meaning their doctrine (Matthew 16:6-12). The Bible Knowledge Commentary explains, “Their teaching was like pervasive yeast, penetrating and corrupting the nation.”
Paul warned Timothy about the potentially pervasive nature of empty discussions, citing the example of Hymenaeus and Philetus “who have strayed concerning the truth, saying that the resurrection is already past; and they overthrow the faith of some” (2 Timothy 2:14-18). He also instructed Titus to “reject a divisive person after one or two warnings” (Titus 3:10, New English Translation). The lesson here is that swift, decisive action is necessary to protect the congregation before false teachings are allowed to spread.
These passages help us to understand the meaning of Paul’s reference to the blatant sin in Corinth as like “a little leaven [that] leavens the whole lump.”
The context of Paul’s reference to leavening has to do with not just the effect of sin in the personal life of members, but the need to keep sin from affecting the entire congregation, which is what was taking place in Corinth.
“The saying, ‘It takes only a little chametz to leaven a whole batch of dough,’ quoted in a similar context in Galatians 5:9, here tells the Corinthians not only that each individual should guard against personal sin, but also that permitting a promiscuous sinner who professes to be a fellow-believer (see 1 Corinthians 5:9-10) to remain in their midst is a sure way to infect the entire… community with sin” (The Jewish New Testament Commentary).
The abominable sin of incest was common knowledge among the membership, yet no action was being taken due to the “puffed up” (arrogant) nature of those who were proud of their alleged superior knowledge (1 Corinthians 5:1-2; 8:1). So, Paul had to command them to do what they should have done long before (1 Corinthians 5:1-5). Hence Paul’s scolding remark in verse 6, “Don’t you know…” (The New Living Translation reads, “Don’t you realize…”) regarding the pervasive nature of sin. They should have understood and taken appropriate action to protect the congregation by removing the unrepentant sinner from the congregation—which could be understood as spiritual quarantine.
We can better understand the importance of that biblical principle in the context of sin by what we are experiencing in the current battle against the coronavirus pandemic.
It is the pastor’s responsibility to take such action, which can take the form of suspension or excommunication—what we more commonly refer to as disfellowship. However, the fact that Paul blames the whole congregation (you is plural throughout the chapter) is significant. This indicates that although it's a pastor's responsibility to make the decision to disfellowship, the whole congregation has the responsibility to abide by that decision so it has effect. All of the members have an important role to protect the congregation—as well as to hopefully help the sinning person come to repentance.
Similarly, government leaders can only ask or require people to practice “social distancing,” but unfortunately, some have chosen to disregard and fail to carry out this order that is designed to protect all citizens and slow the spread of the virus.
Paul’s admonition to the congregation in Rome could be described as “social distancing” or perhaps “spiritual distancing.” He writes, “and now I make one more appeal, my dear brothers and sisters. Watch out for people who cause divisions and upset people’s faith by teaching things contrary to what you have been taught. Stay away from them” (Romans 16:17, New Living Translation).
Another factor common to both the coronavirus pandemic and pervasive nature of sin is that even though not everyone is infected, everyone is affected. We must also practice spiritual quarantine to avoid becoming infected with sin. The situation in Corinth wasn’t that there was a danger of every member becoming guilty of incest. But their lack of action was indicative of their overall unhealthy spiritual condition.
Most of the deaths from the coronavirus have been people with pre-existing health conditions. So just as it is important to maintain good overall health (especially a strong immune system), it is also important for us to maintain good spiritual health by a healthy diet of spiritual food. This spiritual food can be the Bread of Life and “meat in due season”—and keeping our hands clean (righteous conduct):
“Who shall ascend the hill of the LORD? And who shall stand in his holy place? Those who have clean hands and pure hearts, who do not lift up their souls to what is false, and do not swear deceitfully” (Psalm 24:3-4, New Revised Standard Version, emphasis added).
“Draw near to God, and he will draw near to you. Cleanse your hands, you sinners, and purify your hearts, you double-minded” (James 4:8, New Revised Standard Version emphasis added).
The New Living Translation puts it this way (emphasis added): “Come close to God, and God will come close to you. Wash your hands, you sinners; purify your hearts, for your loyalty is divided between God and the world.”
The coronavirus pandemic is too widespread and pervasive for one person or even governmental officials and health professionals to defeat. We must all do our part to comply with their instructions and help other people as we have opportunity to do. Other members have helped us by delivering groceries to us, since we must stay home because we are in a high-risk category due to our ages. Most importantly, we need to pray for God to protect and deliver us from this pandemic.
This is the same way we prevent the pervasive nature of sin. Just as governmental officials and health professionals are the best resources to determine what must be done to battle COVID-19, we must follow the instructions and guidelines given by our church leaders and local pastors on how to apply biblical principles in our battle against the spread of sin. Just as not all illnesses are contagious, neither are all sins pervasive. That is their responsibility to make that determination; it is our responsibility to do our part in the battle against sin (Hebrews 3:12-13; 12:14-15).
Christianity has experienced numerous spiritual epidemics and pandemics, as has our church culture. So, let’s be sobered by and learn from the COVID-19 pandemic in our battle against sin, especially this time of year as we focus on the lessons we must learn from the Days of Unleavened Bread.
“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 Corinthians 5:8).