by Al Maxey

Issue #141 ------- August 19, 2004
Ideas come in pairs and they contradict
one another; their opposition is the
principal engine of reflection.

Jean-Paul Sartre (1905-1980)
"Ideology and Revolution"

Yeast from the Beast
The Leavening Power of Sectarianism

Our Lord Jesus had just had quite a discussion with the religious elite of His day over the topic of tradition, specifically with regard to its impact upon Truth. The scribes and the Pharisees were upset that Jesus and His disciples seemed to care little for the "traditions of the elders" (Matt. 15:2; Mark 7:5). Jesus, on the other hand, was far more concerned that the rigid religionists who confronted Him that day were elevating human preferences over divine precepts (Matt. 15:3f; Mark 7:6f). Needless to say, these self-righteous legalists were less than pleased with the bold teaching of Jesus! Indeed, the Lord's own devoted disciples came to Him and said, "Are you aware that the Pharisees were offended when they heard this statement?" (Matt. 15:12). The response of our Lord, however, was very blunt: "Leave them; they are blind guides of the blind!" (vs. 14).

Shortly thereafter, Jesus healed a number of people of various illnesses and afflictions. He also fed the four thousand (Matt. 15:32-38; Mark 8:1-9). Jesus and His disciples then boarded a boat and sailed to a new region. It didn't take very long at all for the local legalists to discover the Lord was present. "And the Pharisees came out and began to argue with Him, seeking from Him a sign from heaven, to test Him" (Mark 8:11). Just imagine what this must have been like for Jesus! Day after day, week after week, He was hounded by these men who were determined to either shame Him into silence or rid the earth of Him entirely. Such has almost always been the methodology of malicious militants; we see it even among the Patternists and Sectarians of our own day, just as Jesus witnessed it among the Pharisees and Sadducees of His.

Yes, such blind devotion to law and tradition, such argumentativeness, is enough to try even the patience of deity. How weary our Lord had become of such antics by the "anti's." Mark states that when these legalists came out of the woodwork and began to argue with Jesus, our Lord "sighed deeply within His spirit" (Mark 8:12). The text literally speaks of a deep, inner groaning. It was as if Jesus was saying, "Ohhhhhhhh ... not again!!! Don't these hounds ever cease their yapping; will they never cease snapping at the heels of Truth?!" The watchdogs of legalism can literally wear their opposition down .... indeed, that is their hope! There are times when, to preserve one's own spiritual energy and well-being, these pernicious patternists must simply be kicked to the curb as one moves forward toward more fruitful service to the Lord. Jesus essentially did just that when He told them that NO sign would be given to them. "Then He left them, got back into the boat and crossed to the other side" (Mark 8:13).

It was at this point in the biblical narrative that our Lord Jesus Christ uttered a very firm warning to His beloved disciples, one that is variously rendered in the gospel records that make mention of it. "Watch out and beware of the leaven of the Pharisees and Sadducees" (Matt. 16:6) .... "Watch out! Beware of the leaven of the Pharisees and the leaven of Herod" (Mark 8:15). "Beware of the leaven of the Pharisees" (Luke 12:1). The Greek word translated "leaven" in these verses (some versions have "yeast") is Zume, which simply signifies that active agent permeating some substance and "making it light" (for example, any active agent causing bread dough to rise). There are several different kinds of leavening agents, or leaveners --- Natural (such as air or steam), Chemical (baking powder and baking soda are two examples), or Biological (the category under which yeast would naturally fall). Yeast is a living micro-organism which gives off carbon dioxide as it operates, thus causing dough to expand, become "light," or rise. Yeast is additionally used in the fermentation process in making certain alcoholic beverages (such as beer). This Greek word "is used in the Septuagint -- Exodus 12:15 -- of beer yeast" (Dr. Kenneth Wuest, Wuest's Word Studies from the Greek New Testament, vol. 1, p. 162). It also has numerous other actions and applications beneficial, as well as harmful, to mankind.

The Sects Specified by the Savior

As one examines the above quoted passages -- Matt. 16:6, Mark 8:15, Luke 12:1 -- one will quickly note that three distinct groups are specified as leavening agents. These are: Pharisees, Sadducees, and Herod/Herodians (there is some diversity among ancient manuscripts as to whether Mark 8:15 should read "Herod" or "Herodians"). To better perceive the significance of the Lord's warning, we need to briefly examine each sect specified by our Lord. For a much more thorough and in-depth analysis of these and other Jewish religious sects, including their origin, history, and teachings, I would refer the readers to my study -- Religious Groups of the "Intertestamental" Period -- which may be found on my web site.

  1. The Pharisees --- This word literally means: "Separated Ones; Separatists." They had come to regard themselves as the inner circle of Judaism; the spiritual elite; the best of the best! They viewed themselves as religiously and spiritually superior to all other Jews; they were far more acceptable to God; they understood His Law better, and, of course, they practiced it more perfectly. They were the only ones right .... "the only ones going to heaven" .... the only group in full possession of all Truth. Sound familiar?!! Their view of their own superiority and righteousness inevitably led them to separate themselves from their Jewish brethren. All others were viewed with utter contempt for not being as holy and spiritually "enlightened" as they! Jesus rebuked them repeatedly for their religious arrogance and spiritual shallowness. They believed that one simply could not be acceptable to God unless they were a member of their sect. All of their evangelistic efforts were thus focused not upon bringing people to embrace the one true God, but rather to embrace their positions, practices, perceptions, and personal preferences. Their own teachings and traditions came to carry far more religious weight than God's Law, and they could be unbelievably extreme in their perceptions and practices; sometimes outrageously so! They were the legalists and patternists of their day!

  2. The Sadducees --- The Sadducees were a much smaller group than the Pharisees, but they had far more political power. They were the politicians, the social elite, and the aristocrats of their day. Although the Pharisees came to view themselves as being spiritually superior to other Jews, the Sadducees regarded themselves as socially superior. While virtually anyone could become a Pharisee, no matter his status in life (as long as he was willing to submit to the "party line"), membership in the sect of the Sadducees was by virtue of birth only! One had to be born into one of the high-priestly or aristocratic families. The Sadducees were "high society!" Religiously, the Sadducees were the "liberals" of their day. They rejected parts of the OT Scriptures, denied the existence of angels, spirits and a resurrection of the dead, and mixed politics with religion. One scholar stated, "Theirs was a rational religion, placing high value on logic and reason, and they were more preoccupied with matters of current expedient interest than in eternal truths." They felt it only logical to compromise with whomever was in power in order to secure a more favorable position for themselves. The Sadducees were not particularly popular with the common people. Part of this was due to the fact that in order to physically maintain the Temple, they heavily taxed the Jews.

  3. The Herodians --- No one is really sure how or when or by whom this sect was established. Some even question whether it was a sect at all; suggesting that perhaps it was more of an attitude or philosophy, primarily of the influential and wealthy Jews who had benefited in some way from the reign of the Herods, and who were thus supportive of the Herodian dynasty. Since the Herods owed their existence to Roman power, to support the Herods was in essence to support Rome. This was largely viewed as unpatriotic, and even treasonous. Thus, there were very few outspoken Herodians among the total population. Most held these views to themselves. This group is only mentioned by name three or four times, and in each case they are seen banded together with the Pharisees. Hatred of a common foe (Jesus) can generate some very strange bedfellows!

The Lord's Warning

As we examine the statements of our Lord, as recorded in the various gospel accounts, we discover He begins His warning with three specific words, each of which appear in the Imperative Mood (which is the mood of command) and in the Present Tense (which suggests the action should continue). These three Greek words, which alert the disciples to the importance of what is about to be said to them, are:

  1. Blepo --- (Mark 8:15) --- This refers to looking at or examining something with the eyes; "to see." Jesus urges them to open their eyes and look at what is being done by the sects He specifies. Observe them with your eyes!

  2. Horao --- (Mark 8:15; Matt. 16:6) --- This also conveys the idea of taking note of someone or something; to observe. It is sometimes translated, "Behold!" It signifies a great deal more than merely seeing with the eyes, however ... it denotes perception. Jesus commands the disciples to look at these sects and understand what it is they are seeing! It is taking the time and making the effort to look more deeply into a matter; going far beneath the surface; plumbing the depths to perceive the inner workings and motivations. "This word gives prominence to the discerning mind. The disciples were to use their heads" (Dr. Kenneth Wuest, Wuest's Word Studies from the Greek NT, vol. 1, p. 161).

  3. Prosecho --- (Matt. 16:6; Luke 12:1) --- After seeing and perceiving, one must then "guard against, beware of, give heed to." It is not enough merely to see/perceive the danger, one must take measures to guard what one has that is in danger.

It is the leaven of the Pharisees, Sadducees and Herodians/Herod against which the disciples are warned. In other words, there is something about these people, individually and/or collectively, that is extremely dangerous! This something has a permeating power about it; the ability to spread like a cancer, devouring and destroying. "The significant thing about leaven is its power, which power may become a symbol of either good or evil" (Zondervan Pictorial Encyclopedia of the Bible, vol. 3, p. 902). Jesus obviously used the symbol of leaven in a positive sense in His parable of the leaven (Matt. 13:33; Luke 13:20-21). Most often, however, leaven was used in the Scriptures in a negative sense "as a symbol of any evil influence which, if allowed to remain, can corrupt the body of believers" (Holman Bible Dictionary, p. 870).

What specifically was the nature of this "leaven" ... this yeast from the Beast (Satan) ... that caused it to be so deadly? Well, just as there are many types of "leavening agents," so there may well be many evil influences of the sects specified. Since "leaven" was a very "common symbol for evil," it "could therefore be applied to different kinds of wickedness, but always with the idea that a little of it could have a far-reaching and insidious effect" (The Expositor's Bible Commentary, vol. 8, p. 362). Thus, it would be a fatal error to limit the "leaven" of these sects to merely one aspect of their error. Their "leaven" was multi-faceted.

I'm personally convinced that at least one aspect of this evil permeating influence was their spirit of sectarianism. They were not promoting a "brotherhood of believers," but rather were squabbling siblings intent upon promoting themselves! They had lost sight of being Family, and instead had become Factionists. Sectarianism is like leaven: it is powerful and it is permeating; it spreads like cancer in the Body of Christ, and is just as debilitating and deadly!

Jesus Himself, however, informs His beloved disciples as to certain specific aspects of this leaven. "Beware of the leaven of the Pharisees, which is hypocrisy" (Luke 12:1). "In the rabbinical writings, yeast is usually a symbol for the wicked ways and dispositions of men" (The Expositor's Bible Commentary, vol. 8, p. 690). In like manner, the apostle Paul speaks of "the leaven of malice and wickedness" (1 Cor. 5:8), which Christians are urged to "clean out ... that you may be a new lump" of dough (vs. 7). Certainly, hypocrisy would fit into such a category of wicked dispositions with permeating power. Thus, these sectarians were making a pretense of piety! It was all external, rather than internal. They were whitewashed tombs full of dead men's bones; gnat strainers and camel swallowers. They offered up long prayers, and then went out and foreclosed on the widows! Jesus said to these pretenders, "Outwardly you appear righteous to men, but inwardly you are full of hypocrisy and lawlessness" (Matt. 23:28). Time and again in that chapter (Matthew 23) Jesus declared, "Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites" (vs. 13, 14, 15, 23, 25, 27, 29). "You serpents, you brood of vipers, how shall you escape the sentence of hell?" (vs. 33). Jesus didn't mince words with these partyists and sectarians! Neither should we!

The disciples did not initially grasp the significance of our Lord's "leaven" remark. In fact, at first, they thought He was rebuking their lack of foresight in failing to bring along enough bread for their journey; forbidding them from buying from those sectarians who had been opposing the Lord's teaching. "And they began to discuss among themselves, saying, 'It is because we took no bread'" (Matt. 16:7). Jesus clarified the matter, however, and "then they understood that He did not tell them to beware of the yeast in bread, but of the teaching of the Pharisees and Sadducees" (vs. 12). Thus, another aspect of this leavening force of these rigid religionists was their teaching. Some scholars see a wordplay here on the part of Jesus, who was very likely speaking Aramaic. In the Aramaic language, the words for "teaching" ('amir'a) and "yeast" (hamir'a) are almost identical.

The teaching of the Pharisees, in particular, was largely centered in their Tradition. Indeed, the traditions of their elders and rabbis had come to be regarded as of far greater significance than the Word of God. Jesus had earlier condemned them for "teaching as doctrines the precepts of men" (Matt. 15:9). After rebuking Jesus for "transgressing the tradition of the elders," Jesus replied, "And why do you yourselves transgress the commandment of God for the sake of your tradition?" (Matt. 15:3). "Thus you have invalidated the word of God for the sake of your tradition" (vs. 6). The elevation of tradition to the status of divine law is therefore an aspect of this deadly leaven of the Pharisees. "At no time perhaps is this warning to be heeded so much as in the times we live" (A.C. Gaebelein, The Gospel of Matthew: An Exposition, vol. 2, p. 43). Brother H. Leo Boles correctly pointed out in his commentary on Matthew, "The spirit of their teaching is the point warned against" (p. 340). It was not only a sectarian spirit, but also a spirit of traditionalism.

Another aspect of the teaching of these sects had to do with their various philosophies of life. Gaebelein characterizes it this way: "Jesus warns His disciples to beware of the terrible leaven of Ritualism and Rationalism" (The Gospel of Matthew: An Exposition, vol. 2, p. 43). The Pharisees evidenced the former, whereas the Sadducees manifested the latter. "For Jesus to warn against the yeast of the Pharisees and Sadducees in this context must constitute a warning against the toxic cynicism of these groups" (A Commentary on the Gospel of Matthew, p. 422). Dr. Kenneth Wuest views the various philosophies of these groups this way: Pharisaism = "externalism in religion" .... Sadduceeism = "skepticism as to the supernatural and as to the Scriptures" .... Herodianism = "worldliness" (Wuest's Word Studies from the Greek NT, vol. 1, p. 162). The Pharisees were pretentious in their piety, the Sadducees were the sect of radical skepticism, and the Herodians were simply those willing to compromise with the world about them. All of these mindsets can be found in the church today! They are leavening forces against which we must continually guard.

Perhaps one of the most insidious aspects of this leaven, however, is legalism. The apostle Paul spends a great deal of time in Galatians combating the evils of legalism. He tells us those who seek to be justified by a works-based system are fallen from grace and severed from Christ. Legalism does not come from the Lord, but from the Beast. Paul then states, "A little leaven leavens the whole lump of dough" (Gal. 5:9). His point is obvious --- the "yeast of the Beast" is Legalism. "He warns against legalism, which, like leaven, will transform the 'whole batch' -- Gal. 5:9" (Eerdmans Dictionary of the Bible, p. 798).

"Although they are diverse, the Pharisees teach spurious legalism and formalism, whereas the Sadducees advocate skepticism and liberalism, both teachings having an appeal to the unwary and to all who are not grounded in the truth. The Pharisaic teaching appeals to the religious sense and leads men into a mere show of holiness (as legalism invariably does); that of the Sadducees appeals to the natural reason and leads men into empty rationalism and disbelief and thus into loose living. Both act like leaven which silently penetrates heart and mind" (R.C.H. Lenski, Interpretation of St. Matthew's Gospel, p. 617).


As Paul told the Galatian brethren, all it takes to leaven the whole lump of dough is just a "little leaven." The amount is so small that it is almost imperceptible; the end result, however, will be visible to all. Truth can change the world --- "The kingdom of heaven is like leaven, which a woman took, and hid in three pecks of meal, until it was all leavened" (Matt. 13:33) --- so also can that which arrays itself against Truth. Both, like leaven, are powerful forces for change that can begin quite small and yet spread into every corner of the globe. We should want to introduce Truth into the lifeless existence of those around us; what we must ever be on guard against, though, is the effort of our great enemy to introduce a different leavening agent.

We today face the very same dangers the disciples of Christ faced in the first century -- skepticism, legalism, traditionalism, cynicism, hedonism, sectarianism. It may come packaged differently today, but it is the same "yeast from the Beast" they faced then. The warning of Christ Jesus is no less needed today! God help us to be on guard against the wiles of Satan.

Reflections from Readers

From a Reader in California:

Your piece on clapping reminded me of our earlier discussion of "assumption-based theology." One of the aspects of the "anti-clapping" mindset is the series of arbitrary decisions concerning what must be "authorized" (mentioned specifically) and what does not need to be authorized. Clapping cannot be allowed, they say, unless it is "authorized," but a whole series of activities can be conducted with no authorization. Included are -- use of songbooks, congregational singing (as opposed to solos), church-owned property, paying utility bills, taking up a collection for local needs, etc. Then there are references to "5 acts of worship," when the New Testament does not call any of them worship, nor does it even mention a "worship service." There are no commands to come together to worship. The only time meeting together is required, worship is not even mentioned! The only thing referred to as worship in the New Testament is giving oneself as a living sacrifice. Is this to say that these things are wrong to do -- or that they are not worship? Not at all. It is simply to say that our brethren not only have dangerously made rules where God was silent, but they also have been very arbitrary and inconsistent in the process. One more thing -- Our brethren would be horrified to have anything on the "Lord's table" except bread and fruit of the vine. But where is the command -- or example -- for communion in any setting other than on the occasion of a regular meal?

From a Missionary to the Philippines:

Hey Al, deal gently with us. Admittedly, there are plenty of legalists among Non-Institutional brethren -- probably there are proportionately more than among the conservative Institutional saints. But not all of us who hold to patternism are legalists. By definition, a legalist is one who depends on perfect obedience for his very salvation (even though he will never admit this). Admittedly, we have a bunch of them running around loose in the Non-Institutional Churches of Christ, and they ought to be caught, caged, and put in a zoo, or some place safe where they can't keep causing trouble. But again, we are not all like that. All the best to you, Al.

From a Reader in Tennessee:

You wrote a good piece on clapping in worship. I have observed that many people in our fellowship like to sing songs that we often categorize as "toe tappers." These are songs like "Have a Little Talk with Jesus," "Love Lifted Me," and "Beyond This Land of Parting." People will sing these songs at church and keep time with the music by tapping their toes on the church floor. Apparently, they think it's acceptable to "tap," while asserting it's a sin to "clap." Not me. I figure that if it's okay to tap, it's also okay to clap. There certainly are more Bible references to "clapping" as one worships than there are to "tapping." I also think it is most appropriate to applaud as a person is baptized into Christ. If we can applaud people who get base hits and who make free throws, then surely we can applaud people for having their sins washed away!

From a Reader in Texas:

Brother Maxey, I've had trouble with 1 John 5:18 for a long time as I was always taught that sometimes we sin when we don't know that we have sinned. The knowledge of such a sin does not become evident until years later in hindsight. So, I'm not sure how to protect myself from all sin as I don't recognize all sin.

From a Reader in Nevada:

A Sinner That Sinneth Not is another good article. I am mentally more dense than even I had judged myself. I did not know there was such a difference of opinion on this verse of scripture. Also, I appreciated your recent article on hand-clapping and the reader feedback on that article. For me, there is just too much confusion when we try to legalize worshipping God.

From a New Reader in Oklahoma:

A brother recommended your site to me and I have really enjoyed reading your articles. Please add me to your mailing list.

From a Reader in Texas:

Al, I appreciate all your Reflections articles. They are a real treat and a learning experience! Thank you for taking the time to share with everyone. Your article on hand-clapping was interesting. The Church of Christ I attend right now freely claps and the people are expressive of joy. I spent most of my time in Christian Churches, and they clapped. When I read your quotes of some of those who oppose this practice, it made me think I was reading the script from some old 1970's Saturday Night Live skit. I wonder if those guys have ever considered just how ridiculous they appear to reasonable people. They may yet find themselves the starring act in the Theatre of the Absurd.

From an Elder in Missouri:

Clapping has been the source of much controversy in congregations I have been associated with over the years. Although I feel uncomfortable applauding in the assembly, in general, I agree that at the point of a baptism I can hardly control myself. I see nothing "sinful" in others who may applaud at various points and in different circumstances, but choose not to do so myself. I also know of many within our congregation, as well as others, that "lift holy hands" at different times (during prayers and some songs). I have heard some (thankfully none from our congregation) accuse these reverent souls of being "liberal," or something even worse.

Clapping hands, lifting hands, kneeling in prayer (even in an assembly) -- surely there are other similar actions that could be listed in this category -- are merely heartfelt expressions of humility, reverence, and appreciation. When my youngest grandson sees something that tickles him or pleases him, he naturally will clap his hands, squeal, and dance a little jig -- all for joy and all completely natural, untaught, and unrehearsed. No pretension there! As we are children of God, can there be harm when we express ourselves in a similar manner? Once again, your study is thought-provoking and on target. I think we need to get the timber out of our own eyes before we start worrying about someone else's small splinter. The Lord through inspiration tells us to "Rejoice in the Lord, and again I say rejoice..." Sounds like the Lord wants us to be a little less reserved and a lot more expressive of our emotions toward Him.

From a Reader in Florida:

That was a very good article on clapping. Those of whom you spoke (who oppose it) are confusing custom, tradition, and personal preference with what is, and is not, Scriptural. Back in the 50's and 60's it was my pleasure to speak a few times in a congregation that was primarily black brethren. Frankly, I rather enjoyed their "Amen, Brother!" from time to time during the sermon. It told me that what I was teaching they were in complete harmony and agreement with. I truly wonder what some of these folks of whom you spoke would do if suddenly they were all thrust back fifty to seventy years into the past to some of the old churches of our Country Brethren of that time. For example, many of these brethren did not pass collection plates, or hats, for the contribution. Instead, every person wishing to make a contribution, got up, walked down the aisle, and laid it under the cover spread over the items of communion!

From a Minister in New Mexico:

This evening I had the great privilege of immersing a young sister into the Body of Christ. I heard a little applause as she arose from the waters of baptism to begin her new life in Christ. Not only that, but her father included "Happy Birthday" among the songs we sang to celebrate! If the angels in heaven rejoice, why shouldn't we as we join in praising and thanking God?!

From a Minister in Kentucky:

"Amen! Amen! and again I say Amen!!" Thank you for that most insightful and thorough exposition of the great act of praising God and confirming my fellow brothers and sisters through applause! To deny the expression of emotion and great elation, is to deny the One who put those emotions within us. I've concluded something about "patternists" that I would like to run by you. It seems to me that the greatest flaw in their reasoning is that they have compartmentalized their faith. Rather than Christianity reaching into and infiltrating every aspect of the heart, soul, mind and strength, it is only about things that are "spiritual." They falsely conclude, therefore, that instruments are carnal (not spiritual) and cannot be used in praise of God. We can listen to country, bluegrass, soft-rock, etc. -- but we don't dare listen to anything with instrumental accompaniment that might mention God or seek to praise His name. This faulty thinking makes its way to where every expression of praise that doesn't measure up to their "5 acts of worship" philosophy is condemned. Wasn't it Paul who said, "whatever you do, do it all for the glory of God"?

Well, today was my day to catch up on Reflections. WOW!! Am I ever glad today was the day! What encouragement! What reassurance of Truths already embraced. The song that came to my mind while I read your article on A Sinner Who Sinneth Not was "Blessed Assurance." How blessed indeed! I'm so with you, brother! HE is our assurance. HE is the Author and the Finisher of our faith. Our hope, our refuge, is in Him! Your interpretation of 1 John 5:18 is right on target! It completely harmonizes with the context of the entire epistle. Many other texts also confirm it. Thank you for the reminder today of my Blessed Assurance. Speaking of the song "Blessed Assurance," have you ever noticed how many songs Non-Institutional churches sing that fly in the face of their theology?! Well, I've babbled enough. I love and appreciate everything you're doing, brother!

From a Minister in Texas:

Al, I have started reading some of your astute writings. Thanks for making these available. It is very refreshing when I find other ministers who actually use the brains and hearts God gave them to do their best to present themselves as approved workers. Thanks for your contributions to help promote learning in the churches.

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