In my Bible reading, I read this verse and wanted to dig deeper to understand the meaning of the verse.
Jesus said to them, “Watch and beware of the leaven of the Pharisees and Sadducees.”Matthew 16:6, ESV
During my investigation, I found this paragraph which was written by William Campbell in his commentary on Mark 8:15 which is a parallel passage:
“What then is the special point in view in warning against the leaven of these sects? Their two systems were far apart; and yet they were then and have been since, the two chief sources of danger to the Church. Formalism on the one hand, and rationalism on the other, which are but other names for the leaven of the Pharisees and of the Sadducees, have in every age been the Church’s insidious enemies; and against these Jesus here raises his voice in warning to his church. The Pharisees added to the divinely appointed ceremonies, till all their religion consisted in a punctillious observance of outward forms. The Sadducees were willingly to admit so much of religious belief and practice as they conceived to be consistent with reason, that is, with the Epicurean philosophy of Greece and Rome which they embraced. The first of these evil influences, formalism, early pervaded the church of Rome, and expelled spirituality from this powerful Christian organization. The latter, rationalism, pervaded the reformed churches of the continent of Europe, and for more than a century spread through them spiritual apathy and death. And the church still has, on the one hand, those who substitute trifling ceremonial observances, or a pompous ritual, for the pure gospel; and on the other hand, those who, refusing the inspired word as their infallible guide, square all religious truth to the deductions, often mere false dogmas, of their own scientific or philosophic research. There is one antidote to both these poisons; it is a faithful adherence to the inspired word of God as the only infallible rule of faith and practice.”William Campbell (1881)
Campbell’s commentary was published in 1881 but we see the same two errors playing out today.
On the one hand, we have the dead orthodoxy and formalized religion in which I grew up where there is strict adherence to a rigid code of behavior. In this error, as long as the outward regulations are observed, everything is supposed to be okay. There is assumed to be a rule for everything. This is the error of the Pharisees.
The problem is that rules do not generate true spirituality because rule-keeping reduces Christianity to a series of checks-in-boxes. Rule-keeping stifles the relational nature of true Christianity which is summed up in the two great commands to love God and love one’s neighbor.
I have also been in churches that fall into the other error, that of the Sadducees. As Campbell points out above, this is the error of those who question the authority of Scripture and succumb to whatever is the prevailing sentiment of the day.
The error of the Pharisees is easier to diagnose because its rigidity gives it away.
The error of the Sadducees, on the other hand, is a bit more sneaky, in my observance. Many of the “seeker-sensitive” churches fall into this trap.
In an effort to be culturally relevant, the gospel can be watered down or lost completely. It certainly is not popular today to announce in public that all of us are flawed and in need of a savior. It is not popular today to preach that all of our social ills are because all of us are sinful.
Take, for example, the current trend in churches to emphasize what is termed “social justice.”
It’s not that I don’t think that injustice is happening (it is), my problem with much of this teaching is that it implies that there are physical solutions to spiritual problems.
Every time there is an injustice performed it is a violation of the two great commands to love God and love our neighbor. At the root of these violations are selfishness and pride. The only antidote to this is to repent and turn to Christ as the one who can forgive our sin and empower us to live differently. Because we all violate the two great commands, we all need to repent on a moment-by-moment basis.
As Christians, we believe that we need the input of Scripture to reveal the ways we demonstrate a lack of love for God and neighbor. It is not that the seeker-sensitive churches openly deny the authority of Scripture, they relegate that authority as secondary to current cultural norms.
When we imply that one group of people needs repentance more than another group, then we have lost the true gospel. Both the Pharisees and the Sadducees fall into this trap, the trap of thinking that they are superior to those not in their group.
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