By Clarence L. Haynes Jr., Crosswalk.com
You may find the words "a little leaven leavens the whole lump" strange unless you grew up with someone who baked.
Around the holidays, someone will ask my mom to make homemade rolls. As she gathers all the ingredients and starts the process, one of the key ingredients is a leavening agent. For rolls, she uses yeast. If you have ever bought yeast, you know it comes in these little packets, yet that small amount of yeast is enough to affect the whole batch of dough. When used properly, the yeast infiltrates every part of the dough, causing it to rise. Ultimately, you get hot, fluffy rolls ready for a little butter (I like adding cranberry sauce to mine).
Understanding how yeast works in bread is important to understand what Paul talks about when he says a little leaven leavens the whole lump.
What Is Leaven and Why Did People Add It to Lumps of Bread?
When you add leaven or yeast to bread, the goal is to increase the volume, causing the bread to rise and creating a flaky, chewy texture. The leavening process takes time, as you must allow the leavening agent to work through the entire batch. Given the proper time, this leaven will eventually touch every part of the batch, and there will not be any part of the bread not affected by the leaven. It does not take much to spread throughout the entire batch.
While the ratios may vary, you often only need two teaspoons of yeast to affect four cups of flour when baking. A little has a big effect, exactly how the leaven Paul describes works among people and congregations.
Which Bible Verse Says A Little Leaven Leavens the Whole Lump?
The statement "a little leaven leavens the whole lump" appears in two places in the New Testament.
"Your boasting is not good. Do you not know that a little leaven leavens the whole lump?" (1 Corinthians 5:6 ESV)
"You were running well. Who hindered you from obeying the truth? This persuasion is not from him who calls you. A little leaven leavens the whole lump." (Galatians 5:7-9 ESV)
These passages come from letters the apostle Paul writes to churches in particular cities (Corinth and Galatia).
What Is the Context of Paul Saying a Little Leaven Leavens the Whole Lump?
These two verses describe two types of leaven that have the potential to infiltrate a congregation or a group of people. Both can have destructive consequences.
Corinthians: Leaven Represents Sin
In 1 Corinthians, Paul uses leaven as a metaphor for sin. This church was dealing with a sexual sin that would appall even non-Christians: a man was having sexual relations with his stepmother.
Instead of addressing this situation properly, this church in Corinth prided this man's sin. I'm still trying to wrap my head around that one. Rather than rebuking the sin, they did nothing and, by default, encouraged his sin. Paul recognized this scenario's toxic nature. He knew their casual attitude toward sin was infecting the entire body. Some Christians can have a reckless attitude toward sin by other Christians. While they may not participate, they don't rebuke it either. When this attitude seeps into a group, it will invariably affect the entire group. Rather than being holy and separated for God's purposes, the group becomes carnal in their behavior. Often, it becomes challenging to distinguish their behavior from that of the world.
Galatians: Leaven represents False Teaching
In Galatians, Paul uses the metaphor of leaven to represent the false teaching that was leading the members of this church astray. The Judaizers had infiltrated the Galatian church. This group taught everyone to observe the Mosaic Law to be right with God. Accordingly, Gentiles needed to convert to Judaism before they could come to Christ. This meant Gentiles would have to follow the ordinances of the law, including circumcision, as a precursor to obtaining salvation. Salvation by grace through faith was not enough. You must also work to earn your salvation. This false teaching was making its way through the Galatian church, like leaven in the bread, and many were falling victim to it.
How Do We Follow "A Little Leaven Leavens the Whole Lump" Advice Today?
The two examples of leaven should remind us that we can all be influenced by sin or false teaching. In today's world, we are probably more vulnerable to a little leaven than we realize. We have a non-stop cycle of information and enticement at our disposal. This access to information is not just limited to our homes and televisions. Most of us carry it around with us in our pockets. Think of how attached people are to their phones these days. Every type of enticement or false teaching is available to us.
This bombardment of information can affect all of us. So, how do we guard against sin and false teaching?
How to guard against sinful leaven
There are various things you can do to guard against sin. For starters, be careful of the images and things you feed yourself. Because they are so available, it is easier than ever to avail yourself of fleshly things. These things may be innocent initially, but they can slowly overtake you. Just like the yeast needs time for it to seep into the entire loaf, these enticements can, over time, slowly wear down your resistance. Think of Samson and Delilah if you need an example.
The other thing you can do is commit to obeying what God has said in his word. When a group veers off into acceptance of sinful behavior, they usually neglect or ignore clear instructions in God's word. The behavior that God rejects is behavior the group accepts and spreads through those associated with the group. They will typically attach baseless justifications for choosing to disobey God's word. When churches or groups disregard the undeniable truths of God's word, it is time to make a hasty departure.
The last thing I would recommend is to separate yourself from people who say they follow Jesus but choose to live openly in sin. Avoid these people. People who are cavalier about their sinful lifestyle often poorly influence people trying to honor the Lord. Whether it is the right eye, hand, or friend, if they entice you to sin, it is better to get rid of them.
"If your right eye causes you to stumble, gouge it out and throw it away. It is better for you to lose one part of your body than for your whole body to be thrown into hell. And if your right hand causes you to stumble, cut it off and throw it away. It is better for you to lose one part of your body than for your whole body to go into hell." (Matthew 5:29-30)
How to guard against the leaven of false teaching
False teaching can be just as big a problem today because you can easily find it. Social media and the internet are filled with people promoting all kinds of false narratives. One way to combat this is to know the truth in scripture. The best way to identify what is false is to know what is true. There really is no other way. If God's word is in your heart, and you know what he says, you will position yourself not to allow false teaching to spread around you.
You also must test what people say. The Bible instructs us to do.
With the available information channels, it does not take long for a mistruth to spread like leaven. Sometimes, we are the ones spreading it. We should take the posture that before we share anything, we test it and verify it is true. This may take patience, work, and effort, but it is far better than spreading false teachings or information.
Final Thought on 'A Little Leaven Leavens the Whole Lump'?
Since a little leaven leavens the whole lump, I charge you to guard your heart and mind.
Did you know that dry yeast only works when it is activated? This activation usually happens with some warm liquid. Without that, the yeast stays dormant. When we don't guard our hearts and minds, squashing sin as it comes, we become the warm liquid that allows sin and false teaching to spread. This means our role in exposing these things is just as important as anyone else's. As you can see, it only takes a little leaven to leaven the whole lump.
Photo Credit: © Getty Images/MartinPrague
Clarence L. Haynes Jr. is a speaker, Bible teacher, and co-founder of The Bible Study Club. He is the author of The Pursuit of Purpose which will help you understand how God leads you into his will. His most recent book is The Pursuit of Victory: How To Conquer Your Greatest Challenges and Win In Your Christian Life. This book will teach you how to put the pieces together so you can live a victorious Christian life and finally become the man or woman of God that you truly desire to be. Clarence is also committed to helping 10,000 people learn how to study the Bible and has just released his first Bible study course called Bible Study Basics. To learn more about his ministry please visit clarencehaynes.com.
This article is part of our larger resource library of popular Bible verse phrases and quotes. We want to provide easy to read articles that answer your questions about the meaning, origin, and history of specific verses within Scripture's context. It is our hope that these will help you better understand the meaning and purpose of God's Word in relation to your life today.