This phrase used by Paul in 1st Corinthians 5:6 is instructive of the determined assertiveness with which sin spreads, indeed infects, what is good and upright. That is to say: that which is corrupt and base will inevitably, if allowed to remain (is tolerated, as it were), seep into and ultimately pervade that which is pure and holy. As Paul writes later on in this same letter:
“Do not be deceived: bad company ruins good morals.”
– 1 Corinthians 15:33
Is this not ever true? I would offer myself as an example.
As my readers may know, I work in a hospital as a dietitian. My job takes me from floor to floor as I care for patients by seeing to their nutritional needs (no easy matter, let me assure you), and among other things requires me to read charts carefully and thoroughly. As a result, I spend quite a bit of time at the desk on each unit, interacting with the nursing staff and assessing my patients.
As those of you in the clinical world know, talk can easily get raunchy amongst healthcare professionals (and indeed, in nearly every industry these days). As the hospital equivalent of the village watering hole, the unit desk is the primary place where such conversations take place. This means that I walk into the center of some pretty bawdy stuff just as often as not when I make my rounds about the facility. It is pervasive.
Having worked in this situation for over a year now, I’ve come to be known as somewhat straight-laced amongst the staff. By refusing to participate I’ve been pegged a “good boy”. Nevertheless, over time I have found that I’ve gone from avoiding such conversation, to passively – then actively – listening to it and laughing along. All of this without noticing – at least until an incident this past week.
See, a couple of days ago I finally made the leap from participating as a listener to a bit more involved form of participation: I jumped in with a crude comment of my own.
Now, I wouldn’t have thought anything of it – I would have gone on like the proverbial frog whose pot of water has come to a boil without his noticing and just assumed nothing had changed – except for one thing. That is, the shock of the nursing staff.
Like I said, I’m known as a “good boy” (this is what they would call a Christian whose word and deed are reasonably consistent with his faith), and they were floored that I had actually said what I said. Now, please understand, what I said was nothing remotely close to a significant portion of what is discussed sometimes in this setting, but it was coarse enough to get their attention, especially since it was coming from the last place they’d expected it.
Now, all that on the table, as I reflect upon the incident I see what has happened. I’ve been “leavened”. That is, my initial aversions to sexual humor and crude speech have been worn down as I’ve become increasingly tolerant of it. Even to the point where I would have more than willingly joined in without thinking a thing of it, had I not been reminded of my own scruples by the very influences which played no small part in helping to remove them.
Please understand: I’m not putting this off on the folks I work with. Not at all. I bear full responsibility for my own failure here, and you will not hear a peep about how “the devil made me do it” from this guy. Rather, I seek to point out that it was in this environment that the company in question did indeed influence me in a very definite direction, and that is an important observation and lesson to be had.
It is interesting and instructive to note the context of Paul’s “a little leaven” statement in 1st Corinthians. It comes in the very middle of part one of his multipart discourse on sexual immorality. The statement is preceded by Paul’s upbraiding of the church at Corinth for putting up with rank debauchery in their midst, and immediately followed by wisdom regarding Christian association with the sexually immoral.
The reason I find it interesting is precisely because of my own recent encounter with my own nascent sexual immorality in the form of words on my tongue. It is perhaps ironic that Paul’s concerns about leaven spreading to the whole batch of dough are in this letter directly connected to his concerns about matters of sexual immorality.
I said “perhaps ironic”. I don’t think it’s an irony at all, myself. Rather, I think Paul is noting the especially pernicious nature of sexual sin, and making the necessary connection to the insidiousness of leaven as it works its way through the loaf. Certainly, all sin spreads like leaven wherever it is tolerated and shrugged off as “well, that’s just how Jim/Mollie/Ted/Nancy is, I guess I’ll just enjoy them even as they fill my ears/eyes/head/heart with perversions of what is good.” But sexual sin particularly so.
The reason I find it instructive is because I needed to learn this lesson. I needed to learn not to take sin lightly, and not to let my guard against all forms of immorality down. Who I am in Christ compels me to “avoid all appearance of evil”, and to walk by light and not by darkness.
But don’t think I am writing this post merely as a rebuke of self. Surely you know that private repentance and turning to God for forgiveness and strength to improve is enough for me in this matter… but it is not in your better interest. What I mean is this: keeping silent and private on this issue would have done me no disservice, but it would have been of no benefit for you my readers. It is only by opening up and using myself as a bad example that you could learn from it with me.
That said, don’t take what I’ve presented as a “naughty Tom” story and move on without another thought. Check your own selves for areas of capitulation to bad influences around you. “Clean out the leaven”, as it were, and seek always to walk with integrity in Christ.
A few more words from Paul pertaining to what I’ve said here to close, then:
Do not let any unwholesome talk come out of your mouths, but only what is helpful for building others up according to their needs, that it may benefit those who listen.
– Ephesians 4:29 (NIV, 1984)
“Unwholesome” – literally something decayed or rotten. I think this excerpt from Barnes’ notes on the Bible puts it straightforwardly:
[The importance of this admonition] will be seen from the “influence” of such corrupt communications. “The passage of an impure thought through the mind leaves pollution behind it;” the expression of such a thought deepens the pollution on the soul, and corrupts others. It is like retaining an offensive carcass above ground, to pollute the air, and to diffuse pestilence and death, which should at once be buried out of sight. A Christian should be pure in his conversation. His Master was pure. His God is pure. The heaven to which he goes is pure. The religion which he professes is pure. Never should he indulge himself in an obscene allusion: never should he retail anecdotes of an obscene character, or smile when they are retailed by others. Never should he indulge in a jest having a double meaning; never should be listen to a song of this character. If those with whom he associates have not sufficient respect for themselves and him to abstain from such corrupt and corrupting allusions, he should at once leave them.
Nor should there be obscenity, foolish talk or coarse joking, which are out of place, but rather thanksgiving.
– Ephesians 5:4 (NIV, 1984)
But now you must rid yourselves of all such things as these: anger, rage, malice, slander, and filthy language from your lips.
– Colossians 3:8 (NIV, 1984)