Jesus warned his disciples to beware of the leaven of the Pharisees and the Sadducees (Matthew 16:5-12). After a while, they understood that he was warning them against their teaching. Today, we speak much more of the Pharisees than the Sadducees. We have forgotten to beware of the leaven of the Sadducees in the church.
Mix leaven (yeast or baking powder) with a flour dough and the whole dough will rise. The leaven leaves no flour untouched. Although Jesus once compared the kingdom of heaven to leaven (Matthew 13:33), it usually signifies some kind of corrupting influence. If the leaven of the Sadducees corrupts good teaching, we need to consider what it is and how to identify it.
Who were the Sadducees?
Two sects of Judaism emerged sometime after return from the Babylonian captivity: Pharisees and Sadducees. By Jesus’ time two more sects, the Essenes and the Zealots, had arisen.
Pharisees dominated the new institution of the synagogue. They acknowledged all the books we know as the Old Testament. They also acknowledged an oral tradition they claimed was passed down from teacher to teacher beginning with Moses.
Sadducees dominated the temple. They rejected the entire concept of oral tradition. While they might have acknowledged the prophets and the “writings” as authoritative, they relied for their ideas almost entirely on the books of Moses.
The writers of Ecclesiasticus and 1 Maccabees were probably Sadducees, but otherwise, the Sadducees left no literature of their own, so it’s hard to get an accurate view of their beliefs.
After the end of the exile, the high priests (mostly Sadducees) ruled at the pleasure first of the Persian emperors, then of rival Greek factions, and finally the Romans. Their power, therefore, derived from cooperation with foreign powers. Their necessary involvement in politics and diplomacy made them the most worldly of the Jewish sects.
By Jesus’ time, however, they had become a thoroughly corrupt ruling oligarchy. Whatever value there had been in their teaching had been reduced to scheming to hold onto their political power. They became rich by cheating people who came to the temple to offer sacrifices.
What did the Sadducees teach?
Besides the New Testament, most of what we know about the Sadducees comes from Josephus and the Talmud, both in the Pharisee camp. By the time of the Talmud, the Sadducees had ceased to exist. The temple, the center of their power and activities, was destroyed in 70 AD. It is, therefore, difficult to find a fair and balanced view from any non-biblical source.
The Sadducees rejected the ideas of resurrection, immortality, eternal rewards, or any world to come. They denied God’s direct intervention in human affairs, believing that human freedom accounts for everything that happens. They may not have completely rejected the prophets as Scripture, but they didn’t accept any legal or doctrinal conclusions drawn from them.
In other words, where Pharisees corrupted sound biblical teaching by adding to Scripture, Sadducees corrupted it by subtraction.
Many descriptions of the Sadducees further claim that they denied angels. On the surface, that seems strange. The books of Moses mention angels. Mostly, however, “angel” appears in such phrases as “angel of the Lord” or “angel of God.” Therefore, the Sadducees probably took these references as theophanies rather than the appearance of some other spirit messenger.
One important exception to that generalization occurs in Exodus 33. There, God told Moses he wouldn’t accompany the Israelites on their journey but would send an angel instead. Had he actually followed through, that angel would have clearly been a spirit being distinct from God himself.
If the Sadducees even noticed, we can have no idea how they dealt with it. But we know from experience it’s all too easy simply to ignore scriptures that call our core beliefs into question.
Scripture most often refers to the Pharisees and Sadducees together. Only in Matthew 22:23-33 and parallel passages in Mark 12 and Luke 20 do Sadducees figure in a unique incident. There, they tried to trap Jesus by making resurrection look absurd.
Jesus basically based his answer on the fact that God told Moses, “I am the God of Abraham” instead of “I was the God of Abraham.”
I often wondered why he resorted to a grammar lesson instead of appealing to Job’s declaration, “though worms destroy this body, yet in my flesh shall I see God” or any of a number of prophetic references. But since the Sadducees rejected everything but the books of Moses as authoritative, Jesus had to meet them on their own grounds.
Sadducees in the modern church
We commonly discern Pharisee-like tendencies in strict prohibitions against dancing or card playing or drinking anything alcoholic. Like the ancient Pharisees, people who teach this level of strictness add to what Scripture actually says. It gives them a way to distinguish good from bad people.
In the same way, today’s Sadducees share some tendencies of ancient Sadducees without literally being Sadducees.
Most striking, the modernist/progressive wing of the church denies the supernatural. It takes all references to angels and demons either as purely symbolic or as the beliefs of the uneducated masses.
As a consequence, today’s progressives are every bit as elitist as the ancient Sadducees. It’s not an elite based on wealth, political power, or social standing but an elite based on supposed intellectual superiority.
Unfortunately, the Sadducee ideology has taken over many of our seminaries. Seminary professors can gain tenure for coming up with yet more reasons to doubt the truth and accuracy of Scripture.
In their worldliness, they also reject biblical standards of morality and divine judgment. God is love. And the modern Sadducees misuse that fact to erase anything that asserts divine judgment. They do not preach sin, repentance, holiness, or God’s final judgment.
They latch onto social ministry as if it were the highest calling of the church. Jesus commands meeting the needs of the poor and oppressed to be sure. But he commands much more that much of the modern church has all but ceased to heed.
The church is supposed to be set apart from the world, but modern Sadducees embrace all religions as somehow equivalent to Christianity.
They accept sinful people in church, as they should, but go on to affirm much sinful behavior. Basically, they affirm whatever sins the world affirms and condemn only what the world condemns.
Misidentifying Jesus’ opponents
Regarding the issue of gay marriage and ordination of gay clergy, I listened to a United Methodist District Superintendent say that the United Methodist Church follows Jesus and not Moses. But Jesus explicitly said he had not come to destroy the law. His interpretation of the law invariably held up a stricter standard than either the Pharisees or Sadducees. He never loosened the requirements of a single pronouncement of Moses, who called homosexual behavior an abomination.
Then he died, rose from death, ascended into heaven, and promised to return. His death brought about a new covenant. As Paul explained it, there are no more rules to follow, but the moral imperatives still stand.
And modern Sadducees claim that Jesus proclaimed a simple gospel of love but Paul came along and messed it up with a lot of rules!
Anyone who tries to distinguish Jesus’ teachings from Moses or Paul doesn’t understand any of them. Yet, with their advanced degrees, today’s Sadducees pose as experts. They have misled millions of people.
Beware of the leaven of the Sadducees.