Anybody who’s been in the church for any length of time knows that there’s no greater insult than to be called a Pharisee. The holier-than-thou hypocrites of Jesus’ day were so concerned with their own righteousness that they couldn’t see the fulfillment of the Law they purported to follow when He was right in front of them; modern-day Pharisees follow in their footsteps by becoming so focused on right behavior that they rest confidently on their ability to follow God “correctly” rather than relying on grace. Jesus had hard words for people like these, who claimed to be leading others in the way of life and gave them a false gospel instead. By all means, every Christian and church should be aware of their own pharisaical tendencies and work, with God’s help, to overcome them.

In contrast, Jesus’ other opponents, the Sadducees, get let off easy. They don’t appear as often in the gospel accounts, for one thing; additionally, modern scholarship knows much less about them because they didn’t leave any primary texts stating their beliefs. Despite that, they also offer a warning to believers.

Here’s what we do know about the Sadducees: they tended to be members of the aristocracy, which in 1st century Israel meant they were high priests and other Temple personnel. Unlike the Pharisees, who valued the later writings of what we call the Old Testament and the oral tradition that developed in the 400-year silence between Testaments, the Sadducees held that only the Torah (that is, the first five books of the Bible) should be read as authoritative. These two facts meant that they placed a heavy emphasis on the activity of sacrifice and cleansing at the Temple. The Temple was both their way to please God and the way they maintained their position in society; take away the Temple, and they wouldn’t exist. (In fact, this is exactly what happened—the Sadducees vanish from history when the Temple is destroyed in 70 A.D.!) They also didn’t believe in an afterlife, so resurrection was impossible.

So you can imagine that when Jesus showed up in Jerusalem promising to tear down the Temple and build it again in three days, the Sadducees might feel a little threatened. When His disciples started proclaiming that He had in fact done so by dying and rising from the dead, they became “greatly annoyed” (Acts 4:1) and spearheaded the opposition to the apostle’s teaching. They couldn’t deny the miracles or the authority by which Jesus and the apostles taught, but they couldn’t accept it either. To do so would invalidate their whole system.

The church today is not in quite the same position as the Pharisees and the Sadducees—the work of Christ in our time is not to shift the entire method by which we approach God in faith. That’s done until He comes again. However, just as the Pharisees warn us against insisting on arbitrary personal behaviors as the best way to love God, the Sadducees warn us to avoid mistaking the trappings of worship for the thing itself. No religious practice, as good and helpful as it may be, can or should be elevated to The Way All Christians Must Do Things. Even in Jesus’ time, the Temple system was merely the outward manifestation of an inward faith—the same holds true today. We cling to Christ, to the Word, and to the working of the Spirit, not to programs or ministries or orders of service. Where is God working? Where might He be offering an opportunity to change our praxis? These are the questions we need to keep in mind.

As a Body, we are very good at heeding Jesus’ warning to beware the leaven of the Pharisees. Let’s ask ourselves: where might we be allowing the leaven of the Sadducees to grow?