Updated: Sep 30
Have you ever met someone that introduces themselves as a Baptist, Catholic, Lutheran, etc. before they tell you that they are a Christian? I used to do that! In my case, it was because of denominational focus. Denominational focus becomes dangerous when we start revering our denomination more than God. As Christians, it’s not our denomination that we worship. We worship Christ.
What is denominational focus?
Denominational focus is when a person places more value with the beliefs and ideologies of their church denomination rather than with the Bible. Some people call this “legalism.” Unfortunately, this can happen very easily! Since every denomination has its own set of rules that members must follow, it’s easy to start associating religion with the rituals of the denomination.
In the days of Jesus, there was a religious group that focused more on rituals rather than Christ. They were the infamous Pharisees. The Pharisees were known to be arrogant, hypocritical, fiscally corrupt, and uncaring of people truly in need. Jesus dedicated an entire “woe to you” chapter (Matthew 23) to the Pharisees.
“What sorrow awaits you teachers of religious law and you Pharisees. Hypocrites! For you shut the door of the Kingdom of Heaven in people’s faces. You won’t go in yourselves, and you don’t let others enter either. – Matthew 23:13 WEB
By focusing more on religious regulations rather than on God, Jesus said that the Pharisees were dooming themselves (and others) to hell.
This is certainly not a path we want to follow either. So how do we avoid doing the same things as the Pharisees?
You might say, “Jenn, I am not a Pharisee. I don’t teach the Law, I don’t expect others to follow rules I make up, I didn’t kill Jesus, etc…” It’s true that you aren’t a literally Pharisee, but I want to argue that anyone can fall into the same trap that the Pharisees fell into. That’s why Jesus solemnly warns his disciples to avoid even the ”yeast” of the Pharisees:
The disciples came to the other side and had forgotten to take bread. Jesus said to them, “Take heed and beware of the yeast of the Pharisees and Sadducees.”
Then they understood that he didn’t tell them to beware of the yeast of bread, but of the teaching of the Pharisees and Sadducees. – Matthew 16:6,12 WEB
I like to bake bread a lot. When baking bread, the yeast must take time to spread throughout the entire loaf. That is why you let the dough set for a while before baking it. This is called proofing. It gives the yeast time to expand throughout the bread to make a delicious, fluffy bread in the end. (Oddly enough, I am literally writing this post while I wait for some dough I made to proof. Haha.)
Jesus uses the analogy of the Pharisees’ teaching being like the spreading of yeast. The 12 disciples were not Pharisees, but they could still learn potentially dangerous things from them. The Pharisees’ teaching could spread and cause many problems among the members of the early church. This is why Jesus told his disciples to completely avoid the false teachings of the Pharisees.
Like the 12 disciples, you and I aren’t Pharisees, but we can still fall into the trap of practicing the same legalism that the Pharisees taught.
Here are a few things that the Pharisees believed that some churches still follow to this day:
1. The Pharisees strictly adhered to ritual purity
The Pharisees were known to be scrupulous on ritual purity. For example, they would hand and wrist wash with clean water before every meal. This might sound normal to us Americans with running water, but the Pharisees didn’t have running water. They would have their servants strain and clean the water and carry it around for them in special, purified vessels. Then they would debate about what kind of vessel to use, who should pour the water, what kind of water to use, how much water should be poured out, and how much of the arm should be covered with water. Since clean water in those days was hard to come by, this ritual was both arduous and unnecessary. Simple hand washing would have been just fine. (Mark 7)
How this applies to us:
If your church denomination places value on ritual purity - such as forcing women to wear long dresses, only allowing the congregants to listen to certain styles of worship music, telling congregants to say multiple prayers for forgiveness, or guilting congregants into attending or volunteering at every service or church event - your church may be falling into the trap of ritualistic purity. This is dangerous because grace is the only thing that makes us right with God. No amount of legalistic rule following can make us pure. Jesus is our only purity.
2. The Pharisees practically worshipped the temple
The Pharisees placed great value on the temple, in some cases, above God. Jesus said to His followers that He would destroy the Temple and raise it again in 3 days. Jesus was talking about Himself, but His speech greatly offended the Pharisees who decided to put Jesus to death. Later in the book of Acts, Stephen was on trial for “speaking against the holy place” (a.k.a. the temple), and was then eventually stoned in the streets for saying that the Holy Spirit no longer lives in a temple made by human hands. (Acts 6-7)
How this applies to us:
Perhaps this blog post is making you feel upset because you think I am attacking your denomination. I am not attacking any Christian denominations. Instead, I am attacking denominational focus. I believe denominational focus pulls us away from God. There are some people who perceive any attack on their “temple” as an excuse to feel righteously angry. However, anger is rarely righteous and it more often leads to sin.
And “don’t sin by letting anger control you.” Don’t let the sun go down while you are still angry, for anger gives a foothold to the devil. – Ephesians 4:26-27 NLT
Once again, we don’t worship our denomination, we worship Christ. No denomination is perfect. Every one of them will have flaws. That’s why we worship the One who is flawless.
3. The Pharisees were supreme
The Pharisees believed themselves to be above the common people. They were so arrogant that they expected people to show them honor in public places. Jesus said this about the Pharisees:
“They love the place of honor at banquets and the most important seats in the synagogues; they love to be greeted with respect in the marketplaces and to be called ‘Rabbi’ by others.” – Matthew 23:6-7 NIV
How this relates to us:
If your church has one guy that’s above it all who holds no accountability to anyone, that is a recipe for disaster. Soon, congregants begin to respect that person above the Word of God. Think Mars Hill and Jim Jones. Since the person above it all can say or do whatever he likes with no repercussions, the Bible becomes twisted and people are left hurt and betrayed.
Consequently, we shouldn’t believe we are supreme either just because we are a part of a certain denomination or do a certain religious ritual.
“If you think you are too important to help someone, you are only fooling yourself. You are not that important.” – Galatians 6:3NLT
It’s a harsh verse, but it’s an important reminder to humble ourselves. Every Christian, regardless of denomination, is part of God’s body.
4. The Pharisees practiced separation from Gentiles
The Pharisees viewed non-Jews as disgusting and unclean. In Mark 7, there’s a story about a Greek-Phoenician woman who begged Jesus to heal her daughter from demonic oppression. At that time, Jewish people would call Phoenician women “dogs in heat” – or “b*ches.” If you go back to the Greek language, you will notice that Jesus calls the woman “a puppy,” or “κυναρίοις” then heals her daughter.
Why is this important? Because the Pharisees taught the Jewish people to despise Gentiles. Perhaps the Phoenician woman heard cruel things from Jewish people several times before. But Jesus, a Jewish man, changes a degrading insult to an endearing name… Puppy. The Living Bible translates the woman’s response as this:
“For even the puppies beneath the table are permitted to eat the crumbs that fall.” – Matthew 15:27(b) TLB
In this story, Jesus was teaching His disciples that though they saw the Phoenician woman as a “dog in heat,” Jesus saw her as a faithful woman accepted to partake in the grace of God. This event foreshadowed all Gentiles being accepted as members of God’s Household. (1 Timothy 3:15)
How this relates to us:
There is nothing wrong with calling out sin. In fact, that is the primary role of the church. But if you notice your church denomination preaches that any other church is filled with heathens, that might be a sign that your church is going down a wrong path. Also, if your church is cliquey and excludes new people or if your church claims that it is the only church “doing things the right way,” you can pretty much guarantee that your church is doing something wrong.
For example, I knew of a church denomination that taught that women were heifers. That church was literally following in the “yeast of the Pharisees.”
As Christians, we have to keep away from any yeast of the Pharisees. That means avoiding:
religious rituals that weigh us and others down
worshipping a building, temple, or denomination
believing the pastor is supreme
believing we are supreme
excluding people from the church body
Instead, 1 Corinthians 12 tells us what church should look like.
For as the body is one, and has many members, and all the members of the body, being many, are one body; so also is Christ. – 1 Corinthians 12:12 WEB
Notice from this verse that all church members are called to live in unity as the body of Christ. This means that we are unified by the Scriptures. No member is purer than another member. No member is above another member. Christ is the only One who is pure and above all.
Don’t lose sight of your Primary Focus by becoming too focused on your good works or your denomination. Instead, worship Jesus the way He commands you to – in complete unity with other members of His Body.
Have you ever attended a church that followed the "yeast of the Pharisees?" How did you come to understand the truth?