February 21, 2003
There is a certain mentality within the Body of Christ, especially among certain factionists, that actually asserts division in the church is of great benefit to the cause of Christ Jesus. Indeed, it is avowed that division is necessary for the furtherance of Truth. This is based upon a faulty interpretation of a statement made by the apostle Paul to the saints in Corinth.
A few years back I received a letter from a minister who was aware of my teaching and preaching in support of unity among all God's children. He informed me that divisions were needed in the church so that disciples could clearly discern the distinction between Truth and falsehood, and the proponents of each. After quoting to me the above passage by the apostle Paul (from the King James Version), this minister wrote, "Paul is explicitly saying here that sometimes divisions must occur so that falsehood and truth may be discerned, and so that falsehood may be rejected and truth kept."
Sadly, there are commentaries that do indeed support such an interpretation of this passage of Scripture. As strange as it may sound, it is a rather popular understanding of Paul's comment to the Corinthians. Some of the widely used versions and translations of the Bible also contribute to this perspective. The NIV (New International Version) renders the statement this way -- "No doubt there have to be differences among you to show which of you have God's approval." The NASB (New American Standard Bible) reads, "For there must also be factions among you, in order that those who are approved may become evident among you." It almost sounds like the church NEEDS to divide so that discerning disciples can know Truth from falsehood, and can readily spot the promoters of each.
I believe, however, that this interpretation is false. I do not believe Paul is promoting division for the sake of greater spiritual discernment, nor is he implying that genuine disciples can enjoy greater unity through a process of positive, productive heresies within the One Body. This is folly. Factions in the church are not beneficial.
The word variously translated in verse 19 as "differences" (NIV), "factions" (NASB) and "heresies" (KJV) is the Greek word "hairesis" from which we derive the English transliteration "heresies." The literal meaning of this Greek term is "to divide or separate over opinions strongly held." In his statement to the Corinthian brethren, Paul was speaking about the problem of disciples of Christ dividing into warring factions over their cherished opinions. This word appears nine times in the NT writings. It is found in the list of the works of the flesh (Galatians 5:20), and Peter speaks of "false teachers among you who will secretly introduce destructive heresies" (2 Peter 2:1). In the book of Acts it is frequently translated by the word "sect." A form of this word, "hairetikos," appears once in the NT writings -- "Reject a heretic (factious man) after a first and second warning, knowing that such a man is perverted and is sinning, being self-condemned" (Titus 3:10-11).
It is hard to imagine that Paul is in any way commending the existence of "heresies" or "factions" in the Body of Jesus Christ, much less suggesting they should be promoted for the purpose of clarifying the distinction between Truth and falsehood. And yet, such is the view of some within Christendom.
It seems to me that the above misunderstanding is contrary to the clear teaching of the apostle Paul in Romans 14 regarding differing opinions. Rather than viewing varying perspectives as an opportunity for "choosing up sides," Paul writes, "Now accept the one who is weak in faith, but not for the purpose of passing judgment on his opinions" (Romans 14:1). Our obligation is not to fragment into warring factions, but to "accept one another, just as Christ also accepted us to the glory of God" (Romans 15:7).
So what exactly IS the apostle Paul saying in his statement to the Corinthian brethren? I believe he is simply using a bit of sarcasm, a literary device not uncommon within the writings of this inspired author. "Sarcasm" is a figure of speech "used for the purpose of reproof and condemnation, and when the soul is too angry to conceal its bitterness. It is used to condemn some action by seeming to order it" (D.R. Dungan, Hermeneutics: The Science of Interpreting the Scriptures, page 319). Thus, by using sarcasm, Paul is neither commanding nor condoning heresies and division, he is condemning them! He seeks to shame the factionists who were fragmenting the One Body over their strongly held opinions. He was placing a spotlight upon their feuding over which group of opinionists was right and which was wrong.
Some translations of the biblical text have captured Paul's sarcasm here quite well. The Living Bible, for example, in its paraphrase of the apostle Paul's words, captures the intent perfectly:
Reading these words should have turned the faces of these factionists red with shame. Paul was showing the folly of their disputations over their own personal perceptions and preferences. Phillips, in his paraphrase of the Scriptures, also captures a bit of this sarcasm -- "For there must be cliques among you or your favorite leaders would not be so conspicuous."
Dr. Albert Barnes writes, "the whole strain of the argument of Paul is to reprove and condemn such schisms, and to hold up the authors of them to reproof and condemnation" (Barnes' Notes on the New Testament). Dr. T.R. Applebury, professor of NT studies at Pacific Christian College, comments that "groups were choosing sides over loyalty to some rallying point. Groups were formed that excluded all others who did not support the particular issue of the group. The apostle is not saying that factions are necessary in order that those who are approved of God may be manifested. Surely God's people need no such sinful background for them to be known!" (Studies in First Corinthians, College Press, page 209).
Frankly, I have heard too many factionists quote this passage from Paul's first epistle to Corinth to try and justify their wretched wrangling with one another over their opinions strongly held. Then when division inevitably results from such wrangling, they simply say dismissively, "Well, it just goes to show that Paul was right .... we need these divisions in the church so that people can see WE'RE right and THEY'RE wrong!"
Following this pattern of perverse thinking, disciples will continue to divide, rather than multiply, until the sum total of the "doctrinally pure" is just a handful of sectarians secure in the certainty of their own doctrinal infallibility. It is a divisive, destructive, demonic mindset. Paul in no way lifted it up as a model; rather, he mocked it. What folly to suppose that unity and doctrinal purity can flow naturally from the fountainhead of heresies and divisions. Although some find the concept of "unity in diversity" hard to grasp, it can't hold a candle to the foolishness of "unity through division."
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