Monday, September 3, 2007

An Interpretation of 1 Corinthians 11.19

I was asked recently about 1 Corinthians 11.19 and what the verse meant.

This verse has been the subject of some debate through the centuries. It has been translated in these ways: "Indeed, there have to be factions among you, for only so will it become clear who among you who are genuine" (NRSV); ""no doubt there have to be differences among you to show which of you have God's approval" (NIV); and, "For there must be also heresies among you, that they which are approved may be made manifest among you."

Some argue that this verse validates the existence of divisions within the Christian community, and even promotes sectarianism, the move to isolate oneself from those deemed heretical or wrong-headed. Divorced from the context of 1 Cortinthians 11 and Paul's message both before and after, this verse can perhaps be manipulated to promote such teaching, but if it is to be considered within its proper context, then it seems that this interpretation if far from right.

In this section of his letter, and indeed for most of 1 Corinthians, Paul has been appealing for unity, humility, and mutual love and cooperation among the believers at Corinth. In the immediate conext of 1 Corinthians 11.17ff., Paul is addressing conflicts in the worship assembly, most notably abuses in the observance of the Lord's Supper. He exhorts the Corinthians church to partake of communion in a worthy manner; that is, they are to be humble and not arrogant, seeking the benefit of the other and not of self, and to promote unity and goodwill and not disunity and discord. Paul is not calling on them to divide from one another and to isolate themselves with those who are likeminded and theologically correct.

In his statement in verse 19, Paul is simply acknowledging the fact that there will be divisions (v. 18) and dissensions/disagreements (v. 19) among them, to some degree and measure, for divisiveness is a human condition. Paul is saying the improper behavior of some (note, Paul's focus is on abuses of behavior rather than understanding) will naturally highlight the genuine and pure actions of others. Consider the words of Richard Oster: "In light of Paul's instense dissatisfaction with some of the Christians in this section, it is best to understand this verse as reflecting mild irony (and perhaps sarcasm). The very carnal disposition that characterizes some of these Christians serves as the catalyst for making evident those who are pleasing to God."

In the climate of potential divisiveness, even greater than that witnessed in 1 Corinthians 11, Paul is calling on the church to make every effort to remain unified. It is important to note that in a profound way this whole letter looks toward chapter 13, the chapter we often call the "Love Chapter." Love is the greater gift and is to be the aim of every Christian. When we love one another, our dissensions and divisions can be worked through and healed in humility and spiritual maturity.