What a curious title for an article! And yet, the concept is biblical. In that controversial epistle, commonly called First Corinthians, Paul deals with a variety of church problems. They were problems conveyed to the apostle via the reports of others (1 Corinthians 1:11), and concerning which the Corinthian saints had inquired of their “father” in the gospel (7:1; 4:15).
One of the difficulties that plagued the church in Corinth was a spirit of divisiveness that ran counter to the Savior’s prayer for unity (John 17:20-21). There were factions at Corinth that revolved around “hero” adulation, i.e., loyalty to men (1:12). Some were infected with jealousy and strife and were hardly discernible from the wranglers of the world. There were insensitive people who pursued their differences in the civil courts, much to the embarrassment of the cause of Christ (6:1ff).
Some brethren had little regard for the consciences of the weak, insisting on their “liberty,” and wounding others, e.g., in the matter of eating meats (8:1ff). Those who were more affluent discriminated against the poor in those “love feasts” that characterized the Corinthian assemblies (11:20). The context of chapters 12-14 suggests there was discord as a result of the abuse of spiritual gifts. Some denied the doctrine of the bodily resurrection at the end of time, while others maintained it (15:12). This was a church riddled with division.
It is out of this background that one of the most intriguing passages in the entire letter arises — one that appears to be so out of harmony with New Testament teaching.
“But in giving you this charge, I praise you not, that ye come together not for the better but for the worse. For first of all, when ye come together in the church, I hear that divisions exist among you; and I partly believe it. For there must be also factions among you, that they that are approved may be made manifest among you” (11:17-19 — ASV).
On the surface Paul seems to be saying that “factions” are a good thing. But surely in the ultimate sense, that cannot be right. What is the significance of this passage, which has been characterized as “one of the true puzzles in the letter” (Fee, p. 538)?
First of all, this was not a situation of which the apostle approved. He plainly says “I praise you not,” which is the equivalent of declaring: “I condemn your conduct.” He contends that their assemblies are for the “worse,” not the “better.” As much as he hates to think about it, it is a sad reality that they are factious. Paul charges that there are “divisions” (Grk. schisma) among them. In a literal sense the term can suggest that which is torn (cf. Mark 2:21; 15:38). Three times the word is used in this letter to denote the fragmented state of the Corinthian congregation (1:10; 11:18; 12:25). The present tense form “exist” suggests the
constant state of agitation that prevailed in Corinth.
Clearly, there was great disharmony in this church. But it is that final sentence that is troubling. What does Paul mean: there must be factions among you, so that the approved may be made manifest?
First, a consideration must be given to the term “factions.” The Greek is hairesis (the basis of our English word, heresy). The term derives from a root meaning to “choose.” In time, it came to suggest “what is chosen,” hence, “an opinion, especially a self-willed opinion, which is substituted for submission to the power of truth, and leads to division and the formation of sects” (Vine, p. 389).
Another writer notes that haireseis in the New Testament are “dissensions based on false teachings which threaten the Church’s unity” (Balz, p. 40).
Some authorities note that the NT usage does not suggest a group that has separated from the parent body, but one that is divisive from within (Walker, p. 519). In view of this extremely negative connotation, as employed throughout the NT, how could Paul possibly be associating any value to such a state?
Second, what sense is attached to the term “must” — “there must be factions among you”? The verb is dei, which is used in a variety of senses. Here, it appears to be employed of a circumstance which is necessary for the attaining of a particular end (Thayer, p. 126), without necessarily reflecting the divine ideal. The cause and effect relationship must be supplied by the context.
There are two possibilities as to the meaning of the phraseology.
First, some see this statement as ironical, reinforcing the rebuke tendered already. The sense might be: “With the sort of attitudes you brethren possess, sects are bound to arise.” This seems to be MacKnight’s take on the passage. He says that “the word must does not signify what ought to be, but what in the natural course of things will certainly be, as the consequence of the pride, anger, envy, and other evil passions which prevail among men” (p. 181). Causes have effects!
Others see the language as hinting of a sort of providential concession, reflecting this sense: though divisions are wrong, nevertheless, in the divine scheme of things, even good can come from them. The “sectarian” spirit has a way of throwing a floodlight upon those who are true to the Lord, and approved in his sight.
In an earlier context (see 3:10-15), the apostle had suggested that the “fire” of persecution had the residual effect of proving (dokimazo) the character, or quality, of a man’s work (i.e., his converts to the Lord; cf. 9:1). In the present context, the manifestation of the schismatic spirit turns out to reveal “the approved [dokimoi] ones among you.” The term dokimazo has to do with a testing process by which the genuine is revealed, e.g., in the separating procedure which distinguishes pure gold from dross, by means of fire (cf. 1 Peter 1:7).
The meaning of this obscure phrase, then, could be this. While God does not endorse divisiveness, he allows it to occur. He does not stifle human freewill. Nonetheless, in spite of this unseemly confusion, out of it, good may result. God can use even strife for the accomplishment of good.
This truth is amply illustrated by the OT case of Joseph and his jealous brothers (Genesis 50:20). Those who are dedicated to the Lord will rise to the top, like cream on the milk, and evidence their nobler character.
If this is the sense, what are some of those revelations which this providential tolerance can produce?
Traits of Approvedness
First, the rise of schisms within the body of Christ becomes a means of highlighting a person’s reverence for the value of truth, and his ability to discern such. Truth is so important that it must be obtained and defended no matter what the cost. “Buy the truth and sell it not,” was the motto of an inspired writer (Proverbs 23:23).
When party loyalty is seen to be more important than dedication to truth, it becomes a character commentary.
I once heard a brother comment upon a certain doctrinal position that was eminently scriptural, though a controversial item at the time: “I cannot afford to take a stand on that issue; it would seriously jeopardize my income.” What a tragic character index; yet, it is not uncommon.
By way of contrast, there are those who value truth so devoutly that all other considerations pale into insignificance. The arena of controversy has a way of separating the substantial from the superficial.
Second, the atmosphere of divisiveness accommodates the evolution of the partisan spirit which is latent in souls of some. Clearly this was one of the factors that contributed to the cliquish mentality at Corinth. “Heroes” — real or otherwise — became a determinative factor in terms of where one’s allegiance was placed.
Some are so wedded to “men” that they are willing to follow them anywhere. Their philosophy is: “I’m sticking with brother ___ no matter what.” It matters not as to the gravity of the issue, or the scope and nature of the evidence. Their fixation with the object of their adoration is shown to be more powerful than their commitment to the Lord.
But that same environment also reveals quality folks of steel-like character, whose devotion to Jesus Christ is demonstrated to be more important than family, friends, or business associates (Matthew 10:34f; 12:50). As unpleasant as it is, the party-oriented atmosphere has a way of separating the courageous from the compromising.
Third, the climate of division provides an atmosphere for the inherently rancorous person to find opportunity for the display of his combative spirit.
Have you ever encountered that type of soul who appears so tranquil; then arises some controversy, and suddenly a disposition of surliness shockingly surfaces? It seems that beneath the docile veneer there was a smoldering ugliness that now has “come to the kingdom for such a time as this.”
On the other hand, the same atmosphere can bring to light those who are so patient and loving in the manner with which they deal with controversy. With them, the value of a soul is supreme. It is not winning the battle, but winning the person that is paramount. Such people are willing to suffer loss, to go “the second mile,” for the sake of seeing peace prevail within the body of Christ. Yet, had it not been for the controversy, their lovely character never would have been discovered!
Fourth, the theatre of partyism provides an opportunity for those who seek acclaim to find a following that helps to satisfy their egos. Some men have precious little, of a positive nature, to contribute to the betterment of Christ’s kingdom. It is only when things are “stirred” that they find their chief purpose in life. They become “warriors” of a cause, celebrities of the moment. With fiery eloquence or razor sharp pens (to use an antiquated metaphor), their hearts pump with the adrenaline of anticipated glory. They are a pitiful, though deadly, lot.
In bold relief there are those who actually rise to greatness, having sought it not, because of their skills in dealing with volatile issues. The venerable Gus Nichols, though not encumbered with the paraphernalia of academia, nonetheless, because of his great Bible knowledge, his humble spirit, and his loving disposition, became a giant in an era when controversy troubled the church from more than one direction. Though he was one of the best scholars among us, Hugo McCord achieved his greatest influence among the Lord’s people, perhaps, by showing us how to treat one another in a kindly fashion, even when disagreeing. No one who knew Hugo doubts that his convictions were strong, yet his gracious manner is the admiration of all sensitive Christians who were acquainted with him. Yes, the arena of strife can be the crucible in which great people are revealed.
And so, as unpleasant as factiousness is; as detestable as partyism reveals itself to be, if one believes in the ultimate conquest of good over evil, he can see, even in the most adverse circumstances, something of the good, the positive, and the noble. He can believe that God can bring order even from chaos, and that, in the divine scheme of things, right must prevail.