Divisions and factions

But if anyone is disposed to be contentious, we have no such custom, nor do the churches of God. Now in this instruction that I give you I do not commend you, because when you come together it is not for the better but for the worse. For, to begin with, when you come together as a church, I hear that there are divisions among you; and to some extent I believe it. Indeed, there have to be factions among you, for only so will it become clear who among you are genuine. (NRSV alt.)

Fascinating little transition here in 1 Corinthians 11. I have often read right past it—especially the last sentence of the excerpt I have given here.

In the first sentence, it is not immediately obvious whether “we have no such custom” applies to the hair-and-hat conventions just discussed or to being contentious. Interpreters usually think it’s the former, but grammatically it could be the latter. (Note that NRSV puts an em dash, because assuming the former requires a break in the syntax, but assuming the latter does not, so I have put a comma.) Contentiousness is not a normative Christian custom, and it is the opposite of praiseworthy; it is blameworthy. The Apostle does not want to believe that there are divisions (schismata) when the Corinthians gather in assembly (“church”), because there should not be. But he is inclined to believe the reports he hears of factions (haireseis).

Why? Two reasons. The story he is hearing hangs together: it makes sense that they would be fighting over hair-and-hats because the wealthier people are treating the poorer people shamefully in the way they do the Lord’s Supper. In treating the poorer people shamefully, they are in effect disfiguring the Lord’s own body! Of course, people who are fighting over hats-and-hair would also do that, and vice versa. (Paul does not think that the hats-and-hair question is insignificant, as we might think; he does not regard it as fighting over nothing.)

But then that last sentence: it also makes sense that there would be division into factions because if there were not, you wouldn’t be able to tell the authentically faithful apart from the fakers. Yow! Have you ever really paid attention to that sentence, or heard a preacher take it seriously? How are you going to tell the sheep from the goats if some people aren’t honoring the Lord and others dishonoring the Lord? I’m alluding to Matthew 25 here because interpreters (e.g., Gordon Fee) point out that discerning who is authentic (dokimos) is an eschatological concern.

I’ll stop there. But I submit that if we are going to take the Apostle seriously—whether thinking specifically about division in our churches or by extension extrapolating to think about divisions in society—we should not jump too quickly to “Now, now, can’t we just all get along?” When we encounter division, we have to at least consider whether what we’re seeing is a revelation of the line between the authentic/worthy people and the inauthentic/unworthy. And in both realms, we might expect that inauthenticity may be signaled through disdain for the less well off.

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