Having addressed the issue of head coverings in corporate worship (1 Cor. 11:2–16), the Apostle Paul in today’s passage begins to deal with a second problem in the public worship of the first-century Corinthian church. The issue at hand is the conduct of the Corinthians at the Lord’s Supper (v. 20), the sacrament wherein the death of Jesus is remembered and people commune with the Savior through the consumption of bread and wine. The error, we will see in the coming days, has to do with how the wealthier believers in Corinth were treating poorer Christians at the Lord’s Table (see v. 22). Before the Apostle addresses the specific issue, however, he spends time in today’s passage noting that the church is divided and that divisions can have a positive purpose.
Paul has heard that when the Corinthian church gathers, it has been “not for the better but for the worse,” and that because of the congregation’s divisions (vv. 17–18). One commentator notes that Paul’s comment regarding this news—“And I believe it in part”—indicates that the extent of the divisions may have been exaggerated by those who brought the news to the Apostle. Nevertheless, Paul’s comment means that divisions did exist and that they were serious.
In any case, Paul notes that not everything about divisions in the church is bad. “There must be factions among you in order that those who are genuine among you may be recognized” (v. 19). Church divisions and disagreements, as regrettable as they may be, have a positive side. Through arguments, we learn who truly holds to the Apostolic faith taught in the Scriptures and who does not. Indeed, we see this throughout history. Church historians and theologians have said time and again that doctrinal arguments and heresies have the salutary benefit of forcing the church to more accurately define the Christian faith according to Scripture. We see this even in the New Testament. The division over what to do about gentile converts to Christ drove the church back to the Scriptures, where they learned that circumcision is not a requirement for salvation (Acts 15:1–35).
The fourth-century Arian controversy forced the church to more accurately define the deity of Christ. The sixteenth-century indulgence controversy forced the church to better articulate the doctrine of justification by faith alone. In these cases and in many others, divisions in the church helped purify the people of God and produced clearer statements of the faith once delivered to the saints.