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This verse is cited in support of the idea that differences of opinion among Christians is a good thing.

However on reading a different translation I got a little confused -

1 Corinthians 11:19 For there must be also heresies among you, that they which are approved may be made manifest among you.

To me the idea that all the opinions are equally valuable seems to be a modern one. Surely Paul couldn't have been advocating a democratic process of having contradictory ideas and debating them out till the best one wins. Or was he?

And the word heresy seems to have a negative connotation. I wonder if it accurately represents the meaning of the original Greek.

Is apostle Paul encouraging differences within Christianity or is he saying this in a negative sense?

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Closely related: Is 1 Corinthians 11:19 intended as irony?. – Kazark Sep 9 '12 at 21:48

According to The Theological Dictionary of the New Testament the Greek word αἱρέσεις denotes a “doctrine” and especially a “school.” It did not have the negative connotation until shortly after Christ. The same can be said for its Hebrew equivalent:

The corresponding term in Rabbinic Judaism is מִין, which can mean both αἵρεσις and αἱρετικός. Like αἵρεσις in Josephus, מִין denoted in the first instance the trends and parties within Judaism. But soon, when certain minim separated themselves from the orthodox Rabbinic tradition, it came to be used only of trends within Judaism opposed by the Rabbis, and therefore sensu malo. The term thus stigmatised certain groups as “heretical.” (Gerhard Kittel , TDNT)

Therefore when we look at the verse, it is like saying there must be divisions among you into different schools of thought (not necessarily negative) so that those who are approved, or the true church, might stand out from among the rest. I think the idea is therefore that God has intended that the church be tested with all sorts of criticisms and deviations of teaching, forming into various splits, so that his church would be refined like gold in a furnace. For example, if there were not constant attacks on the divinity of Christ in the early church history and like wise attacks on his true humanity, then the church would have not separated herself from the world. As a result the church more clearly understood and taught her own faith. She learned through the struggle more precisely that Christ was both God and Man in one person, pre-existent eternal God and born of a woman – fully man.

It is good, therefore, that there are divisions to refine and bring about the truth in various forms of bronze, silver and gold, while rejecting the wood, hay and stubble. In this sense the divisions later on started to take the modern day use of them as a negative term indicating ‘heretics’. As the divisions grow and establish, some seem to oppose the very foundations of Christianity so those divisions are called ‘heresies’. However, in the exegesis of this single verse, we can forget that latter concept and ‘end result’ from the negative standpoint and see the higher spiritual and positive value in the divisions themselves as presented by Paul. Actually the churches doctrines are one of those divisions but instead of calling it heresy we call it ‘orthodoxy’. The divisions can be positive or negative.

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I don't agree that this is the right interpretation of this verse. Still a reasonable answer to the question, though. +1 – Kazark Sep 9 '12 at 23:03

Paul is being sarcastic.

  • Paul considers αἱρέσεις/αἱρετικός to be a horrible thing:

Tit 3:10 Have nothing to do with a divisive person [αἱρετικός] after you have warned him once or twice. Tit 3:11 For you know that a person like this is corrupt and keeps on sinning, being self-condemned.

  • the occasion of 1 Corinthians and its prevailing theme is Paul addressing the terrible news that this assembly has in short order devolved into cliques and sects (αἱρέσεις):

1Co 1:10 I appeal to you, brothers, by the name of our Lord Jesus Christ, that all of you agree, and that there be no divisions among you, but that you be united in the same mind and the same judgment.

  • he does not criticize the teaching of any of the distinguished teachers (in fact he praises them) but roundly denounces identification with any teacher other than the Christ:

1Co 1:11 For it has been reported to me by Chloe's people that there is quarreling among you, my brothers. 1Co 1:12 What I mean is that each one of you says, "I follow Paul," or "I follow Apollos," or "I follow Cephas," or "I follow Christ." 1Co 1:13 Is Christ divided? Was Paul crucified for you? Or were you baptized in the name of Paul?

1Co 1:10 I appeal to you, brothers, by the name of our Lord Jesus Christ, that all of you agree, and that there be no divisions among you, but that you be united in the same mind and the same judgment.

There are two main historic ways that assemblies have dealt with differences of opinion:

  • by creating authoritative dogmas (Popes, creeds, councils, statements of faith, etc.)

  • by dividing into sects/denominations

In Corinthians Paul provides the better approach (aka "more excellent way") which involves taking turns teaching while the others listen:

1Co 14:26 What is it [the better approach] then, brethren? whenever ye come together, each of you has a psalm, has a teaching, has a tongue, has a revelation, has an interpretation. Let all things be done to edification. 1Co 14:27 If any one speak with a tongue, let it be two, or at the most three, and separately, and let one interpret; 1Co 14:28 but if there be no interpreter, let him be silent in the assembly, and let him speak to himself and to God. 1Co 14:29 And let two or three prophets speak, and let the others judge. 1Co 14:30 But if there be a revelation to another sitting there , let the first be silent. 1Co 14:31 For ye can all prophesy one by one, that all may learn and all be encouraged. 1Co 14:32 And spirits of prophets are subject to prophets. 1Co 14:33 For God is not a God of disorder but of peace, as in all the assemblies of the saints. 1Co 14:36 What? came the word of God out from you? or came it unto you only? 1Co 14:37 If any man think himself to be a prophet, or spiritual, let him acknowledge that the things that I write unto you are the commandments of the Lord. 1Co 14:38 But if any man be ignorant, let him be ignorant. 1Co 14:39 Wherefore, brethren, covet to prophesy, and forbid not to speak with tongues. 1Co 14:40 Let all things be done decently and in order.

This Pauline method is very similar to that (usually) practiced on this site!

Related:

How can we determine if a text is sarcastic?

What does it mean “to quench” in 1 Thessalonians 5:19? (see my answer)

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