My question is about the following text:

But in the following instructions I do not commend you, because when you come together it is not for the better but for the worse. For, in the first place, when you come together as a church, I hear that there are divisions among you. And I believe it in part, for there must be factions among you in order that those who are genuine among you may be recognized. When you come together, it is not the Lord's supper that you eat.

1 Corinthians 11:17-20 ESV (emphasis mine)

Ciampa and Rosner in their commentary (PNTC) treat 1 Corinthians 11:19 as irony. They interpret Paul as chiding the church for their factions of rich and poor, which the rich are then using to boast that they have approval from God.

MacArthur however treats it as a genuine statement by Paul, saying that there should be some divisions in the church. He mentions the parable of the wheat and the tares and says that Paul is acquiescing that, yes, there needs to be some distinctions within the church. (I am maybe not representing MacArthur well here, but the point is he treats the verse as straightforward rather than irony or sarcasm.)

Unfortunately neither of these commentaries argues at all for their position contra the other (or even recognizes the possibility of the two interpretations). Which is correct? Did Paul intend this statement as irony? How can we decide?

  • Related question: hermeneutics.stackexchange.com/questions/488/…
    – Soldarnal
    Nov 8, 2011 at 17:42
  • I don't think I read this question when you posted it. Perhaps it got mixed up with the other one you linked to. It seems like other people might have missed it too, so I'm going to put a bounty on it and see what happens. (I might answer too if the mood strikes. ;-) Dec 12, 2011 at 22:08

4 Answers 4


We should avoid the irony of division over the meaning of this text; however, it is most faithful to the text to see it as sarcasm.

Paul is Rebuking the Corinthians

It is not insignificant for demonstrating their position that Ciampa and Rosner note that Paul is rebuking the Corinthians. I would like to hear how the context plays into Dr. MacArthur's interpretation. This is a rather divergent aside if Paul is here laying out a doctrine of wheat and tares; one would expect that in a passage intended to provide comfort to a church plagued by heresies, not as a blip in the middle of a rebuke.

Remember also that this is not just the narrow context of this passage; the main thrust of the whole letter is to reprimand a wayward church. It is hardly expected for Paul to start extolling the good aspects of division right in the middle.

Division in the Corinthian Letters

This argument is strengthened when you look at Paul's other mentions of divisions in this letter, and to some extent in the next. This is the verse major topic of the letter—by verse 10, Paul is into it. And lest we think he gives it up quickly, it turns out in chapter 3 verse 1 that he is still addressing that issue. In fact, he continues on that note for all of chapter 3 and most of 4, moving on to speak about spiritual pride in the last verses of 4 and on into 5. Then turn over to six—low and behold, he is still speaking about divisions! From then on, as he moves to deal with a variety of theological questions, including disorder in the worship service, it should be bountifully clear that he is trying to unify them by stopping their divisions of these questions. Not how in his discussion of food offered to idols (chapter 8), he is not as concerned about who is right as that both sides be considerate of one another. And it is very significant that he interprets himself in 13 to give a long discourse on love.

Do you see the significance of this? Discord is the theme of the whole letter. When Paul says therefore late in the letter, "I've heard there is discord among you! I'm not sure whether to believe it!" we ought to recognize that the sarcasm is scalding.

Paul's Partial Disbelief

Paul does not speak of his partial belief because he thinks it to be theologically improbable that they are not unified. The sense is not, "theologically, I thought about it, and I can see both that it is important for the church to be unified, but also that disunity has its place." Rather he means, "I want to give you the benefit of the doubt; however, it's clear that you actually are disunified." In fact, I am inclined to interpret it as even harsher than that—"What? The Corinthians disunified? No way!" Yes way, guys, that's just what I've been talking about through the whole letter. Who's surprised to find another way in which you are disunified?

The Corinthian Letters on Church Discipline

In chapter 5, Paul makes a clear statement that a man living in unrepentant sin ought to be cast out of the church. As such, it hardly makes sense for Paul to see divisions among the Corinthian church as a good thing. Here and elsewhere in the new Testament, those who are giving false teaching or living in opposition to right teaching are to be cast out of the church.

Remember, in this verse Paul is not pontificating about the state of the church as a whole, but is speaking to the church in a specific city. He does not say, "divisions among us," i.e., the whole church, but "among you". Unlike modern American slang in which "you" is a sort of catch-all pronoun, Paul is very deliberate about his use of "you" and "us" in his letters.

As such, from the vantage point of this letter, heretics ought not to be considered part of the church. The church out to be unified; if there are those who would disturb, let them remain on the outside.

Sarcasm/Irony in the Corinthian Letters

There can be a propensity when reading Scripture to forget that it does contain many sarcastic or ironic passages; God's caustic denouncements of the idols in the Old Testament are often dripping with it. Isaiah 44:13 is a good example:

The carpenter measures with a line and makes an outline with a marker; he roughs it out with chisels and marks it with compasses. He shapes it in the form of man, of man in all his glory, that it may dwell in a shrine. (NIV)

More to the point, Paul is known to use sarcasm and irony, particularly in his letters to the the Corinthians. In fact, in this context the irony starts in verse 17: "But now, when I mention the next issue, I cannot praise you." Hmm. First Corinthians is not exactly a letter of resounding praise before the second half of chapter 11 either.

In chapters 1-3, there is the irony of the "foolishness" of the wisdom of God and the foolishness of the "wisdom" of the world.

Chapter 4 verse 8 is ironic, if not sarcastic:

Already you have all you want! Already you have become rich! You have become kings—and that without us! How I wish that you really had become kings so that we might be kings with you! (NIV)

Chapter 5 verses 12 and 13 should also be read in a mocking tone:

"Everything is permissible for me"—but not everything is beneficial. "Everything is permissible for me"—but I will not be mastered by anything. "Food for the stomach and the stomach for food"—but God will destroy them both. (NIV)

Like Jesus often did to the Pharisees, in these verses Paul does not directly contradict the Corinthians. Rather he sideswipes them and leaves it to them to them to recognize just how far they are in error. 5:12-13 is not coming in the middle of his discussion on food, but in the middle of his discussion on sexuality. Paul is the adamant opponent of this antinomianism (Romans 6)! Translations are right to put quotes around those phrases; Paul is not affirming them. The same is true of 10:23 and possibly 12:31. In fact, throughout the whole letter Paul seems to be in dialogue with a letter which he received from them (e.g. 7:1).

In 8:1-2 he is also speaking tongue-in-cheek. Indeed, I could go on and make an examination of 2 Corinthians in a similar manner, but I think the point is sufficiently clear. The letter is laced with cases where Paul's meaning is not as simple as the words on the page.


The best reading of this verse is to understand it as Paul mocking their spiritual pride.


"And I believe it in part, for there must be factions among you in order that those who are genuine among you may be recognized. "

The bold phrase And I believe it in part is an indication that Paul himself recognizes the statement as both true and false.

It is false since we have been commanded to be 'one' and to have no divisions. We are 'one body' as Paul has been emphasizing.

But the true part is that those who are false are to be distinguished so that they do not have undue influence on the body. Jesus taught that it was better to cut off a 'body part' than to have the whole body condemned.

Paul also teaches to cast out the one who is causing others to sin. So he recognizes the truth that there must be divisions among those who call themselves the church, but some are not.

  • well said bob, i agree! Dec 13, 2011 at 6:43

Although Paul is known to use sarcasm, it is better to understand this as a straightforward statement.

First, the term used through the letter for the divisions for which he is rebuking them is σχίσμα (schisma), which means to tear and is where we get our term schism. In verse 19, however, Paul uses the term αἵρεσις (heresies) which is where we get our term heresy. This is important to understanding his point.

At the time Paul writes this letter the word heresy did not have the technical theological meaning that we associate with it. Over time, the term came to indicate those who held to a belief that was counter to some defined orthodoxy. At the time Paul is writing, however, the term referred more to a distinct party or group.

In this context what Paul is pointing out is that there is a group that has established itself as a distinct community in distinction to the all encompassing identity as part of the ἐκκλησία (church). The Church in this letter (and throughout Paul's writing) is the overarching community that is unified in Christ which is more basic and important than any human distinctions (Jew, Greek, male, female, etc.).

He is saying that by separating themselves from the fundamental community of identity in Christ, these others are established in distinction and opposition to the ἐκκλησία (church) which is the body of Christ. Through this process, those who are in Christ are distinguished. Paul and the other apostles often addresses this subject (Romans 16:17, James 1, etc.) when speaking about the unity of the church in Christ.

The context supports this as well. Instead of coming together in unity these people were using the gathering of the Church as a pretext to satisfy their fleshly desires. Paul is pointing out that in doing so they show themselves to not be participating in the worship of the Church at all (vs. 17, 20). Paul's comment in 19 is best understood to be a general recognition that it is possible that God may be using such circumstances in Corinth. Based upon what he has heard it does not sound far fetched. He then goes on to instruct them so that by God's grace they may be found to be true.

  • Welcome to Biblical Hermeneutics Stack Exchange, thanks for contributing - this is a great first answer! Be sure to take our site tour to learn more about us. We're a little different from other sites. Also, I'm loving the username 'mathaytes' - I'm a big fan of 'the Epistle of Mathetes to Diognetes', definitely one of my favourite early church reads!
    – Steve can help
    Apr 1, 2016 at 7:39

Paul's statement in 19 makes total sense as straightforward in the context of a regenerate church membership observing the Lord's table. Just a public mixed gathering is not necessarily the time to observe the communion. They, however, should tarry for one another in unity when those who are approved partake. We must be careful not to read our sarcasm into the text. 1 Corinthians explicitly (chapt. 14) tells us that unbelievers were sometimes in the midst of the assembly. No, I am not "closed communion" but I can defend it better than I can a "wide open" communion.

  • 1
    Ashley - thank you for your commentary and update. But could you provide us more analysis? In this way, we would feel more confident that your approaches make sense to you as much as to us. If you do not provide analysis (references, language, parallels, etc.) then we are expressing our views which we cherish, but without references to help others understand how and where we arrived at those views. Hope that makes sense. Also, please view the tour when you have a moment, if you have not done so already. Thanks!
    – Joseph
    Feb 6, 2016 at 17:33

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