Question: Paul Jacob
What does the divisions in the Church teach? St Paul (1 Cor 11:19) wrote “there must be divisions
among you so that you who have God’s approval will be recognized.”
Answer: Jacob Parappally MSFS
Throughout his Letters Paul pleads and prays for communion among the members of the Church and among all people. Therefore, it may be surprising to know that he sees factions or divisions in the Church as a means to recognize God’s approval. All the translations of this text show the necessity of having divisions, differences, factions, heresies or sects in the Church. Why should it happen? Why can’t the Church grow and flourish without divisions and heresies? The fact is that it does not. One is the ideal and the other is the reality. Ideally, the Church as a community modelled after the Trinitarian Communion of the Father, Son and the Spirit should live in communion and be a sacrament of communion but it did not happen in the past and it does not happen in the present. It looks as if divisions or factions must be there in the Church to reveal what is genuine and authentic life and practice of the Church as intended by God and what is not. As long as humans’ false egos blind them to see truth about themselves, God and the world, they would try to secure power and positions to dominate and control others and impose their views and their way of life on others. This would certainly create divisions and factions in the Church and also in the society in which they live. So it is inevitable that divisions would come in the Church as the members are not perfect. As it is said, “Temptations are sure to come; but woe to him by whom they come (Luke 17:1).
Those members who have mistaken the reality of the Church as something different from what it really is, namely, the Body of Christ and considers it similar to a secular Institution or a political organization must change their perception of the Church. They need to become true members of the Church through an inner conversion. Paul says, “Do not be conformed to this world but be transformed by the renewal of your mind, that you may prove what is the will of God, what is good and acceptable and perfect”( Romans 12:2). It is the mind of humans that create a false sense of themselves and the world. When the mind is attuned to the world and its values it cannot listen to the Spirit of God and the values of the Kingdom. Therefore, Paul appeals to his brothers and sisters in Christ not to be conformed to the world but to be transformed by the renewal of their minds.
Factions within the Church
The Church at Corinth ‘existed in a grossly sinful atmosphere which continued to make its mark on the Church’. The members of the Church were previously the members of the civil society of Corinth which had many gods and goddesses as well as many practices like temple-prostitution, promiscuity, class discriminations etc. In the midst of material prosperity there was a moral depravity. There were Jews in the city but the majority belonged to other religions and religious sects. The members of the Church were not free from the sinful situation of city in which they lived. “The factions which existed in the church at Corinth are in part explained by the factious spirit of the city. The population consisted of Romans, Greeks, Orientals, and men of adventure from all over the world. The absence of an established aristocracy tended to make the people democratic and intolerant of control. This independent spirit carried over into the Church, and there was displayed the tendency for each member to line up behind his favourite leader in competition with all others.” This factious spirit was also seen in the opposition to women asserting their independence in the congregation (1 Cor 11:5-15; 14:34-35) and those with spiritual gifts trying to use them for their own publicity and not for the good of the Church (1 Cor 12, 14).
There were also divisions in the Corinthian Church with regard to the question about which apostle was superior. The other issues that caused divisions were concerned with “sexual morality, lawsuits, marriage, eating meat, head-coverings for women, the Lord’s Supper, spiritual gifts, the resurrection of Jesus, the resurrection of believers and so on (1 Cor 12).” Surprisingly, some of the issues of the Church that caused divisions or factions in the Church of Corinth are found also in the Church of our times. Many of the issues that beset the Church then and now flow from a worldly spirit that promotes inequality, injustice, oppression and dehumanization as well as idolization of power, richness and the suppression of the weak!
Divisions for Discernment
In the text quoted from 1 Corinthians, the Greek term used for divisions or factions is haireses. It means heresies. The plural term haireses though usually translated as heresies or false doctrines has various meanings according to the New Testament Lexicon. It can mean, act of taking, capturing, choosing, choice, that which is chosen and a body of men following their own tenets (sect or party). So in the context of the Church of Corinth, hairesis would mean all these. There were factions or sects which believed in false doctrines concerning resurrection of the body. According to these sects or groups reality is made up of matter and spirit. Matter is evil and spirit is good. Humans are good spirits caught up in evil matter. They would not believe in the resurrection of the body which is evil. So too they could not accept that Jesus resurrected. They were known as Gnostics. Such a false doctrine or heresy would undermine the foundational Christian faith in the resurrection of Christ and the resurrection of the body which is a transformation of the earthly existence into heavenly existence. There were groups or parties who would not accept the converted gentile Christians or the poor to share the Eucharistic meal with them. There were others who would not allow women to have their rightful place in the Church. Some parties or groups claimed one apostle or another as their leader and claimed superiority over the others. All of them are heresies or divisions. Each one makes a choice or a heresy according to his or her interests and aptitude but not as demanded by the gospels and the legitimate authorities of the Church. Therefore they are not true disciples of Jesus Christ and authentic members of Christ’s Body, the Church.
All heresies or divisions as in the Church at Corinth are taking place in the Church today. There are a number of Church authorities who are not happy with the Vatican II and the reforms that it had brought in the Church to make the Church a more effective sacrament of Christ in the world. They prefer to have a Church of Pre-Vatican times with a hierarchy of power to dominate and control, a liturgy with an exaggerated emphasis on rituals and rubrics and with a clericalism which separated the laity from the clerics with an idea of Master-servant leadership style. The Vatican II brought in the renewal of the Church with an emphasis on the Mystery dimension of the Church with the People of God as the Body of Christ. From among the People of God a few are chosen to serve the people of God as ministers or servants to build the Body of Christ or build communion through the proclamation of Christ and His Kingdom through Word and Sacraments. They are to lead the community through servant-leadership like their Lord, “who came to serve and not to be served and gave His life as a ransom for many” (Mark 10:45).
Jesus washed the feet of His disciples to give an example of leadership they should follow when they shepherd, teach and exercise their ministerial priesthood. Their sacramental celebration of the Supper of the Lord should promote communion among the people through the breaking of their selves in self-emptying love rather than a meticulous and scrupulous performance of elaborate rituals with strict rubrics as the fundamentalists of all religions demand. The call of the Council was for a participatory Church and in which all share their charism according to their state of life to build up the Body of Christ. But the spirit of Corinth, the spirit of divisions or factions, are entering into the Church. Right discernment is needed to recognize the wheat from the chaff, right belief from heresies, the real face of the Church from the false ones and the world or the media-approved way of life for the Church and the God-approved way of life for the Church. One who is docile to the Spirit of God is enabled by the Spirit to discern genuine or authentic Christian beliefs, practices and ways of life from those which are not. Therefore, divisions or factions are inevitable. However, they provide opportunities to a true disciple of Christ to discern and reject everything that is against the values of the Gospel and accept what promotes genuine communion and self-emptying love.
Ways of Discernment
Whenever there were dissentions and factions in the community of the early Church Paul exhorted the members of the Church to discern the will of God with an attitude of self-emptying. To the Philippians he writes that they should have “mind of Christ” who was in the form of God but did not count equality with God a thing to be grasped and emptied Himself and became human (Cfr Philippians 2:5-6). The fundamental cause of any divisions of factions is the desire to secure power either in any organization or in the sphere of knowledge or ideology. Therefore, Paul says, “Do nothing from selfishness or conceit, but in humility count others better than yourselves. Let each of you look not only to his own interests, but also to the interests of others” (Philippians 2:3-4). Further he says: “It is my prayer that your love may abound more and more, with knowledge and all discernment, so that you may approve what is excellent, and may be pure and blameless for the day of Christ, filled with the fruits of righteousness which come through Jesus Christ, to the glory and praise of God” (Philippians 1:9-11).
The criteria for discernment are both Christological and ecclesiological. Whatever teaching or practice that makes one more Christ-like in his or her attitude, behaviour, life-style and relationships is certainly coming from the Spirit of God, provided it also helps the members grow in communion. Whatever creates divisions and dissentions in the community and affects true communion among members cannot come from the Spirit of God. Therefore, it is clear that those who work for securing power or positions through foul means and for selfish ends would create factions or divisions in the Church. God lets this happen as He lets both wheat and weeds grow together in the same garden till the time of His judgment. Whatever affects the witnessing power of the Church and its credibility or whatever scandalous thing that happens in the Church provides the believers with an opportunity to test the authenticity, depth and maturity of their faith. Factions or divisions can affect the vitality of the Church but it cannot destroy the Church which is the Body of Christ and the temple of the Holy Spirit.