If there was one biblical text I could recommend for people navigating deep church conflict, it would be I Kings 3:16-28. It is a familiar story often told to illustrate the wisdom of King Solomon. In it, the fabled King is approached by two women, identified as prostitutes, who share a home and each have a baby on the same day. One child dies causing the women to fight over the remaining baby boy, each claim this surviving child to be their own.
Solomon’s solution is both ingenious and memorable. After listening to the women argue back and forth, he calls for a sword and says, “Cut the living baby in two–give half to one and half to the other.” This leads to a revelation of the real mother as one woman clearly puts the child’s welfare first saying, “Give her the whole baby alive; don’t kill him!” The other woman also reveals herself, responding instead with “If I can’t have him, cut away!”
This story came to mind as I was anticipating the build-up to this year’s General Conference of The United Methodist Church. For decades now, the denomination has been in conflict over a number of topics with differences over human sexuality topping the list. The church gathers every four years to celebrate its work, set priorities, and consider any changes to its polity contained in The United Methodist Book of Discipline. The conversations and actions of the General Conference are both enriched and complicated by the reality that the denomination is increasingly a global one.
Several months still remain before this gathering occurs and already the lines are being drawn, actions are taking place, and events are being planned to win over the hearts of the great Methodist middle. Most of this political maneuvering, though certainly not all, is on the topic of human sexuality and same-gender marriage. Of course there is a place for (healthy) politics in the life of a church; people are political by nature. From an organizational standpoint we know that change is essential for any vital organization. Yet, change rarely happens in any setting without the ratcheting up of the temperature as comfortable people get stuck. But there is such a thing as too hot, and not all change is positive.
Despite polling that reveals that nearly 90 percent of United Methodists have no interest in the church splitting over differences on human sexuality and same-gender marriage, a small percentage on each end of the spectrum would support a schism. While there are many (across the theological spectrum) who might work for and support a variety of changes, this smaller percentage are less likely to concern themselves with the health of the whole. In their rhetoric, ‘compromise’ is identified as betrayal rather than a potential way forward.
Avoiding the Weeds
Solomon’s wise solution is so striking that we often miss that there may have been other options available to him. He could have called forth people to buttress one woman’s story or another. Were there any witnesses to support one version of the events over the other? Could anyone speak to the character of one person, or against them? This humorous look by The Occasional illustrates a less productive result of Solomon’s curt judgement.
I don’t mean to dismiss the wisdom of Solomon’s approach as much as to suggest it wasn’t the only way, and certainly wasn’t the most conventional path, to the truth. It is most notable for its simplicity and its adherence to a useful value:
Did the woman in question actually love the child?
When we are faced with conflict in the church, might we not also embrace this wisdom of Solomon? Of course, we shouldn’t fear a robust conversation about the potential changes and choices we might consider; I fully believe that a church that loves well listens well. But like God, the church is called to listen to many voices, each speaking from a place of truth even in their inevitable incompleteness.
If given the option, I suspect that King Solomon would, on any given day, prefer to listen to the squabbling of two prostitutes over a broiling church conflict. Beyond the inherent ugliness of sisters and brothers overlooking the value of the other, and proving that it is indeed hard to listen while you shout, the complexity is often far greater than a simple question of parentage. And as is often the case when denominations gather, decision makers are asked to juggle a ridiculous number of important concerns, discerning the best action with little time and in a format that often seems incongruent with the nature of the questions.
Still, if we were to apply the wisdom of Solomon to our present questions, we might ask a better question than “who is right?”
Who Deserves the Baby?
A fascinating possibility to consider in the story of Solomon and the two women is the chance that the King gave the child to the women who wasn’t the biological mother. We bring to the story the presumption that the biological mother would always put the baby’s wellbeing ahead of their right to ownership of the child but sadly we know that this isn’t always the case. It is wholly possible that Solomon’s wisdom delivered the baby to the wrong person but, concurrently, the right mother.
In contemporary times, the question of maternity would rarely be solved in such a manner. A DNA test would be ordered and we would arrive at near certainty over who the true, biological mother was. But this efficient solution, with its clinical clarity, isn’t a guarantee that a child is placed in loving, capable hands.
In a similar fashion, we might wisely question whether those who are right are truly the best people to entrust with the care of the church. By this I don’t mean that decision-makers should embrace backwards policy or a wrong path forward. Instead, I mean to suggest that we should allow Solomon’s wisdom to guide us.
The care of the church should be given to those who love it more.
A Parting Bit of Wisdom?
I’d be remiss if I didn’t express that love is never a mindless acquiescence to the other, whether that other is one’s spouse, the Church, or even God. In the context of one’s relationship to the church, whether a disciple should fully submit to its discipline is a legitimate question, especially as the church moves slowly to adapt in a world that propels forward faster than ever. The church, even in the best of times, is never a perfect reflection of the Kin(g)dom, or of God’s perfect(ing) love. Revolution of this sort might indeed be seen as the faithful work of Spirit.
But even in these cases, as painful as they might be, the Spirit moves us toward unity just as it propels us toward greater truth. Love for the church isn’t measured by a legalistic adherence to its polity, nor is it seen in its casual neglect. We stop loving the church when we stop caring about its people, particularly the ones we find little natural affinity with. The discipline of a church is truly important but it isn’t the primary thing that bonds authentically Christian community.
The primary thing is love.
Love, not the law, is what drives transformation. Love is the way God binds people, who see and experience the world so differently, together as a church; we don’t need God’s help to gather with like-minded individuals.
As we seek to navigate church conflict, let us not forget that we ourselves rarely change because of rules and judgements from afar. We are changed because we were first loved by God, and then by others. May we never give up on the hope of what relationships grounded in love can provide.