Commentary: Would Solomon cut the UMC in two?

solomon-baby_550

by Patrick Scriven*

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

TO_10_KingSolomon-1Solomon’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?

Who should we trust with the future of The United Methodist Church?Tweet ThisA 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 prockets 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.

 

12439529_10153646526131773_7015104990397910599_n*Patrick Scriven is a husband who married well, a father of three amazing girls, and a seminary educated lay person working professionally in church. Patrick serves the Pacific Northwest Conference as Director of Communications and Young People’s Ministries. He blogs over at http://After.Church

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25 Comments on "Commentary: Would Solomon cut the UMC in two?"

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The United Methodist Reporter wants to encourage lively conversation about The United Methodist Church and our articles in the belief that Christian conversation (what Wesley would call conferencing) is a means of grace. While we support passionate debate, we cannot allow language that demeans or demonizes others, and we reserve the right to delete any comment we believe to be harmful or inappropriate. We encourage all to remember that we are all broken and in need of Christ's grace, and that we all see through the glass darkly until that time we when reach full perfection in love. May your speech here be tempered with love, and reflection of the fruits of love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control. After all, "There is no law against things like this." (Galatians 5:22-23)
 
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Geoff
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7 months 5 days ago
I don’t know the Methodist story as well as the PC(USA) or maybe the Episcopalians , but let me guess how this came about. Probably starting in the early 1900s you started getting more theologically liberal pastors. They started teaching things that weren’t in line with the historic teachings of your denomination. They got more and more control as time went on. If I had to guess further, the conservatives didn’t do a good job of excommunicating these people as they should have. They thrived on lies, saying they believed in the old things but changing the meaning of words.… Read more »
Paul W.
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Paul W.
7 months 4 days ago
Good analysis, Geoff. The UMC has been able to hold on to orthodoxy longer then the Presbyterians and Episcopalians due to the differences in our rules. First, our General Conferences have both lay and clergy representation — for the last century, the laity has been much more theologically conservative than the clergy. Second, our theologically conservative Wesleyan doctrine is protected by a “restrictive rule” that does not allow it to be changed — this has been a big help, but as with the denominations you mention, the theologically liberal bureaucracy hates this and tries to work around it by a… Read more »
Kevin
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Kevin
7 months 5 days ago

That sounds about right.

jimmie shelby
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jimmie shelby
6 months 14 days ago

Solomon would most probably have divided the church

mark mcroberts
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mark mcroberts
7 months 1 day ago
As a gay man who joined the MEC in 1966 @ 10. I remember all the bigotry and outright digust of our conservative white members. I was horrified I had black classmates that were friends. We now have black members who came from the AME. I am much happier with a racially diverse church. I have been fired from a job for being gay, im still my mothers shame. But I have decided that if I can not be an equal member I am DONE and I WILL BECOME A NONE. I will burn my mec bible from when I… Read more »
Arbuthnaught
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7 months 4 days ago

I wonder that if the Wesley brother were to be magically transported through time to our day if they would even recognize the Methodist Church as the one they had founded. It is possible that they might not opt for a Solomonic solution but might just shut down the denominational seminaries and fire every second pastor and opt for an entirely lay lead model instead.

Eric Pone
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Eric Pone
7 months 4 days ago
Everyone seems to be ok with the status quo of fighting over it. Many have threatened to leave over this biblical teaching or that. I have taken the middle comfy road. I have chosen to not ordain and not belong to a congregation. I attend and volunteer and give via regular deposit. But…… If I want to officiate a gay wedding (haven’t been asked probably won’t be) I will do it. I will not be controlled by third world values. I find standing outside in love and support has taken a huge weight off my shoulders. If folks want to… Read more »
Kevin
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Kevin
7 months 3 days ago

“I will not be controlled by third world values”.
A statement like that speaks volumes. It shows contempt for our collective decision making process, denying the presence of the Holy Spirit during our Holy Conferencing. It tells the Africans that their opinions are of diminished worth because we in the more advanced society know better. This of course is the modern form of colonialism that The UMC is practicing, cultural colonialism as apposed to political colonialism. This kind of arrogant elitist thinking is what put us in this box and is undermining our connection.

Wes Andrews
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Wes Andrews
7 months 5 days ago
Every time the Hebrew people broke their covenant with God that placed them outside of God’s will and they had to live with the consequences of their choices. The broken covenant of those who refuse to trust in the authority of Scripture and refuse to respect the BOD is distracting the mission of the UMC. They should be allowed to take their property and go. Any local church should be allowed to take their property and go if they believe the denomination has walked away from God’s inspired truth for us. If GC 2016 embraces another definition of marriage other… Read more »
Eric Pone
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Eric Pone
7 months 4 days ago

And vice versa from a progressive view. And the Church suffers regardless of which side prevails. So maybe both sides of should leave in love together and leave the balance who could care less alone.

Wes Andrews
Guest
Wes Andrews
7 months 1 day ago

In Solomon’s story one person presented a false narrative. What he desired to do was to get to the truth. There’s nothing deceptive about the authority of Scripture or about those who trust the authority of Scripture. And there’s no confusion in Scripture about the value or definition of marriage.

Jack
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Jack
7 months 5 days ago

We accept hundreds of denominations as Christian. What is wrong with dozens more?

Kevin
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Kevin
7 months 4 days ago

Good point. The UMC is not the baby but more like the fingernail off the left pinkie of the baby. What’s another split nail after all that?

Richard Hicks
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Richard Hicks
7 months 6 days ago
What did Peter and Paul do? “Peter, you stay here in Jerusalem with the Hebrew homeboys, I’m going to leave town, travel, and hang with the Gentiles,” said Paul. This was the first church split. It has never been healed. Quit behaving like the oppressed mom in a sick family who says, “Can’t we just have a nice, quiet Christmas and everyone get along?” Here’s the plan: Everyone take your toys and move to the corner where you feel the most comfortable. Since the publishing house is broke this time the US Supreme Court won’t be involved in the divorce.… Read more »
Patrick Scriven
Guest
7 months 6 days ago

Richard, thanks for offering your take. To a point, I agree. All the same, I think it’s important to remember that only a small percentage, on either theological ‘side’ of things is inclined to see more merit in their position than in the benefits of being in messy relationship with others struggling along the path with their own imperfect understandings.

Sandy Wylie
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Sandy Wylie
7 months 7 days ago

Walking separately in love and respect may be the best answer.

Paul W.
Guest
Paul W.
7 months 7 days ago
I agree. I don’t understand the point of this article. It completely ignores the core issues, misapplies Scripture, assigns un-Christian motives to those of us who have serious and valid concerns, and is based on the assumption that staying together and ignoring our incompatible differences is somehow the “loving and Christian” thing to do. As most articles like these do, the author unfortunately ignores the question of how we are supposed to live and work together when we have completely incompatible approaches to Biblical interpretation, understandings of who Jesus is, what the Gospel means, and the definitions of key words… Read more »
dave werner
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dave werner
7 months 7 days ago
Paul W: ISTM that the “core issue” facing The UMC is love. i don’t think i know anyone with whom i do not disagree about something, but that does not automatically trigger “incompatibility.” We are one in Christ, not in agreement about doctrine or Biblical interpretation or most anything else. As Patrick Scriven writes in a response above, “If one’s concern for change or doctrine, however valid, supersedes their ability to love others, treating them with kindness and respect even as they disagree, they have lost the point.” i agree. If The UMC in General Conference or any other church… Read more »
Mary Page
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Mary Page
7 months 7 days ago

The laity is strong and if 90 percent says the UMC is not splitting then it is not splitting. Pastors do not speak for the self. They speak for their flocks and for God both which vote no split. If the church is the people then move on to something else you have better things to do than that. Need a list? I am sure the laity can hand it to you. After all you all are representatives of us and all our opinions. Sibling rivalry is easily handled. 🙂 Right Jesus.

Kevin
Guest
Kevin
7 months 6 days ago

I am among the 90% who do not want to see the church split. That said I will not remain in connection with those who want to reinvent the Bible to suit their own desires. If enough members feel the same way then we will split. It is a mistake to view those poll numbers as predictors.

Patrick Scriven
Guest
7 months 7 days ago

Mary, thanks for reading and offering your thoughts. I believe that the polling included both clergy and laity.

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