When doctrinal disputes arise it's easy to politely agree to disagree. But Dr Hugh Osgood believes such "kindness" is detrimental to the health of the Church. We need to start listening to one another, he says, because each denomination has something valuable to offer. Let's trust that the unity of the Spirit will undergird us, even in the toughest of conversations


Of all the wisdom imparted to the seven churches in Revelation, the counsel given by Jesus to "hear what the Spirit says to the churches” is surely the most telling.

This was a unique moment when the risen Jesus provided a group of churches with the opportunity to all hear each other’s specific prescriptions from him at one and the same time.

During lockdown, as I was serving my second term as Moderator of the Free Churches Group and Free Churches President of Churches Together in England, I found myself looking back to the 90s when I worked as the Evangelical Alliance Coordinator for London. I recalled how much I appreciated the comprehensive view of the Church I felt I had back then, but 20 years on, given the membership spectrum of Churches Together, I was face-to-face with an overview that was far wider and much more complex, seemingly growing in complexity day by day.

There was clearly a need, as we moved through lockdown, to ask what could be done to improve our ability to hear all that God was saying across such a range of views and opinions. It was clear that in Revelation each church heard specifics from God that were relevant to them individually, but they were also expected to evaluate a wider picture across the churches that brought out the breadth of God’s heart in greater clarity while acknowledging that God never contradicts himself.

I believe that we are still faced with that dual expectation today. But how does this work in practice? And if we can achieve such openness among ourselves, how can we keep the resultant discussion going for long enough, and ensure it reaches deeply enough, for us all to weigh accurately what is being shared? 

Since I started thinking about these things, the problem has not gone away. We obviously need people to come together to present their views, and they most certainly do this, in local Churches Together or Gather groups, as well as in national gatherings, and yet the picture we see often seems to reflect that recorded in 2 Kings 4:38-41. Here the sons of the prophets gathered around a cooking pot and reacted strongly to something that had been stirred into it. I completely understand why they exploded so indignantly and why in such circumstances today some might want to head off to enjoy their own guaranteed menu elsewhere. But although select supper parties have their place, the shared table and common pot have their place too. It is where difficulties need to be resolved.

For the sons of the prophets, Elisha saved the day, rescuing the pot and those gathered with a simple handful of flour. I sensed that we are at a point where we too need a handful of flour if we are to continue to make the most of the common pot. The idea began to grow in me to write a book focussing on seven stereotypical churches, each contributing distinctively into their locality today. The breakthrough in my writing came when I began to consider how good it would be if the leaders of the seven churches in Revelation had applied Christ’s remedies and seen their churches restored. I decided to make this assumption and use the positivity of their corporate voice to urge us all onward. I have called the book Is Kindness Killing the Church? and I hope it has the ability to be a handful of flour.

The world needs a Church that knows how to discern truth through honest interaction

In Ephesians 4:13-16 Paul brings together a number of concepts: reaching "unity in the faith", "no longer" being "infants", "speaking the truth in love", and "each part" of "the whole body" doing "its work". This must mean that there is something for us to aim for in terms of unity and truth that involves us all working together with maturity and love while appreciating that our diversity helps. In fact, I would go so far as to say that God has created our diversity so that the love we experience, and the exploration of truth we engage in, can be all the stronger and all the more effective.

The world needs a Church that knows how to discern truth through honest interaction, where nothing is ruled off in compromise, and the process of listening and speaking and listening again can continue unhindered. Ideally, with such a process, presentations will become more in-depth and more reflective so that understanding can increase. 

I believe there are two barriers to such interactive dialogue: a downplaying of the unity of the Spirit, and a loss of awareness of the particular perspective that each sector of the Church has been raised up to bring. I believe there is a confidence that can come from knowing there is a "unity of the Spirit" that we are to "make every effort to keep" (Ephesians 4:3), and a hope that can come from knowing God has never raised up any sector of the Church to think or act in a way that is contrary to his overall plan. Making sure that we all know that plan and hold to our specific God-given perspective is important.

Going back to Elisha, I think he was very gracious towards the prophet who stirred in the wild gourd. The individual concerned was obviously an enthusiastic contributor. Adding something distinctive can enhance the flavour, but we must never wander away from thinking of the healthiness of the whole. All of this comes very close to what Jesus must have had in mind when describing us as "the salt of the earth" and exhorting us not to lose our saltiness. The Church clearly has a responsibility to serve up something that benefits the wider world. Our internal debates should be about ensuring that what we bring makes a positive difference.

We have the benefit of the picture of the robust unity of the first-century Church behind us, and the ultimate picture of the Church in Revelation 21 and 22 ahead of us. We live between these two pictures and have work to do.

Underlying our differences are big questions around the nature of God, the nature of the Gospel, the nature of the Church, the authority of scripture, and the nature of the relationship between Church and society. For too long we have politely agreed to disagree on such things. Perhaps we should now agree to continue to work on our disagreements by listening, speaking and listening again. We have the unity of the Spirit to undergird us, and although we may not reach the full unity of faith this side of heaven, we will be further on in our journey towards spiritual maturity. Our efforts towards ensuring that the truth we speak in love is ultimately the truth in all of its uncompromising fullness will not go unrewarded.

If every Church member holds us to this task, we won’t "grow weary in doing good". Let us use our God-given diversity and the robustness of our unity to see truth prevail. Ephesians 4, with its dual emphasis on keeping the unity of the Spirit while reaching for the unity of faith is what is keeping me going, and it is what has made me seek a handful of flour to help us on our journey.

Is Kindness Killing the Church? by Dr Hugh Osgood is available now