I have heard a lot of people ask this question, so from my heart and more importantly from the Text, I am going to attempt to give an answer.
First, our call, as seen in John 13:34–35 NIV:
A new command I give you: Love one another. As I have loved you, so you must love one another. By this everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you love one another.
And in Romans 13:8–10 NIV:
Let no debt remain outstanding, except the continuing debt to love one another, for whoever loves others has fulfilled the law. The commandments, “You shall not commit adultery,” “You shall not murder,” “You shall not steal,” “You shall not covet,” and whatever other command there may be, are summed up in this one command: “Love your neighbor as yourself.” Love does no harm to a neighbor. Therefore love is the fulfillment of the law.
And Galatians 5:13–14 NIV:
You, my brothers and sisters, were called to be free. But do not use your freedom to indulge the flesh; rather, serve one another humbly in love. For the entire law is fulfilled in keeping this one command: “Love your neighbor as yourself.”
And 1 John 1:5–7 NIV:
This is the message we have heard from him and declare to you: God is light; in him there is no darkness at all. If we claim to have fellowship with him and yet walk in the darkness, we lie and do not live out the truth. But if we walk in the light, as he is in the light, we have fellowship with one another, and the blood of Jesus, his Son, purifies us from all sin.
There are more, but you get my point. Our call is simple. We are measured as disciples of Jesus specifically by the way we love one another. There is no other measuring rod given in all of Scripture that tells me how I am supposed to treat other people. All (and by “all” I mean every single one) of the references to how we treat one another in the Scripture are rooted in this truth. Get this wrong and we ruin everything else, no matter what we agree on.
I agree, the Scripture is full of quotes that call us to rightly divide the word of truth. They call us to study, to submit to spiritual authority, to connect in community, and lots of other things that we are to integrate into our lifestyle. But all of this is to be rooted in love.
In fact, perhaps the most defining characteristic of Jesus followers (rarely discussed) is how we are to treat our enemies, as seen in Matthew 5:43–48 NIV:
“You have heard that it was said, ‘Love your neighbor and hate your enemy.’ But I tell you, love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, that you may be children of your Father in heaven. He causes his sun to rise on the evil and the good, and sends rain on the righteous and the unrighteous. If you love those who love you, what reward will you get? Are not even the tax collectors doing that? And if you greet only your own people, what are you doing more than others? Do not even pagans do that? Be perfect, therefore, as your heavenly Father is perfect.”
And again in Romans 12:14 NIV:
Bless those who persecute you; bless and do not curse.
The mark of true love is not how we treat those who agree with us. The mark of really loving someone is what we do when they give us an occasion not to love them. What do we do then? Our call is to love others — friend or foe. Everything we do should be done in love for other people.
Love and unity are not the same thing.
Let’s be clear: Love and unity are not the same thing. Love means I am wholly invested in your well-being without regard for what I get in return. Unity means we are on the same page — at least at some level. And this is where our understandings and misunderstandings are tested. I do not have to love you to agree with you, but love is mandatory for real unity.
For some, unity is only found in agreement on truth. If we disagree on truth, we have no basis for unity. This is not only incredibly short-sighted, but foolish at every level.
One reason why is that we are all reading the same Bible — the same words from the same books. And even for those who have multiple graduate degrees in the study of this Bible, there are massive and even vehement disagreements on what the Bible says and what the Bible means when the Bible says what it says. Even at a cursory level, “truth” becomes a matter of perspective, study, research, prayer, influence. In other words, “truth” is my opinion based on my own study and my walk with the Lord.
That is the problem. It’s not the only problem, but it’s a major one. Once we make unity about truth, it becomes the truth as I see it. If you see it differently, then you have a truth and I have a truth. And whose opinion do we choose? Well, we choose the opinion of the loudest voice. And how do we decide the loudest voice? Influence, status, authority, education (by which we mean the letters behind someone’s name, not what they actually know), volume — these determine the truth. And what if I disagree? What if I have a problem? What if the loudest voice is wrong? There is no place for the question because we have already decided the truth we buy into. Therefore, you are in or you are out. Another problem is that there are no two human beings who agree 100% of the time. It is a foolish assumption that unity is built on truth. It isn’t, and it never will be.
This doesn’t feel very much like the Kingdom of God at all.
Don’t go too far. It doesn’t eliminate truth from the conversation, but this does frame up how we have the truth conversation.
The Bible actually describes unity in Ephesians 4:1–6 NIV:
As a prisoner for the Lord, then, I urge you to live a life worthy of the calling you have received. Be completely humble and gentle; be patient, bearing with one another in love. Make every effort to keep the unity of the Spirit through the bond of peace. There is one body and one Spirit, just as you were called to one hope when you were called; one Lord, one faith, one baptism; one God and Father of all, who is over all and through all and in all.
Unity is unity in the Spirit, not the truth. And that matters a lot! This gives us the ability to sharply disagree — I would submit Paul and Barnabas as an example — and remain unified. It does not mean we need to go to the same church or believe the same doctrine. It does not mean we have to agree on church polity. It does not mean we must even agree on church discipline.
When we make unity about truth, we immediately blur the lines between church tradition and direct biblical mandate. Traditions quickly become “thus saith the Lord,” and we hold people to standards that are simply not biblical. That doesn’t make them unbiblical; it makes them “abiblical” — without biblical precedent. And anytime we are holding people to standards that are not direct biblical mandate and speaking about these mandates as if they are “the truth,” it is very dangerous.
Unity in truth is not unity, but uniformity, which is not the same thing. This means we have no other ideas, thoughts, or voices. There is only the one we agree on, or there is no basis for unity. It’s very dangerous. In fact, I would go so far as to say it becomes the basis for a cult.
Love and unity must be inextricably intertwined. See John 17:20–23 NIV:
My prayer is not for them alone. I pray also for those who will believe in me through their message, that all of them may be one, Father, just as you are in me and I am in you. May they also be in us so that the world may believe that you have sent me. I have given them the glory that you gave me, that they may be one as we are one— I in them and you in me—so that they may be brought to complete unity. Then the world will know that you sent me and have loved them even as you have loved me.
There are two ways Jesus says the world will know we belong to Him. First, how well we love one another. Second, how hard we fight to stay unified.
How hard do we work toward that goal (not only with those I agree with)? How hard do I work at loving those who have hurt me deeply — maybe even those who have made me look bad in public? How hard do I work toward valuing people? How hard do I work toward being completely humble and gentle and making every effort to maintain the unity of the spirit through the bond of peace? How hard do I work at it when the fracture in the relationship is my fault? And how hard do I work at it when I didn’t mean to do the wrong thing, but it turned out really bad? Do I self-justify, or do I love?
Unity in the Spirit is hard business, but there is hope. Galatians 5:22–23 NIV:
But the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, forbearance, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness and self-control. Against such things there is no law.
The fruit (evidence the Spirit is working in you) is love. Unity in the Spirit is not just the Spirit’s expectation of you, but also His power working in you.
And for what it’s worth, not loving our enemies, not fighting for unity, not treating people well… That is evidence of something, as well.