Are truth and unity mutually exclusive?

Sep 24, 2018 by

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I love the paradoxes of God: “God is love,” the Bible states, but it also says, “God is holy.” God is portrayed as both the vulnerable lamb and the wrathful lion. He is king and servant, Alpha and Omega, God and man.

Many times when you look at these paradoxes what seems at first to be impossible to combine actually turns out to be impossible to separate. How could a loving God not hate the injustice and mistreatment of his people? Isn’t the best king one who has served his people and lived among them? What is a better picture of both holiness and forgiveness than the cross?

Yet, I have to wonder about the combination of the God of distinction and the God of unity. Are truth and unity a mutually exclusive pair?

Obviously not, since God is a God of both.

In the early chapters of Genesis, God separates light from dark, waters from land, birds from fish, male from female, day from night and good from evil. He goes on to choose a nation that he wants to be separate, called to leave Egypt to find their own land.

Yet, God is also a God of unity. He created marriage, sex, family, the church. He himself is three beings who are one. Jesus is called the “Prince of Peace” (Is. 9:6) and a reconciler (Eph. 2:12-22).

A God who desires truth in the core of our beings (Ps. 51:6) seems to contradict himself when he prioritizes unity so highly, desiring that the church may be known for its unity (John 17:21-23; Phil. 2:2; Eph. 4:2-3; 1 Cor. 1:10-15). In 2 Corinthians 5, Paul calls us to a ministry of reconciliation and in the next chapter says to separate from the unclean. Sure, it sounds good in theory, but practically a group of people are not going to agree on how to interpret the Bible. If we focus on being right, how can we get along?

Is this like the other paradoxes of God? Is truth essential to unity? Or is combining truth and unity impractical, and one must be chosen over the other?

My Bible doctrines professor stated that you should share convictions with others in levels. Your doctrine should be closest to your spouse’s; you can have a few more disagreements with your church and so on. My church likes to quote the phrase, “In essentials, unity; in non-essentials, liberty; in all things, charity.”

Me? I’m still figuring it out. I do believe that truth and unity are more compatible than we realize, and perhaps removing the following misconceptions makes that clearer:

1. Unity is not sameness.

In fact, differences are necessary for unity. We don’t say that a person is united with himself. The Bible points to a church composed of multiple races and roles.

God pictures a church of people from many different nations (Ps. 66:1, 4; 67; 82:8; 106:47; 117:1; Revelation 7), different roles (1 Cor. 12:12-26; Rom. 12:4-8) and different economic levels (Col. 3:10). Our diversity is something to be celebrated. It adds variety, beauty and knowledge to our group.

2. Unity is not ignoring conflict.

While this post is about doctrinal differences, a book I read about racial differences in the church made some points that I think are very applicable here. In Church Diversity: Sunday, The Most Segregated Day of the Week, Scott Williams writes, “When there is an elephant in the room, acknowledge it … The only way race will ever become a non-issue is if you make race an issue” (39, 43).

Bruce Reyes-Chow, an Asian pastor, writes in the same book: “If I had to choose one struggle, it would be around the issues of color blindness that many well-meaning people have. The ‘I don’t see you as (insert ethnic group here) perspective, while noble, does two things that are not helpful. One it assumes that one’s race is something that the person wants someone else to get beyond, and two, too often the ‘beyond’ that we are striving for is simply a generic ‘white’ culture that, in the end, perpetuates a ‘lesser than’ understanding of people of color… We do not avoid complexity, but we embrace and live it” (137).

The popular current concept of tolerance is highly individualistic, according to S.D. Gaede in When Tolerance Is No Virtue (47). If we say, “Don’t judge me. I believe what I want, and you believe what you want,” then there is no conversation, no accountability, no learning from each other. Such individualism is obviously the opposite of unity.

The Bible is very clear that we are to provide accountability as a church. When we disagree with a brother, we are to go to that brother and point it out (Matt. 18:15; 1 John 5:16; James 5:19-20). When Euodia and Syntyche disagree in the early church, Paul doesn’t say to ignore the problem or find separate churches, but he rather tells them to “agree in the Lord.” You can’t reach agreement without talking about it (Phil. 4:2).

3. Truth is not the absence of sacrifice or love.

While we might believe that our brother or sister in Christ is wrong, we can still seek the same goals (Phil. 2:2). The Bible itself speaks to the combination of unity and truth, calling us to “speaking the truth in love” (Eph. 4:15; see also 1 John 3:18). 1 Cor. 8:1, 7, and 11 warn us against our knowledge ruining out weaker brothers in Christ.

In fact, truth is a natural result of love. 1 Corinthians 13 says that love “rejoices in the truth”. When we love someone, we will naturally desire that they have the truth (James 5:19-20), and we will want to love with honesty (1 John 3:18).

The Bible calls for us to be of one mind (2 Cor. 13:11; Phil. 2:2; Rom. 12:6). It doesn’t call us to only be united in action and love but on an intellectual level as well — united in the gospel (Phil. 1:27), understanding and conviction (1 Cor. 1:10). This is a hard balance, but one we should strive for.

Tabitha Driver is a Mennonite who loves glimpsing God’s goodness on the Eastern Shore of Virginia. She blogs at Life is a Metaphor, where this post first appeared.

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