“Would it possible to be tempted, in such a way that we miss God’s desire for us, by being part of a church that is almost perfect?”
As an answer to the question, I will suggest that part of the reason for the story of the nation of Israel in the Old Testament is to answer a related question. It is one I have sometimes heard from skeptics. It goes something like this:
“If God is real, why doesn’t he just “show up” and prove himself? Then people would believe in him! Instead, all we get are some writings in a book (and those kind of hard to understand), and the word of people like you who tell us just to ‘have faith and trust him.’
I’m sorry, but if he is real, and expects to be acknowledged, he needs to say so, directly. Then we would all see the truth, and could all believe. Until then…”
I think there is some merit to the question. Indeed, I struggle emotionally with some forms of it even today, even though I have seen him “show up” many times in my inner life. When we cut through all the theological questions, this seems to be pretty basic. It needs a response. And I think we have one.
To approach what I think is at least part of the answer, I am going to re-frame the question thus:
What would happen if God took a people “under his wing” as it were, and interacted with them in a highly direct way, revealing His glory and righteousness, as well as His deep passionate love for them? What if He did not leave them in confusion, to muddle through on their own, and figure things out as best they could, but spoke to them as directly as they could stand, and to their leaders “as face to face”? What if He claimed them for His own, as the “Apple of His eye”?
Surely such a favored people would “walk humbly with their God”!
To my reading, this is the story of Israel in the Bible; particularly as spelled out in the first five books, reaching a peak in Deuteronomy. Their history is almost test case for the question. And yet, they mess it up over and over. If there is any doubt, read the books of 1 and 2 Kings, 1 and 2 Chronicles, and any or all of the prophets in the Bible. Not that any other nation would have done better; the point is that our estrangement from God is not mended by simple revelation from Him. Something must be cured in us, hence, the Cross and the work of Jesus to break the bondage. Even in the four accounts of the Gospel in the New Testament, God “showing up” at closer range (which is most of what we Christians mean by the Incarnation), revealing in word and deed again the teaching of the justice, and more importantly, the mercy of God; that message did not so much get him followed as executed. Something must be cured in us.
I think that perhaps a “perfect” church would be the same. Seeing acted out the love of God, being taught the love of God, do not by themselves produce healing. They can encourage change, but simply being around it does not on its own produce it. The change must be in me, not primarily in the church of which I am a part. And surprisingly, such perfection can even have a downside.
It can be useful to see the church, the Law as given to Israel, an understanding of theology, social action that is both just and merciful, etc., as a mirror set up so that we can more fully see (and reveal) the glory and love of God. Naturally, one wants this mirror to be clean, and perfectly made, so that the reflection of God is as true as possible. All is very good. But there is a temptation built into good things I think it is inevitably a part of all good things. This is the temptation – The better the reflection, the more likely it is that we mistake it for the real thing.
If God is revealed to 99% perfection in anything, I am very likely to fall to my knees before it and worship. I am likely to try to defend it against all attack, and protect it with jealous fervor. I am also likely, since I know that God is One, to insist that what I see is the true God.
NO, it’s just a mirror, just a sign post. The danger is that I be drawn to the image in the mirror, approach it, and sit before it.
At the end of my journey, if I am to approach my Lord Himself, I must turn away from the mirror, and continue on toward the Truth it reflected. Not a rejection of the image the mirror showed me, but an affirmation that while it showed truth, and was a true image. It was not truth itself; an image of God is not God. The better and higher the Church, or ministry, or anything else is, the more accurately it represents God, the more tempting it is to make that error.
By the way, I am in no way saying that “all paths lead to God.”
There may be many images of God, with different images holding up perhaps different partial holds on the truth. But He is indeed One, and He. And He has given us a revelation saying that “ I AM the way…” I am not free to say that Jesus mis-spoke.
I am speaking more about my two tendencies:
1) to see “my church” as the only true way, or the best way.
It is not. Jesus is the way.
2) to see the flaws in my church as devastating wrongs.
There are wrongs, which harm people and misrepresent God, and which I must labor to improve. But they are only devastating to the degree that the church pretends (in its own thought, or only in my head) to be the Truth, and not only a reflection.