How Much Wrong Teaching is Too Much?

There is an ongoing debate in Christian circles about whether non-fiction or fiction books are best. Proponents of each, particularly those firmly planted in their perspective camp, tend to be slightly (sometimes more than slightly) disdainful of the other. I have always maintained, however, that this is not an either/or proposition. As every good preacher (including Jesus) will tell you, it’s vitally important to spend time expounding on the Word, but when you launch into a story to illustrate that Word, that’s when everyone suddenly straightens in their seats and becomes even more engaged. Both are needed. The same is true with fiction. In my opinion, if classified as Christian, a story must be firmly rooted in good theology if it is going to have a powerful, lasting impact on the reader.

But is my opinion the right one? If not, it wouldn’t be the first time. And lately I have had ample opportunity to consider how strongly I feel about the stand I have chosen to take on this.

Not for the first time, a massively best-selling book and subsequent movie, classified as Christian, has generated much discussion–even, sadly, heated, public debate–among the body of Christ. One review, posted by a pastor, casually mentioned that, yes, some of the teaching might be, strictly (and biblically) speaking, wrong, but that overall the message was so powerful that it wasn’t really enough to worry about.

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That got me thinking. If a book calls itself Christian, how much wrong teaching is acceptable, and how much is too much? Now, I’m not talking about passages of the Bible open to interpretation, or the differences in beliefs between various denominations. I am talking about teaching that is clear in Scripture and that has been affirmed by two thousand years of church doctrine, teaching that in many, if not all, cases, is actually a salvation issue. Wrong teaching, then, for the purposes of this post, is defined as teaching that can be shown in Scripture to be misleading, inaccurate, or just plain not true. Is there room for a small amount of that in a book that calls itself Christian, if the story is good? Can the story ever be good enough or powerful enough to overcome it? Or is a small amount of bad teaching more like what the Bible describes as “a little leaven that leavens the entire loaf?”

In three of the gospels, Jesus tells his followers to “Watch and beware of the leaven of the Pharisees and Sadducees.” (Matt. 6:6) Now, the teaching of the religious leaders of the day sounded good. It certainly sounded like it came from Scripture, and in fact had its roots in Scripture. But somewhere along the way, truths had been twisted to suit the ends of the teachers. In the case of the Pharisees and the Sadducees, that end was to control and oppress the people and to maintain their own elevated status in society.

Jesus didn’t have a whole lot of good to say about that. In fact, he was far harder on those who professed to follow God, yet whose teachings had veered away from the clear truths of Scripture, than he was on thieves and drunkards, prostitutes and adulterers. Can we then conclude that Jesus took wrong teaching, even—or especially—by those calling themselves his followers, fairly seriously? Possibly to the point that any good and right teaching they did present was undermined or even negated?

If you are an author of Christian fiction, how important is it to you to weave good, solid biblical theology throughout your writing? As readers, are you willing to overlook some wrong teaching if the prevailing message of the story is strong enough to overshadow it?

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6 thoughts on “How Much Wrong Teaching is Too Much?

  1. Very thought-provoking post, Sara, thank you for your bravery in raising this discussion! God’s truth is something I also feel very passionately about, as I hope most Christians do. My pastor frequently talks about the importance of unity within the church and its teachings, and I don’t recall his exact words, but the idea is that in matters of significance (who God is, salvation by grace through Christ alone, Great Commission) there is no room for differences, but in the other things like music, dress, and verses open for interpretation, differences do not have to mean division. He especially emphasizes: in all things love.

    To your point, this isn’t just about fiction. Even in non-fiction when a writer uses real or imagined anecdotes to illustrate their point, they are bringing in a personal perspective open to their and the reader’s interpretation. The basic standard of firmly rooting the work in ‘the matters of significance’ applies equally to both fiction and non-fiction, in my opinion. That said, I think Christian fiction by the very nature of being categorized as fiction (i.e. describing imaginary events and people; invention or fabrication as opposed to fact) gives it room to do just that: imagine, invent and fabricate. The label ‘Christian’ promises it will be rooted in firm Christian theology; the label Fiction warns that there may be some liberties taken, like within any other category of fiction. If we don’t allow for that, we risk losing stories that draw and engage an entire audience who may never be reached another way. We can’t presume to know God’s plan for reaching people, and we all know he can and does use anything and everything to accomplish his purpose, even Christian fiction.

    • Absolutely Rebecca, I totally agree. God can and does use anything to accomplish his purpose. The problem with wrong teaching, of course, is that it can also be used by the enemy to draw many away from the truth of God’s Word, or to cause great confusion, which is never from God. That’s why, in my opinion, even while taking license with all other aspects of the story and with passages open to interpretation, our writing, whether fiction or non-fiction, must be rooted, as you say, in “firm Christian theology.” And you make a great point that differences do not have to mean division. Over and over as I read heated debate between believers in public forums, my heart aches as I am reminded of the words of Jesus in John 17, pleading for us to be in unity. Whether or not we fully agree on matters that are not always completely clear in the Bible, may that always be our prayer and our goal.

  2. With great appreciation, Sara!

    The accountability factor should weave into every aspect of a Christian’s activity. Writers, including all Christian leaders, reach many people, and should therefore seek truth. We’re the salt of the earth, we have God’s Spirit to inspire and instruct, while the world is saturated with half-truths – defending such at the foot of the cross is just unseemly.

    As a writer of Christian Speculative Fiction, I’ve demanded the highest standard; I’m not error free, for I’m human, but the responsibility is mine to represent the flawless Savior. (My novel, ELIZEUM STRIVING, will be released in a couple of weeks; it has been written with God’s guidance, and I certainly pray it will bring honor to Him in my story-telling.)

    • “Defending half-truths at the foot of the cross” – what a powerful way to put it, Jean. And I believe you are right in that, as writers, we have a God-given platform and sphere of influence, and to use that in any way other than to bring God glory puts us in a very precarious position in terms of accountability before God. Much prayer should be offered before a word is published in order to avoid that very thing. Thank you for your thoughts.

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