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?