Can Sunday School Teachers Be Wrong?
Are mistakes allowed, with eternity at stake?
Secularists like myself commonly leave the Christian environment of our childhood at least partly from discovering that certain Christian claims are untrue. When we describe these experiences to Christians, a common response is that not all Christians believe those claims, and that we must not have grown up with True Christianity. Most noteworthy in my case is being flatly told that I was “taught wrong.”
Which is odd, because how could I be taught wrong? Did my Sunday school teachers, youth leaders and pastors really pass on faulty information to their congregants, somehow?
Certain beliefs were taught to me by Christian leaders all throughout my childhood, into young adulthood, and are still being taught as true to this day. They taught that God would help me and others during times of need. That God wanted a personal relationship with me. And that the Bible was the inerrant word of God, with figures such as Adam and Noah existing in real space and time. All of these teachings have, by either personal experience or factual discovery, turned out to be false.
So when comments arise that I must not have been exposed to “True Christianity,” it raises questions.
First, what is “True Christianity,” and which of the thousands of Christian denominations across the world actually is “True Christianity”?
Second, why were my church leaders unable to distinguish “True Christianity” from the false version that they saw fit to pass on to its young people?
And perhaps most critically, why did their god (if he exists) allow the “bad version” to reach me and others who have poked holes in the Christian narrative? Why did he not intervene and correct the faulty information, knowing (by presumed omniscience in human psychology) that discovering these faults would give justification for thousands of deconversions?
For me personally, Christianity as a whole is represented by the experiences I had as part of church communities. If teachings from those churches turn out to be wrong, I can reasonably conclude that Christianity at large is not a reliable source of truth. Some biblical claims about historical figures, nations, etc. happen to be true (which are supported by outside evidence), but I have no reason to believe all Christian claims, especially any supernatural ones.
Many denominations exist outside the ones I participated in, of course, but there are so many groups that it’s not worth my time to figure out which is the “right” one. More crucially, it’s become clear that no spiritual being is going to show themselves and lead me to experience anything that I was taught I would experience. I’ve come to accept that the whole system of belief holds no value to me.
But all of us, pastors included, are imperfect humans who are always learning, some may say. Scientists’ knowledge of the universe is imperfect, and they have produced explanations in the past which later were proven false. They improved their knowledge to put to use for the better of future generations. Aren’t church leaders allowed to make mistakes, grow, and do better for their churches in the future?
The problem is that Christianity isn’t a “long game” played out over generations. The Christian faith has critical implications for a single person’s lifetime, and if that person “gets it wrong,” they face being punished for it, forever. It makes no difference to that individual’s fate if future generations finally “get it right.”
When any church leader presents a lesson to their members, they are staking the members’ eternal destiny on their theological teachings being true. The church community is asked to live according to the leaders’ teachings, on pain of eternity in Hell.
So to answer the title’s question, I would say that Sunday school teachers, pastors, etc. need to take care that they get their teachings right, on the first try. Any false teachings, no matter how well-intentioned, run the risk of future defections from the faith if and when the believer finds that they are in error. And given the pace of deconversions from the Christian faith already, I expect that more of them is the last thing they need.