How does a pastor preach and shepherd his people through textual variants?

If you are going to be a faithful expositional preacher through books of the Bible, facing textual variants are inevitable.  It is important to first say a textual variant is not an “error” in the Bible, but places where certain ancient manuscripts vary in wording.  There are also full sections that some manuscripts contain, that earlier manuscripts do not (Example –  the end of the gospel of Mark). 

This has led scholars to wrestle diligently through the Greek and Hebrew of these passages to help us understand them better.  However, how should a pastor preach these passages and guide his congregation (of non-scholars) through them in such a way that would prevent them from questioning the truth and accuracy of the Bible?  I have 3 suggestions for you as you try to figure out the most helpful way to teach and shepherd your people through these passages:

1)  Know your congregation.  How you approach teaching your congregation about these things depends on what type of spiritual maturity and familiarity there is about these issues.  For example, if you are pastoring a congregation full of seminary students or a very spiritually mature church where you have pastored for many years, you will be able to speak more freely about a textual variant, than if you are pastoring a more biblical illiterate church still trying to grow in their knowledge of the Bible, how it fits together, and how translations work.

2)  Prioritize what needs to be said publically.  Pastors must be careful about what is said and how it is said in regard to the perception we give our people about the Bible they hold in their hands.  A public, unclear explanation as a side note in a sermon about why some manuscripts did not contain “this verse” could prove more harmful than good, especially if you leave people hanging thinking their Bibles have errors.  Sometimes, saying less publicly and more in one on one discussions as questions come can be more productive.  I found this approach most helpful in the early years of our “old school” SBC church where no pastor had done exposition, but there still existed a hyper-sensitivity if any pastor ever alluded to “their Bible” being wrong.

3)  Affirm the inspiration of Scripture.  Regardless how much or how little you share to your individual congregation, make sure you are always affirming that textual variants do not change that the Bible is infallible, inerrant, and is the very God-breathed Word of God (2 Tim. 3:16) that is living and active (Heb. 4:12).  It is good for all Christians to understand how their Bibles were translated into the English they read, why there are different translations of the Bible, and how to determine what is a good translation, but pastors, make sure you teach and shepherd about these things in such a way that your people’s faith in the reliability of the Bible is strengthened, not shaken.  

How do we do that?  Well, pastor, that is why God called you to be the shepherd.  Pray and ask God for wisdom and discernment and use these suggestions as a guide to help formulate a plan that will be beneficial and fruitful to your ministry of the Word in your local church.

Posted in Oversight of Souls, Preaching
4 comments on “How does a pastor preach and shepherd his people through textual variants?
  1. Craig Beaman says:

    Great post!

    Just last night in our study through John’s gospel, we looked at John 3:36 and compared it to Mark 16:16 with reference to what is required to be saved. One of our members grew up in a church that believed that baptism was necessary (our church does not). When she left her home to get married, her parents and church elders warned her to repent and return to their church or she would be be sent to hell.

    It was truly amazing to see the look on her face when she learned that the only place that (possibly) linked salvation with baptism was in a passage that didn’t have early manuscript support. She finally had the assurance that the path she had chosen — in joining a church with our understanding of scripture — was Scripturally valid.

    For decades she has lived in conflict. Last night was transformative for her.

    • briancroft says:

      Praise the Lord for his grace and your labor in the word! I had a church member come from a similar situation. The Gospel is to be freeing.

  2. Chris Poteet says:

    This is good advice. For larger textual variants like the end of Mark or the Johannine Comma, I personally could not get up and preach those as the Scriptures with my own study pointing to the fact that they are not authentic. I would be inclined to teach why I don’t think they are authentic even if it meant more questions.

    Perhaps because I have yet to deal with this issue it is easy for me to say this, but at least now my conscious would necessitate omitting them from a teaching platform that is meant only for the Scriptures.

    • briancroft says:

      I omitted the last section for the same reasons when I preached Mark a few years ago and took questions as they came to me.

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