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.