I think perhaps one of my greatest concerns for the Church right now is the inclination for church leaders to change the pew Bible used weekly in their church with each generation as new Bible translations release. The late 80’s heralded the release of the NIV. The turn of the millennium ushered in the use of the ESV. And, now, in 2017, we see the reboot of another valuable Bible translation. You see, this concern is driven by the release, or should I say, the revision of a very good Bible translation, the HCSB, which is now revised and re-branded as the Christian Standard Bible.
Before I continue, I want to say that I have a profound joy in personally reading from multiple translations. I’m not a KJV, NASB, NIV, ESV, CSB only person. I’ve enjoyed reading and studying the Scriptures from all these translations. There is a great bounty of benefit from being immersed in multiple translations, and, even, engaging in comparative studies—whether you are familiar with the biblical languages behind the vernacular text or not. Also, this is not an argument for “the” legitimately faithful text of Scripture. I recognize all these texts as legitimate, faithful, and excellent for use in a pulpit. Furthermore, this is not some smear against the Christian Standard Bible. Men I dearly respect have thrown in their best effort to produce the best translation and make that translation available to their audience, which I imagine is primarily those of the Southern Baptist Convention. I commend them for their work, and their sincere conviction that the text of Scripture can and must be contextualized, to some degree, for each generation of Christ-follower. I enjoy my own copy of the CSB, kindly given to me from my friend Brandon Smith. It sits on my desk in my study, and I’ve already enjoyed thumbing through it and reading selections of text that I am currently working through for preaching and teaching. Nonetheless, I have no intention shifting from the ESV for several reasons.
To begin, I am a Pastor under submission of elders and other pastoral colleagues, and we all have a shared value of preaching the same text across the spectrum in every context. However, I have not always felt that way. During my first two decades of ministry leadership, I often switched texts on a whim. One week I’d preach from the NIV. The next week, the NASB. One year I’d preach exclusively from the NASB. The next year, with the release of the NET, I preached from that translation. At one point, I decided to at least be consistent, and preach from whatever translation I was currently reading from for the year, so that year, since I was reading the HCSB, I taught high school students I pastored from that text.
I learned something valuable from this. I kept confusing the people I led. The common response from students—any time I asked them to read a text for the group—would be: “Umm…I’m reading from a different text. It’s going to be different.” And it was. Students sometimes commented: “Pastor Joey, you talked a lot about that specific word in your translation. Mine uses another word.”
Another thing I learned is that it is exceptionably valuable for every person to be reading the same text. Sure, we can celebrate that a room of teens is a welcoming environment for a number of different translations. Yet, there is a level of instructional momentum and continuity that is reached, from a pedagogical standpoint, when everyone is using the same text. There is also a level of dissonance that exists when one person is out of place because they use a different text.
I am especially attuned to this because I personally have selected the ESV to be my EDC (every-day carry) Bible. However, I attend Trinity Evangelical Divinity School, and because of its strong relationship with Don Carson, who is the general editor for the NIV Zondervan Study Bible, the school uses the NIV11 in its chapel each week. I have feel this dissonance every time I pull out my ESV text and listen to a reading from the NIV11, so much so that I began to look onto the NIV11 from a phone app each week.
Let’s just say that I strongly urge every ministry leader to follow his or her leadership and be in continuity with a wider ecclesial structure when it comes to selecting a translation from which to teach Scripture. Youth Pastors, children’s ministers, small group leaders—teach from the text your church uses in the pew (or under the chair). This is a sign and symbol that you are willingly under another’s authority. Not doing so, may be a sign of a disposition that is otherwise.
When it comes to a church-wide initiative to shift Scripture translations, I caution church leaders from being Bible translation faddish and swift to transition an entire church congregation from one text to another every 20 years. Sure, if you’re a person of influence, you might be rewarded by the publisher for such a change, or, perhaps your church might be rewarded with free pew Bibles for the whole congregation. But you are still going to pay a cultural cost for that shift, at one point or another. The language of the text plays a significant role in developing the community around the text.
Churches like the one I attend, which preach from the text lectio continua (progressively through books of the Bible), and read that text weekly, develop a level of continuity by keeping with a translation over the course of multiple generations. Churches that have well-developed Scripture memory programs are able to tap into the reservoir of advanced generations who coach younger generations to learn and internalize the same text. It’s remarkable how much of a dissonance exists when a 30 or 40-something is trying to teach a 4-year old a different text then one that 30 or 40-something had memorized. I witness this all the time with generations of NIV memorizers who attempt to instruct a generation of ESVers.
By all means, if you are a church-planter, who is beginning a new work in a community, I commend you to consider this new CSB translation as your pulpit and pew Bible of choice. But before you make that decision, you need to weigh the cost of what that means for discipleship, and how you might lose a generation of attender because of this decision. Your Bible translation may determine the age of your audience, and that audience could likely be under 30 years of age.