Editing the Bible

November 5, 2010

Does my pastoral role call upon me to edit the Bible?

On most Sundays, the call to worship printed in our bulletin is taken directly from liturgical resources from the denomination. Usually it adapts a psalm so that the leader (a liturgist, not me) and the rest of the congregation alternate speaking the verses.

But a while back I did a double take when copying and pasting a call to worship based on Psalm 103. After a brief discussion on Twitter (a service that makes me a better pastor) I decided to scratch Psalm 103 and write a call to worship I deemed more appropriate for my setting. Was I being a good pastor, sensitive to the congregation's needs? Or a bad one, editing out the parts of the Bible that make me uncomfortable?

My HarperCollins Study Bible calls Psalm 103 a psalm of "Thanksgiving for God's Goodness." It's a well-known and well-loved psalm: "Bless the Lord, O my soul, and all that is within me, bless his holy name." Beautiful, epic, a perfect call to worship.

But the psalmist continues: "[Bless the Lord,] who heals all your diseases." One of our members had recently found out she had cancer spreading throughout her body. While she has some treatment options, the doctors say the cancer will eventually take her life. Yet the call to worship aimed to focus and direct our worship with the psalmist's claim that the Lord "heals all your diseases."

I briefly considered editing just that line. Instead, I cut the entire thing and wrote another.

When a congregation meets for worship, members come as they are. Each brings the trials, tribulations, joys and concerns of individual living. It's impossible to lead a worship service that accounts for the full expression of everyone's feelings, and that's not the point. Indeed, I've heard poignant testimony from people who in life's most troubling moments have counted on the thanksgiving and joy found in worship to carry them through. Some want the church to offer thanks even when they are in deepest grief.

But others, while grieving, can't stand to see anyone giving thanks to God, or even smiling. For these people especially, worshipful words of thanksgiving, joy and celebration fall flat.

Balancing these needs is an impossible task for a pastor. But if I know of a particularly compelling or concerning issue affecting many in the congregation, I feel it's irresponsible to pretend the hearts and minds of the worshipers are on an even keel.

Some might make the fair point that it's foolish to even begin editing the lectionary (or a liturgy based on it), as a pastor can never know all the feelings of her parishioners. Some will say that even in the shadow of the valley of death, we must give thanks for God who loves us and sees us through. If that's you, great-say a prayer for me, edit it as you wish, and heal me of the disease of oversensitivity.


Jesus edited the Bible

I'm definitely for editing the Bible, although I think we should most times be transparent about what we are doing and why. To name only the first precedent that comes to mind, in Mark 11, Jesus lists the Ten Commandments to the Rich Young Ruler as they appear in Exodus chapter 20. But instead of quoting the Exodus language of “do not covet” your neighbors possessions, Jesus substitutes language from a passage in Leviticus that says, “do not DEFRAUD” your neighbor. The full verse says, “You shall not defraud your neighbor; you shall not steal; and you shall not keep for yourself the wages of a laborer until morning.” Thus, Jesus edited the Bible to speak more clearly, appropriately, and directly to the situation at hand in his time.

Yep, Jesus did it.

one could indeed say that Jesus did it in his very first sermon that he gave; i.e. in Nazareth where he chose to read only a certain portion of the Isaiah text - he clearly chose to not read that passage in its entirety. Jesus read from the scroll of Isaiah – specifically the part that reads, “The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he has anointed me to preach good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim freedom for the prisoners and recovery of sight for the blind, to release the oppressed, to proclaim the year of the Lord's favor” (Isaiah 61:1-2 – notice that Jesus intentionally edits out a portion of verse 2 -..and the day of vengeance of our God, to comfort all who mourn - rejecting the notion that God is vengeful and that there is anything redemptive about violence). (the preceding words are from my soon to be released book, "Kissing Fish: christianity for people who don't like christianity"). Granted, this isn't an extreme form of editing, but he clearly made choices of what he read based upon his theological agenda. - peace, Rev. Roger Wolsey


I'm neither here nor there about editing as long as we aren't editing IN (isogesis, sp?). I get your point and at times we may have to edit if there is language we feel our congregants won't understand. But in the instance you cited above and others that may be similar, I would have read it as is. Times like this could be great opportunities to expound on greater truths found in the Scripture. For me, God does heal everyone. All healing however, may not take place on this side of heaven, but we do know that everyone will be made whole. So that person can take great comfort in the God who heals all our diseases is the same one who is walking through this sickness with her. Hopefully, this doesn't sound too trite; I don't mean it to. But in our darkest, lowest hour, God is there. He's ever-present and while I may not hold the answers to all of life's mysteries and disappointments, I take comfort in knowing the God who does. Job comes to mind.


Editing to avoid "diseases"

If it's too difficult for the congregation to recite Ps 103, then how does the pastor deal with all the stories in the OT and NT of healings? Is the pastor more uncomfortable than the parishioner talking about disease? After all, we will all have disease and disability some day, and surely the congregation knows it. Is there an opportunity to talk about healing during the sermon, and use the Psalm? Finally, while "diseases" appears to be the most common translation, but if the pastor wishes to edit because "disease" is a difficult word at this time, why not look at the Hebrew for a term with a broader meaning, such as "infirmities"?

Its a bit like neutering a dog

Editing the Bible to take away the sharp edges or uncomfortable passages is a bit like neutering a dog. Certainly a pet dog who is neutered (or spayed) is easier to live with. A neutered dog is less likely to bark or bight. A neutered dog is a better pet.

But Scripture isn't to be our pet. Its to speak, sometimes loudly, into our lives. To make the Bible comfortable is to make the Bible unimportant.

In the above situation, it could have been possible to reframe "healing" in the light of the promise of resurrection. This reframing could have had great value to a person with cancer.


While I often use liturgy and prayers that others have written, I also like to write liturgy that is appropriate for the theme of the day's lectionary, the particular text on which I am preaching, the day of the Christian year, and so forth. Most often, I like to write a call to worship that is closely tied with the Psalm for the day, but when I do so I put in parentheses at the bottom: (based on Psalm 98). That way it is clear that this is where I got my inspiration, imagery, language, etc., but that it isn't word for word scripture. Usually if we are reading the Psalm word for word, which we often do responsively, I put it later in the service with the other Scripture readings. I might use a particular translation (or paraphrase) that seems to fit better with my congregation, theme for the day, etc.

I don't think there's anything wrong with "editing" Scripture to be used liturgically, as long as you are honest about what you are doing. As it stands, I would have done the same thing you did, because that one phrase could have distracted folks for the rest of the service and served as a "stumbling block" to the Good News. And that isn't faithful either! (Unless there would be some interpretation of the text in the sermon, etc.) We are people of the Book, yes, but we are also pastoral care-givers. It is difficult to balance, but balance we must.

And as a side note for those who don't want to "edit" Scripture at all, they might want to re-consider the words they use when they pray the Lord's Prayer ...

Rev. Erin Maddox McPhee

not an issue!

If you take time to examine ancient Christian prayers written by our forbears and which are still used around the globe, you'll be gently surprised or strangely warmed to observe very helpful reminders of carefully crafted phrases directly from the Scriptures - which can be construed as 'editing'. In order to help people familiarize with the Bible, what I do is to mention the source in brackets. In other words, this or that profound phrase in the Call to Worship and Prayers are NOT my own artful creations but creative adaptations or editing for the service.
Mississauga, ON


Point 1) I am a lectionary preacher. The folks who compiled the lectionary edit the Bible, skip parts, truncate units— often. So, if you are a lectionary preacher, you are using an edited Bible already.

Point 2) Unless you are reading the text to the congregation in the original languages, you are editing the Bible. Any translation— even if we were not talking about a Biblical text but something secular, let’s say from Spanish to Danish— any translation, just to be understood, needs to edit some.

All of which is to say, why is there any question?


Because there are different reasons to select passages. No one reads the entire Bible in its original languages each Sunday, but are there not more and less legitimate reasons to select particular passages? Just because we all do it doest mean it's always done well or for the right reasons.

Improving The Bible

What I would like to see is a bit more radical: a version of The Bible that has been formally edited and officially adopted as the core Christian text. This happened once before, when Protestants removed the Apocrypha from their canon. Okay, so why can't that happen again? What about removing everything that is antithetical to the Two Commandments? When I talk to modern Christians about this (i.e., to moderate and liberal believers--I know better than to raise the subject to conservative Christians), I get a lot of rationalization, but very little support for the idea. How do I convince modern Christians that they have a moral responsibility to renounce the hatefulness that embodies so much of The Bible, the Old Testament and Revelation in particular?

Editing the Bible

If I were in that particular situation I think I'd have read that Psalm and used that text for the sermon. Sooner or later we all are confronted with situations that cannot be cured, but are nevertheless healed. In the 16 years my husband had leukemia, he experienced the laying on of hands numerous times. He was never cured, but was definitely healed. He died a very good death surrounded by people he had ministered to along the way.

Helicopter Pastors?

The many comments here testify to how already edited our sacred text is when we get to Sunday morning. And I myself pick and choose how the Psalm of the day is used for the Call to Worship. But I would caution against overprotective pastoral leadership. Is Ps. 137 off limits for a Call to Worship? What if the corresponding sermon text from the Writings comes from Lamentations? One of the chief criticisms of boomer parenting styles is the prevalence of "helicopter" parents who fail to give their children the freedom to explore, discover, and consequently get hurt. These young adults are social nightmares of entitlement and oversensitivity. Do we risk the same result by shielding those we are called to serve from the more difficult and challenging texts of scripture out of some misguided sense of moral imperative?

Taking on the text

Wonderful thoughts here by all on a thought provoking essay. As was mentioned a couple comments above, one of the things I do from time to time is to have the difficult text read and be a part of the worship service, and then preach on that text, wrestling with it, bringing in other perspectives (sometimes other biblical texts that say things differently), and, often, in some way, noting how we might have the most gracious reading of the present text to allow it to be true to life and true to God.
That said, I think thoughtful editing is also a regular part of pastoral work, because sometimes there are other things to focus on besides a wrestling match with scripture.
Joel Miller