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A difficult Bible passage sparks widespread social media reaction over the choice for the exegesis ordination exam

Many are concerned that  test-takers have been retraumatized by having to exegete ‘The Levite’s Concubine,’ a story that includes sexual violence and murder

by Mike Ferguson | Presbyterian News Service

Photo by Brett Jordan via Unsplash

LOUISVILLE — The most recent exegesis ordination exam has resulted in a deluge of concerned and critical social media comments from clergy and others saying that requiring seminarians to exegete one of the most difficult texts in the Bible, Judges 19:1-30, “The Levite’s Concubine,” has caused many candidates for ministry to be re-traumatized after suffering previous harms.

“I don’t speak vaguely or abstractly,” said the Rev. Elana Keppel Levy, co-pastor of Trinity Presbyterian Church in Bixby, Oklahoma, near Tulsa, a survivor of sexual assault who has a master of social work in addition to an MDiv degree and was planning to be a therapist before entering seminary. “There is a huge disconnect between people who live this and people in positions of power.”

Keppel Levy circulated a petition that received more than 400 signatures in less than 24 hours. The petition objects to the choice of Judges 19 for the exegesis exam, saying, “While it is a vital skill for pastors to be able to interpret, teach and preach from scripture, stories that feature extreme violence and sexual violence cause harm for both test takers and readers.” Those signing the petition request an apology from the committee that does the testing required for ordination, the Presbyteries’ Cooperative Committee on Examinations for Candidates, and “a commitment from the committee to agree to oversight from a person or persons who have authority to act to prevent such harm from ever happening again.”

“There is a time and place for difficult Bible passages. We need to be intentional and remember candidates for ministry are people,” Keppel Levy said. “We need to care for people taking these exams, who have no power and no voice.”

Her own exegetical exam was on Genesis 22:1-18, another difficult biblical passage commonly called “The Binding of Isaac.”

Thinking pastorally

“I’m positive [the committee] was thinking, ‘Let’s make sure people can think pastorally,’” she said. When a congregant asks a pastor about a difficult passage, “you have the quiet and the time with the person,” and can research what others have had to say about the passage before offering help to the congregant. That’s not the case with students taking what Keppel Levy called “a high-stakes exam.”

Committee members are volunteers, “but this is real harm, and it’s totally unnecessary harm,” Keppel Levy said, adding she’s heard of pastors considering renouncing the PC(USA)’s jurisdiction over the issue. “There hasn’t been any remorse expressed. I want a real apology.”

The Rev. Beth Garrod-Logsdon, who chairs the committee’s Bible Task Group, said the group had “tough talks” over the passages when it first came up. “We realized this is one of many passages that really brings up a lot of emotion for people,” Garrod-Logsdon said. Task Group members went home and exegeted it for themselves. “Some scriptures aren’t good exam scriptures,” she said. “The more we started working with the passage, the more we saw there is more to this.”

Surrounding the work with prayer

The next step in the exam development process is to take the passage to the full committee, which has 24 members. “We had those conversations over and over again, and it became a sense of yes, for some reason we are being called to put this scripture forward,” she said. “We never enter into scripture lightly. We surround our work with prayer, with our own exegetical work and what scholars have said.”

“The passage,” said Garrod-Logsdon, pastor of Wilmore Presbyterian Church in Wilmore, Kentucky, “was not selected to cause harm to anyone. We don’t intentionally want to harm our colleagues in ministry or the people in the pews.”

Half the committee members are nominated by the General Assembly Nominating Committee and elected by the assembly, while the other half are elected by the exam readers selected by the presbyteries. Neither the Committee on the Office of the General Assembly, the Office of the General Assembly or the Stated Clerk have oversight or exercise control over the PCC, as it’s known. Funds related to the work of the PCC come from the fees charged for taking the ordination exams.

The Rev. Dr. Robert Lowry, pastor of Westover Hills Presbyterian Church in Little Rock, Arkansas, chairs the PCC. He described the process by which the committee “interrogates” the text.

Through the Bible

Each time the test is offered — this week being the most recent — the committee tries to rotate throughout the Bible, including the Law, the Epistles, the Gospels, History and the Torah. Judges was chosen for the current exam, and in this case it came to Judges 19.

“A reality in the church today is pastors have to be equipped to engage with the parish they serve on issues that might not have been talked about 20 or 25 years ago, including sexual violence and violence in general,” Lowry said. “Scripture provides a rich narrative that touches on the fullness of the human experience.”

Other task groups then weighed in what the Bible Task Group presented. Lowry said that discussion included the thought that “this text is not normally preached about, but it is discussed.” The committee then sends it back to the task group, which perfects the question, answers any concerns and then brings it back to the committee. The process takes three years.

Here’s the question from the most recent exegesis exam: “Provide an outline or summary for your 75-minute Bible study that addresses the required ministry context: In your role as Associate Pastor for Christian Formation, you are leading a Bible study for your congregation’s UKirk college-age ministry exploring unsettling passages in the scriptures. The final story you will be studying is ‘The Levite’s Concubine’ (Judges 19:1:30).”

The purpose of the exam, Lowry said, is “to invite candidates to demonstrate how their preparation and pastoral call intersects with their acquired knowledge. It takes a great deal of thought and effort to write the questions.”

“In the end the collective wisdom was that this issue was of sufficient importance to use a question like this on the ordination exam,” Lowry said, adding that other violent and troubling texts, including Jephthah slaying his daughter according to the account in Judges 11:29-40.

“That did not receive the response this one did,” Lowry said.

Next steps

As to the committee’s response, that will occur during the PCC’s annual meeting in March. While most sessions of those meetings are generally closed to the public because the committee is discussing the content of upcoming exams, this meeting will include a time in open session for committee members to consider and discuss the statements of concern that have been forwarded to the PCC.

“During our annual meeting we will talk about the issue in a more fulsome way than social media or throwing together a Zoom call would allow,” Lowry said. “We believe this is an issue of great importance to the church and has intersected other important issues. We will take time at our annual meeting to focus on the questions that have arisen this week. We are doing that not to delay the conversation, but because we feel it is important enough to have in person.”

The PCC has contacted committees on preparation for ministry in presbyteries across the nation regarding the test-takers who did not submit a completed exam. Those candidates will be able to complete another exegesis exam this spring at no cost to them. They’ll be asked to exegete a different passage.

“To people who have been traumatized, as a brother in Christ, my heart breaks for anyone hurt by an action of the church,” Lowry said. “We have a responsibility to own that as a church, and we regret that anybody was wounded by being part of the ordination process.”

“We’d also ask people to understand there is a process to talk about these things, and we want to do that in an ordered and thoughtful way,” Lowry said. “I’d love to wave a magic wand and make the pain go away or find an easy solution right now.”

One thing the committee “tries hard to do is represent the fullness of experiences of the church,” Lowry said. “As a queer man I bring a different voice to the table than a straight female ruling elder does. We try to have as many voices at the table as we can.”

“Our only goal is to create exams that allow our candidates to demonstrate their readiness for ministry,” Lowry said. “That’s how we see our role: helping candidates demonstrate that, presbyteries assess that, and our church benefitting by a new generation of great leaders.”

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