A recent exegetical exam for candidates seeking ordination in the Presbyterian Church (USA) contained a Bible passage that some people are calling a “trauma trigger.” Test-takers were asked to analyze Judges 19, a chapter in which the Levite’s concubine is gang-raped, murdered, and dismembered.
The Scripture choice has led to widespread criticism as well as a petition and request for an apology. Meanwhile, the committee responsible for selecting exam material is defending its process, but planning an open session to hear concerns.
Violent Bible Stories ‘Cause Harm,’ Petition Claims
Survivors of sexual assault are particularly outraged about the Presbyterian Church (USA)’s use of Judges 19 for such a high-stakes exam. One such survivor, Oklahoma Pastor Elana Keppel Levy, launched a Change.org petition that received more than 400 signatures in less than one day. “While it is a vital skill for pastors to be able to interpret, teach, and preach from scripture,” the petition notes, “stories that feature extreme violence and sexual violence cause harm for both test takers and readers.”
Pastoral candidates who are required to “read and intensely focus on stories like this” may suffer from PTSD, the petition adds. “How can we, in good conscience, create conditions detrimental to test taking itself and call it reasonable examination and evaluation of those who would be pastors? It is tantamount to hazing.”
The petition requests “a formal apology” from the committee and a commitment that it will “agree to oversight from a person or persons who have authority to act to prevent such harm from ever happening again.” It concludes by stating that “as a church can do better and we must do better.”
Keppel Levy acknowledges that pastors must be able to respond to congregants’ questions about difficult Bible passages. But in those situations, she notes, a clergy member has “the quiet and the time with the person” and can conduct research before offering counsel. The exam content, however, constitutes “real harm, and it’s totally unnecessary harm,” she says.
As Baptist News reports, Judges 19 doesn’t appear in the three-year cycle of Lectionary readings. That “makes sense,” according to Ruth Everhart, a Presbyterian pastor in Virginia. “I would wager that very few, if any, pastors have preached on this passage,” she tells the outlet. “While there is much to be said about this text, it is not fodder for the pulpit.”
PC(USA) Pastor Traci Smith says she’s never preached on Judges 19 and never will. “The probability that this passage in this exam context caused a trauma reaction in someone is close to 100 percent,” she writes.
Presbyterian Church (USA) Chose Passage During 3-Year Process
The Rev. Robert Lowry, who chairs the Presbyteries’ Cooperative Committee on Examinations for Candidates, says the purpose of the Presbyterian Church (USA) choosing Judges 19 was to prepare and equip clergy for modern-day ministry. Pastors today must engage with congregants about “issues that might not have been talked about 20 or 25 years ago, including sexual violence and violence in general,” he says. “Scripture provides a rich narrative that touches on the fullness of the human experience,” and the committee “tries hard to…represent the fullness of experiences of the church.”
The committee’s various working groups engage in a three-year back-and-forth process of finalizing exam 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,” says Lowry. He adds that his “heart breaks for anyone hurt by an action of the church,” and the committee regrets “that anybody was wounded by being part of the ordination process.”