Task force reviewing Bible content exams issues statement

February 18, 2017


Concern has been expressed in various sectors of the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) following the last four Bible Content Examinations (BCE). The unease centers on the dramatic change in the percentage of inquirers and candidates who have received “Satisfactory” evaluations (scores of 70% or higher on multiple choice, matching, and ordering questions). Scores have steadily increased since a low point in Summer 2015, but the “Satisfactory”-rate of 58% on the recent Winter 2017 exam remains below the historical average of around 80% for the BCE and 70% for the other standard ordination exams.

Last fall the executive committee of the Presbyteries’ Cooperative Committee on Examinations for Candidates (PCC) asked the executive committee of the Committee on Theological Education (COTE) to create a task force to conduct an independent, confidential review of the questions on the most recent exams relative to their appropriateness for the purposes of the test. The task force met at the Presbyterian Center in Louisville, Kentucky, on February 14-15.

The group reviewed all the questions on the four exams administered between September 2015 and February 2017 as well as four other exams administered between September 2011 and February 2013 as a basis for comparison, along with statistical information about all eight exams as wholes, their individual questions, and even individual responses for those questions missed by at least half of the test takers. Based on their review of the exams and background information about the history of the test, they issued a public statement and recommendations, which are provided below.

COTE and the PCC will receive the formal statement with recommendations and broader briefings on the task force’s work at their February and March meetings, respectively. Should these committees affirm the findings and recommendations of the task force, appropriate Mid Council Ministry staff in the Office of the General Assembly will make the necessary adjustments in guidance and resources provided to presbytery committees/commissions on preparation for ministry and the inquirers and candidates under their care.

Statement from the Task Force to Review the
Summer 2015 to Winter 2017 Bible Content Examinations

We affirm a goal for all theological students to possess and nurture a deep and abiding knowledge of and love for the Bible.  

We affirm the primary goal of the Bible Content Examination (BCE) to be an assessment of a theological student’s basic competency of general Bible knowledge toward the midpoint of her or his theological study.  

We affirm with gratitude the desire of both the Presbyteries’ Cooperative Committee on Examinations for Candidates (PCC) and the Committee on Theological Education (COTE) to provide a fair and useful examination for the assessment of general biblical knowledge.  

We affirm with gratitude the church wide concern that the most recent iteration of the exam raised problems and concerns about the exam’s fairness and reliability. We have conducted a thorough review of the last four exams and concluded that the mix of questions made these four exams noticeably more difficult than their predecessors.

We affirm that the increasing exam pass rates are due in part to an improving mix of questions that test basic competency of general Biblical knowledge.

Given these affirmations and goals, 

We do not see a primary purpose of the BCE to be a diagnostic tool for a student’s further study. We see that the purpose of the BCE is an assessment of competency in general biblical knowledge that provides the start of life-long conversation with and integration of Scripture for pastoral ministry.


We recommend that CPMs urge inquirers and candidates to take the BCE after a full year of theological education.

We recommend that COTE convene a group of PC(USA) biblical studies professors and elected COTE members to:

  1. gather and provide on the COTE website an approved list of resources for study in preparation for the exam
  2. produce a study guide specific to the BCE’s purpose of assessing general knowledge of the “stories, themes, and key passages” of the Bible as they provide a foundation for Reformed ministry. 

We recommend that the PCC return to the practice of publically releasing questions after their use in an examination.  

Rev. Samuel L. Adams, Ph.D., Associate Professor of Old Testament, Union Presbyterian Seminary, Richmond, Virginia
Rev. Bridgett Green, Ph.D. (cand.), Acquisitions Editor, Presbyterian Publishing Corporation, Louisville, Kentucky
Rodger Nishioka, Ph.D., Director of Adult Educational Ministries, Village Presbyterian Church, Prairie Village, Kansas
Rev. Paige Stephan, Chaplain, Rush University Hospital, Chicago, Illinois, and CPM Moderator for the Presbytery of Chicago

Grupo de Trabajo que revisa contenido bíblico para exámenes hace declaración.

성경 내용 시험 문제 검토 태스크 포스의 성명서 발표.

  1. As a soon to graduate (Lord willing) seminarian, I have been taking my Ords this cycle. I would like to make two suggestions. First, any question on the BCE is acceptable to me as long as it is of theological significance. The first version of this new exam asked questions more like Bible trivia than general knowledge, but there was marked improvement in the quality of the questions (and scores) this cycle. Second, please do not make the BCE an option for seminarians, but rather make it a requirement. I would recommend we take it the first time at the end of our very first semester with the expectation that the overwhelming majority of us would fail gloriously. Ideally, the CPM could fund or subsidize this first test. For most of us, we do not grow up reading in a manner that helps us to retain chapter and verse. When I read a Tom Clancy novel, I know what happened to whom and when in the developing plot line, but I couldn't tell you which paragraph or even chapter a particular quote came from. It is an unfortunate reality that learning to read the Bible with that level of detailed retention is a skill that I expect most of us will have to learn during our seminary career. It would have been immensely helpful if I had experienced the BCE prior to spending a year diving deeply into both Hebrew and Greek. I most certainly would have taken notes differently as I worked through the Scriptures during those two years at school.

    by Charlie Pratt

    March 19, 2017

  2. The current BCE is available only to registrants during official administrations. Pre-2009 versions of the test can be found using Internet search engines.

    by Tim Cargal

    March 18, 2017

  3. Is the BCE available to anyone who might want to access and take it to test their own knowledge of the Bible?

    by James Dunn

    March 18, 2017

  4. Examining each question on the BCE for its validity is an ordinary way of reviewing test validity. The committee has proceeded wisely. I suspect that many of today's students have never read the scriptures in their entirety. Furthermore, while many, if not most, have engaged in Bible studies, most have not grown up in church education, nor had a systemmatic overview of scriptures. It is helpful to take the BCE early in one's study in order to build from it in one's studies.

    by Bob Osborne

    February 24, 2017

  5. Maybe the Semenaries are to lax in the demands of the students before graduation. Christian education is an attribute of the Presbyterian Church with Jesus as Lord.

    by Elder Betty Bull

    February 22, 2017

  6. I hope the work of the task force leads to reasonable changes. I worked with a seminarian (who already had several other advanced degrees) who was unable to pass the recent versions of the Bible Content Exam (more than once) even though she was well-versed in biblical background and studied hard. Some of the questions she told me about seemed absurd in a test of basic knowledge.

    by Kathryn Walker

    February 22, 2017

  7. I remember taking the Bible content exam very early in my seminary time, shortly after admission. At that time I was hardly a bible scholar or in possession of a thorough comprehensive knowledge of the Bible. Fortunately the way the exam was structured I did pretty well. My suggestion would be to wait and offer the test later maybe in the second year of seminary after students have had more exposure, practice and training in biblical studies.

    by Jim Reinarz

    February 22, 2017

  8. A local Body of Christ has many functions. One of these functions is Christian Education. Christian Education has many facets. One of these facets is Bible Study. All members of a local Body of Christ should read and know their Bible on a daily basis. How many of our lay church members could take and pass the Bible Content Exam with a score of 90% or higher? How many of our churches could meet this goal? I challenge our churches to meet this goal.

    by robert h wright jr

    February 20, 2017

  9. I get the Idea that somehow those taking the BCE exam are either not caring enough about their Bible knowledge or their previous schooling has been inadequate preparation for the task (Bible study) at hand. I suspect the latter and that is a sad statement for our public school systems. This would suggest that public schools are requiring less critical thinking and memorization skills-a sad situation. Please, let's not change for the culture. Make the culture change toward Bible knowledge. We don't want to weaken the requirements or simplify the questions, as that will lead to a dumber pastorate. If the Bible becomes less important to Bible college students we will all lose, especially future generations and the love for Jesus will slowly....fade. We would have a Christian church only in name...and empty shell. In summary, keep the standards strong and expect candidates to learn or get out. That is the only way. If you make it clear, candidates will get to work and achieve what is necessary. This wishy washy committee to reconsider, including everyone in the discussion blither only only makes the college leadership sound weak. The standard never should be lowered. If people could pass the test with high grades in the past, they can do it now. Jesus expected everything from his disciples and we should likewise do the same for pastoral students and for that matter, all Christians.

    by David Harris

    February 19, 2017

  10. To be clear, I'm not doubting that members of the task force have a desire for a fair process, or that they know and converse with seminary students. But that is simply not the same as having seminary students/Inquirers and Candidates at the table, nor even as having a formalized mechanism by which seminary students/Inquirers and Candidates can give feedback which they are assured will be heard. The power dynamics between seminary faculty, denominational staff, working pastors, and CPM chairs on one hand, and seminary students and Candidates and Inquirers on the other is such that, in my opinion, care should be taken to ensure that any feedback sought is solicited in a manner that is sensitive and appropriate. Again, I am grateful that this conversation is happening and that the concern about the BCE is being addressed and not simply dismissed.

    by Daniel Williams

    February 18, 2017

  11. Students have been consulted throughout this process. I was on the task force, and as a seminary professor, I have been in conversation with students for many months. Every single member of the task force, from CPM chairs to working pastors, volunteered to do this because of their desire for a fair process and their numerous and varied conversations with students. And the only feedback thus far from students has been positive. If you hear of other concerns, please let us know. Peace.

    by Samuel Adams

    February 18, 2017

  12. Grateful for the work of the taskforce. I notice with a great deal of disappointment, but very little surprise, that there seems not have been any current seminary students or Candidates or Inquirers on the taskforce. I wonder how recently any of the taskforce members were in the care process. How are the valid concerns and views of those who are currently affected or have been very recently affected by the decisions being made about ordination exams being represented in this process?

    by Daniel Williams

    February 18, 2017

Leave a comment