The Bible can cause harm

Elana Keppel Levy argues that Scripture is holy, but it needs to be applied wisely. And the January 2023 ordination exam was not the time, place or method to address the violent themes of Judges 19.

Warning: This story contains references to sexual violence, abuse, violence, murder, PTSD, infertility, child loss, heterosexism, self-harm, ableism, and racism, and it could be triggering for survivors and their loved ones.

As the controversy over the choice of Judges 19 for the Hebrew exegesis ordination exam continues, many have passionately argued that being a minister of Word and Sacrament requires deftness and poise when encountering Scripture. It also requires one to be quite formidable. One comment I read on social media, for instance, compared the ordination process to NASA’s testing of potential astronauts. Just as people who wish to become astronauts should be pushed to the limit, so, too, should our candidates. The reasoning goes: If candidates aren’t tested outside of their comfort zones, they won’t be prepared to handle the “real world.”

Hand and hand with this, I’ve encountered the idea that any pastor needs to be able to teach or preach any part of the Bible. If they aren’t able to do this, then they aren’t prepared, and they shouldn’t be ordained. One often hears 2 Timothy 3:16-17 accompanying this argument: “All Scripture is inspired by God and is useful for teaching, for reproof, for correction, and for training in righteousness, so that the person of God may be proficient, equipped for every good work.”

In this line of thinking, being a pastor means either that the Bible doesn’t cause harm or that any strong emotional response that might arise is symptomatic of a candidate who is unhealthy or unready to lead. Harm from the Bible should be seen as negligible or surmountable.

In this line of thinking, … harm from the Bible should be seen as negligible or surmountable.

Indeed, for some, the Bible points us to the sinfulness and evil that existed in those days and continues even now. The Bible doesn’t harm: sin and evil do. Yet, there are so many parts of the Bible that have directly led to tangible harm.

Jesus speaks against divorce. He says that those who divorce and remarry are committing adultery: they are sinning (Matthew 5:31-32). How many have been compelled to stay in abusive marriages because of this? Every good person who has difficulty getting pregnant in the Bible is granted a miracle pregnancy (like Sarah and Hannah). Who could fathom the pain suffered by those struggling with infertility and child loss — especially during Advent and Christmas, considering the miracle pregnancies of Elizabeth and Mary (Luke 1)? The “clobber passages” that call LGBTQIA+ folx sinners (see for example Leviticus 18:22 and Romans 1:25-37) have led to family schisms, depression, self-harm and death. So many passages tell people with disabilities that disability is a punishment from God (see Deuteronomy 28:28-29) or that blind and deaf people are the perfect symbols of people who don’t grasp spiritual wisdom (see Isaiah 43:8, Matthew 23:16-19 and 2 Corinthians 4:4).

If you are not a person of color, imagine reading Genesis 9:18-39 (where Noah curses Ham) as a person of color. You would read this knowing that countless generations of your ancestors were subject to chattel slavery, to dehumanization, to state-sanctioned violence, to discriminatory laws, to internment camps, to the sin of racism that continues to this day because this passage was used to support racial hierarchy.

Imagine, if you are not an Indigenous person, reading the book of Joshua (see, for example, Joshua 10:28-43) as an Indigenous person. Here is a story about an outside people who show up with a God-sanctioned claim on the land your people have lived on for countless generations. They dehumanize, wage war, kill, subjugate, and drive out ancient peoples whose history doesn’t look too different from the history of your own tribe. Many stories in the Bible claim that the only holy and righteous thing to do is to totally wipe out the people of a particular place — even their livestock and their belongings.

While one could argue that someone might feel harmed by any passage of Scripture, foreseeable, widespread harm is more likely to arise from some passages of Scripture than from others. The issue here isn’t one of censoring the Bible or not holding candidates for ministry to a high standard. It is a question of discernment in choosing this Scripture for this purpose. We would never use Judges 19 for a children’s sermon. We wouldn’t preach a text about holy war on world communion Sunday. It would be absurd to assign a genealogy with incidental biblical figures for an exegesis exam.

One could suggest a number of factors that would make a passage good for an exegesis exam. A few may be: interesting features in the Hebrew/Greek itself, frequency of the passage’s appearance in the life of the church, themes common to most ministry settings or a difficulty level that corresponds to beginning ministry. In looking at Judges 19, we see that the Hebrew is not very remarkable compared to many other passages. The passage doesn’t appear in the lectionary and is likely unknown to the majority of congregants. In modern ministry, we are not likely to meet many individuals who subject concubines or daughters to sexual abuse by angry villagers then dismember the concubine as a prelude to war. This is also a passage that would be difficult for most ministers to preach on or teach sensitively – even those with decades of experience.

As those entrusted with God’s Word, we are called to prayerfully consider which passage meets the present moment or the present purpose. This is as important for those who hope to become ministers as it is for those with a lot of experience. Calling for better discernment in choosing passages for the biblical exegesis exams in no way argues against all Scripture being inspired by God and useful for teaching.

The Bible has harmed people – from the literal words on the page to the ways it has been used and abused against the “other.” Going forward, we shouldn’t hide these passages. We need to reckon with what is problematic in them. To do this well, we need to engage these passages by choice in low-pressure environments with people we can trust. We are called to listen with the deepest compassion to all who are hurting, including those who are hurt by our own holy writings, including ourselves. In our denomination, ministers have the freedom to exercise choice in selecting passages for different purposes. A healthy and effective minister exercises this right as part of setting boundaries, as part of taking care of ourselves and others.

The Bible has harmed people – from the literal words on the page to the ways it has been used and abused against the “other.”

What’s more, people do not learn how to have a real pastoral presence with those suffering (whether trauma and abuse or any other pastoral concern) by being locked in a room with a Bible and many commentaries. That comes by engaging church placements, clinical pastoral education (CPE) and classes on pastoral counseling. Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) seminary students pursuing an M.Div. and ordination are required (or strongly encouraged — not all ordination candidates complete CPE) to do all of the above. One might ask: what purpose does it serve to confront candidates with horrifying passages like this during an exegesis exam?

Over the course of this controversy, the Presbyteries’ Cooperative Committee on Examinations for Candidates (PCC) has stated that they will read all complaints addressed to them and then take them up at their meeting in March, which would be open to the public. On Friday, February 24, 2023, the PCC clarified that public comment would only be heard during the meeting in the form of two-minute videos arguing for or against the adoption of a general content warning that their executive committee had created (to be issued when candidates register for the exams). Candidates would affirm, among other things, that they understand that exam questions and topics may be painful or cause past harm to surface.

The main response from the PCC so far has been an offer to enroll candidates who were unable to complete the January 2023 exegesis exam due to the content in the spring 2023 exegesis at no additional cost. The committee has offered a statement of remorse that people were hurt by an action of the church, and now they are suggesting a proposed warning statement that, I believe, places the onus for the problem of harm on the students themselves. The question continues to hang in the air – will the PCC publicly state that there were things wrong with the exam, that they will begin working towards learning how to create exams that are trauma-informed?

The question continues to hang in the air – will the PCC publicly state that there were things wrong with the exam, that they will begin working towards learning how to create exams that are trauma-informed?

The General Assembly describes the Bible exegesis exam as one that assesses “the candidate’s ability to interpret an assigned passage of Scripture by demonstrating attention to the original language of the text, an understanding of the text’s historical and literary context, and an ability to relate the text effectively to the contemporary life of the church in the world.” (See the Handbook on Standard Ordination Exams.) Nowhere does it give the PCC an unfettered mandate to assess mental health or to try to push candidates to their breaking point.

Jesus said, “my yoke is easy and my burden is light.” The journey to ordination is long and difficult, but it should always be a reflection of Christian love. The harm that the Bible can cause is real, indeed, so we must be loving in how we choose to use these holy words. As a family in Christ, we hold on to the healing grace that Scripture leads us to, that gives us life and leads us to life eternal.