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

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