Abuse and Hermeneutics

Note: If this article hits too close to home—stop reading and call your counselor or pastor now.

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Wow! What a combination! How can either of these be related? I have considered this for the past few weeks and hope to make some sense in the connection between the two topics.

Abuse

As a pastor, I have found the issue of abuse is real. As an environment is created for trust and safety, then stories about abuse begin to trickle out. Stories of pain, fear, uncertainty, shame, guilt, etc.

Abuse is serious and more prevalent than many pastors and churches think. Denial does not work, does not address the issues, does not help those abused, does not give the abusers help either. It is a systemic problem in the church.

One theme continued to come up in these discussions:

“Why don’t the churches and spiritual leaders acknowledge this problem?”

“Where is there support in the church for abuse victims?”

“Why don’t most people in the church believe me about abuse?”

These questions stayed in my mind over the past few months. As a starting point, in our own church we pray for those who have been abused and for the abusers. But these questions are deeper than even that. “Why don’t people understand?” I have taught Hermeneutics in our seminary the past five years, and in fact, I am teaching it this quarter. And that led me to a startling revelation. Is this question (and solution) really a problem of hermeneutics?

Hermeneutics

In general terms, hermeneutics is “principles of interpretation.” How do we interpret what is written, spoken, seen. In everyday living we unconsciously use some kind principles of interpreting each of these. In specific terms as a Bible teacher, we use this to refer to principles of interpretation applied to the Biblical texts.

There many approaches to Biblical hermeneutics. The one I have found the most helpful over the past 35 years is one presented by Dr. James Voelz in his book What Does This Mean? (Principles of Biblical Interpretation in the Post-Modern World), and also his video and audio lectures in iTunesU.

I will not cover everything in the book, but one specific aspect of his approach is key in Biblical interpretation, and now critical in interpreting abuse. One of the challenges of interpretation is asking the question: “What does this mean?” Voelz notes that the word “mean” is used in three different ways (Voelz uses the term “levels” to separate the three):

1. What is the sense of the text?

2. What is the significance of the text?

3. What is the implication of the text?

Consider one example Voelz addresses: Luke 7:14-15

And He came up and touched the coffin; and the bearers came to a halt. And He said, “Young man, I say to you, arise!” The dead man sat up and began to speak. And Jesus gave him back to his mother.

Level 1 interpretation: 

Taking the words at face value as marks on the page. So: Jesus healed a dead young man and gave him back to his mother.

Level 2: interpretation: 

This significance of this event (action) is provided in the following verse by what the people surmise what had happened.

Fear gripped them all, and they began glorifying God, saying, “A great prophet has arisen among us!” and, “God has visited His people!” (Luke 7:16)

Scripture does not often provide a level 2 interpretation. And sometimes what is recorded as level 2 is wrong—no, not that Scripture is wrong, but that someone’s interpretation of an event is wrong, i.e. when the Jewish leaders claim that Jesus is demon possessed (John 8:48).

Level 3 interpretation: 

What is the implication of Luke including this event? In other words, at this point we are looking at the author to see what it tells us about the author’s motive, audience, etc. This is by far the hardest aspect of interpreting a text, and there are few resources to help.

Note how confusing this could be if people in a conversation claim “This is what the text means” and they use a different “level” to give an answer. Thus, I think Voelz gives us a helpful map through this confusion as we look at the Biblical text via the three levels. He also shows that this can be used to interpret actions as well as words.

Understanding Abuse using Hermeneutics

The light came on for me when I put together that Voelz’s three levels not only applies in Biblical interpretation but in all interpretation. That is, we also interpret events/actions that happen in everyday life. And this brings us back to abuse.

So I began asking how to interpret abuse? For the sake of illustration I am presenting a hypothetical case that involves a man physically abusing a woman. This can equally apply to sexual abuse, verbal abuse, emotional abuse, etc. Also, abuse is not limited to men as abusers.

By using three levels we can begin to sort out not only what happened (level 1) but also how to interpret the actions (level 2) and how to interpret the “author” (abuser) (level 3).

Level 1: 

The man hits a woman repeatedly. Level 1 seems relatively simple, but we are isolating one event. As the abuse continues then each Level changes. But in public the abuse is not “evident.”

Level 2: 

There are really three responses to interpreting what happened: abuser, abused, outsider.

For the abuser: “She just wouldn’t listen to me. I wanted her attention.”

For the abused: “I love him and trying to do what he says.”

For the outsider: “Look how his wife tries to please him.” (the outsider never sees the effects of abuse, at least initially, so only interprets what they see her do in public, namely trying to appease him.)

Level 3: 

There are also three responses to interpreting what happened: abuser, abused, outsider.

For the abuser: “What is wrong with her?” (the abused tells something about her but the evaluation/interpetation is controlled by the abuser)

For the abused: “What am I doing wrong that I can’t please him?” (the abuser tells something about herself but from the abuser’s perspective, guilt, shame play a major role here)

For the outsider: “That couple looks so happy, what a model of love for others.”

Notice that each level illustrates different interpretations depending on the role each plays in the “action of abuse” and the one who controls the narrative interpretation at each level.

The deadly part of this cycle is that the abuser controls the interpretation at all three levels for himself and her. And typically the abuser knows how to say and do things to bring the abused wife back to him. Thus, it is now at least understandable why it takes a woman who is physically abused to leave the man seven times before she finally does leave for good—if she lives long enough.

So what?

So much more can be explored in this topic. But this may help set the tone for understanding what happened and the consequences of interpreting at each level.

Where does the church fit into this? In one sense the church is the “outsider” in the above scenario. Notice what happens then. The abuser controls level 1 (he will abuse at will). He controls at level 2 (changing the interpretation as time goes on), and he will always blame the one abused (level 3). The narrative the church accepts (level 2) is also controlled by the abuser. And at level 3, the church hears about the abused, but only as interpreted by the abuser  (“the fault lies with her”).

What happens if the abused woman begins to speak out, to identify what happened (level 1), what is the significance of what happened (level 2), and to tell about the abuser (level 3)? Ironically, she is seen as not truthful because she is attacking a person (level 3) and not the situation (level 1) and therefore “she doesn’t really get what happened” (level 2). It’s almost as if she is abused once again when she is met with anger, hostility, etc. because “she is disturbing this fine relationship.” Her pain, experience, value as a person is challenged at the very time that she needs genuine support.

This is already a longer post than I usually write. But there is so much more to write about. My goal in this post is to give the church some insight into abuse and begin to interpret abuse in all three levels and see where the pitfalls exist for the church and especially church leaders. My hope is that this will generate open discussion about this church problem.

And ultimately my hope is that the church begins to deal with abuse and provide love, care, and help for the abused, the abuser, and all family members involved.

Let’s go back to those questions from the abused:

“Why don’t the church and spiritual leaders acknowledge this problem?”

“Where is there support in the church for abuse victims?”

“Why don’t most people in the church believe me about abuse?”

Are we listening to the questions? Are we interpreting in light of what the abuser is saying, and the abused is afraid to say anything to contradict that? Now we have something to think about and come to grips with in the church. Abuse is real—the pain, fear, guilt, shame, anger, frustration are real. The Gospel is specifically there for this situation.

I have discussed this understanding of abuse with other people, and they find it helpful. May you find it to be so, too.

Psalm 34:18 (MEV)

The LORD is near to the broken-hearted, and saves the contrite of spirit.

Ps 147:3 (MEV)

He heals the broken in heart, and binds up their wounds.

Isa 61:1 (MEV)

The Spirit of the LORD God is upon me
because the LORD has anointed me
to preach good news to the poor;
He has sent me to heal the broken-hearted,
to proclaim liberty to the captives,
and the opening of the prison to those who are bound;

Luke 4:17-18 (MEV)

The scroll of the prophet Isaiah was handed to Him. When He had unrolled the scroll, He found the place where it was written:

“The Spirit of the Lord is upon Me,
because He has anointed Me
to preach the gospel to the poor;

He has sent Me to heal the broken-hearted,
to preach deliverance to the captives
and recovery of sight to the blind,
to set at liberty those who are oppressed;

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All promises were fulfilled in Jesus Christ (2 Corinthians 1:20). Now those promises continue in the Church‘s life and proclamation of Jesus Christ. May it be so in the Church today.

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Conference-itis Really?

Conference-itis — What is it?

This post has been brewing for several years. All critiques and questions in the post have arisen from my own struggles, questions, concerns. In other words, if these comments feel a little uncomfortable, I understand, I have been there, too.

What is conference-itis? There are many conferences, from the church body conferences to the wild and woolly conferences (many times bizarre, but catching international attention).

But the focus of this post is not on those kinds of conferences. Rather, I use the term in reference to independent groups springing up within the more conservative churches, that has also been attracting some Lutherans. The conferences have become the next great thing in the church. And to attend or speak at a conference is the badge certifying that “I have made it.” Conference-itis affects the person who thinks this is the “real deal” in church.

A little background on me. I write as one who has served, and is currently serving as a pastor, and in the last 8 years also serving as a seminary president. I attended more than my share of these kinds of conferences from the mid 1980s to the present, several times speaking at such conferences—I was suffering from conference-itis. In the mid 1990s I began to ask myself questions about the conferences, the speakers, and my own role. I now attend far fewer conferences.

Why am I going to the conference?

Several conferences I attended were very helpful for me. They opened my eyes in terms of pastoral care, teaching, and preaching. They served to assess my own ministry. Yet after a few I learned that other conferences were not helping, but in fact, distracting me. Then my question changed to: “Why am I going to this?”

Yes, fellowship with others was good. But at a two day conference where I met 100-200 or more people I soon realized that almost none of them would be ongoing friends. Not because I didn’t want to, but I was serving a congregation of 250+ with Preschool (75) and Parents’ Day Out (125), etc. In other words, any time I dedicated to conference attendees beyond the initial conference was time away from caring for those I was called to serve as pastor.

Yes, learning goes on at conferences. I have gained significant insights over the past 29 years. But I had to ask myself: How is this helping me improve as a pastor serving people? The insights showed that many conferences were not helpful, and so I attended fewer—the conferences were being filtered through that questioning lens.

It was an eye-opener when after attending one conference that all 70 pastors were so enthusiastic about the ideas presented. Some rushed home to begin the “new ministry approach” the first month. I remember one pastor was so excited about small group ministry that he started eleven groups within three months of returning from the conference. Yet at the conference everyone was strongly urged to start small—with one group. Within five years that pastor had no groups in the church. And worse, he provided no support to group leaders at any stage.

Others of us took time and assessed whether it would work in the congregations we were serving. We also took time to plan further out than six months—more like 10 years. It has been 23 years since I went to that conference. The congregation I served at the time started with one group, eventually growing to seven groups when I left. But even more—long after I left the congregation the groups have continued to grow in number and size to this day.

What is the purpose of the conference?

Over the last 25 years I have begun asking this question repeatedly (to myself). Will the purpose of this conference help me serve as pastor? If a member of my congregation attends, how will this conference help that person grow in the faith and serve in the community into which he or she is living/serving?

In the mid 1980s I assumed that every conference would benefit me and every member. But the reality is that many conferences are not so much designed to build up and support the existing congregations and members. They may serve other needs and purposes, which is fine. But I needed to clearly think about this and the implications for the congregation. So, my question became “What is the purpose of this conference?”

It breaks my heart to even write this: In some conferences I have seen where the local ministry is portrayed as “not sufficient.” In other words, the conference itself becomes more important than the congregation. As a Lutheran, I understand that the congregation is a group of believers in Christ gathered around Word and Sacrament. And when a conference moves away from that focus, then I have even more serious concerns.

Even at Lutheran conferences, I have heard comments about Word and Sacrament being essential, but then the speaker(s) totally ignoring those tools, rather intimating that the local congregation might be lacking in some way—which only this conference can fix. The conference becomes an “encouraging community” to get the “real deal” at the conference, not the real deal in Word and Sacrament with brothers and sisters who are my community.

So, I ask myself as a pastor, is this conference helping me serve God’s people? Or is that only a hook to get me there, to be “encouraged” by others wanting “something more”?

Those are tough questions, perhaps making some of us very uneasy. If so, I am glad that is happening, because we need to be brutally honest about all this. If not, then we are slipping into the mindset that “something out there” is needed beyond what God gives and provides in the congregation.

What about those who lead the conference?

One of my filters now includes this question: “What is going on in the congregation of this speaker?” This is not just a congregation-size issue. A pastor may serve a mega-church, but have little hands on experience with ministry in this specific area. The name is well known, but what exactly is he providing in real world experience that will benefit other pastors? If the speaker serves as pastor of a small congregation that has not grown beyond more than a large small group (not an oxymoron), then what does he offer at the conference?

If he is an author, is that the reason he is speaking? That he might generate more sales from his insights? Are those insights, true insights or just a repackaging of something else?

How is his presentation? I don’t care to be entertained. I don’t need speakers who publicly push the boundaries of language. Is he sarcastic, snide, rude? That doesn’t edify anyone—Ephesians 4:29. Will that language help me care for the cancer patient, the new widower, the parents of a runaway in the congregation. If the speaker critiques someone, does he critique the false teaching or does he ridicule the person?

Is the speaker showing by his knowledge of the Bible that he knows ministry inside and out, from failure and success? Or is he offering his own mix of what works with a little from the Bible, a little from the business world, and a little “common sense?” Is he willing to admit the limits of his knowledge and experience? Or is he presenting as if this “new thing,” better than the Bible, is the only way to go?

These are very difficult, challenging questions. But as I have learned over the decades, if I don’t ask the questions, then I am letting someone else dictate what I should be doing in ministry, with me becoming a shallow imitation of someone who may or may not be working for the good of the kingdom.

What are alternatives?

At that point, we need to see whether the time and money to attend any conference really is worth it to the pastor and congregation. Maybe that two day conference (that eats up four days when travel is included; effectively amounting to 60 working hours) might yield to an alternative that will help the congregation. Perhaps it might benefit the congregation more if the pastor took those 60 hours over the next two weeks to study Greek and Hebrew texts, gaining insights into the Scriptures. Then he can deepen the Bible studies that he teaches locally and faithfully preach each week. Each pastor has to ask himself that question.

I have been mentoring pastors for 25 years, and in the last eight years visiting pastors and seminary students. I ask them all the same question: “What are you reading?” Sometimes I will get responses about the latest best seller by Rev. Dr. ______, or just throwing out a last name, intimating that I should know who he/she is and be pleased they are up to date. Now, I have no problem with people reading books, I’ve been known to read 5,000+.

But when I ask the question about “what are you reading?” I am specifically asking: “What are you reading in the Bible?” As pastors the best preparation for service is to be in God’s Word. By this I also do not include commentaries, although commentaries are good they cannot replace reading the Scriptures.

 The reading of the Bible:

1. Read the Bible: (i.e., a consistent reading through the Bible). Many resources are available for anyone to begin and continue reading the Bible. In hermeneutical terms, we are expanding the matrix of understanding the Bible, always with Christ as the key to the matrix. (John 5:39; Luke 24:44-46; etc.). As a pastor, we can easily make it a goal to read the entire Bible in one year.

2. Mediative reading: To complement #1, this approach takes more time, a slower pace. It is often best to read aloud the text. As the mouth articulates the text, the text forms in the mind, in the heart, and begins a process of drawing one closer to God. Psalm 1:1-2 illustrates this process.

3. Detailed Study: For the pastor, this means taking out the Hebrew and Greek texts and working through a section of a text. Often people hear this encouragement and want to start but tackle too much at one time. If you are rusty, then I suggest working through a book (like John’s Gospel) and translate one verse a day. You may have to frequently look up words in a lexicon when you start. But you are doing one verse. Soon you will discover that you don’t have to look up some words, because they have become familiar to you, and you can do 2-3 verses each day.

For those who are not trained in the languages, detailed study can still be done. Compare translations (different approaches is good: so NAS and NLT or NKJV and GW make good combinations). Where they differ, there is probably something going on in the text that needs more attention. As you study, notice structural words (connectors like “therefore” [Romans 12:1] or repetiton of patterns [Ps. 42:5, 11; 43:5]). Can these patterns help us understand the thought progression of the author, etc.?

Attend Bible studies that the pastor leads. Ask your pastor questions (Acts 17:11). If he doesn’t know, then ask him if he could help you research the text.

Are all conferences to be avoided?

Not at all. I think pastor conferences within a church body can be very beneficial. In The AALC we have an annual Fall Pastors’ Conference that has become a refreshing, enjoyable, and helpful environment for my service in the congregation.

My plea (for myself, first) is that I examine the purpose of any conference. Will this help me in my service in the congregation? Or will it direct my attention elsewhere? Sadly some conferences do that. So I have declined to attend.

Finally I ask: Am I called by God to serve as conference speaker? Is this more important than my call as a pastor to a congregation? Then look at where am I in serving a congregation. Will speaking at this conference also assist me,a s well as others in serving God’s people?

Finally, the really personal questions: Do I crave the applause of the “audience”? Am I in a popularity contest? Who has the largest audience? Who is receiving attention? Is my ego being stroked by the accolades?

Again, the questions are mine—and they have revealed much about my own heart. This has been a long process and rethinking issues, and stopping to consider what I found so “fashionable” at the time that I wanted to pursue it. In repentance I seek God’s mercy. Not for others, but for myself.

I have directed this series of questions at myself since the mid 1990s. In discussions with other pastors, I have found they too have had concerns but didn’t quite know how to address the topic. Thus, my post is for my benefit, my friends’ benefit, and anyone else struggling with the pressure to “be at this conference!”

I am slowly recovering from conference-itis. It is freeing to do so.