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What is a Christian Response to Abuse? Dr. Steve Tracy

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Dr. Arnold interviews Dr. Tracy on the subject of abuse.

Topics of conversation include:

  • Why churches have become havens for abusers
  • Defining the five categories of abuse (sexual, physical, verbal, spiritual, neglect)
  • The effects of shame and how to heal from it
  • How Christians can help victims of abuse

Dr. Steve Tracy serves as professor of Theology and Ethics at Phoenix Seminary. He and his wife are co-founders of Mending the Soul Ministries, and have ministered in the United States and around the world, including the Democratic Republic of the Congo, Uganda, and Mexico. Dr. Tracy is the author of Mending the Soul: Understanding and Healing Abuse (Zondervan, 2008).

 


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Intro (00:00):

Welcome to Faith Seeking Understanding, a podcast from Phoenix Seminary—helping Christians grow in their understanding of the faith, hosted by Dr. Brian Arnold, president of Phoenix Seminary.

 

Brian Arnold (00:18):

Over the past decade or so, we have witnessed horrific story after horrific story of abuse and scandal in the church. The place where people should know peace and security has for many people become a place of fear, abuse, and shame. And many churches have not handled accusations of abuse well. Victims go unheard, pastors and leaders go unpunished, and the church’s reputation is smeared along the way, as the image of Christ is in this world. Yet believing that the church God’s plan for the world, how can our churches do a better job in preventing and handling abuse? We want pastors and churches who are above approach. We want victims of abuse to find healing in Christ, through the church. We want guilty parties held accountable. Our guest today has been addressing the topic of abuse for decades. He was, to my knowledge, one of the few voices highlighting these problems decades ago.

 

Brian Arnold (01:10):

My favorite part about him is his love for God that overflows into overseas missions. For the past several decades, he has taken the ministry called Mending the Soul to the Democratic Republic of the Congo to help victims of sexual abuse, providing the healing power that comes through the gospel of God’s grace. I love to read missionary biographies, and I hope that someone someday writes his story. Well, today we have with us Dr. Steve Tracy, who is here to help us think through these difficult issues. For years, Dr. Tracy has served as professor of Theology and Ethics right here at Phoenix Seminary. He and his wife are also co-founders of Mending the Soul Ministries, a Christian nonprofit which provides written resources and training on abuse, trauma, and sexuality. And they have been actively involved for years on the mission field, as I mentioned, in the Congo, Uganda and Mexico. Dr. Tracy’s the author of numerous publications and articles, including his book, Mending the Soul on the topic of abuse. Dr. Tracy, welcome to the podcast.

 

Steve Tracy (02:05):

Thank you, Dr. Arnold. It’s my pleasure.

 

Brian Arnold (02:07):

So we always ask our guests a big question, and today I think our question’s heavier than any question we’ve dealt with on the podcast. And that is—what is a Christian response to abuse? So you open your book by urging your reader to wake up to the fact that abuse is rampant. It’s rampant in society as a whole, and unfortunately in the church as well.

 

Steve Tracy (02:30):

Right.

 

Brian Arnold (02:31):

So what led you to this topic, to even start thinking about, long before others kind of joined the chorus?

 

Steve Tracy (02:38):

Yeah, that’s a great question. I mean, ultimately God, who is sovereign and at work and every aspect of our lives, orchestrated things very specifically. When I did my doctoral training, I thought I’d be teaching Greek grammar and training pastors in theology and exegesis, and addressing abuse was the farthest thing from my radar. But just a concise response would be—my years as a pastor I kept encountering abuse. I wasn’t looking for it. In fact, I didn’t see it for a long time. But it just kept coming up as a root issue in so many of the things people were struggling with. And then my wife, Celestia, as a Christian counselor, kept seeing abuse. And she didn’t go into counseling planning to do abuse trauma therapy. But again, it was just something that she kept seeing, and through a series of events—including a missionary family, that was the turning point, that had to leave the field because all their kids had been abused by a missionary colleague, and Celestia was seeking resources—God really put it on our heart to be part of the problem. You know, it’s easy to say—why is no one doing anything? And God, through all of that, really put on Celestia and my hearts to be part of the solution. So creating written resources, starting a ministry that would provide good, solid, biblically-based resources to help the church address this ugly issue.

 

Brian Arnold (04:11):

And at this point, I don’t think I’m exaggerating at all to say it’s helped tens of thousands of people through their own abuse, and even helping churches recognize what they can do on the front end to help prevent this as much as possible. So we’ve seen just story after story in the last 10 years or so, but we’re just kind of exposing what’s been there for a long time. Why do you think churches have become such havens for abusers?

 

Steve Tracy (04:36):

Yeah. I think part of it is our naivete. We want to believe the best. In one of my seminary classes, I actually show a video of a former youth pastor who was incarcerated for molesting up to a hundred boys in his ministry. And he’s very honest about the fact that Christians are naive because they want to believe the best about people. And so they just don’t see sometimes pretty clear warning signs under their nose. I think Satan takes advantage of some of the…you know, those are good qualities, to want to believe the best. We want to be gracious, but that can cause us to overlook what we must not overlook. So I think that’s a factor in the…the church is a spiritual family. And so again, I think in families we maybe are drawn to think the best, because—hey, I know this person, they’re a Sunday school teacher, whatever. And again, that can lead to some unfortunate dynamics of unwarranted trust.

 

Brian Arnold (05:48):

I’m thankful that when I was finishing seminary this was becoming a more prominent topic of discussion. And so when I entered my pastorate in 2012, unbeknownst to me, was gonna be my biggest fight as a pastor of my church when I said we need to take this seriously and create policies and procedures of multiple layers of accountability when we’re dealing with kids ministries and nursery workers, that there’s always multiple adults there, that we’re going to do background checks for people who are going to be working in children’s ministry. You would have thought that I just made a blanket accusation of everybody in the church. I was shocked, Steve. That even just by suggesting we should move in this direction, that’s what I was met with, is—how dare you. This is the church. And that’s not how…the church doesn’t operate like the world operates. And people have nothing to hide. And I’m like, well, if they have nothing to hide, then they shouldn’t be worried about background checks. Anyway.

 

Brian Arnold (06:38):

And it took me a year to convince people to move in that direction. I ended up having to go house by house with people who didn’t like it, to discuss these things with them. I was…I guess I was just shocked that we would meet resistance, knowing what’s going on in this world today, and what the responsibility of the church is. And we can get into that here in a little bit, but I thought maybe you could even begin by defining some terms for us, things like abuse. How do you define that in your ministry?

 

Steve Tracy (07:05):

Yeah. I define abuse as any misuse of God-given power to take advantage of another person. I mean, that’s at its broadest level. And in many different biblical passages, such as Ecclesiastes 4:1-2, which talks about abuse being so prevalent that it’d be better off to not even be born. I mean, that’s how starkly the writer of Ecclesiastes states it. But he talks about how the oppressors, the abusers, had power. Those who were victimized did not. So abuse is the misuse, because power ultimately always comes from God. And we can break that down into five different areas. Sexual abuse is the misuse of sexual potency to take advantage of another person. Physical abuse…and I think each of these really come out of our being made in the image of God. God doesn’t have sexuality, but as image bearers, he made us sexual beings, which I think is about a capacity for intimate relationships.

 

Steve Tracy (08:15):

God is a God in intimate relationships for all of eternity—Father, Son, and Spirit. We have that capacity. Our sexuality is such a beautiful God-like quality, and yet Satan tempts us to misuse it so that instead of expressing love, it expresses lust, it steals. God’s given us, there’s a command right in Genesis 1, “have dominion.” As soon as God creates, he gives the man and the woman the capacity to have dominion. That’s power. But when we misuse power, that can lead to physical abuse—the use or threat of use of physical force to harm another person. God’s given us verbal power. Again, we repeatedly see in the creation account “and God said, and it was so, and God said, and it was so.” God’s words are powerful. They create the very universe.

 

Steve Tracy (09:11):

As his image bearers, our words have power. Scripture repeatedly talks about the power of the tongue—Proverbs, James. So when we misuse our words, the power of our words, to belittle, to scapegoat, to threaten, to attack another person—that’s verbal abuse. Spiritual abuse is the misuse of spiritual authority to force a person to do something that’s ultimately unbiblical and harmful, whether that’s Scripture, church tradition, my position—those are spiritual powers. And neglect is a fifth category of abuse. And it’s not using your power when you should. Neglect is the failure of a parent or caregiver to provide a child their basic needs. And Scripture addresses that. 1 Timothy 5:8 talks about fathers who were neglecting their children being worse than infidels. Scripture addresses each of these categories of abuse, very forthrightly. And so should we.

 

Brian Arnold (10:16):

And there seems to be a lot more awareness today, even of some of these other categories. I think about spiritual abuse, and some pastors and churches that have been highlighted in recent years that have had some toxic environments and what that’s led to in terms of spiritual abuse. Or, you know, you get, today even, like health wealth gospel areas of—God told me this, and so you must do it. Which can be harmful for people as well. So talk to us then about shame, and the effects of shame you’ve seen in the church in your ministry. And then I want to even then start to transition to—how do you start walking along someone who’s experiencing that?

 

Steve Tracy (10:57):

Yeah, I am absolutely convinced that abuse is one of Satan’s most powerful weapons against image bearers, and that is every human being. And shame is one of the worst effects of abuse. Any kind of abuse. It produces debilitating shame. Shame can be a good thing when we really have violated the law of God, and we have that sense that something’s wrong. That can be a call to repentance, but Satan likes to hijack any of God’s good gifts. And some have called it toxic shame. It’s shame that doesn’t call us to repentance. It doesn’t give us a message that there’s something wrong that can be corrected, but toxic shame speaks to us that we are permanently defective. That there’s nothing that can be fixed, but rather we need to hide, because if people really knew who we were and what we’d done, what had been done to us, they would reject us.

 

Steve Tracy (12:04):

It’s what we see in one of the most detailed accounts of sexual assault in Scripture, in the life of Tamar in 2 Samuel chapter 13, when her brother, or half brother, rapes her. And she says…when she three times says, “no, don’t do this” and he just uses his power against her and doesn’t listen to her and assaults her. But she says, “how can I get rid of my shame?” And in fact, we see that immediately after she’s abused she tears her garment. She puts ashes on her head. And she lived in her safe brother’s house the rest of her life, desolate. That’s what shame does. It sends these horribly destructive, and ultimately unbiblical messages that the evil one just loves. Satan is a slanderer, he’s an accuser. So shame is a very effective way that Satan can accuse abuse victims. So common.

 

Brian Arnold (13:07):

And I’m assuming that listening to this podcast are people who have experienced one of the five categories of abuse that you mentioned before, and are kind of in that place of shame right now. So how do you begin to take somebody in that place, or maybe pastors listening who are counseling people, in this way? I think every person has a story, even if not of themselves, of somebody in their life that has experienced abuse.

 

Steve Tracy (13:34):

Absolutely.

 

Brian Arnold (13:35):

How do you start walking them through those places of healing then?

 

Steve Tracy (13:39):

Yeah, it’s a great question, Brian. And I would argue, while we haven’t all experienced abuse, capital A, if you will, you know, typically the kinds of things that could be prosecuted, we’ve certainly all experienced abuse, small a. And that’s harmful. We can all think of, my goodness, junior high. Ways that we’ve been maligned, bullied, things said about us, verbal abuse that stung, and we can still remember some of those things and call up feelings of shame. And all too many of us have experienced abuse, capital A. In terms of the healing process, you know, it honestly, it always always gets back to Christ. I am so astounded as I think about the fact that as hideous and ugly and horrible and destructive as abuse is, Christians, unlike followers of any other religion, believe from the Scriptures that salvation itself comes through the Son of God being horrifically, and even fatally, abused.

 

Steve Tracy (14:53):

Often we don’t think of the death of Christ in terms of abuse, but it was horrible abuse. Really every category. And I would include sexual, to the extent that Christ was crucified naked to shame him. I think it’s important for abuse victims to realize that Christ himself understands. The writer of Hebrews, in Hebrews 4, says we have a merciful High Priest who is tempted in all points like we are, except that he didn’t sin. So we’re called to boldly go to him in time of need. He’s merciful. He understands the things that an abuse survivor have suffered. Some of which maybe the people around them don’t understand, but Jesus does. And for most of us, we couldn’t have avoided our abuse. I mean, in some cases we may have made some really bad choices that contributed, but even then, Christ suffered willingly. He didn’t have to be abused, but he did for our sake. So I think that’s a really important starting place. To recognize a) Jesus understands and he is merciful, and b) salvation itself is a result of abuse. Which tells me, God delights in redeeming the worst and bringing, as the prophet Isaiah in Isaiah 61 says, “beauty from ashes.” God does that—delights in doing that—for abuse survivors. So I think that’s…Jesus is certainly the starting point.

 

Brian Arnold (16:35):

I mean, what a beautiful God who would come to suffer, knowingly suffer, all those forms of abuse on our behalf so that people could really find in him a Savior that looks a lot like them. He has suffered in ways that are unimaginable, especially as he is God suffering for his creation. I’m so grateful to, even in my own heart right now, hear these truths again, and remember what a great God and great Savior we have in Christ. That he can be looked to by people, not as a God who is distant, who’s far away, who doesn’t understand, but a God who’s gotten right into the mess of humanity and experienced it on our behalf, even.

 

Steve Tracy (17:23):

Exactly.

 

Brian Arnold (17:24):

Yeah. So listener, listen well to the words of Dr. Tracy. You’ve got a Savior in Christ. So, you know, the original question, just thinking through—how can we as Christians help people who’ve been abused? I think what happens is, it’s not even intentional piling on, but people just don’t know how to handle it. And so a lot of times they don’t handle those things well when it comes up. So what do victims of abuse need from their friends, from fellow church members, from pastors, from elders in their church? How can these people in place in their life begin to help them?

 

Steve Tracy (18:01):

Yeah. I mean, there’s a long list of things, Brian. That’s the million dollar question, and I’ll just make some suggestions. And some of this is going to sound too simple, but we can stumble over some of the basics. First thing I’d suggest is listen. You know, in James 1, James tells us that we should be quick to listen and slow to speak. Abuse survivors, one of their greatest needs is for people to patiently, lovingly, listen. Without trying to fix, if you will, throw the Romans 8:28 in in a really inappropriate way. Let alone say, “well, why did you do that?” Implying—if you wouldn’t have done that, you wouldn’t have been abused, et cetera. I think lovingly listening is an extremely important starting point. Related to that, just being willing to grieve with people.

 

Steve Tracy (19:02):

Paul told the Romans in Romans 12:15 that we’re to “rejoice with those who rejoice, and weep with those who weep.” I think one of the…it’s straightforward, but that doesn’t mean easy we can do for abuse survivors is to tell them we are so sorry for what they’ve experienced and be willing to enter into their pain. I mean, to the extent that we let their pain impact us. And that may, to some extent, cause some brokenness in us. We weep with those who weep. We advocate that one of the biggest mistakes churches have made is over and over they advocate for the abuser. I could give just countless examples of that. Scripture is so clear, Isaiah 1:17 says, “seek justice, correct oppression, plead the widow’s cause.” To be advocates for the abused, to—where necessary, where appropriate—to defend them. I believe it was Solomon who wrote Proverbs, the voice of his mother there in Proverbs 31 says that “a godly person is a voice for the voiceless.”

 

Steve Tracy (20:21):

So that the advocacy defense comes in. Educating ourselves. That’s so important for—as individuals and certainly as church leaders, that we get some basic education on abuse. So that we don’t, as I did too often as a young pastor, said really harmful things. Not maliciously, but because I didn’t understand what abuse does. So basic education is really, really important. And the last thing I’d suggest is addressing abuse. Surveys of Christian women who’ve experienced domestic violence tell us that the number one thing that they desire from the church is for the church to acknowledge that abuse happens, even among Christians. Just to be willing to talk about it, you know, that we address abuse pretty regularly from the pulpit, in Sunday school lessons, in premarital counseling, et cetera. And Scripture has literally hundreds and hundreds of passages on abuse, but often we don’t have a lens for that. And so we’re not looking for it. Then we don’t address it, but it’s there. We have more than enough biblical data to work with.

 

Brian Arnold (21:35):

Well, Dr. Tracy, I think that’s a great handful of things that people can start thinking about and implementing pretty quickly. One of the things I would commend to you all is to read his book, Mending the Soul. You have a second edition coming out soon, is that right?

 

Steve Tracy (21:47):

I do, hopefully by the end of the summer. I talked Zondervan into adding a third, new material, because we’ve learned so much in the years, and it’s been thoroughly updated. So yeah, hopefully that will be out in the fall. And I would definitely recommend our mendingthesoul.org website. But we exist to serve the body of Christ, so there’s a host of resources, articles I’ve written, lots and lots of free downloadable resources. We have a workbook that’s designed as curriculum for churches, for small groups, Mending the Soul workbook for men and women. We have trainings for facilitators to know how to lead those healing groups. We have some…yeah, just a range of things for traumatized kids, their caregivers, et cetera. So that’s why God put on our heart to start this ministry—so we could be part of the solution.

 

Brian Arnold (22:46):

Yeah. Yep. Well, I appreciate what you’ve done in those areas. And even, you know, we didn’t have time to talk about it, but what you’ve done overseas, where women are exploited in horrific ways,and some of the ministry you’ve had. Well, I want to give you kind of a chance at the end here, just to give that final kind of word, maybe—you know, I hate to say it—but a 30 second exhortation to somebody listening right now who has been the victim of abuse. Maybe he has never told anybody. Just a word of encouragement to them. And then maybe one thing they could do even after listening to this today.

 

Steve Tracy (23:18):

Yeah. Let me just in closing say—I understand personally. Abuse has touched my family very, very deeply. It’s touched me, and I don’t have time to go into our story here, but let me just say to those of you who’ve experienced abuse—I understand what it’s like. I understand the heartache, the shame, the pain, the costliness, the disruption. And I can personally testify that we serve a God who heals. I’ve walked that, my family has walked that, and Celeste and I have the privilege of working—serving—countless men and women, children, around the world. Some of whom have experienced the most grotesque kinds of abuse. We work with massacre survivors in the Congo, and torture survivors. And I don’t even talk about much of what we experience. It would be retraumatizing for people. But I only mention that to say—we’ve seen the worst of the worst.

 

Steve Tracy (24:23):

And I am convinced, to the core of my being, that there is no abuse that’s too much for God to heal. It’s a process. Doesn’t happen quickly. Doesn’t happen overnight. But maybe my faith, my experience will give you just a little bit of a glimmer of hope. That we serve a God who delights in redeeming, and healing, and restoring. And I really encourage you—talk to someone, to take an initial step. Check out our website. You know, if you’re not ready to talk to someone, at least grab some resources. There are people, increasingly educated spiritual leaders, who want to make a difference. Hope is possible. That’s what the cross is all about.

 

Brian Arnold (25:10):

That’s a great word of final exhoration. Dr. Tracy, thank you so much for your ministry in this area and for your time on the podcast today.

 

Steve Tracy (25:17):

My pleasure.

 

Outro (25:18):

Thank you for listening to Faith Seeking Understanding. It means so much to us that this content is helping you grow in your understanding of the faith. I want to take a moment to tell you about our new online learning experience at Phoenix Seminary. Over the last year, we’ve been creating what we believe to be the highest quality of online courses for ministry training. If you’re called to train for a lifetime of faithful service, but can’t join us on campus, I’d like you to invite you to join us online. Take courses featuring some of the guests you’ve heard on Faith Seeking Understanding, including Wayne Grudem, Mike Thigpen, Steve Duby, myself, and more. Learn more about Phoenix seminary online, and even access the entire online lecture content for my church history course at ps.edu/online.

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