My youngest sister has Down syndrome. Since her birth I have had many chances to reflect on disabilities, as well as consider how the church can better serve marginalized people. This has led to deeper thinking toward gender, ethnicity, and the general way in which ecclesiology is executed.
My growing conviction is that we in Evangelicalism need to desperately strengthen our ecclesiology. In addition to the traditional ways in which the Church is approached, I believe that ecclesiology exists for the sake of the disabled and the marginalized.
This conviction has developed over time, of course, and I’m thankful for two excellent discussion partners: Amos Yong’s The Bible, Disability, and the Church and Miroslav Volf’s Exclusion & Embrace.
This topic needs further exploration because of the following reasons:
(1) People still believe and spread misinformation about people with physical and cognitive disabilities just like people still spread misinformation about people from different ethnicities, and that’s just the tip of the ice berg. As the brother of a wonderful sister with Downs and determined to be informed about other disabilities, I can’t believe some of the things I hear from people that are passed on as if they are facts. For example, it is still assumed by some that if someone is born with a disability, they must be under judgment from God or have done something wrong or are in sin (I kid you not!).
(2) People are still amazingly inconsiderate of people with disabilities. Just recently I attended a Vineyard conference and witnessed someone show a great deal of disgust at my young sister! Yes, at a conference with my own tribe and family someone stared at her with a look of disgust. And talking to my father has only revealed that that wasn’t the first time. To be quite honest, if I hadn’t been holding a kid with me, I’d likely be a defrocked Vineyard pastor, so praise God for full hands.
These are just two reasons why we need to have more discussion about this. I could go on and on with stories that I’ve heard from others, including from pastors and family members of the disabled. Some of those stories would make you sick to your stomach if you have any sense of decency and, most importantly, the kingdom of God.
But I don’t want to end on a low note. I can almost depress myself when I think about some of the challenges the Church faces in this area. That’s probably why I am so thankful that Yong has written such a great biblical theology of disabilities (it really is excellent and something I would want every pastor to read). In order to avoid leaving you depressed, here are a few principles that I think need to be implemented into our ecclesiological praxis:
(1) Imago Dei includes all human beings, even the ones with disabilities. The doctrine that reminds us that God created human beings in his own image must shape the way that we view and interact with others.
(2) Those who are weaker are absolutely indispensable. That’s basically a direct quote from St. Paul (1 Cor. 12:22). As an example, I can almost be certain that if my sister wasn’t a big part of my family, my siblings, parents, and I wouldn’t be as close and my own children would not be nearly as sensitive to the needs of people with disabilities or as inclined to be advocates for the marginalized. Try picking on someone around my eight year old and she will stand up to you (she’s even stood up to me!). In the church, we need to move beyond merely welcoming and embracing people with disabilities and seek for ways to include them in the life and ministry of the community. Why can’t my sister with Downs pray for someone and/or be a part of the prayer team?
(3) People with disabilities like to belong before they believe just like people without disabilities like to belong before they believe. Read that again. It seems like we’re much more focused on welcoming “normal” people into our communities before they believe but rarely do we go out of our way to invite people with disabilities to come and experience love from within. Most of the time, we just kind of “put up” with difficult people when they come. Why not go and embrace the person you see in your local mall’s food court and develop a friendship with them?
- I realize this post is a bit more negative than some of you have experienced. What positive stories do you have in regards to a church embracing those with disabilities?
- What would you add to my three principles?
- What other resources do you recommend?
Luke is a pastor-theologian living in northern California, serving as a co-lead pastor with his life, Dawn, at the Red Bluff Vineyard. Father of five amazing kids, when Luke isn’t hanging with his family, reading or writing theology, he moonlights as a fly fishing guide for Confluence Outfitters. He blogs regularly at LukeGeraty.com and regularly contributes to his YouTube channel.
I can hardly believe that what you said even NEEDS to be said. But sadly, it does.
Having been married to someone with a significant, disabling mental illness, I’ve seen first-hand how many evangelicals treat those not considered “normal.” At a former church, I talked about supporting those with mental illness and their families by starting a support group (which I would’ve facilitated)…the lead pastor looked at me as if I wanted to sacrifice live animals in the sanctuary. And no, it wasn’t a Vineyard church.
Love your neighbor, folks. Not just your normal, healthy neighbors that have the same amount of melanin in their skin as you do. Love ’em all.
One thing I’ve seen a lot in “charismatical” groups is the tendency for people to glom onto a person with physical disabilities, pray for their physical healing with great fervor, and then blame the disabled person for “lack of faith” when a physical healing does not manifest.
Yes I have seen that one before. The old sit in a chair and let us lengthen your leg.
Being the parent of a child with special needs The greatest desire of my heart is that my child will be included in our community of faith. I need my church community to reach out to my daughter and welcome her to be part of the life of the church. It is such a blessing when we get to do THAT.
Btw Luke, your church community is so good at including those who are less abeled. You bless my heart.
I can sympathize and empathize for issues that are obvious and others that aren’t. Either way people judge in fear, fame or for fondle. I think this all is best shared in this visual. http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=WLdfpBNjdDc