The first step toward inclusion in churches is developing a theology of disability. We need to understand why we do inclusion before we make a plan for how we’ll do it. It’s also important for parents of kids with disabilities to read and meditate on what Scripture says about disabilities. Let’s start with examining the worldviews on disability, look at passages that influence a theology of disability, and look at what the church’s response should be (Hubach’s model of belonging).
- Same Lake, Different Boat: Coming Alongside People Touched by Disability, by Stephanie O. Hubach
- Disability & The Gospel: How God Uses Our Brokenness to Display His Grace by Michael S. Beates
- Jesus and Disability: A Guide to Creating an Inclusive Church by Chris H. Hulshof
- Disability and the Church: A Vision for Diversity and Inclusion by Lamar Hardwick
Three World Views:
Christians must hold a different view of disabilities than the world believes and teaches—one guided by Scripture and lived out through the Church. In Same Lake, Different Boat, Stephanie O. Hubach describes three world views of disability:
The first two are the modernist perspective and the postmodern perspective:
Proponents of the modernist perspective communicate that disability is an abnormal part of life in an otherwise normal world. Therefore, disability is an aberration that needs to be fixed, eliminated, or perfected. In reaction, broadly understood, advocates of the postmodern view convey that disability is a normal part of life in a normal world. Disability, in this view, is seen as a difference no different than “any other human characteristic,”‘ such as hair or eye color. Therefore, disability is a neutral human characteristic that needs to be embraced.
Functional & Social Aspects of Disability
The functional aspect is the impairment. The social aspect is the treatment. The modernist view focuses on the functional dimension—the impairment. The postmodern view focuses on the social dimension—”socially constructed experience of active or passive oppression.” Only the biblical perspective wholeheartedly embraces both the functional and social realities.
The third view is the biblical perspective. In contrast, the biblical perspective holds in tension the truths inherent in the modernist and postmodern perspectives, while simultaneously rejecting their misleading elements. The biblical worldview embraces disability as a normal part of life—it should not surprise or shock us. But disability is to be expected only because we live in an abnormal world—a world that is wracked by the effects of the fall on all humanity and, to some degree, on creation itself.
Disability, viewed through the lens of Scripture, is simply a more noticeable form of the brokenness and difficulty that is common to the entire human experience. The biblical perspective allows us to navigate between the cultural cliffs of modernism and postmodernism. Most importantly, the biblical view unabashedly embraces human dignity and diversity while honestly acknowledging difficulty where it exists.
Passages that form our theology of disability:
Disability is addressed in Scripture from Genesis to Revelation. I’ve chosen five passages that have been the most influential in my view of disability. Quick notes are listed below, and I’ll continue to develop this section as time allows.
- Exodus 4:10-12
- 2 Samuel 9
- Luke 14:12-14
- John 9
- 1 Cor. 12:12-31
Exodus 4:10-12: How does this passage form our theology of disability? It shows two important foundational pieces: God calls and equips all his children according to his purpose for them. (The fact that some people need help meeting his calling does not disqualify them from being called). And disabilities are a result of his sovereign control over our lives. (They are not a result of chance or accidents that happen without purpose.)
2 Samuel 9: The application for today’s audience is to picture themselves as both Mephibosheth and David. David showed Christ-like love and acceptance of Mephibosheth just as Christ shows us love and acceptance. In that way, we are like Mephibosheth. But we can also imitate David’s actions toward Mephibosheth.
Michael Beates writes, “The model displayed by David is that God’s people are called to identify with those broken people the world rejects, with those whom the world considered liabilities, risks, and embarrassments.”
Our personal reactions to people with disabilities change when we identify with them and move from pity to friendship. Then we notice when they are missing from our churches and take steps toward inclusion.
Luke 14:12-14: Our application includes looking around our churches to see who may be missing, just like the master saw who was missing from his banquet. Dr. Lamar Hardwick, a pastor who is autistic, writes, “Apprehension about creating disability-inclusive churches is to be expected, but the cost should not be the cause for ignoring the calling to include the disabled. Jesus has personally assured us that when we set the table and send the invitation to the disabled first, God will be responsible for the results and the reimbursement.”
Because the servant told the master, “Sir, what you have commanded has been done, and still there is room,” we can trust that when we invite people with disabilities into our churches and into fellowship with us, it does not take away from those who are already present.
John 9: There are many stories of healing that could be examined, but the man born blind in John 9 speaks the clearest about the cause of disabilities for parents and others who struggle to understand what the cause or purpose of disabilities could be. It also brings comfort to parents who struggle with guilt or shame (which are still prominent in our western culture to a degree but can be overwhelmingly true in other cultures that have traditionally been shame-based).
1 Cor. 12:12-31: “A well-formed anthropology that affirms the full humanity of all persons requires churches to begin to recognize the giftedness and mission of those with disabilities, even those with profound intellectual disability. An anthropology that recognizes the image of God in all persons, not marred or lessened because of intellectual disability, must likewise affirm that all can be gifted by God’s Spirit for ministry in the church. If all are gifted, then in relationships within the congregation, all have something to offer to everyone else.” Jason Whitt, “In the Image of God: Receiving Children with Special Needs,” Review & Expositor, 113, no. 2 (May 2016): 215.
- Lev. 19:14, “You shall not curse the deaf or put a stumbling block before the blind, but you shall fear your God: I am the Lord.”
- Psalm 139:14, “For you formed my inward parts, you knitted me together in my mother’s womb. I praise you for I am fearfully and wonderfully made.”
- Matthew 21:14, “And the blind and the lame came to him in the temple…”
- 1 Cor. 14:10&11, 33, “There are doubtless many different languages in the world, and none is without meaning, but if I do not know the meaning of the language, I will be a foreigner to the speaker and the speaker a foreigner to me … For God is not a God of confusion but of peace.”
Model of Belonging:
From Same Lake, Different Boat: Coming Alongside People Touched by Disability, by Stephanie O. Hubach
Each party is required to enter the life of the other in a way that brings blessing to everyone.
A’s request for accommodations can be made in a way that communicates desired or need (both of which embrace vulnerability) or in a way that is rights-oriented or demanding (both of which avoid vulnerability).
In a parallel fashion, B can respond in a way that welcomes, listens, and adapts (embracing vulnerability) or in way that ignores, rejects, and self-protects (avoiding vulnerability).
While both parties are responsible for their actions, the onus is on the church—as the body of Christ—to initiate and pursue welcoming and belonging even if the needs of person A are great & their approach is less than desirable.
Our faithfulness to move toward those with profound disabilities—by increasing our own vulnerability—respects and validates the authority of the vulnerable, and in turn eventually increases their capacity for meaningful action. This adds to their flourishing as well as to our own.
Posts on related topics:
What if my child isn’t able to learn about God and experience salvation?
- Is Disability Normal? by Stephanie Hubach for The Gospel Coalition