Seeing the disabled in God’s image

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In the past few decades, a number of churches across the different denominations have issued official statements calling their congregations to be places of inclusion and belonging, especially for people with disabilities. For example, the Evangelical Lutheran Church of America, in a statement published in 2011, reminds its member churches that:

Congregations gathered around word and sacrament bear crucial responsibilities in the life of this church as centres for evangelical mission with doors open to all, including those living with physical, sensory, intellectual, mental and developmental disabilities.1

These statements echo the commands found in Scripture to welcome the stranger (Matthew 25), include the marginalised and forgotten (Luke 14) and affirm the image of God in every person (Genesis 1).

However, as a number of Christian authors have noted, this call has not been received with enthusiasm in many churches. As Erik Carter of Vanderbilt University observes: “Although a growing number of churches are widening their welcome, far too many individuals with disabilities still experience wounding or rejection at the doorsteps of their parish.”2

The Pontifical Council for Justice and Peace has described the Church elegantly as a “minister of salvation” and a “sacrament of God’s love”.3 As such, the Church is called to welcome and embrace every human being—not only because they bear the image of their Creator (Genesis 1:26-28), but also because Christ has died for them (John 3:16).

What does it mean for the Church to be inclusive?

According to the Christian faith, to be inclusive simply means to welcome, accept and love everyone whom God welcomes, accepts and loves.  This attitude is underscored in every Scripture passage that enjoins Christians to love one another (e.g. John 13:34), that emphasises their oneness in Christ (e.g. Galatians 3:28), that exhorts Christians to stand in solidarity with those who rejoice and those who weep (e.g. Romans 12:15- 18), and that warns against discrimination and segregation (e.g. James 2:1-4). Only when the Church understands what true inclusion entails and puts it to practice will its members with disabilities feel truly welcomed and “at home”. Only then will these members have a sense that they truly belong.

Scholars tell us that true belonging is a complex phenomenon which can only be experienced when people with disabilities are present, invited, welcomed, known, accepted, supported, cared for, befriended, needed and loved.4

The experience of belonging is so profoundly rooted in human relationality and community that it can never be fostered by programmes and activities. For Christians with disabilities and special needs to really experience a sense of belonging in a particular congregation, there must be a radical change of mindset in its members and a deliberate effort to create a distinct ecclesial culture.

Christians with disabilities will only feel that they truly belong in their local congregations when they sense that its members genuinely stand in solidarity with them.

To do this, stubborn notions of normality, health and disability—which drive too sharp a wedge between the so-called “normal” majority and “disabled” minority—must be challenged on the basis of the gospel and the teachings of Scripture.

For the truth remains that according to the Christian doctrine of the primordial Fall and its dire consequences, we are all dis-eased, dis-abled, and thus in need of healing (salvation).

For the truth remains that according to the Christian doctrine of the primordial Fall and its dire consequences, we are all dis-eased, dis-abled, and thus in need of healing (salvation).

As theologian Jürgen Moltmann has put it so eloquently and arrestingly:

[there] is no differentiation between the healthy and those with disabilities. For every human life has its limitations, vulnerabilities, and weaknesses. We are born needy, and we die helpless. So in truth there is no such thing as life without disabilities.5

We also need to rediscover what the Bible teaches about the Body of Christ, especially the emphasis on the interdependency of all its members, and the indispensability of its weaker members (1 Corinthians 12).

Very often, our approach to our brothers and sisters with disabilities is one-sided. We think only in terms of how we can minister to them and care for them. While this is of course important, we need to also acknowledge that they in turn can enrich the community by their presence and gifts. Erik Carter explains:

Individuals with disabilities and their families also are central to the flourishing of faith communities. Like anyone else, they bring gifts, talents, and passions that are needed by others in their parish. Their testimonies and personal stories can positively contribute to the faith formation of fellow believers. Their life experiences and diverse perspectives can help broaden views of what it means to live faithfully in the world. Their friendships can bring life to people whom they encounter. And the avenues through which they serve can meet the needs of others in their midst. Indeed, churches are incomplete without the presence and participation of individuals with disabilities and their families.6

By welcoming, accepting and loving our brothers and sisters with disabilities as God does, we ourselves will grow in our appreciation of what it means to belong to Christ’s Body.

1 Evangelical Lutheran Church in America, ‘A Message on People Living with Disabilities’, Published by Theological Discernment, Office of the Presiding Bishop, Evangelical Luther Church in America, 2011.

2 Erik Carter, ‘The Absence of Asterisks: The Inclusive Church and Children with Disabilities’, Journal of Catholic Education, Volume 23 (2), 169.

3 Pontifical Council for Justice and Peace, ‘The Human Person and Human Rights’, In Compendium of the Social Doctrine of the Church (Washington: United States Conference of Catholic Bishops Publishing, 2004), 27.

4 See, for example, E.W. Carter, T.L. Boehm, N.H. Annandale & C.E. Taylor, ‘Supporting congregational inclusion for children and youth with disabilities and their families’, Exceptional Children 82(3), 372-389.

5 Jürgen Moltmann, ‘Liberate Yourselves by Accepting One Another’, in Nancy L. Eiesland & Don E. Saliers (ed), Human Disability and the Service of God: Reassessing Religious Practice (Nashville: Abingdon Press, 1998), 110.

6 Carter, ‘The Absence of Asterisks’, 169.

Dr Roland Chia is Chew Hock Hin Professor of Christian Doctrine at Trinity Theological College and Theological and Research Advisor at the Ethos Institute for Public Christianity.