by Louise Gosbell
Sophia is the Greek word for Wisdom, and Propel Sophia seeks out the voices of truly wise women and asks them to share worked examples of how they express faith in daily life. Pull up a chair at Sophia’s table, won’t you? There’s plenty of space. Learn more here.
When my brother-in-law John was in his teens, a new minister started at the church that my in-laws had been attending for years. John, who has Down Syndrome, had welcomed people at the front door of the church, distributing church bulletins, and carrying candles in for liturgy. He loved being a part of serving the church.
Sadly, his contributions came to an end with the arrival of a new minister, who argued that someone with an intellectual disability did not have the capacity to understand the gospel or respond to it, and so should not be allowed to represent the church in any way, even if that simply welcoming people into church.
I was shocked. How could a minister so openly exclude a person with a disability from participating at church? Even though I had a degree in theology, I’d never thought about disability from a Christian perspective. In fact, I was certain that disability was something that had never been addressed during my theological training or during any church training I’d attended.
Ever since, I’ve thought a lot about how Christians can respond to disability in ourselves and others, especially when it’s not discussed in churches or theological colleges. And I began to ask questions for myself: What is a Christian response to disability? How can we grapple with some passages in Scripture that mention disability, in particular, the healing miracles of Jesus? What barriers might prevent people with disabilities attending churches? These questions have now occupied my writing and ministry for almost twenty years.
In writing to the church in Corinth, Paul describes God’s people as the Body of Christ (1 Cor 12:1-31). Just like there are different parts of the human body with different functions and roles, so it is in the Body of Christ. This Body, with all its diverse parts, is to live together in unity recognising the different gifts of all its various members as they come together to do God’s work in the world.
This means not over- or under-estimating our own gifts or the gifts of others. Rather, accepting that everyone has different gifts and that God gives out each one of those gifts to be used to His glory. This also means recognising it is “God (who) has placed the parts of the body, every one of them, just as he wanted them to be” (12:18).
Earlier in the passage, Paul says that the gifts of each believer are given as a “manifestation of the Spirit” (12:7). “Manifestation” can also be translated “revelation,” so spiritual gifts are given to help reveal God’s Spirit. Each member of the Body of Christ is a vessel through which God works to see His purposes brought about.
This means, the characteristics which we might consider limit a person’s ability to function in the world, for example, a person’s intellectual disability is actually irrelevant in the Body of Christ. This is because all of our bodies have limitations and apparent weaknesses. And while some bodies might appear to us as more limited than others, it doesn’t impact God’s ability to work through each one to His glory!
As Paul says, those members of the Body which “seem to be weaker are indispensable” (12:22). In this respect, all members of the Body of Christ are broken vessels in various ways but our limitations – whether they are due to disability, insecurity, doubt, fear of failure, sickness, or anything else – are not a hindrance to God’s gifts working through us to reveal His love. If anything, Paul tells us the complete opposite: “God’s power is made perfect in human weakness” (2 Cor. 12:9).
God is at work through human ability and disability to bring about His purposes in the world, that is, through the times we think too much of our own gifts and abilities and when we doubt we have any; through the gifts which are publicly recognised and praised, and the quiet gifts of patience, compassion, service, and peace-making which often go unacknowledged and unrecognised. Our limitations and disabilities are part of how God works and not a barrier to it.
When this minister met John, he saw someone who speaks slowly and is not always easy to understand. He saw that it can take John a minute to process information. What he didn’t take the time to see was John’s patience and perseverance, his kindness and sensitivity. The minister only saw John’s limitations as a hindrance to God’s work rather than an expression of God’s gifts to the community.
The challenge for us as Christians is to look beyond the exterior, to look beyond the characteristics and traits that our society so reveres and instead embrace the beautiful diversity of the Body of Christ. Incredibly, God works through all of us, through our limitations and imperfections to bring His message of grace to a broken and needy world.
Dr Louise Gosbell is a lecturer at Mary Andrews College in Sydney, Australia. Her published PhD research on the language of disability reflects her passion to help church communities become more inclusive of people with disability. She speaks regularly at training events and conferences both locally and overseas on various issues of disability and inclusion. Louise has been on the board of the Jesus Club – a ministry for adults with intellectual disability – for over 6 years. Louise is married to Mark – a principal at a special needs school – and they have three teenage daughters. Find her on Twitter.