(This was originally written for the Disability Concerns Newsletter.)
Rev. Mark Stephenson, Director of Disability Concerns for the CRCNA, [Christian Reformed Church in North America] led an excellent workshop at the Spring 2009 Disabilities Conference on “The Biblical Basis for Inclusive Ministry”. Some of the main points that participants learnt from the workshop:
- A disability is not merely an impairment but an impairment compared to your peers. My inability to fly, for instance, is not a disability as none of my peers can either. But if I can’t walk, but my peers can, then I have a disability. This connects with the question of what is “normal,” which in a fallen world, tends to be answered with “people like us”.
- The connection between disability and sin is an indirect connection, as disability arises from our participation in a world marked by sin and the misery that comes with it. Hence, a person having a disability does not suggest that person has a lack of faith or a sin in their lives that God punishes.
- Jesus has an inclusive ministry, taking upon himself all that is human, including even disability. The scars on Jesus’ hands and feet and side remain even in his resurrected body. Christ takes on the scars from his human life. Stephenson also mused if the incarnation of the second person of the Trinity made Jesus disabled to some extent since he, in his human flesh on earth, could no longer do what his peers – God the Father and God the Holy Spirit – can do!
- The church, as the body of Christ, is a community that values everyone, even those who seem to be weaker, e.g. persons with disabilities, as indispensable, i.e. as necessary and close to the community (1 Corinthians 12).
- Hence, a healthy church is one where everybody belongs and everybody serves (1 Peter 4:8-10).
- Barriers to inclusion in the church include architectural issues (e.g. wheelchair access), communication issues (e.g. hearing aids, large print bulletins) and attitude issues (e.g. patronizing, stigma, etc.).
- Finally, inclusion needs to happen in all areas of church life: pastoral care, discovering and using spiritual gifts, church education programs, outreach programs, and worship services.
There was a lively discussion afterwards, namely about specific inclusion issues or strategies. A point was made that inclusion can never mean allowing sinful actions in the community. For instance, if someone with a mental impairment is prone to violence, then the church has to take precautionary measures and probably limit that person’s church involvement.
As a theologian and pastor, I am intrigued and very interested in the theological discussions. Just to focus on the definition of disability, for instance: if disability is an impairment compared to my peers, then are we all impaired in some way but not all of us have a disability? In other words, are only those impairments that are not seen as “normal” or not shared by the majority labeled as disabilities? Is this a tyranny of the majority then? Or maybe, it’s not a tyranny but simply the way things are? Does sin figure into this labeling or comparing of impairments? But does saying that we are all impaired, trivialize or diminish the needs and grief of people with disabilities? These questions, to me, are not simply academic but leads to some serious practical issues of inclusion. For instance, if we loosen the grip of the majority on “normality,” would that reduce (not remove) some of the grief, pain and challenges that people with disabilities face in our society?
These are extra food for thought that perhaps another forum or workshop or conference could deal with.