A mainline church here in Scotland recently asked me to speak about disability with their ministry selection committee. As the conversation progressed, it became obvious that the question the panellists wanted answered was this: “Given the limited number of full-time pastors we can afford to hire, is it wise to consider applicants with disabilities?” The question is as relevant in Scotland as in the United Sates, where government statistics tell us that about 19 percent of the population of the United States is classed as disabled. But is this the right questions for Christians to be asking about disability?
The truth is that the panellists shared assumptions about disability widely shared by contemporary western Christians. Bethany Fox recently surveyed pastors in the Los Angeles area from a wide range of Christian traditions to ascertain their views about disability. The most often term used by pastors when describing their relationship to people with special needs is “responsive”. In the words of one of those pastors, “When people come to us, then we try to answer those needs and help them in whatever way we can.”[i] The stories that pastors told to illustrate how they had enacted this responsivity typically highlighted the needs for help or accommodation presented by people with disabilities. In sum, Fox concluded, most pastors experience the appearance of someone in church with disabilities as a challenge. They represent “burdens and practical tasks for the church’s leadership that benefit only the people with disabilities themselves.”[ii]
Disability is misconceived when Christians assume that the central question is how far a non-disabled majority can or should go in accommodating the needs of those with disabilities. Framing the matter this way grows from the underlying assumption that a desirable church is one that is growing and has, along the way, somehow successfully mitigated the challenges presented by disability.
When we notice that we are thinking of disability primarily as a problem to be solved, we begin to glimpse the possibility that the question of disability brings us before one of the, if not the central spiritual challenge facing contemporary Christians. In other words, disability is not, and cannot be a marginal matter for Christians, because it is an aspect of the human life-course that forces Christians to examine the very roots of their understanding of the Christian gospel.
People with autism bring into the foreground why disability is bound to surface conflicts about the meaning of the Christian gospel, as the biblical scholar Grant Macaskill has recently observed.
Persons with autism are often treated with a form of contempt within the church, just as they are in wider society. Those whose autism is less severe—who might have been diagnosed with Asperger syndrome until its removal from the diagnostic categories—are often dismissed as eccentric or are simply undervalued because they are less charismatic or “likeable” than others. They may be marginalized, may be the object of jokes, or may be seen as oddities. They do not conform to expectations; they do not fit in. Those with profound autism, meanwhile, will often exhibit disruptive behaviors that may well lead to exclusion, both for them and for their families. Churches and church leaders will often pray that their numbers will grow by God providing young families, and that their needs will be met by God providing wage earners and promising future leaders; they pray, in other words, for normal solutions to the challenges they face and expect divine blessings to have such normality. The presence of a socially challenged adult with a recent diagnosis of Asperger syndrome or of a disruptive child with profound autism will not necessarily be seen as an answer to such prayers.[iii]
When people with disabilities appear in church, they expose the reality that the gospel followed in many churches is shaped by a desire for success that cannot bring people together. Christians should care for, or respond to the needs of, people who have been visited with tragic afflictions that are best avoided. Disability is a state that is marginal to human life.
My challenge to the selection panel was to consider that this construal of disability might be a trap. For Christians, the existence of disabilities is much more a matter of negotiating the limits and burdens imposed by people’s disabilities. At the very least, we should be looking for pastors who understand that people with all sorts of disabilities should be expected—like any other Christian—to serve the Spirit’s work of delivering life-giving gifts to the collective body of Christ. To take seriously the apostle Paul’s claim that Christians are “members of one another” is to affirm that the church is not made up of two groups, people who contribute and people who need support. We all bring our need into church, as we hope that each of us brings positive and concrete gifts from the Holy Spirit that upbuild by serving this particular body of believers.
[i] Bethany McKinney Fox, Disability and The Way of Jesus: Holistic Healing in the Gospels and the Church, Foreword by John Swinton (Downer’s Grove: IVP Academic, 2019), 131.
[ii] Fox, Disability and The Way of Jesus, 134.
[iii] Grant Macaskill, Autism and the Church: Bible, Theology, and Community (Waco: Baylor University Press, 2019), 73.