Disability, the Body of Christ, and Ministries of Inclusion

The Christian Church (Disciples of Christ), the denomination in which I have my ordination and in whose churches I have and continue to serve as pastor, has as it's "motto":  "We are a movement of wholeness in a Fragmented World."  This motto not only serves to restate our founding vision of  being  advocates for Christian unity, but pushes the imagery further to envisioning our role in God's work of bringing wholeness to a world that is fragmented by ethnic, linguistic, social, cultural, religious, economic and political differences.  But what does wholeness involve?  What does it look like?

I've been pondering this question this weekend as Central Woodward Christian Church, the congregation I serve as pastor, has hosted it's third annual Perry Gresham Bible Lectures.  We've had as our presenter/leader, Dr. Amos Yong, who has authored a powerful book entitled The Bible, Disability, and the Church:  A New Vision of the People of God (Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing, Co., 2011).  We've been wrestling with what it means to be truly welcoming of those with disabilities.  We've wrestled with the biblical text and what it says to us as God's people about disability.  There are texts that suggest that persons with disability are blemished or suffer the result of sin.  There are other texts that offer a different perspective, one that is less harsh and more welcoming.  The question that we face concerns our ability to read the text of Scripture in a way that is liberating so that those persons with disabilities can not only be ones we minister to (Matthew 25), but minister with. 

I have spent much time with the whole idea of spiritual gifts, a concept that is laid out in 1 Corinthians 12.  The message here is that there is one body of Christ that is made up of many members, and that each member has a gift to offer, a gift that is indispensable to the body if it is to be whole.  

In the course of his presentations -- both Friday to clergy and other church leaders and Saturday to an even larger audience -- Amos spoke of Paul's vision of a community that recognizes and honors the indispensable gifts of those whom Paul refers to as the "weaker" members.  We may as a culture perceive persons with disabilities -- of all forms -- to be weaker, they have an  important role to play in the body.  They are conduits for the work of the Spirit.  

Amos writes:

We are not saying that the many gifts of the Spirit are given to the stronger members of the body so that they may minister to the weaker members, and thus that people with disabilities are needed only as recipients of the ministry of such gifts.  To be sure, that's part of what happens.  But I'm making a stronger claim:  that the many gifts of the Spirit are manifest through all members of the body regardless of their ability or disability.  In fact, it is more in keeping with Paul's theology of weakness that the more powerful manifestations are mediated through those whose abilities are less noticeable or who are thought to be lesser candidates for God's work from a worldly or "normal" point of view.  The members of the body neither earn nor merit the Spirit's gifts, nor do they somehow have greater capacities or abilities that attract and dispose such gifts.  In fact, here Paul emphasizes the opposite:  that it is the God the Spirit who chooses the recipients of the charismata, and that there is a variety of recipients precisely because of the diversity of the body's members. In short, the Spirit distributes gifts liberally and graciously so that people with disabilities are just as capable -- if not more capable -- of contributing to the edification of the community of faith, and hence are necessary in that sense.   (Yong, The Bible, Disability, and the Church, p. 94).  

People with disabilities need certain kinds of help, but they are not without ability to contribute, even if at first glance we may not see this gift.  A person can be severely disabled, and their ability to "produce" in a way that our culture prizes, may be limited, but that doesn't mean that such a person doesn't have much to offer.  We just have to look at things differently -- that may involve looking at things through the eyes of God.


John said…

I wanted to reemphasize Amos's point from Matthew 25 that instead of seeing the 'sheep' and 'goats' as the active agents in the salvific parable, we need to appreciate the significance of the fact that it is the 'least of these' who are actually the agents, being agents of salvation, they are the crucified ones standing in for all of us.

I was thinking that what Paul says in 2 Cor 12:7-9 is helpful on the issue of weakness. Here Paul concludes with the statement that God told him that: "My grace is sufficient for you, because power is made perfect in weakness." We are powerfully reminded that we worship a God nailed to a cross.

Just prior to this Paul suggests that the 'thorn' of his weakness was "from a messenger from Satan," thereby confusing the issue of whether the 'thorn' is of God or whether it originates from an evil source.

If we understand that the thorn is sent as both an accusation and as a test of our faith and faithfulness, a challenge to us when we seek to claim and to express raw power, a reminder when we abandon the call to humble servanthood, I think the confusion can be overcome. After all, Satan is also called 'the Accuser'.
John said…
I also wanted to follow up on the beginning part of your post, where you find the denominational motto, "a movement for wholeness" problematic in light of Amos Yong's theology of disability. As was pointed out yesterday, wholeness here refers to a movement for unity among all the denominational expressions of Christianity, a movement for the healing of the rifts between brothers and sisters of the household of God. It is a movement and its aim is to further the process of healing. As a movement it is ongoing and dynamic, and its objective is not the goal of cure, but the pursuit of the ongoing process of healing. The denominational objective can only be achieved through the agency of God, and likely will only be accomplished when the Realm of God is fully realized.

In the meantime, its call for whileness within the body should not be confused with God's desire for healing for all of God's children. Healing, like forgiveness, happens internally, and has to do with curing the soul, and not the body. Temporary curing of physical maladies and disorders is wonderful when it happens, but I think it has little to do with God's erernal work, or God's will for us as children of the eternal household of God.
Robert Cornwall said…
John, I'm not sure the motto is problematic. But I think Amos' reflections can help us broaden our understanding of wholeness. It is important, as Amos develops in the book, that we remember that what we consider disabilities are often markers of personhood. If this is true, then how do we understand our own realities as the body of Christ?
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