by Katrona Templeton
The main barriers that people with disabilities have in interacting with the church seem to stem from views which some Christians have of disabilities:
- Disability as a punishment for sin
- Society’s image of Disability
Disability as a punishment for sin
The Religious Model of Disability is the oldest model of disability, found in some religious traditions. Disability is seen as God’s punishment for a known or unknown sin committed by someone or their family. It insinuates that disabilities are things to be ashamed of. This stigmatizes people, making people with disabilities seem unworthy to be at church, or suffering due to their disability and needing to be prayed for, or pitied by “good Christians”.
How does this model originate? In the Old Testament, apart from failing eyesight in old age, the Bible doesn’t mention natural causes of disability. Instead, it is attributed to God as a punishment. Some examples are:
Leviticus 26:14-16 If Israelites don’t obey, they will suffer a “sudden terror, wasting diseases and fever that will destroy your sight and sap your strength”.
2 Chronicles 26:16-23 King Uzziah suffered leprosy for being unfaithful to God.
This attitude to disabilities occurs in the New Testament, as shown in John 9 1- 3:
“While Jesus was walking, he saw a blind man. This man had been blind since the time he was born. Jesus’ followers asked him, ‘Teacher, this man was born blind. But whose sin made him be born blind? His own sin, or his parents’ sin?’ Jesus replied, ‘It is not this man’s sin or his parents’ sin that made him be blind. This man was born blind so that God could use him to show what great things God can do’”.
Jesus’ followers automatically assume that the man is blind due to punishment by God. Jesus reaffirms it is God’s will that he is blind and it has nothing to do with previous sins.
People sometimes see the healing stories of Jesus as proof that disability comes from sin. Remember the man who was lowered through the roof in Mark 2: 1-12.
Jesus said, “Your sins are forgiven, get up and walk”. Some interpret that as Jesus linking inability to walk with sins. Looking closer at the text, you see Jesus first forgave the sins, but the Pharisees said He did not have authority to forgive sins. Jesus replied, “Maybe you think it was easy for me to say to the crippled man, ‘Your sins are forgiven.’ There is no proof that it happened. But what if I say to the man, ‘Stand up. Take your bed and walk’? Then you will see if I have this power or not.” Jesus forgave the man for his sins before He asked him to get up and walk.
This attitude of disability being due to sin is still present in our churches. People with epilepsy have been asked what they have done to allow Satan or a demon into their lives and bodies. People with vision loss or blindness are told that they must not believe in God or have prayed hard enough or their vision would have been restored.
Society’s image of Disability
Here Christians see people with disabilities as being lesser than themselves, in need of prayer to make them ‘better’ or to ‘heal them’. It can be seen as the ‘Christian’ thing to do. Unfortunately, those within our churches who feel this way don’t recognise the damage they are doing to people with disabilities.
In Genesis 1:27 we are told that God made us in His image and in Isaiah 64:8 that we are the clay and God has made us. This is true for people with disabilities as well. God made us each unique and gave us our own gifts and abilities.
In her BBC documentary, Silenced:
the Story of Disabled Britain,
Cerrie Burnell looks at issues faced by people with disabilities in society. The main one that struck me was how people look at non-disabled people as being the preferred default for a human.
She tells how she was forced to wear a prosthetic arm. Born without an arm, she was happy and adapted to being without it. Yet through her school years and into her working life, she found that people were unhappy when she presented herself as she was and was forced to wear a prosthetic for their comfort. She found the prosthetic uncomfortable, awkward and it made her day to day life much more difficult.
This society view is also present in churches, especially when a person’s disability is part of who they are. This seems more common if they are born with the disability, i.e. a missing limb, Deafness (with a capital D), autism or a learning difficulty.
Here a disabled person sees their disability as part of who they are, as what makes them unique, as part of how God made them. By asking God to change part of them you are actually saying, “You are not good enough, there is something wrong with you. God needs to make you better before you are welcomed here”.
We as a church need to understand the differences between healing and curing. A large part of Jesus’s mission was healing people, both physically and restoring their place in society. In Mark 10:46-52 Jesus heals a blind man, but reading the verses you find that He did not go about spotting blind people at random and curing them, but actually asked in verse 51, “What do you want me to do for you?” The blind man answered, “Teacher, I want to see again.” In this verse you notice two things:
- Jesus knows the difference between healing and curing and asks what the man wants.
- The man had lost his vision and wanted to see again.
It can be a difficult concept for people who are born with sight, hearing, neurotypical or with all limbs to understand that those who are born without these things might not actually want them and see themselves as complete the way God has made them.
How Does God Use People with Disabilities?
God shapes people and knows their futures. There are various characters in the Bible who are identified as having a disability that God then uses to do his work.
Exodus 4:10-13 Moses has a speech impediment, yet God gives him the power and confidence to speak for the Jewish people.
2 Kings 7 Four men with leprosy were chosen to tell the city that the Arameans had left the camp.
Judges 3:12-30 Ehud because his right hand was not working was left-handed, enabling him to get close to the King of Moab and kill him.
These were times when God made people and then used what society saw as a disability for His work. Yet in our churches today how many have leaders who have disabilities?
In summary, inclusion is a great starting point, but people with disabilities in our churches need to be made part of our churches; they need to feel as if they belong. One way of doing this is to encourage people from the disabled community to become leaders in our churches. We can do this by looking at the barriers stopping people with disabilities becoming leaders and thinking of new ways of spreading the word of God.
As Joni Eareckson Tada says:
“Disabled ministry is not disabled ministry
unless the disabled are ministering.”
The Disabled God: Toward a Liberatory Theology of Disability by Nancy L. Eiesland
Disability in Mission: The Church’s Hidden Mission by David C Deuel & Nathan John
BBC documentary – Silenced: the Story of Disabled Britain, by Cerrie Burnell