Contributing to the Transformative Work of the Body of Christ

Written by Coralie M. Bridle 

Introduction 

My eldest son, Samuel, gently led me into the world of sustained theological enquiry. In doing so he has made extraordinary contributions to my life without leaving the confines of his wheelchair. As catalyst for questions, he does not have the vocabulary to pose, he has beckoned me to engage more honestly with my faith and its outworking in real life. As a living icon of Paul’s call to contentment in all circumstances (Philippians 4:10-13), Samuel has embodied grace, patience, and perseverance, from within a physical and intellectual embodiment that some would judge intolerable. As I have journeyed with him in his reality, his contribution to the Body of Christ is, in my humble estimation, simply immeasurable.  

The broad focus of this current series of articles has been the study of inclusion from a biblical perspective. The series has drawn on 1 Corinthians 12 and Paul’s use of the body as a metaphor for how the church is called to honour and minister in union with all members of Christ’s body. No-one on their own makes up that body – nor is it made up of people who all act, speak, think, or contribute in the same manner. We have already considered the notions of unity and honour. In this article we turn towards an examination of the contribution that people living with disabilities make to the Body of Christ.  

Drawing on theological voices from around the globe and my own research within congregations of The Salvation Army in New Zealand, I seek to challenge pastors and congregants to reconsider the contribution that people living with disabilities can make in faith communities. In doing so, I also draw a distinction between contributing in a utilitarian sense – this is not about handing out “appropriate jobs” to disabled people in your congregation. Rather, it is about contributing to the unfolding reign of God’s Kingdom on earth as we seek to understand, worship, fellowship, and participate together as the Body of Christ.  

Experience and research across various denominations of the church indicates that congregations tend to consider themselves welcoming and inclusive but that the received experience of those living with disabilities is somewhat varied (Carter, 2020). For example, when Disability Theologian, Thomas Reynolds took his son (who lives with disabilities) to church— he was met with a wall of misunderstanding. In essence, to be included in that context meant that his son had to act like everybody else. His son was granted access to the church, but it was on their terms. In contrast to this experience of church, Reynolds proposes the notion of “deep access.” He writes:  

Deep access means recognizing difference and diversity, bodily and neurologically, and welcoming it as part of us—not something other and abnormal to be remade in the image of the same as normal. It is not so much a matter of welcoming you so you can be part of us on our terms, but rather so you can be with and augment us differently, on your terms as well. (Reynolds, 2012, P. 218)  

Reynolds goes on to counsel that a “spirituality of attentiveness” leads to the embodiment of deep access in the church. This is important because if we are not deliberately attentive to the disability conversation, then we will fail to recognise and facilitate the contribution that people with disabilities are willing and able to make. Neurodiversity does not remove us from our “image-bearing” personhood and responsibilities. It takes intentional, up-skilled, and often tiring effort to enable “deep access,” for people who are not neuro-typical. The exact same thing can be said for the so-called neuro-typical – we just seem to be more finetuned to their access needs. 

In the early days of life with my son, Samuel, there were times when I honestly felt like the outside world was more in touch with our reality than the church was. I do not say this lightly, nor as an indictment on those who have journeyed with us. The prayerful intercession and practical support we have received during difficult and more settled seasons, is known to God and received by thankful hearts. However, God has used the world beyond the church doors to soften the bristly edges of our reality. Further to that, an increasing awareness of the diverse discourses and models associated with disability, has enabled me to critically engage with some of the potentially unhelpful postures that present themselves within the church setting. For example, here in New Zealand, it is estimated that 24% of the population live with a disability (www.stats.govt.nz). While specific data regarding disability does not appear on any Salvation Army statistical measures, anecdotal evidence suggests that congregations within our context do not mirror the wider societal reality. I suspect things are not very different in other denominations. Brian Brock (2021, P. 165), for example, notes that the sociological evidence that people with disabilities are not present in church is overwhelming. 

The reasons for this are, of course, far from simple. However, I would suggest that a robust theology of disability can mitigate against unhelpful responses towards those whom we might perhaps mistakenly consider, “…weaker but indispensable parts,” in Paul’s discourse in 1 Corinthians 12:22. Numerous Disability Theologians have now been used of God to help me wrestle with some of my questions around the notion of contribution in relation to people living with disabilities. Jill Harshaw (2016) has enabled me to see the prophetic role embodied by my son. Jill’s daughter Rebecca, lives with profound intellectual disabilities and similarly to my son, is unable to speak with words. Her investigation of the role and credentials of biblical prophets underlines the possibility that people who cannot speak may be involved in prophetic ministry. An encounter with them can be an encounter with Jesus (Harshaw, 2010, P. 318). 

John Swinton (2012) has helped me understand that human difference is the norm and that in Christ – everyone belongs. He has alerted me to the difference between thin and thick understandings of inclusion (Swinton, 2012, P. 181). For example, participants in my research noted that the “door welcome” at church was warm (thin inclusion) but the move from welcome to a sense of belonging (thick inclusion) in the church congregation was missing. Swinton (2012, P. 183) proposes that the movement from inclusion towards belonging is a movement towards love. In such a movement we can discover a reciprocity of contribution if we are engaged and alert.  

Erik Carter (2020, P. 172) has helped me discover the contours of true belonging. His framework outlining ten dimensions of belonging graphically underlines the desire of every human heart. His research demonstrated that people with disabilities experience belonging when these dimensions are incorporated into congregational life: to be present, invited, welcomed, known, accepted, supported, cared for, befriended, needed, and loved. The notion of being known is significant in the context of contribution to the life of the congregation. It is only as we take the time to really know someone who lives with a disability, to move beyond assumptions and labels, that we will recognise the contribution that they are making to the Kingdom of God. 

The call of Tom Reynolds (2012) towards deep access mentioned earlier, has caused me to reconsider notions of power and decision making in regard to people with disability. This is a move beyond mere presence in our communities, to one of participation. One of my own research participants stated it quite emphatically when he noted that people with disabilities do not want to be consulted solely on where to put the disabled toilets or parking spaces. Rather, they have contributions to make on matters of finance, pastoral care, vision casting, worship planning, and numerous other facets of church and community life. 

Deborah Beth Creamer (2009), who describes the human experience as one bounded by limits, has underscored the mutuality embedded in our human experience; we all experience limits – we all need support – just in varied ways. Disability is not something to be viewed as a negative experience of life. Rather it is an intrinsic and unsurprising part of being human (Creamer, 2005, P. 82). In this sense people living with disabilities contribute a salient reality check. 

Brian Brock (2019), who reclaims early church understandings of disability, urges the church to again see people with disabilities as equal servants of God’s redemptive work in the world. Samuel and I are part of that redemptive work. Of course, we know that this work is completed in one sense (John 19:30), but not in another (Matthew 28:16-20). Further to this, Brock (2019, P. 53) proposes that people who carry the label disabled, in the current age, revive our collective wonder over God’s creative intention for every human being.  

One of the most significant findings of my own research is that people living with disabilities do not equate their disability with disaster. Certainly there are associated hardships, or difficulties, but these do not eclipse their desire and commitment to live ordinary lives. All of the research participants expressed the desire to contribute in a meaningful way within their faith and social contexts. This was not seen as a measure of their usefulness, but as an expression of doing the work of the gospel alongside others. Such endeavour was not without personal cost. Family members highlighted the relentless and chronic nature of many disabilities, calling on congregations to recognise how they can contribute to the well-being of their brothers and sisters in Christ. Brian Brock (2021) names some of the contributions that congregations can make to the flourishing of people with disabilities: advocacy, respite, friendship, discernment, hope, and reconciliation. 

Finally, Brian Brock’s work in reference to the Body described in 1 Corinthians 12 is a salient conclusion to this article. He examines “the peculiar togetherness,” that is the Body of Christ – a togetherness that eliminates notions of us and them (Brock, 2021, P. 201). He writes,  

Paul understands every member of the church as an active giver or conduit of divine love, a giving that is not reducible to any person’s supposed physiological or intellectual deficiencies. (Brock, 2021, P. 202) 

Conclusion 

This article is ultimately an expression of hope. As fellow members of the Body of Christ, we are called to cooperate with the Spirit in enabling all people to flourish and participate in the kingdom of God. There is always room for doing things in a more inclusive manner. We do not always get things right. However, acknowledgement of our mistakes is hollow if we do not seek to embrace and engage with those who have a message that needs to be heard for the sake of the Kingdom of God. Simply stated, we are not the ‘Body of Christ’ if difference, diversity, and the neural-atypical do not dwell and minister alongside us. Further, we have not told the story of Jesus, if we do not tell it in a way that connects with everyone longing to know the story.  

The Apostle Paul’s vision for telling this story was so expansive and so attentive to difference that he noted he had, ‘…become all things to all people, that I might by all means,
save some’ (1 Cor 9:19–23). Paul’s approach was creative and flexible. Perhaps also, by attending to timely words of challenge in regard to the contributive capacity of people with disabilities in our communities, we can witness and participate in transformative change for the whole Body of Christ.  

 

 

 ~In loving memory of Kevin Bridle~

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References:

Brock, Brian. Wondrously Wounded: Theology, Disability, and the Body of Christ. Waco, Texas: Baylor University Press, 2019. 

Brock, Brian. Disability: Living into the Diversity of Christ’s Body. Pastoring for Life, edited by Jason Byassee. Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic, 2021. 

Carter, Erik W. “The Absence of Asterisks: The Inclusive Church and Children with Disabilities.” Journal of Catholic Education 23, no. 2 (2020): 168-88. 

Creamer, Deborah. ““God Doesn’t Treat His Children That Way”: Disability and Metaphors for God.” Journal of Disability and Health 9, no. 3 (2005): 73-84. 

Creamer, Deborah Beth. Disability and Christian Theology: Embodied Limits and Constructive Possibilities. American Academy of Religion, edited by Kimberley Rae Connor. Oxford, New York: Oxford University Press, 2009. 

Harshaw, Jill. “Prophetic Voices, Silent Words: The Prophetic Role of Persons with Profound Intellectual Disabilities in Contemporary Christianity.” Practical Theology 3, no. 3 (2010): 311-29. 

Harshaw, Jill. God Beyond Words: Christian Theology and the Spiritual Experiences of People with Profound Intellectual Disabilities London: Jessica Kingsley, 2016. 

Reynolds, Thomas E. “Invoking Deep Access: Disability Beyond Inclusion in the Church.” Dialog: A Journal of Theology 51, no. 3 (2012): 212-23. 

Swinton, John. “From Inclusion to Belonging: A Practical Theology of Community, Disability and Humanness.” Journal of Religion, Disability & Health 16, no. 2 (2012): 172-90. http://dx.doi.org/10.1080/15228967.2012.676243. 

 

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