A Weak Body
by Sarah Kidd
The 10-year-old with autism who plays his guitar in the worship team. The 4-year-old girl with cerebral palsy in the nursery. The woman with a walker who takes the elevator to the sanctuary. Although this is a picture of a Sunday morning at my church, it wasn’t always that way.
More than 20 percent of physically or cognitively disabled persons who consider their faith important to them do not attend faith services. Barriers both architectural and attitudinal are to blame, but the result is that Christ’s body is missing some of its parts!
Several years ago a young visually impaired girl named Megan began attending our services. Because none of our all-volunteer children’s ministry staff had experience working with visually impaired persons, Megan was most often handed something to “keep her hands busy.” Staff did this from lack of training rather than insensitivity, but their actions told the truth: We did not consider Megan’s participation important enough to learn how to facilitate her full involvement.
But God continued to bring children with special needs into our church. While initially overwhelmed with trying to deal with their needs, we eventually found training and offered it to our teachers.
Theologically, we understand that all are created in the image of God. But while the church is becoming a better advocate for those who live with disabilities, our inclusion of them in our fellowships lags behind our public sector advocacy. How do we go from recognizing their imago dei to truly welcoming them as a part of our community? Paul’s teaching in 1 Corinthians 12:21-26 offers several principles to guide us in this.
Making provision for the weaker members of the church benefits the whole body. Providing a ride to evening services for older folks who can’t drive after dark or sign language for the deaf is certainly a blessing to them. However, it is also a recognition that we cannot fully function without all of our body parts present—including those parts that appear to be weaker. For the health of the whole body, each church must recognize the parts it has excluded, seek forgiveness, and learn to say, “I need you!”
We cannot fully function without all of our body parts present—including those parts that appear to be weaker
Our instinctive priority should be to protect those members with special needs. For years, my church talked about the sanctity of life. But we had to act on our principles when a family in our congregation had two young sons with autism and severe behavioral difficulties. Our teachers had to learn how to incorporate the boys’ needs into their classrooms; helpers had to be trained to assist them in class. The clear message was that because we believed in the sanctity of all life, we would be there to support all parents in raising all children.
Some parents complained about the special attention given to the two autistic boys. However, creating a culture of life begins with ensuring that the weakest parts receive our instinctive protection and best care. Our physical body automatically puts stronger members at risk to protect a weaker member, just as our hand would gladly take a projectile heading for our eye. Shouldn’t we find the same attitude in our church bodies?
The weaker parts should receive special respect. In our own physical bodies, our weakest parts not only receive protection but also respect. Paul talks about giving our “unpresentable parts” special treatment. Do we object to mocking aimed at a person with a disability as strongly as we would to vulgar sexual jokes? The church’s weakest members are to receive the greatest honor, respect, and even a special modesty.
Paul’s language refers not just to covering up but also to adornment. We not only cover the most special parts of our bodies, we also dress them in the most attractive fashions. Ben is a boy with autism who plays in my church’s worship band. He is usually just off the beat and needs special direction to stay with the band. While the appearance up front on a Sunday morning may not be as smooth as it might be without him, I believe our commitment to Ben is part of specially adorning a vulnerable part of our body. And far from being distracted, members in our congregation rejoice in Ben’s presence.
This elevation begins with special modesty and protection but ends with the honoring of disabled persons as members of our committees and as leaders on our boards. It finds its fullest expression in the input of and fullest participation from persons with disabilities in our discussions and teaching series.
For my church, this full inclusion of persons with disabilities has required extra planning, training, and cost to ensure our hospitality to them. We’ve been stretched in our understanding of God’s love, and we’ve learned about God’s patience with each of his broken children—including ourselves.
God knows that our natural inclination is to overlook those whose disabilities require us to slow down or remind us of our own weaknesses. After watching the evolution of my church’s response to persons with disabilities, I understand why Paul calls attention to the weakest parts of our churches so that “[the body’s] parts should have equal concern for each other.” To make sure we suffer with those who suffer and rejoice with those who are honored, God has made those parts indispensable to us.
Without biblical attitudes and practices that invite the complete and respectful welcome of people with disabilities into our fellowships, as well as into leadership, our church bodies will remain incomplete, crawling rather than leaping toward the kingdom of God.
Sarah Kidd works in Southeast Asia, learning Hindi, building friendships, and blogging.