The Gospel, Church and Disability

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As stories in this edition of Billions point out, OMF Taiwan’s missional priorities are focused among those on the margins of society.

This follows the example of Jesus who, as Rene Padilla points out, ‘identified himself with the “non-persons” of Galilee and, starting with them, he laid the foundations for a new humanity.’ 1 In Taiwan, as in so many other places, one group often seen as ‘non-persons’ are those with disabilities.

So as the good news of Jesus is shared and lived among those with disabilities, how is it good news for them? 

1 Dignity: as created in the image of God

One of the most powerful and prophetic messages the Church has to proclaim is that people with disabilities are in the image of God. With societies in different parts of the world adopting policies that diminish the rights of the disabled, the Church must be at the forefront of embodying a counter-cultural kingdom narrative on disability. For instance, when it comes to church-planting ministry, we’ll want to embrace a vision of the local church that demonstrates how people with intellectual disability are in the image of God and are included
among his people just as they are.

2 New life: in Christ and in the Church

In Luke 14 the parable of the great banquet reveals God’s inclusive kingdom, with verses 15–24 pointing specifically to the inclusion of those with disabilities.

What does this look like for the local church?

In his reflections on the Body of Christ in 1 Corinthians 12, Paul challenges us to avoid a ‘them and us’ attitude which leads to division and exclusion. Instead he exhorts us to embrace the counter-cultural way of the kingdom by recognising that ‘those who seem to be weak, are indispensable’ (verses 12–27) and require special honour, dignity, and respect.

‘Jurgen Moltmann argues that Christian believers who bring with them disabilities, privations, or experiences of suffering may be the most precious and “charismatic” part of the body, because every church stands in genuine need of such to live out and to teach the character of the gospel.’ 2

3 Participation: by the Spirit in the Church’s witness

In our churches and mission agencies, there is a valid place for ministries to and for people with disabilities. However, our witness will be deficient if we fail to develop ministries with and from people with disabilities. The slogan of the American disability rights movement is highly pertinent to the church and mission scene: ‘nothing about us without us’.

In working out God’s transforming mission, his Spirit gifts all his people in different ways, including people with disabilities in our church communities.

For the Church to have a credible witness in society, it is not more separate programs for people with disabilities that are needed. Rather, society needs to see that people with disabilities are playing a full and integrated part in the life and witness of the Church community.

4  Advocacy: the church ‘speaking out for those who cannot speak’

The gospel is good news for people with disabilities because the people of God, who are called to freedom (Gal 5:1, 13–14), are called to exercise that freedom for others—loving their neighbour as themselves, which includes advocating for those in need and speaking out for those who cannot speak.

As recent research highlights, many people with disabilities in Southeast Asia ‘are currently denied their human rights… “common concerns include impunity for serious rights violations […and] the ill treatment and poor legal protection of… persons with disabilities”.’3

The Church has an important part to play in demonstrating solidarity with the disabled; advocating in ways that ‘involves fighting alongside them, those who care for them and their families, for inclusion and equality, both in society and in the Church.’ 4

5 Agency: as channels of transformation and healing

Authentic fellowship with sisters and brothers in Christ becomes transformative when we recognise that we ourselves have something to receive and learn from those who seem weak but who are actually agents of the Spirit’s transformation in our lives.

When we open up our lives, our churches and our mission agencies to the vulnerable, to those who seem weak — to the disabled — our paradigms of self-sufficiency and success are challenged, and we become transformed in having a renewed compassion for people both within and outside of the church. As the late Jean Vanier put it:

‘If you enter into relationship with a lonely or suffering person you will discover something else: that it is you who are being healed. The broken person will reveal to you your own hurt and the hardness of your heart, but also how much you are loved. Thus the one you came to heal becomes your healer.’ 5

1 C. René Padilla, “Jesus’ Galilean Option and the Mission of the Church”, 1, (accessed 26 September 2019).

2 Anthony Thiseton, 1 Corinthians: A Shorter Exegetical and Pastoral Commentary
(Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2011), 210.

3 Paul Chaney, “Comparative Analysis of Civil Society and State Discourse on Disabled People’s Rights and Welfare in Southeast Asia 2010-2016,” Asian Studies Review 41, no. 3 (2017): 405.

4 The Lausanne Movement, The Cape Town Commitment, 44.5

5 Jean Vanier, The Broken Body: Journey to Wholeness (London: Darton, Longman & Todd, 1988), 74.