For the last few years I have been working on issues related to the Bible, the Church, and people with disabilities. In the last decade or so, thanks to the efforts of scholars like Jeremy Schipper, Candida Moss, Amos Young, Sarah Melcher, and several others, scholarship in this area has taken incredible steps forward.
One of my professors from grad school, Victor Furnish, often used to say, “We must never underestimate the historical distance between ourselves and the people who wrote the Bible.” In my work as a biblical scholar, I’ve seen the wisdom in this statement again and again. This is particularly the case in the work I’ve done regarding the Bible and disabilities. It is only in the modern period that the concept of “disability” has come into being. In the biblical eras, people worked with concepts of inability, purity and pollution, strength and weakness, honor and shame, and a number of other issues that we would not consider appropriate for thinking about people with disabilities today. Therefore, some ways of reading the Bible have the potential to do harm to, rather than help, the disabled population.
This is in no way to suggest that we should reject the Bible as a resource for thinking about issues related to disability. In fact, the Bible does provide incredible resources for thinking through issues of disability, but in appropriating the Bible we have to do so with great thoughtfulness and care. We have to use the best theological and exegetical resources available to us so that the Bible is the life-giving resource that God intends for it to be.
Here are a few suggestions I have for thinking through biblical passages and theological concepts that may come to bear on our understanding of people with disabilities. This is not a comprehensive list, but one that may help to generate conversation about relevant issues.
- We must reject notions of divine causality related to sinfulness and disability. In other words, God does not cause disability because of sin. While much of the Deuteronomistic history affirms divine causality in this way, and certain Christian groups today affirm it as well, it is a poisonous concept that can keep people, though no fault of their own, trapped in feelings of guilt or diminished self-worth. Of course, sin can cause disability. If a mother uses drugs during pregnancy, the child may end up disabled. This is not, however, the effect of God’s intervention, but the consequence of the physical effects of drugs upon the developing fetus. Most disabilities, moreover, are not the consequence of such behavior.
- We must reject the idea that, when people are not healed of disabilities, it is because of a lack of faith. We cannot know the mind of God, but we do know that there are very faithful people who remain disabled despite prayers for healing. I am not suggesting that God does not heal people, but it is clear that God does not always heal people, and when God does not, we should not place blame on the person with a disability. For example, in 2 Corinthians 12, we read that Paul asks three times to be healed of a “thorn in the flesh,” possibly a visual impairment, a speech impediment, or epilepsy. Yet God does not answer this prayer in the way that Paul wished. Paul was as faithful as any Christian could be, but his disability remained.
- We must realize, that, as James Sanders has put it, the Bible’s witness is often variegated. There is no single biblical perspective on disability but rather a variety of perspectives that can come to bear on this issue. The biblical canon, says Sanders, has a “self-correcting” function that requires thoughtfulness, carefulness, and prayer as we engage the biblical texts.
- We must affirm the full giftedness of people with disabilities in our congregations. Scripture teaches us that human beings are created in the divine image. This applies not simply to able-bodied and able-minded people, but to all people. It is a matter of having a proper theological anthropology. Once we understand this, we can begin to see that God works through people with disabilities in myriad ways. Boards of Ordained Ministry must be open to the possibility that ministers with disabilities can bring great gifts to our churches, and congregations must allow for adjustments to the normal ways things have “always been done” in order to allow for the gifts of ministers with disabilities to be fully manifest in their contexts.
- We must do these things not in spite of our beliefs as Christians, but because of them. Whether we admit it or not, we Christians always read the Bible through theological frameworks that shape our interpretations. Let’s simply admit this fact, dispense with the notion that we have some pure, objective reading of the text, and focus on reading in dialogue with healthy, life-giving theological constructs, constructs that we in fact derive in part from scripture.
Our regard for people with disabilities is perhaps the most pressing issue in the life of the church today. One in five people worldwide is disabled, and many such people feel unwelcome in our churches, must less participating in the ministries of the church. This has to change. It is a matter of faithfulness for us as we seek the renewal of the Church for the transformation of the world.