This series is a sort of spiritual successor of last week’s post, Autism: What’s in a Name? It was born out of my musings on person-first and identity-first language, and which would be preferred by the Christians I know. So if you haven’t read that post yet, you may wish to hit the yellow link above before moving on. It’s not a direct prequel to this post, but it will provide some context to the thoughts I’m sharing today.
This series was also born out of my own personal preparation. I felt like I needed to think out a response to some of the questions I may get asked in church after my person-first vs. identity-first post, because what a person believes about the role of God, creation, prayer, and healing inevitably influences their response in matters of illness and disability.
This post comes with a Content Warning: Christianity & Spiritual Abuse. If you’re hurting, I don’t want to make you hurt more, so it’s ok to sit this one out if you need to.
I grew up in the Christian church.
No really, I grew up in the church. Sometimes I was there six days a week.
I was raised “Baptist,” although the name on the door didn’t quite match the theology of the parishioners inside. I attended many other Christian events from other local denominations including: Roman Catholic, United, Brethren, & Pentecostal. I was home-schooled with Christian curriculum. The early years curriculum was old-order Mennonite based. Some of the other curriculums we used in High School were not so “old fashioned” as the Mennonite one. They were so much better because the authors didn’t believe we should be riding around in horse-drawn buggies. Instead they were just fundamentalist, or “Conservative Christian.” (Spoiler Alert: The theology wasn’t much different.) I was involved in every Bible Club, VBS, and event my community had to offer, as both a participant and a leader. I went on to Bible School and earned a dual major degree in Theology & Pastoral Ministry and applied to Seminary to become a professor of theology before a major mental health setback took me out of education and the workforce for several years. I married a man with a strong charismatic/vineyard background, and we have spent the past decade in a non-denominational church that operates like a mild charismatic/evangelical hybrid.
All that mouthful just to say, I have seen Christianity from many angles and sides.
Disabilities & The Christian Church
I don’t know of any churches that have an official policy surrounding disabilities, but I can tell you from the decades of experience I have in the church that Christians tend to be divided into three camps when it comes to disabilities. These beliefs, whether they are consciously or unconsciously held, have a major impact on how they treat people. They also have a major impact on the emotions and mental health of those with disabilities within the church.
Again, I am not aware of any official stances on this, so I’m just going to call my three observed mindsets “Theology A,” “Theology B,” and “Theology C” for easy labeling. I am also going to avoid saying which denominations subscribe to which mindset, because I have seen far too much variance between churches, even churches of the same denomination. It often all comes down to the atmosphere that each church’s leadership fosters and develops.
It’s also worth mentioning that I have been in churches with attendees of various backgrounds where I could find at least one of each of these theologies amongst the crowd. So this small series of posts isn’t about pitting one type of church against another. Rather, I hope it encourages any Christians reading this to take some time reflecting on what you actually believe, and how you may be unconsciously treating people because of those beliefs. No matter which church you go to, or how devout you are, there is always room for growth and improvement.
P.S. If you aren’t familiar with the word “denomination,” it is basically the “brands” of churches. If you hold a certain set of beliefs, you can reasonably expect to be surrounded by people with similar beliefs at a church building with the same name on the door. Examples of denominations are: Roman Catholic, Lutheran, Mennonite, Brethren, Baptist, Pentecostal, etc…
Theology A: The “Deer in Headlights” Reaction
Some Christians, particularly those who like to teach and preach from the Old Testament, tend be stand-off-ish around people with obvious disabilities. I don’t think they do it out of mean-spiritedness per-se, but their whole church way of life just sort of lends itself to that behavior.
People from very rigid, traditional, old-school, conservative, whatever-you-want-to-call-it church groups tend to have an obsession with who is “out” and who is “in.” Their theology surrounding salvation is very black & white, heaven & hell, the broad path & the straight and narrow path1, the sheep & the goats2. It all boils down to us and them. Someone’s going to heaven, someone’s going to hell, and it’s not gonna be me who gets singed! (I joke… but maybe less than you think.)
People immersed in these teachings, often from infancy, live under constant strain and stress. They always give ample lip-service to the fact that they are saved by grace, but they still very much operate in a works-based, shame-based church culture. A phrase that I heard repeated way too often to count during my formative years was, “Pray like everything depends on God. Work like everything depends on you.”
This type of church culture tends to form unspoken hierarchies within its congregants. There are the faithful and the less faithful, with the faithful feeling pity for the less faithful; starting prayer chains for them, hoping that these less faithful ones will “draw closer to God”, “live a fulfilled Christian life”, or “become a better witness.” While they bathe their concern in good Christian phrasing, what it really boils down to is: “You don’t look like us. If you want to be a better Christian, you need to look like us.”
So what happens when someone with a cognitive disability attends a church service in a church like this? Well, there will be lip-service, of course! Jesus loved poor sick people, and so do they! There will be smiles and hand-shaking, but it will often be covering an uneasiness.
This person does not look like them or talk like them, or reason like them. How do they know for sure whether or not they are saved, when they cannot make a verbal confession of faith? Are they going to heaven? …Maybe? Maybe there is some sort of exception clause for the mentally disabled? Many of these churches believe in an “age of accountability,” where a child of Christian parents gets a free pass into heaven if they die before they would be cognitively able to make their own confession of faith (“this age of accountability” is somewhere between the ages of 4 and 13, depending on the denomination), so perhaps, they reason, there is a rule like that? It’s a troubling conundrum for these believers, because they don’t really know how to classify the person, and their whole worldview depends on an orderly classification system.
Thankfully, these Christians won’t have to break too much of a sweat on that question. The disabled individual in their midst rarely attends very long. They either do not have the practical support to keep coming (no one to drive them and sit with them, etc…), or they sense the unease others feel around them, and just stop coming voluntarily.
As I mused about whether someone in this type of church would use person-first or identity-first language, I realized that they might not use either. In my early memory of disabled visitors in the church I grew up in, disability was very much a taboo subject. It was ranked right up there with politics or sex. Just don’t talk about it. If it comes up, use hints or euphemisms or niceties long enough to change the subject.
As you can imagine, this is not the safest environment for a disabled individual. While they may not be met with open hostility, they will never truly belong either.
We’ll Be Back After the Break…
This post became really long, so I decided to split it into two… and then it got even longer and I had to split it into three. So next week I’ll talk about “Theology B,” and the following week I’ll talk about “Theology C.”
Does any of this sound familiar? If so, you may have been part of a “Theology A” church. You’re welcome to share your experience in the comments below.
Endnotes: 1. Matthew 7:13-14 2. Matthew 25:31
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