This is part two of some thoughts I have on how differing Christian theologies affect the church’s treatment of disabled or chronically ill individuals. If you missed part one, you’re going to want to read that before continuing on.
Disability & The Church (Part 1/3)
This series is a sort of spiritual successor to 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.
It is also worth repeating what I said last week: 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.
Like last week, 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.
Theology B: The “God’s Will” Reaction
Another mindset surrounding disabilities that is often (but not exclusively) held by more middle-of-the-road or “evangelical” Christians, and also often by denominations that believe in an inerrant Bible and consider themselves to be very “biblically-based” (in contrast to “spirit-led”), is enthusiastic acceptance. These Christians believe very strongly in creation, and the concept of God “knitting me together in my mother’s womb,”1 based on a poem from the Book of Psalms. “God don’t make junk!” they’ll say.
Many people who subscribe to this theology believe that whatever happens is the will of God. You can pray for a certain outcome, but once an event has happened, God has spoken. He must have a reason for wanting it that way. “Everything happens for a reason” is their motto (Although, interestingly, that phrase is not found in the Bible).
So, when it comes to disabilities, these Christians see them as part of God’s master plan. Some variations within this ideology fall along the spectrum of: “God is trying to get their attention so they make a change,” and “God is going to do great things through them.” One is more judgmental, the other is more inspirational, but both place the onus squarely on God’s shoulders.
Two biblical passages frequently quoted by this crew of Christians is:
a. The story of Joseph, when he says to his brothers: “You intended to harm me, but God intended it for good.” 2
b. A story in the New Testament, where Jesus heals a blind man. His disciples held a traditional belief that disabilities were a punishment for sin. Jesus tells them that it has nothing to do with sin, but rather it was an opportunity for God to show his power.3
These Christians don’t have as many hang-ups about the salvation of individuals with disabilities. Some of them come from denominations that practice infant baptism, so the question of salvation has already been answered. Others believe, based on the story of the blind man above, that God designed them to be witnesses for him, and that God already has a strong hand in the direction of their lives.
The “Theology B” brand of Christian loves nothing more than to see a chronically sick or disabled person praising God. It’s like catnip to them. Nothing brings a tear to this type of Christian’s eye like handing a disabled person a microphone and hearing them sing, “Amazing Grace.” Look at how beautiful it is when people live in the will of God!
On one hand, this type of Christianity is the most accepting of the the three. On the other hand, the “everything happens for a reason” mantra is a very damaging one. It either blames a person for their problems, or it doesn’t allow them the properly grieve when something bad happens. On the extreme end of this type of thinking, some people are actually shamed or reprimanded for using medical interventions (such as a deaf individual getting cochlear implant to help them hear) because their church sees it as an attempt to oppose “God’s will.”
As I mused about what type of language these Christians would use, it seemed a safe bet that they would be perfectly comfortable using identity-first language. They have no problem identifying a person as “blind”, “deaf”, or “autistic” because they believe that’s the way God made them. Unfortunately, Christians with this worldview also tend to think that God made people a lot of other things too, including “poor,” and “stupid.” They have no problem labeling people this way because of “God’s will,” and will even get their noses right out of joint when someone tries to better themselves or their position, which is a pretty toxic way of thinking. (And completely not compatible with the teachings of Jesus in the Bible that they love so much.)
Christians that hold this ideology will often get around their hypocritical worldview (of loving a Bible full of stories of people being healed, but refusing to believe that anyone should pray for healing today) by using the “doctrine of cessationism.” They can safely ignore the fact that Jesus healed the blind and deaf etc…, and carry right on shaming anyone who wants corrective surgeries or prayer for healing, because they believe that the gift of healing in the Bible was only a temporary phenomenon that has now “ceased.” God may have healed back then, they believe, but now he doesn’t, so there’s no point trying to get better. A “good Christian’s” only option is to grin and bear whatever they are given in life, and be vocally thankful for it because God knows best.
Does any of this sound familiar? If so, you may have been part of a “Theology B” church. You’re welcome to share your experience in the comments below. Next week I’ll share my thoughts on “Theology C.”
Endnotes: 1. Psalm 139:13 2. Genesis 50:20 3. John 9:3
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6 thoughts on “Disability & The Church (Part 2/3)”
No wonder people leave churches and never return. I am still undoing the wrong that I learned at one of the local churches here. Thankfully I am attending a church that does not embody the wrong teachings. So how do we get those churches to change?
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That’s a tough one. I’m not entirely convinced that we can change whole churches.
As I mentioned in the article, these thoughts and prejudices can be present in individuals of all sorts of churches. I definitely know people who hold very different views from their pastor/leadership.
I suspect the only way to truly change things is on the individual heart level. You can sometimes mandate people’s behavior, but you can’t mandate their thoughts and attitudes. True change happens internally, from the inside out, not externally, from the outside in.
I suppose that’s why I am a storyteller. I try to connect with people’s hearts, and stir their compassion so they WANT to see change and make a change.
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Excellent. You are correct in your response to my last comment. It starts with us to start the change by how we respond to others. Keep up the good work with this blog.
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You’ve got me thinking about the responses of the non-disabled religious people who are either in my life, or who I’ve met. The two most important ones who have (or are) in my life have both been, probably part of Theology B, if I were to put a name on it. Both of them subscribe to a hybrid of the social model of disability and the medical model (and are MDs). Both of them are very accepting of disabled people, and supportive of the neurodiversity movement (and were even before that was a term). Some of the other people, well… I won’t go there. Though, the more I think about it, they probably fit into your first category.)
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