This is part three of some thoughts I have on how differing Christian theologies affect the church’s treatment of disabled or chronically ill individuals. If you missed one of the earlier posts, you’re going to want to catch up before continuing on.
Disability & The Church (Part 1/3)
Disability & The Church (Part 2/3)
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 have said before: 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, & Self-Harm. 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 C: The “Not Today, Satan” Reaction
What do very conservative/fundamental Christians and very charismatic/Holy-Ghost-loving Christians have in common? If you ask them, absolutely nothing. They are on the exact opposite ends of the Christian-beliefs spectrum. Yet, I have observed that one thing unites them: they way they handle sickness and disabilities.
Both of these opposing viewpoints agree that sickness and disability are a work of Satan/demons/evil spiritual forces.
The conservative/fundamental end of the rope believes that these things are evidence of sin, or a stronghold/foothold of Satan in a person’s life. They see the physical sickness as a visual representation of a spiritual sickness. People who hold this belief vary in their reaction, based on just how extreme their beliefs are. Some see a person struggling with illness and prescribe prayer, Bible reading, fasting, additional church volunteerism, increased tithing (giving money to the church), or cutting out ungodly amusements and influences. The more extreme end will also prescribe self-flagellation (self-harming as a form of punishment) and exorcism. All of this is an attempt to cleanse the person of evil and break the power of Satan. The idea is, if you drive Satan away, the bad things in your life (ie. sickness and disability) will follow, as these things are Satan’s doing. These “Theology C” followers use Old Testament passages about the Jewish nation warring against ungodly nations, and New Testament passages that reference the devil and demons to justify their position. 1
If I were to hazard a guess as to whether this type of church would use person-first of identity-first language when referencing disabilities, I suspect it depends on the individual and their prejudices. If they are actively fighting against the illness and wanting a person to be free from the evil that caused it, they would most likely use person-first language. (The person “has autism,” they “were born blind,” etc…) The hope is that the prayer and good living prescribed will get God’s attention and break the power of evil, freeing the person from their disability.
However, if an individual from this type of church favours a more judgmental and holier-than-thou approach to life, they may use identity-first language as a way of setting themselves apart from the “sinner” who has a problem. (“that mentally disabled person,” or “that deaf person”) Harsh and cruel. But I have seen it.
As you can imagine, a person with a chronic illness or disability in this type of church is going to have a hard time. They are either going to be treated as “less than” because of their health issue, or they will be constantly bombarded with messages that they are not good enough, faithful enough, or doing enough, and that is why God is punishing them. I have noticed that some people hold on pretty tightly to the idea that illness and disability is a punishment until they suddenly get sick with a chronic illness. Then they start changing their tune pretty quickly! It seems they are unable to show compassion and understanding unless they are the ones needing it.
The charismatic end of the rope also takes issue with Satan, but for a different reason. They see Satan’s influence more as an attempt to thwart God’s plans, and it is a Christian’s job to push back against this.
These Christians believe that part of the gospel of Jesus is not just to get people into heaven, but to bring heaven to earth by giving people a taste of heaven in the here and now.2 Some (but not all) churches with this theology practice “power evangelism,” based on a Bible verse that says, Heal the sick, raise the dead, cleanse those who have leprosy, drive out demons. Freely you have received; freely give.3 Power evangelists pray for people to be healed or freed from demons as a form of evangelism, or spreading the gospel. Unlike many “Theology B” churches that believe that healings, signs and wonders have ceased, “Theology C” churches believe that healing etc… is still available through the power of the Holy Spirit/Holy Ghost today.
As part of their “bringing heaven to earth” mandate, these churches look to help people live fulfilled lives this side of heaven, and will pray against anything that is causing pain and suffering in this life. They often have a very open, welcoming, and inclusive atmosphere because they believe that God loves everyone and that God wants everyone to be healthy, whole, and flourishing, not just in heaven some day, but on earth too.
Unfortunately there are always bumps along the way. What happens when these Christians pray for someone repeatedly and they are not healed? I have observed a few different responses:
a. The congregants continue to love and be accepting and welcoming. (Yay!)
b. The congregants feel threatened, and try to figure out why the person has not been healed. Sometimes, individuals in this type of church find themselves adopting a fundamentalist viewpoint at this time. They begin to reason that the healing has not taken place because of unconfessed sin, unforgiveness, or bitterness in the person’s heart. They then start pressuring the individual to “get right with God,” or “let the Spirit show you where you are holding out on him.” Basically it’s victim-shaming in a choir robe.
c. The congregants continue to love and be accepting and welcoming, but they cannot give their theology a rest, so they will continue to hound the sick or disabled person in their midst, surrounding them in prayer circles constantly, and making a big scene. They encourage the person to “hold on to hope,” or “keep pressing in,” for their healing. While praying more than once for a problem is a good thing, even a biblically-recommended thing4, sometimes it goes too far. I know people who have left churches who have done this to them because they just couldn’t take it anymore. They just want to be welcomed as one of them, not as a special project. They just want to request prayer for their finances or their kid’s grades, without having their disability or chronic illness dragged up and prayed over each time as well.
The question of person-first or identity-first language in this church also varies from person to person. There are very kind, respectful members of these churches that will use whatever language you ask them to. However, there are some that will absolutely not, and will correct you for using the wrong one.
Since adherents to “Theology C” believe so strongly in being God’s children, and creating a heaven on earth, they like to draw a line in the sand when it comes to sickness and disability. They don’t want to identify with or accept the problem. They want to pray against it and tell it to go away. For this reason, they are very anti-identity-first. “No, your son is NOT autistic,” they tell me. “Satan is using autism to attack him, but you don’t need to accept that!” Somehow, their “Theology C” beliefs cause them to treat people the way “Theology B” Christians treat people. “Theology B” Christians get upset when you try to change. “Theology C” Christians get upset when you don’t. Both tell an ill or disabled person how they are supposed to be thinking and feeling about their condition without asking them how they think and feel about their own condition. Rude.
So there you have it: three major mindsets I have observed across dozens of churches over the past 30 years. Did you read anything that felt familiar? Did you find yourself relating an uncomfortable amount because you have been treated unkindly by a Christian? Or perhaps, did you recognize some of the catchphrases I used, and take a moment to examine them more closely, perhaps for the very first time?
Again, the purpose of this series isn’t to bash a particular denomination, or to bash all Christians in general. I myself still identify as a Christian, although I make a point of thinking through what I hear at church and never accept any church’s or pastor’s or speaker’s opinions wholesale. Instead, I hope this series has done three things:
a. I hope it has caused you to think about what your chronically ill or disabled friends go through. Their challenges aren’t always “out there” in the workplace, etc… Sometimes their faith community or closest friends cause them pain. I hope this series has caused you to be more thoughtful and empathetic.
b. If you are currently suffering in a church, or have suffered in any of the ways mentioned, I hope this series has helped you feel seen. If you have been made to feel bad or less-than by a Christian, I want you to know that you deserve better. The Jesus I know would want you to know that you deserve better.
c. I hope it has made you realize that what you believe matters. What you believe isn’t always a personal matter when it causes you to treat other people in unkind or outright cruel ways. This applies to different Christian theologies/denominations, but also to different religions/faith communities, political leanings, and cultural traditions. Your firmly-held beliefs influence your actions whether you realize it or not. I truly believe that once in awhile, it’s important to examine what you believe in, and ask yourself what implications of believing that thing has. When I think this way, I act this way. When I meet someone who disagrees, I behave how? What do my actions say about my family, church etc…? Am I leaving this person with a positive impression of my group, or a negative one?
Endnotes: 1.Example: Matthew 12:22 2. Matthew 6:10 3. Matthew 10:8 4. Luke 18:1-8
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