This article first appeared in the Effective Evangelism column of the Christian Research Journal, volume 37, number 02 (2014). For more information about the Christian Research Journal, click here.
We live in a world broken by sin. One manifestation of brokenness is found in those living with disabilities. God shows great affection for the lost, including those who live with brokenness (the blind, lame, crippled, etc.). It behooves us to ask how we can more effectively respond to this vast and often forgotten population. We ask, “How can the church share the Good News with people whose intellectual capacities are affected by disability?”
First we affirm that all people are fallen and need redemption in Christ. People who live with disability are no different. We cannot assume they are automatically accepted by God apart from faith in Christ. But we must understand that the range of intellectual disability includes some who can express faith, and others who cannot.
Second, for those whose developmental disability allows them to understand, we must contextualize the Good News in ways they can grasp. If they can express faith, however simply, we must help them do so. Romans 10:9 models this simplicity. God’s people must work carefully to communicate essential aspects of faith in Christ in easily understandable terms for those with mental disability.
But another difficult question arises concerning those whose intellectual capacity does not allow them to express faith in a verbal manner. Jesus’ teaching (John 15) and Paul’s (1 Corinthians 7) offer a way for including in God’s community those whose brokenness is more severe and limiting.
We live in a radically changing world. But sometimes change surprises us, presenting new challenges to historic Christian faith and practice. Disability is one area of tremendous change. Medical technology gives more people the opportunity to survive longer with formerly life-ending conditions. Depending on definitions, 10 to 20 percent of the United States’ population falls within the “disabled” classification. But a casual glance at the American church population on any given Sunday reveals that far less than 10 to 20 percent of most congregants live with disability. Joni Eareckson Tada routinely maintains that, worldwide, the disability community remains the largest unreached people group with respect to the gospel.1 Recent statistics substantiate this.
The 2010 Survey of Americans with Disabilities by The Kessler Foundation and the National Organization on Disability considered the impact of The Americans with Disabilities Act twenty years later. Part of the study considered “the relationship between the presence of a disability [in a person or family] and attendance of religious services.” Two conclusions stand out. First, “Adults with disabilities are significantly less likely than their peers without disabilities to attend religious services (50% v. 57% respectively)” and second, “They are also significantly more likely never to have attended a religious service compared to non-religious controls.”2 This is an indictment on the church. The overwhelming witness of Scripture affirms God’s concern for the orphan and widow, but also for the broken, marginalized, and rejected (e.g., 2 Sam. 9 and Luke 14). Though improvement continues currently, the question remains, “How can the church better reach the disabled community?” Our focus here is a corollary: “How do we in the church share the Good News with people whose intellectual capacities are affected by disability?” The challenges are pragmatic and theological.
THE REALITY OF DISABILITY
The spectrum of intellectual disabilities is wide. The fastest growing area of disability includes those who live with autism, ranging from many only marginally affected (e.g., Asperger Syndrome) to those who are unable to communicate or, at least on the surface, unable to understand complex notions of faith and belief. But even here, new technological advances allow some severely autistic individuals to “find a voice” through computers. Some, who by appearances cannot talk or understand, are found to be articulate people “locked” within a body wracked by neurological pain and dysfunction.
Then there are those living with a range of intellectual disability (now called “developmental disability,” or simply “DD”) ranging from marginally affected (e.g., highly functioning Down Syndrome) to profoundly disabled people with any number of conditions and syndromes.
Additionally, we must remember that all mankind is fallen and needs redemption through Christ alone (Rom. 3:10–11, 23–26). Unfortunately, many sincere Christians mistakenly think that some in the disability community are “innocent angels” or “holy innocents” (a concept popularized by Dale Evans Rogers3) or that people in the profound DD4 community somehow “are held firmly within God’s love.” But more consistent with Scripture is the notion that all people are “disabled,” manifested in physical disability (is there a perfect human being?), mental disability (whose mind is without weakness?), or spiritual disability (are not all dead in sin without Christ?). So how do we share the gospel with people who live with developmental disability? How can we help people with diminished mental abilities to understand faith in Christ?
SHARING THE GOSPEL WITH THOSE WHO CAN UNDERSTAND
Let’s begin with this truth about the gospel: salvation through faith in Christ is summarized succinctly and simply by Paul in Romans 10:9: “If you confess with your mouth that Jesus is Lord and believe in your heart that God raised him from the dead, you will be saved.”5 None of us knows sufficiently, not even those possessing studied nuances of theology, all the depths of the riches of the gospel; they are unsearchable (Rom. 11:33–36). We agree with one who writes, “The sovereignty of God over human life is a sure foundation for ministry to mentally disabled people. It ensures that they are viewed with dignity and respect. It reveals that God cares about the impaired as much as he does non-disabled individuals. It shows that they are part of God’s redemptive plan just like men of sound mind, and are worthy to be reached with the gospel.”6
Historically, the church sees children coming to an “age of accountability” in their teens. Churches offer communicant or confirmation classes for teenagers. Leaders don’t expect young people to articulate deep understanding of Christ’s vicarious atonement (including propitiation, expiation, justification, and redemption). But a threshold of simple faith follows the Pauline model, which normally can be understood and expressed by teenagers.
Such a simple confession of faith can be expressed by those in the upper ranges of the DD community. They can understand that human beings are broken and need Jesus to save them from their weakness. We need to learn to explain this truth in simple terms.
Recently a family who lives with disability related this account. A friend was playing Monopoly with two siblings: the older, a boy with autism; the younger sister, “normal.” Someone landed on a property the boy owned. Because the property was mortgaged, he could not collect the rent. This confused and agitated him. His sister explained it to him this way: your property is broken. You can only collect the money when it’s fixed. He understood the concept of the property as “broken.” With the situation defused, he asked what he needed to do to fix it. His sister explained, “You fix it by paying off the mortgage.” When presenting the gospel to someone in the DD community, this approach is a good starting point. Start small and simple. Start with the concept that we are all broken and that Jesus is the only one who can “fix” the problem. Only He can make us whole.
Use simple words and short sentences, while retaining emotional content. Visual aids can also convey scriptural meaning to people with less intellectual capacity. The goal must be to find understandably simple ways to help such people grasp essential truths necessary for saving faith.7
The DD community needs compassion, care, and a sense of dignity as people. Too often from too many they experience a sense of being different, perpetual babies perhaps, and even that they are somehow less than human. Far beyond what most people realize, the DD community understands rejection, insincerity, and condescension. Along with this, they possess an ability to understand that they are broken and in need of a savior.
Consider Matthew 18:2–4. “And calling to him a child, he [Jesus] put him in the midst of them and said, ‘Truly, I say to you, unless you turn and become like children, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven. Whoever humbles himself like this child is the greatest in the kingdom of heaven.’” The kingdom of God belongs to those who come as children. This does not mean we should be childish but rather childlike—the difference is crucial. Our friends with intellectual disabilities may, in our opinion, retain more of this “childlike” quality with regard to faith than those of us who are more “mature.” People with Down syndrome, for example, are more prone to trust and love than “normal” people. They possess in their brokenness a greater childlike willingness to trust Christ in simple terms—much more than “normal” people who naturally possess greater cynicism and suspicion.
People living with disability understand more readily and experientially their dependence. The rest of us suffer from an ungodly (and profoundly erroneous) concept of self-sufficiency and natural ability. Remember, the opposite of faith is not doubt, as many assume. The opposite of faith is self-reliance. Our stubborn refusal to trust wholly in another is a disposition from which we must be saved!
First John 4:16 says, “Whoever loves, knows God and is born of God, for God is love.” Our experience verifies that the DD community, far more than the “normal” population, loves others more trustingly without condition. We are willing to posit at least the possibility that many in the disability community experience less of the fall spiritually than other “normal” people, even as their bodies carry more ravages of the fall. They are predisposed not only to love but also to ask for (when able) and willingly embrace a Savior who loves and accepts them. Most of us in the “normal” population must conquer sins of pride, skepticism, and self-reliance in order to come to the Savior. Though still dead in their sin and in desperate need of a Savior, common fallen qualities seem not to be present (generally speaking) to the same degree in our friends with more profound intellectual disabilities.
Knowledge about Jesus is quite different than knowing Jesus. When sharing the gospel with people in the DD community, we must focus on the person’s faith rather than his or her knowledge. After all, again, who among us knows all we should about the nuances of theology related to faith in Christ?
Corrie ten Boom, well known for rescuing Jews during World War II, worked with the DD community in her Dutch village prior to the war. Later in a brief tract entitled “Common Sense Not Needed,”8 she wrote, “Children like to hear a story. These people [referring to adults with developmental disability] like stories too, but after half an hour’s talk about Jesus’ love, they will still be listening. They are grown- ups and they must be treated the same way as grown-ups. The language must be plain and clear—no dogmatic talk, no arguments, only the old, old story in plain language. The best way to reach them is by love. Love means understanding (Rom. 5:5). God must lead, for without the Holy Spirit no one can bring the message to anybody, normal or abnormal. The human spirit fails, except when the Holy Spirit fills.”
To summarize, we believe one must contextualize the fundamental message of the gospel in understandable terms to the DD community. This includes the following: first, our world is broken, and every one of us is broken; second, our brokenness is a result of sin and this explains our fallen condition body and soul; third, God has made a way to begin a new life of wholeness; finally, God’s solution is found in Jesus Christ, His life and death, His rising from the dead and ascending to heaven. Jesus represents us and stands for us before God. When we place trust in Jesus, He promises to save us forever.
WHAT ABOUT THOSE WHO CANNOT UNDERSTAND SUFFICIENTLY?
Jason Whitt frames the question asking, “If they [those with profound intellectual disabilities] are unable to consciously and freely turn to Christ and follow him in baptism, must they remain outside of the Church and not share the table with those who are followers of Christ?”9 This is the hard issue. We have affirmed above that to the level of their intellectual ability, people with mental disabilities can and should express faith simply consistent with Romans 10:9. But what if the person is more profoundly disabled? Whitt seeks to assuage this concern when he says, “The concern is not with the eternal salvation of the profoundly disabled. There is a confidence that these children and adults are held firmly within God’s love.”10
But whence comes such confidence? We find one answer by considering Jesus’ words in John 15 combined with Paul’s teaching in 1 Corinthians 7. Jesus is the vine. Those connected to God are connected through faith in Jesus, by remaining in Him. God is the vinedresser who cuts away dead limbs, but nurtures those limbs that evidence life and health. This contains both warning and assurance. Those who are mature but show no evidence of faith, no budding fruit, He promises to cut away. But in this metaphor, we can surmise that those who remain “immature,” those who remain like buds on the vine, the vinedresser keeps, nurturing and tending by His mercy and for His purposes. Although there are varying views within the body of Christ on this question, we believe that God holds within the bounds of His saving grace those persons with profound intellectual disabilities who are connected to Christ by virtue of their believing parents who are also connected to Jesus, the true vine.
We make this assertion by considering an obscure passage in 1 Corinthians 7. In a discussion of marriage and divorce involving a nonbeliever, Paul makes this remarkable statement: “For the unbelieving husband is made holy because of his wife, and the unbelieving wife is made holy because of her husband. Otherwise your children would be unclean, but as it is, they are holy” (1 Cor. 7:14). “Holy” in this sense means set apart by God for His purposes. Paul says when an immature member of the covenant community is connected to Christ, God considers this one as part of His vine, set apart in some sense and kept by Him. This does not apply to all in the DD community, but certainly seems to apply to those connected to God’s covenant community, the church.
Whitt presents the baptistic problem when he asks, “But what if, because of intellectual disability, the person will never reach a cognitive level where that choice [of baptism] is possible?” He goes on to say, “By denying baptism on the grounds that they have not accepted Christ [language, by the way, never used in the New Testament], the clear message is sent: ‘Because you are limited, you can never be fully a member of this community.’”11 But we surmise from Paul that children of believers remain a part of the vine until such time that their mature faith trusts in Christ, evidenced by a blossoming (by God’s grace) of their own fruit. By remaining connected to Christ, less mature parts receive real, significant, spiritual nourishment from Him.
One writer says this:
Christians believe that the sacraments, like baptism and the Eucharist, are central to the life of the church; that they are actions of God and signs of God’s presence. These rituals make it possible for a congregation to know God, an experience to which those who are mentally retarded may also be open—because the meaning of the sacraments does not depend on intellectual reason. For too long many Christians believed that one has to understand the sacraments before one can experience them. Many in the church now realize that the converse is true: that one needs to be engaged by celebration of the sacraments before one can understand them. Of course, no one fully understands the sacraments, which makes them a divine mystery that speaks to the heart despite the limitations of human intellect.12
Let us make this personal. Jessica Beates, Michael’s thirty-two-year-old daughter, was born with profound mental and physical disabilities due to a unique chromosomal anomaly. She cannot walk, talk, or care for herself in a meaningful manner. She cannot, and in this life will never be able to, confess faith in Christ. The hope Michael and his wife, Mary, share rests in this covenantal concept from Jesus and Paul: we believe by faith that Jessica is connected to Christ as an immature bud, one which the heavenly Father will not prune away because she is part of our (and thus His!) covenant family, and in this way also the covenant community of the local church. The elders of our church have taken the generous, and we believe biblical, step to consider her a communing member because she is connected to Christ and His people through her parents’ confession of faith and their connection to Christ. Since she is chronologically an adult, we believe that she benefits in a vital, spiritual, and mystical way from the preaching of the Word, prayer, and the sacraments. We believe real grace is imparted by partaking in the Lord’s Table. In fact, in this way, we believe, Jessica shares in the Good News of the gospel by identifying with Christ through the bread and the cup. After all, Peter said, “For the promise is for you and for your children and for all who are far off, everyone whom the Lord our God calls to himself” (Acts 2:39).
HOPE IN HIS PROMISE
Can we extrapolate God’s Word to say that God saves all the intellectually disabled? This seems dangerously presumptuous. But the promises of God are rich, plausible, and hopeful for families with disabilities who are connected by faith to Christ and His people.
We err dangerously by assuming that because DD people cannot do or say certain things, because they don’t fit our expectations of “normal” response, they therefore do not have equal value in our worshipping communities. Such a notion is contrary to Jesus’ teaching. We must recognize that every individual is created in God’s image and therefore has inestimable value in God’s sight. Contrary to the way of the world, human value rests not primarily in what we do but in who we are.
Mitchell captures this, saying, “Jesus kept pointing out to the disciples that, regardless of our brilliant abilities or our visible limitations, in the presence of God, we are all disabled, handicapped, and crippled by sin. Our salvation came by Jesus’ death upon the cross and resurrection three days later. It made us dependent upon being saved by God in Christ, who alone admits us to full participation in the dominion of God. We are God’s own children, and God alone chooses what to do with us.”13
As I say in my work on disability, Jesus “will rescue the lame (a generalization for those with disabilities) from everywhere they have felt shame for their weakness. And he will bring them home—into the house, to the table, indeed to the banquet table, and even to honored places. This is God’s intention for the weak and marginalized. May the church catch God’s vision for His body and begin to do the same.”14
Michael S. Beates, Ph.D., is dean of students at The Geneva School, Winter Park, Florida, and the author of Disability and the Gospel (Crossway, 2012). He serves on the International Board of Directors for Joni and Friends (www.joniandfriends.org).
Andrew Vacca, a student at Reformed Theological Seminary, Orlando, serves with LIFT Disability Network in Orlando.
- Approximately 650 million worldwide. See http://www.joniandfriends.org/search/ ?q=unreached+people+group.
- Online at http://www.2010disabilitysurveys.org/indexold.html.
- Dale Evans Rogers, Angel Unaware (Westwood, NJ: Fleming Revel Co.,1953).
- Jason D. Whitt, “Baptism and Profound Intellectual Disability” in Disability, online at http://www.baylor.edu/content/services/document.php/188185.pdf.
- All Bible quotations are from the English Standard Version.
- Barry Sommerville, “The Church’s Role in Caring for Intellectually Disabled Persons and Their Families” (Th.D. Thesis, Bob Jones University, 2006).
- Muriel M. Carder, “Spirituality and Religious Needs of Mentally Retarded Persons,” in The Journal of Pastoral Care 38, 2 (1984): 151. Resources from Mephibosheth Ministries (http://www.mephiboshethministry.org/catalog.php) fit this need in print for those with mental disabilities.
- Corrie ten Boom, “Common Sense Not Needed: Some Thoughts about an Unappreciated Work among Neglected People,” no copyright, first published 1957, Christian Literature Crusade, Fort Washington, Pennsylvania 19034, available at http://www.gotothebible.com/ HTML/commonsensenotneeded.html.
- Whitt, 60.
- Ibid, 60–61.
- Ibid, 64.
- Brett Mitchell, Dancing with Disabilities: Opening the Church to All God’s Children (Cleveland: United Church Press, 1996), 8.
- Ibid, 34.
- Michael Beates, Disability and the Gospel: How God Uses Our Brokenness to Display His Grace (Wheaton, IL: Crossway, 2012), 156.