I hesitated mid-sentence, mid-sermon.
He was screaming in the hallway just outside the auditorium doors. Thankfully, two of my fellow elders quickly left their seats to help. I couldn’t see what was happening, but I knew my wife was desperately restraining our eight-year-old son while he screamed, kicked, and bit her. Yes, I could have stopped, but somehow I kept preaching with an anguished heart.
The church I serve has known my son from his birth, from when he was diagnosed with Autism Spectrum Disorder at sixteen months. They love and accept him, and they would have understood if I had abruptly ended my sermon that day.
Undoubtedly, God has used my son in the life of our church family to shape a culture where those with special needs are welcome. And though how to best welcome and serve them remains an ongoing challenge, we have embraced the world of disabilities as a vital part of Jesus’s sovereign purpose to redeem and restore broken people to himself.
Partial Justice Warriors
“The first step in welcoming the disabled is not a program. It is humility.”
No one showed compassion to outcasts like Jesus — Samaritans, publicans, harlots, lepers, the demonized. The people we are so good at pushing aside or casting beneath us, Jesus lifts up and dignifies. Among Jesus’s people there is no Jew or Greek, barbarian, Scythian, slave or free, male or female, nimble or quadriplegic — we are all one in Christ Jesus (Galatians 3:28).
Many Christians rightly grieve over poverty, injustice, sex trafficking, and racism. It is good for Christians to think deeply and biblically about these things, because these are all things that the Bible addresses. At the same time, these are all “easy” places to show concern and compassion because even the unbelieving world loves to talk about these things, for reasons that have nothing to do with following Jesus.
Truly imitating the love of Christ will look different than simply adding a holy “Amen” to whatever cause the world happens to be applauding. True Christian compassion is not always attractive to the world. For instance, our churches are diverse, multi-ethnic, and missional — but do they include a place for the disabled? It’s good to have parking and access ramps and equipped restrooms, but more importantly, are those with disabilities welcomed and prized as people made in the image of God?
Is it possible, despite our allegiance to justice and compassion, that we have left the disabled on the fringes, that we are guilty of being selective in our compassion? Have we neglected to “invite . . . the crippled, the lame, the blind” to the feast of grace (Luke 14:13)?
Reaching for Comprehensive Compassion
Partiality is James’s word for this sort of hypocrisy. He warns Jesus’s people against the duplicity of showing partiality in the gathered assembly (James 2:1–2). How is such partiality demonstrated? By paying attention to the fine person but dismissing the poor and shabby as insignificant (James 2:3). To receive the one and dismiss the other is to make “distinctions among” ourselves and “become judges with evil thoughts” (James 2:4).
God’s law to “love your neighbor as yourself” (James 2:8) removes all dividers of who we’re called to love, as Jesus himself showed (Luke 10:25–37). So, those who claim to follow God’s law and then judge for themselves which neighbors they will honor (James 2:4) show a partiality that rightly earns the title “double-minded” (James 1:8; 4:8).
“It’s good to have access ramps and equipped restrooms, but are those with disabilities welcomed and prized?”
Sadly, this happens with the disabled in our gatherings. Too often, the disabled are isolated, not welcomed. Of course, this isolation can be created or intensified by parents (or caregivers) who are too ashamed or exhausted to “make it to church,” and too embarrassed to ask for help. It is hard to grasp the weariness that comes with caring for someone who is severely disabled.
But I fear isolation is sometimes caused by a spirit of self-preservation that says, “I don’t know what to say,” or, “We don’t have the resources to help,” or, “I can’t relate.” I fear isolation is caused by equating “missional” with “cool.” In our push to achieve cultural relevance through aesthetic excellence we effectively tell the disabled “stand over there” (James 2:3) because we don’t know how to fit them into our ideas of being missional. You can’t keep a hip image in the mess of serving a nine-year-old who yells profanities, or a thirty-year-old who drools on you. Not anymore than Jesus could keep his hands clean when rubbing spit and mud on the blind man’s eyes (John 9:6).
A Vital Welcome
Does your church have people committed to the gospel and loving the broken and lost? Congratulations! God has equipped your church to serve those with special needs. The first step in welcoming the disabled is not a program. It is humility. The self-emptying humility of Christ “who, though he was in the form of God, did not count equality with God a thing to be grasped” (Philippians 2:6).
This mind of Christ will not allow us to hide, but empower us to embrace the most marginalized and frightening minority in our world: the disabled. They are not an optional upgrade to our ministry endeavors. They are vital and precious members of Jesus’s body.