We are all disabled

These thoughts are not fully formed, but I think by writing and, as yet, neither my work, nor my ministry, nor my seminary has required me to wrestle with this topic. So I am going to share a few notes and reflections, without any illusion that they are complete or fully worked out.

We are all disabled
I mean this in at least two ways.

First, we all, at some point in our lives, are disabled. Unless you were hatched fully formed from an egg as an adult and die suddenly in young adulthood, you have lived or one day will live with a body (and brain) that does not do what “normal” bodies do. We all are disabled, have been disabled, or one day will be disabled. So, this is not just a conversation about some other group of people.

Second, we are all disabled right now if we understand that Jesus Christ is the standard for our comparisons. Jesus is the fully human one. He is what we would be without sin. And compared to him, none of us is fully human. We all fall short of the glory of God. So, again, the conversation about disability is not about someone else. It is about each one of us.

Wesleyan theology has helpful resources
One of the things that John Wesley’s theology gets dinged for is the way he writes about sin, but I find his discussion of sin is uniquely helpful in working through problems raised for conventional Protestant soteriology by mental disability.

In a nutshell, the problem I’ve had is with the cognitive dependence of most Protestant soteriology. Salvation tends to hinge on a person having awareness of certain ideas, holding certain thoughts, confessing in an articulate way certain inner conditions, developing certain emotional responses, and explicitly asking for God to do certain things.

Wesleyan theology — at least as I read it — is not troubled by this. Wesley taught that though we all bear the disability of original sin, no one is guilty or liable to punishment for original sin alone. It is only for own sins that we are liable to punishment. This is where Wesley’s conception of sin is important. He taught that sin is the willful and knowing violation of a law of God. Critics bewail the problems raised by Wesley’s conception of sin and guilt. I don’t want to dismiss that. But when I consider questions of soteriology, Wesley’s theology brings to mind the teaching of Jesus: “From everyone who has been given much, much will be demanded; and from the one who has been entrusted with much, much more will be asked.”

My take away: Those who cannot willfully and intentionally violate the law of God, do not sin.

Maybe that is patronizing or problematic in other ways. For an intensely salvationist theology such as Wesley’s it may raise the question: Why do people with mental disabilities need Jesus, then? That is a question worthy of more thought that I have given it. As I say, I am thinking out loud here.

On one final note: I find Wesleyan baptismal theology warmly embraces the baptism of those with mental disabilities in ways that “believer’s baptism” does not.

I’m not sure what this all means for worship & church
Wesleyan theology, however, with its undeveloped ecclesiology, struggles as much Protestant theology does with questions about the incorporation of those with mental disabilities in the worship and life of the local congregation. The typical response that I’ve seen in Protestant churches is to focus on those with disabilities as recipients of ministry rather than as Christians with ministries of their own.

What does it mean for those with more obvious, less easily hidden, disabilities to worship and minister among those of us who do a much better job of hiding our disabilities? This is a question that I’ve not fully understood or explored.

As I warned, this is not really a post with a point to make. It is more about sketching out some thoughts and raising some questions. If it stirs up any thoughts for you, please let me know.

9 thoughts on “We are all disabled

  1. John,

    I think this is one of your best blog posts I’ve read. You struggle with questions and don’t come to a fully formed answer and I appreciate this very much for these are the same things I struggle with.

    I’d really like it if you could point me to a John Wesley source where it could help me flesh out this idea no one is guilty of punishment based on original sin alone. It’s something I’ve been struggling with having come to faith in places that taught the opposite.

    Thank you again for this post. I am saving it for future reference.

    1. Thank you, Derek. I don’t have references at hand, but may try to run some down later in the week.

      The issue is not quite as simple as I put it here, of course. Wesley in his treatise on Baptism does refer to baptism as the washing away of the guilt of original sin, but elsewhere he writes that no one is damned for Adam’s sin alone. We are all bearing the consequences of that sin in that we all die and our bodies are prone to all sorts of weakness.

      The other piece of this is that although we are not punished for Adam’s sin, we are so prone to sin that all of us who can be held responsible for our actions have, in fact, sinned by a knowing breach of God’s law. So, we all need to be reborn.

      If I get time, I’ll try to run down in my collected words a couple quotes. I don’t have it systematically laid out, so it will take some digging around to find what I recall reading before.

  2. Broadway Christian Parish in South Bend, Indiana (where Stanley Hauerwas worshipped when he taught at Notre Dame) does an especially fine job of this and has been doing it for decades. That is to say that people who have disabilities of the kind that are most visible share their gifts in worship (for example, a man who has fragile x syndrome – plays guitar at worship and other serve as ministers of the cup for the weekly eucharist – Stanley has written well about someone I remember from my early years there who the rest of the congregation followed his lead and came to the Eucharist much more slowly than they might otherwise have come – it improved the quality and tenor of the Eucharist immeasurably). I think one of the best gifts of those whose disabilities are much more evident is the reminder that we are all in the same boat (though unfortunately, as you point out, it’s often not the lesson we get). I was at lunch with some folks recently who were talking about people who don’t have much money (i.e. those who are poor) and they were talking about the way they don’t spend money correctly and they don’t have good values – as I looked around the table I realized that I had been to the homes of two of the people around the table for domestic abuse incidents – several of the people around the table are under enormous debt…others have difficult marriages for other reasons – though none of those things evident as you looked at folks. I think it is extremely important for the knowledge of our salvation (and a sure sign of the knowledge of our salvation) to see the gifts of all – in the very midst of brokenness and pain and scarcity in the eyes of the world.

    1. As always, thanks for writing, Mike. Some of the things you wrote in the little book you sent me were on my mind while I was writing this.

  3. I’m grateful for the “musing aloud,” too, and wonder where Wesley’s belief in perfection fits in.

    Great post.

    1. Joe, thank you.

      Great question. His doctrine of perfection never excludes all kinds of physical and even mental weaknesses and mistakes. So, while we live in this “house of clay” will never experience full Jesus-style humanity. We will always be disabled in that way. But Wesley certainly did believe strongly that we could be perfected in love. Indeed, as I read him, he saw that as necessary for us to be with Jesus in the life to come.

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