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.