It’s a relatively simple task, but an important one. David is one of the most authentic and joyful people I know, and he has the opportunity to remind people of Christ’s love for them as they enter into worship. While many people are capable of handing out bulletins, not all share in David’s natural gift of warmth and love for virtually everyone he encounters. His disposition makes him uniquely gifted for his role as an usher.
Oh—he also has Down syndrome.
In 1 Corinthians 12, Paul rebukes a church fallen prey to the false promises of self-promotion. He explains to them that diversity is essential to the functioning of the body of Christ, and then he goes a step further. He reminds them of one of the paradoxes of the gospel: “The parts of the body that seem to be weaker are indispensable, and on those parts of the body that we think less honorable we bestow the greater honor, and our unpresentable parts are treated with greater modesty, which our more presentable parts do not require” (vv. 22-24).
The key word in this passage is “indispensable.” Paul is not arguing that the church should tolerate or simply be kind to those members of the body that seem (another key word) to be weaker. All too often the church mistakes pity for compassion and inadvertently assumes that the “weaker” brethren function only as objects of charity. In contrast, Paul makes the case that the church is incomplete and incapable of being fully herself without those whom the world would overlook.
The briefest glance at what our culture deems worthy of praise suggests that those with disabilities are a burden at best. They are often marginalized, ignored and perceived as weak.
Even in the church, it is not uncommon for families including members with disabilities to be overlooked. Perhaps these people are welcomed into the sanctuary on Sunday morning. But do we truly believe that they are indispensable to the life of the church? I imagine our communities would be much richer if we truly integrated this theology into our daily practice.1
Practically, what should be our response to Paul’s challenge? It’s easy to talk about being inclusive, but it is much harder to put into practice. Simply put, we must become both curious and flexible.
As previously mentioned, many individuals with disabilities or families who have members with disabilities can feel invisible in their congregations. It is not that people do not know who they are, but that people do not know how to relate to them. As a result, these people are “politely” ignored, and few people actually know what is occurring in their lives. When we allow our feelings of awkwardness or unease to dictate our relationships, we will discard relationships that require more work.
However, if it is true that “we, though many, are one body in Christ, and individually members one of another,” as Paul writes in Romans 12:5, then a polite dismissal of those whom we perceive as different can only be harmful to both parties. Therefore, as we take the time to get to know people in our congregations who have disabilities, even (and especially!) when we feel uncomfortable, we will discover that those of us considered “normal” have an awful lot to learn and receive from them.
The Christian community needs her members with disabilities—not despite the fact that they are different, but precisely because they are.
This is the very theme of Mary’s song following the Annunciation: “He has brought down the mighty from their thrones and exalted those of humble estate” (Luke 1:52).
David’s perceived limitations relieve him of so much of the baggage that prevents the rest of us from faithfully resting in the arms of Christ. While he has his own sin struggles, I know that he is not encumbered with the same weight of self-absorption that so often inhibits my walk with the Lord. Rather, while I am paralyzed in 1 Corinthians 12 seeking after the most attractive spiritual gifts, David is resting in 1 Corinthians 13 because he already knows that “the greatest of these is love” (v. 13).
Therefore, as we ponder what it means to be human, we must recognize the indispensability of every member of the body, not by politely allowing those with disabilities to exist within the boundaries of the church, but by fully embracing and celebrating their unique giftings as essential aspects both of what it means to be human and to be in Christ.
James Henderson is a recent Beeson graduate (M.Div. ’19) currently serving as a chaplain at UAB Hospital in Birmingham. He is married to Rebecca (M.A.T.S/M.S.W. ’19).