May 29, 2024

Healing Ableism in the Church: the Image of God in Disabled Bodies

Liesl Hoeldtke '22

“Everyone has their own picture of Christ. I see Christ in a wheelchair,” Jackson Haskell said in an interview along with CAIM co-president Mikayla Martin at the end of Living Disabilities Week. Our conversation could only begin to cover the expansive topic of disability in the church. The diverse nature of disability, invisible and visible, is an essential part of the church community that is too often pushed aside. 

The disability community has been a hot topic in the Christian world over the past few years, as the Covid-19 pandemic shed a light on how people with disabilities have been left out of and hurt by the church. When a lot of churches went virtual in order to keep services going, it opened up a world of opportunity to people who, for one reason or another, could not attend in-person services before. Many church buildings are not accessible to those who use mobility aids, from not having wheelchair ramps outside, to not having a way to navigate the building inside. Church services can also be inaccessible for people with sensory issues—sitting shoulder-to-shoulder with others, flashing lights, passionate (loud) preaching, and off-key singing can all quickly become overwhelming. Mikayla Martin (‘22) spoke how churches miss out when they aren’t accessible:  

“Aren’t we called to testify to our faith, and aren’t we called to be a global church? And yet, how can we do that when our buildings aren’t accessible? How can we welcome in the stranger if there’s only steps to our church, or there’s no sign language interpreter, or there’s sensory overload in our worship? We’re failing to even do the commandment to go out and make disciples by not accepting and not being accessible to the disabled.”  

On top of the ways we fail to physically include people with disabilities, we also have to pay attention to our theology surrounding disability. What do we believe God says about disabilities? The answer to that question dictates how we treat people who have them. Sadly, there are a lot of believers and churches that hold negative views of disabilities, whether it be seeing them as a result of the Fall or seeing them as something in need of healing. Being in the disability community, I know many people with stories of being approached by loved ones or even strangers who want to pray for their disability to be “healed.” Bethel Church, a megachurch based in California, has had their divinity school students banned from shopping centers in the area because students will approach and harass people with visible disabilities in an attempt to heal them.1

There are plenty of Christians who follow in this unfortunate tradition. Whether or not you believe in faith healing, it is important to understand exactly what needs healing. For many of us, our disability is intrinsic to who we are, and by trying to pray for our disability to go away, you send the message that we are broken or not whole. A friend who grew up as a disabled person in church communities cites people trying to pray for their healing as a huge contributor to the destruction of their self-image. When you see people with disabilities only as something to be fixed, it communicates that maybe God doesn’t value them as much as an able-bodied person.  

Faith healing and the views behind it come from places in the Bible, specifically in Jesus’ ministry, where people are miraculously healed. Martin spoke about the way that Jesus went about healing those with chronic illnesses and disabilities. She pointed out the necessity of consent, where people are healed  because they want to be. She also touched on the context of the healing. “Christ healed the disabled not for the disability itself, but because society was so disabling that it was the only way [to welcome people into the community of faith].” Some examples of this include the bleeding woman in Luke 8 or Jesus healing the man with Leprosy in Matthew 8.  Martin’s vision of the church and healing is not focused on individuals, but on society itself.

“Can we think about how society disables the disabled more than their own disability? What if we are called, like Christ, to try to heal society? So that people with disabilities can function without being disabled.”

Imagine if the church became the model for a world that is accessible and embracing to the disabled.  

Martin also touched on the double-edged sword of charity. She said there needs to be a “reordering of your outreach to the disabled, with healing not being your first step but a simple hello.” We also need to be including disabled people in our outreach. In an article about ableism in the church during the post-Covid-19-era, writer Miriam Spies says this: “For countless years, people with disabilities have been understood to be the recipients of ministry—not ministry leaders. As we push the church and society to become more physically and relationally accessible, we also challenge others to recognize us as having gifts to offer communities of faith.”2 People with disabilities are just as called by God as everyone else, and we have parts of ourselves that are uniquely designed to fill God’s purpose. 

Living with Type 1 Diabetes, I see the ways in which having a disability has actually drawn me closer to God.  I had the opportunity to discuss this with Haskell and Martin and hear their own experiences. For Haskell, he sees how he is uniquely made in the image of God.

“I am happy God gave me this disability, to be honest. I’m happy I’m different from everyone. Everybody with ASD (Autism Spectrum Disorder) is different and there’s so many different forms. For me, I can do things I thought I would never do. It makes me different, which I think is so important and it’s all a part of God’s plan for me.”

Martin, who has a hip-related disability, referenced Genesis 32 in which God wrestles with Jacob and disables his hip.

“To me being disabled is an honor, because it feels like I am being chosen to wrestle with God in a way that other people aren’t. This wrestling with God isn’t a negative thing, it’s God asking to be explored and welcoming the challenge.”

Both Martin and Haskell join in the chorus of Christians who see their disabilities as a way they uniquely relate to God.  

Churches must make efforts to be more welcoming, Martin told me, because “by not being an accessible place for people with disabilities, the church is excluding a form of how the image of God is carried, and that to me is quite tragic because I do believe that God places traces of His beauty and traces of His purpose in everyone and everything.” Both she and Haskell emphasized that the best way to do this is to listen to the voices of the people that the church is trying to serve. It may seem like a huge feat to be accessible, but when you take the time to know and love the people you are accommodating, you find the motivation to make it happen. People with disabilities are unarguably just as valuable to the church as anyone else. Everyone has a seat at the table of God, and everyone deserves a seat in our sanctuaries.  

I asked Martin and Haskell what their charge to the global church might be. Haskell said, “I want to shine lights on these people who get forgotten, and I think that’s so important. You want to remember everyone and people with disabilities usually get forgotten, at least by the churches I’ve gone to.” Martin added, “And I think the church needs to get comfortable with not just having disabled bodies but being a disabled body. Having the body of Christ be disabled. Whether that’s disability as we’re talking about it or recognizing our own fallenness and how that contributes to God filling in the cracks. I think we need to be okay with both.” The more people that are not only welcomed but celebrated in the body of Christ, the better we are able to reflect God’s Kingdom on Earth.  

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