A Dissonant Witness: Responding to the Christian Model of Disability

November 4, 2019

Dr. Jeff McNair and Dr. Ben Rhodes of the Christian Institute on Disability (a ministry of Joni and Friends) recently proposed a new “Christian model of disability,” and published the model in the summer edition of the Journal of the Christian Institute on Disability (JCID). That edition contains three responses to the model that McNair and Rhodes propose, including one response from Dan Vander Plaats. Dan has a speech disability, works in Elim’s advancement department, and serves on the Advisory Committee for RCA/CRC Disability Concerns. While the full text of Dan’s response is posted here for you as a friend of Elim to enjoy, the full edition of the journal is available on the institute’s website: RCA/CRC Disability Concerns | JCID edition

A Dissonant Witness: Responding to the Christian Model of Disability

Dan Vander Plaats | Elim Christian Services

What Christians might offer with one hand, they can too quickly take away with the other.

In McNair and Rhodes’ proposed “Christian Model of Disability,” they not only rightly assert a Christ-centered understanding of our relationships to God, to each other, and to disability, but they also point out some necessary distinctives. It is two of those distinctives upon which this response is based.

To more deeply re-assert my opening statement, the Christian faith, especially by virtue of its Scriptures, offers the most empowering view among the prevailing worldviews, in terms of affirming the identities and worth of people with disabilities (competing worldviews would include atheism, humanism, rationalism, and naturalism, not to mention some religious faiths). It is worth pointing out that the belief that all people bear God’s image is shared by Christians, Jews, and Muslims.

Simultaneously and disappointingly, the Christian community at large often offers the least empowering and affirming attitude toward people with disabilities. We are confronted daily by stories of people who are at best ignored or pitied by Christian faith communities, and in many cases mistreated or abused by those and other Christian churches and communities. I will dwell on some of those accounts later in this response.

It is this dichotomy that both burdens our witness and presents one of our greatest opportunities as a faith community. As Professor Thomas Boehm of Wheaton College recently declared, “To the extent that our churches exclude people with disabilities as full participants in the gospel work, we are preaching a disabled gospel.”

We are gifted a head start in pursuing this opportunity by the work of McNair and Rhodes. Their model posits the following important points (reordered and paraphrased from their article so as to emphasize some critical points):

  • People with disabilities are made in the image of God, with a purpose.
  • People with disabilities are made to do good works, as are we all, and are only made complete in Christ, as are we all.
  • We are together made to form the Body of Christ, of which every part is essential/indispensable.
  • God, as the sovereign Creator, has purpose in disability and in its associated experiences.

These core points are what I suggest form the opportunity for Christians:

To profess and affirm the worth and inestimable value of people with disabilities to our Christian communities; to declare without hesitation that every person, with every difference, with every imperfect experience and acquaintance with suffering (or what could be perceived as suffering), absolutely and unequivocally belongs within the Body of Christ because each person’s identity resides in the person and work of Christ, and their value lies in a limitless capacity to image their Creator in holiness and righteousness.

It is this profession of worth and essentiality that contains the opportunity we as Christians have today. It provides a framework of human social valorization that no other worldview offers, most certainly not secular humanism or rationalism, the worldviews that seem to provide the foundation for Western cultural views about differences and disabilities. The world has offered its proposition for valuing people, including those with disabilities. It has historically proposed what Andrew Solomon (2012) calls “vertical identities” (identities based on traits passed down, such as ethnicity, personality and intellectual gifts, even attributes and values). Contemporarily, Solomon has proposed finding value not in what makes us the same (vertical identities) but what makes us different from others, as distinctive persons with unique traits, abilities, and preferences. Solomon calls these “horizontal identities.” These models of valorization appear on the surface to be competing. In fact, they do compete in the same way that the moral and medical models of disability are superseded by the social model of disability, but they also represent a distinctively faithless approach to valuing people with differences. In short, you are either valuable because of what makes you the same as your forebears, or you are valuable because of what makes you different within your context. Both models are burdened by the same assumption, that your value is within you as a person. It is perhaps based on intrinsic characteristics, but it (one’s value) is realized extrinsically. It is assessed by yourself or by others and it is dependent on accomplishment or deficit, on uniqueness or similarity, on how you feel today versus tomorrow, and/or on what you earn or do or who you are.

Because the models function under such a burden, they in turn impose this same burden on each person who subscribes to them. In fact, one might argue that insofar as we adopt these models to affirm worth and value (in essence, seeking the freedom these models appear to offer), we can requisitely enslave ourselves to these models and to the fleeting and temporary affirmation they offer—affirmation that cannot and does not last, affirmation that is not simply mutable, but is by its desired nature both mutable and fluid. Under such models (no matter how much we might argue they are different from each other) we might conclude that we are truly hopeless creatures, because we cannot keep accomplishing, we are not always different, and we are not always feeling good about ourselves.

Contrast this to what was said before and what is promoted by the “Christian Model of Disability.” My worth as a creature is not rooted in anything other than Christ; it is not dependent on my self-perception or on another person’s assessment of me. My value does not adjust upward or downward based on a mood or a whim or on a success or a failure, on a similarity or a difference. My value is fixed, and is unquestioned, because God determined that I was not only worth creating, but that I was also worthy of the sacrifice of His own Son, so that my life (which otherwise would be devoid of value) would be redeemed at the highest possible price.

This is what the “Christian Model” can offer to people with disabilities. But the continuing black mark on the Christian community is our failure to make good on that offer.

A community that values people as having been “redeemed at the highest possible price,” as people whom Christ loves and died for, treats people who are different from a wholly counter-cultural perspective.

I have a friend who is intelligent, kind, patient, and compassionate. I don’t say any of those things patronizingly; each characteristic would be verifiable in just a few moments spent in conversation with him. I have not yet said that he is on the autism spectrum and struggles with depression and thoughts of suicide. These things do not define him, but they do define his experiences in social settings. He has found ways to make social settings work well for him, in almost every case, even though it requires work on his part and on the part of his friends and companions. But one social institution has completely failed him—the local church.

To paraphrase from conversations I’ve had with him, he has been treated as an attention-seeker, as demanding and aggressive, as unwilling to do what it takes to deal with his disabilities, even as a “faker.” He has not experienced patience or compassion, and he has most definitely not been told that he is of more worth to Christ than he is to any other part of this world. He has found the most empowering attitudes outside of the church, because the churches he’s visited have categorically been unwilling to walk with him.

Even more to the point, a fellow disability advocate tells the story of a child with autism whose family experienced the same thing over and over as they visited churches. They would sit down in church, and as the worship service progressed, their son’s noises and movements would prompt responses from their neighbors. Bit by bit, other congregants moved further and further away from the family, sending a not-so-subtle signal: You do not belong. You are not worthy to be here. Why are you here?

These stories are familiar to Christians, and that absolutely should not be the case. For Christian disability advocates, it has become a wearisome refrain to hear story after story of how a family and their beloved child—who images God the same as you or I and is loved as deeply by Him as anyone who has ever lived—is treated as an outcast by a church made up of outcasts, as a leper by a church that is full of similarly leprous sinners.

Can we confront this? Are we willing to do so?

What I appreciate most about McNair and Rhodes’ model is that they recognize this theological dissonance—that we as the church have something completely new to say about the worth of people with disabilities, and that we have simultaneously done the exact opposite, to the detriment of our witness in this world.

It doesn’t take much to hear what we are called to do. Paul tells us what such empowering treatment looks like in his first letter to the Corinthians:

“On the contrary, those parts of the body that seem to be weaker are indispensable, and the parts that we think are less honorable we treat with special honor. And the parts that are unpresentable are treated with special modesty, while our presentable parts need no special treatment. But God has put the body together, giving greater honor to the parts that lacked it, so that there should be no division in the body, but that its parts should have equal concern for each other” (1 Corinthians 12:22-25).

We must consider these words seriously. Paul clearly calls us to have “equal concern” for each other and at the same time to treat some (the implication is that Paul is talking about people who were considered different or in some way unworthy) with “greater honor” and “special honor.” How can both happen? Consider Paul’s words in his second letter to the same church in regards to giving, where he writes, “Our desire is not that others might be relieved while you are hard pressed, but that there might be equality” (1 Corinthians 8:13).

We treat others with special honor so that there might be equality. There is not equality now, because we are unwilling to realize and live out God’s truth that the less honored are actually indispensable.

I contend that the Christian faith offers the most empowering and affirming perspective on the value and worth of people with disabilities to this world and to God’s Kingdom. Our Christian churches could offer that, but consistently fail to do so. So, in responding to the “Christian Model of Disability,” I ask my fellow Christians and all our churches to treat people with disabilities with special honor, as indispensable, not so that you will be hard pressed, but so that there would be equality.

And how can you do that? The variety of disabilities and special needs with which a church might contend in seeking to be obedient appears dizzying. The programs, demands, and preparations threaten to overwhelm. But the call is much simpler than that. The call on the church—to treat people with disabilities as indispensable, to profess to the world that they will be valued nowhere more than they are in the church—is manifested when a family sits down next to you in church, and their son starts making noises and moves around and causes distractions, and you respond with one simple action.

You move closer.

Solomon, A. (2012). Far from the tree: Parents, children, and the search for identity. New York, NY: Scribner.

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