Tuesday, November 27, 2012

The Bible, Disability, and the Church


For many years, practical ministry to people with disabilities has continued despite the lack of theologians reflecting on what impact disability has on the church at large.  A brief respite has appeared with the writings of Amos Yong in The Bible, Disability, and the Church: A New Vision of the People of God.  Yong, influenced by growing up in an Assembly of God pastor’s home as the older sibling of a brother with Down Syndrome, has penned five articles which hope to reimagine the church and its relationship alongside people with disabilities. 

This 176 page book, which includes a chapter study guide, is reflective of Yong’s engaging personal speaking style and is targeted to the layperson and local church pastor.  Yong, the J. Rodman Williams Professor of Theology at Regent University School of Divinity, revisits the same themes found in his earlier systematic work entitled Theology and Down Syndrome (2008), yet does so in a manner more accessible for most readers.  While a few of the million dollar theological words remain, they are appropriately defined in context and would not hinder the reader from comprehension.

Yong defines his presuppositions early on: people with disabilities are created in the image of God, they are people first, and they are not evil blemishes to be eliminated or fixed into normal.  He posits that most people read their normal experiences into the Biblical narrative, resulting in the social marginalization of people with disabilities; it is only by recognizing the inherent prejudices that the Biblical reader understands how these passages actually indicate God has fully welcomed people with disabilities into full social inclusion and joint ministry.  Yong continues that it is the person (and church structures) without disabilities that must be saved from practicing discrimination.

Yong moves out of his comfort zone of systematic theology into the realm of biblical theology to make his point.  His line of argument extends from the First Testament with Job, Jacob and Mephibosheth into the New Testament with Zacheus, the Ethiopian Eunuch and Paul.  By asserting that people with disabilities are central to the redemptive history gospel accounts, he concludes that they are also fully part of the post-Pentecost church age and must be a vital functioning part of the body of Christ in order for the church to accomplish its mission.

Yong completes his work with a re-examination of resurrection life.  Many normate understandings presume that resurrected beings have no direct links to the disabled bodies of this age and therefore should be fixed on this side of eternity.  Yong rejects this perspective by looking at the resurrected, yet nail scarred body of Christ.  He boldly claims since people marked with disabilities do have a place in God’s new creation even more so should there be a place for them in the church today.

Yong’s positions are a welcome refrain to those within the disability family.  They also cause appropriate discomfort for those persons outside (or even very close) to that community, yet not currently disabled themselves.  Yong has delicately balanced two evangelical strands of tradition – a yearning for liberation and a yearning for wholeness.  His brief comments on the concept of the church as one body with many members reveal excellent points, but a full scale discussion of how the gifts are fully appropriated without discrimination within the body has not yet been fully developed.  It is this resulting tension which reveals much more work can be done. 

This book is a must read for all pastors and those that minister alongside people with disabilities.  It lays an excellent Biblical foundation on why disability ministry should exist within the local church.  With the enclosed study questions, it can easily be adapted into a small group Bible study for those in your church who wish to catch the vision of a disabled-inclusive congregation.

The Bible, Disability, and the Church: A New Vision of thePeople of God.  Amos Yong (Grand Rapids, MI: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company. 2011). 176 pp. Paperback, $20.00, ISBN: 978-0-8028-6608-0.