Bearing One Another’s Burdens: Disabilities and the Local Church

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According to a 2010 study by the Kessler foundation, people with disabilities are less likely than people without disabilities to attend church. Ironically, the Americans with Disabilities Act may be partly to blame. Enacted in 1990 with the intention of protecting people with disabilities and fostering greater inclusion, the ADA made one telling exception: religious institutions were (and are) exempt from providing access to people with disabilities.

Outside of city regulations or building codes, such as those that require a certain number of accessible parking spaces or bathroom stalls that can accommodate a wheelchair, churches today have no legal obligation to offer accessible services to people with disabilities.

And church budgets, which depend largely on a congregation’s giving, are often already maxed out supporting missionaries and local ministries, keeping the building’s lights on, hosting VBS for the community, and funding the church’s own ministries. After all of that, there’s simply no money left to support a visitor or congregant with a disability.

As someone put it to me recently, “We’re not legally obligated to provide access, and we don’t have the resources to, either.” I empathize with these lines of reasoning, but as a person with a disability, the implication of such a defense is hard to bear: that perhaps my hearing loss is beyond the reach of God’s mercy, that God is unconcerned with my needs, and the God of justice is content to exclude me, even from his own people.

Yet Scripture is too full of “one another” commands for me to believe that God has excused me or anyone else with a disability from being part of his body of believers. After all, he does not say, “bear one another’s burdens, unless you have trouble hearing them” or, “love one another deeply, from the heart, unless you are unable to see them.” If our aim as believers is to help each other make it home, well, I need some help.

I know people with disabilities seem intimidating—just like people sometimes avoid me because they are not sure how to communicate with me, so too do I hesitate to offer help to a person in a wheelchair, or find myself tongue-tied when crossing paths with someone who has Down Syndrome. We are afraid of what we do not know, and we don’t want to embarrass ourselves by saying or doing the wrong thing. We would rather hide behind the letter of the law and claim financial prudence instead of protecting and honoring the parts of the Body that seem weaker but actually are indispensable (1 Corinthians 12:22)! But such excuses will not hold up when we stand before God to give our accounts. Jesus didn’t let the Pharisees get away with excluding people with disabilities; why would he let us off the hook for doing the same?

The Mosaic Law was complex, and included instructions on “clean” and “unclean” foods, objects, and even people. By the time Jesus walked this earth, the Pharisees had so contorted and added to the Law that people with disabilities were barred from communing with their fellow Jews. People who were blind, couldn’t walk, or who had leprosy were subject to living in the margins and begging in the streets, occasionally receiving a few coins or small mercies. Their Jewish brethren had no legal obligation to embrace them as fellow and equal heirs of Abraham.

But Jesus was having none of that. Even though doing so would have made him “unclean” according to Jewish law, he drew near to and welcomed people with leprosy, people who could not see or walk, and even a woman who had been bleeding for 12 years! They could come near enough to touch and be touched by him. He not only restored them to physical health, but also plucked them out of the margins and restored them to their rightful community.

As members of American churches exempt from the ADA, we may not have a legal obligation to ensure that people with disabilities can participate in the life of the church to the full extent of their ability. However, if we are to imitate Christ, then we have a holy calling to embrace people with disabilities—not merely as recipients of our piety and mercy, but as fellow heirs of Christ and co-laborers for the Kingdom.

As Christians, we want to steward our resources wisely, stay out of debt, and spend in a way that blesses as many people as possible. Spending a disproportionate amount of money on accommodation(s) for just one person or only a few to help them fully participate in the life of the church doesn’t seem fiscally sound.

But God is not always a “fiscally sound” God. Consider what three of Jesus’s parables tell us about God’s generosity with even one person: A shepherd with a flock of 100 sheep loses one and he leaves behind the 99 to find the one sheep. A woman with 10 silver coins loses one, and searches her whole house to find the one coin. A son leaves home and his father’s longing for him is so ardent that the father sees his son when the son is “still a long way off” (Luke 15).

When the shepherd and the woman find their treasure, they call their friends and neighbors and celebrate over one sheep, one coin. Not to be outdone by his fictional contemporaries, the father says to his servants, “Bring quickly the best robe, and put it on him, and put a ring on his hand, and shoes on his feet. And bring the fattened calf and kill it, and let us eat and celebrate” (Luke 15:22–23).

Jesus tells us something about himself in these parables: he will exhaust every resource, make every effort, and spend his own self to come to just one sinner’s aid. More than that, he will celebrate lavishly when just the one is back in the fold, in the pocket, secure at home. “See what love the Father has lavished on us, that we should be called children of God!” is how John the apostle describes the triune God’s abundance toward sinners. Who are we to withhold such mercy (the very mercy shown to us!) from people with disabilities in our congregations in the name of legal technicalities or fiscal prudence?

Jesus, our older brother, gives us a better example to follow: to show compassion even when the law does not require it; and to spend freely, even in ways that seem foolish, for the sake of the Kingdom. We need not fear being “too” generous: God will take care of our church budgets and personal wallets, and equips us to care for the weak but indispensable among us. Let us go and do likewise.

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