Handicapped and Wholeness

by Bill J. Leonard

Bill J. Leonard is William Walker Brooks Professor of American Christianity at Southern Baptist Theological Seminary in Louisville.

This article appeared in the Christian Century March 14, 1984, p. 277. Copyright by the Christian Century Foundation and used by permission. Current articles and subscription information can be found at www.christiancentury.org. This material was prepared for Religion Online by Ted & Winnie Brock.


While the church universal idealistically proclaims that people with special needs have a special place within the community of faith, individual churches give limited attention to the complex needs of the handicapped. Church must be a place where the handicapped can confront the reality of their situation and vent their accompanying anger creatively, without guilt.

“Daddy, am I handicapped?” my eight-year-old daughter inquired one day recently.

“Who said you were?” I asked, defenses rising.

“The kids at church.”

They were right. She is a multiply handicapped child, and she was bound to hear that word applied to herself sooner or later. Perhaps it was better to hear it at church than somewhere else. Yet I wonder what the children or adults who readily recognize handicaps in my daughter and other people will do next. Is there really a place in the Body of Christ for those with physical and mental deficiencies?

While the church universal idealistically proclaims that people with special needs have a special place within the community of faith, individual churches give limited attention to the complex needs of the handicapped. Relatively few denominations or local churches have developed a strategy for ministering to those with special physical and mental needs. As the parent of an autistic teen-ager recently told me, “If 1 could find one Sunday school, Protestant or Catholic, that would accept my child, I’d go there.”

Many contemporary religious institutions, no less than those of the first century, are uncomfortable with the social and theological questions raised by the presence of handicapped people in the world. What is to be done with them, and why has God caused, or at least permitted, them to be as they are?

With that realization in mind I have returned to some of the healing narratives of the Gospels, particularly those involving children. What were those maladies which, then as now, seemed so demonic and destructive to first century children? Were they suffering from epilepsy, hyperactivity, cerebal palsy? Were there Downs Syndrome or autistic children among the multitudes brought, to Jesus for healing? Were such children among the “many other sufferers” who, as Matthew says, were “flung . . . down at his feet, and he healed them”? (15:30, NEB). We can never know.

Two thousand years later, however, even modern medicine cannot bring healing to most handicapped people. They and their families must learn to live with constant fragmentation and brokenness. Yet the Scripture suggests that the promise of the Kingdom is the promise of wholeness. In the Kingdom of God the blind see, the deaf hear, the lame leap and the speechless speak (Isa. 35:54). Jesus frequently validates his messianic calling through his response to those outside the “normal” or “respectable” framework of life. When the Baptizer inquired, ‘Are you the one or should we wait for another?,” Jesus replied, “Tell John what you hear and see: the blind recover their sight, the lame walk, the lepers are clean, the deaf hear, the dead are raised, . . . [and] the poor are hearing the good news” (Matt. 11:2-6 NEB).

Such activity on Jesus’ part was a sign, an eschatological promise, that in the Kingdom of God there is wholeness. If that promise is withheld from those most broken, it has no real meaning for anyone else. Everyone lacks wholeness, all “see through a glass darkly.” We are all in need of wholeness. Those whose needs are most obvious reveal the absence of wholeness in everyone else. Their place in the Kingdom is a promise for all humanity.

The Apostle Paul’s own struggle for wholeness provides another clue for the church’s response to the handicapped. In II Corinthians he acknowledges his “thorn in the flesh” which neither miracle nor prayer could alleviate. Even his experience on the Damascus road could not end his brokenness.

Thus, to be “saved” is not necessarily to be made whole -- not immediately, not automatically. At best, conversion sets us on a journey toward wholeness while providing grace to live with the absence of wholeness along the way.

- The gospel will not remove all the pain for either handicapped or non-handicapped people. It makes no such promise, contrary to the claims of certain popular preachers. It cannot smooth over all the cracks which life etches in us, ‘‘earthen vessels” that we are. But it must provide a perspective for confronting the pain, and working with those in whom that pain is most acute.

Why, then, for many handicapped people is the church the last place to find serious, long-term response? One reason, I believe, is that American churches, particularly white, middle-class churches, are organized around a theology of normalization -- of getting people to “normalcy” as soon as possible. We are relatively good at dealing with immediate crises: temporary illness, cancer, death, family emergencies, even divorce and depression.

We are good at things we can get people through, after which they will be restored to some type of normalcy.

But the handicapped cannot be normalized. They represent a chronic crisis, and most churches simply are not organized to respond to that type of need. For example, a handicapped child is admitted to a Sunday school class, and after several months and repeated disturbances the teacher says, “He has to go, he’s just not getting any better.” He never will, and that is the issue. With most church programs directed toward normalcy, the chronic crisis of handicapped persons poses serious theological and pastoral difficulties for us.

In some instances, in an effort at securing normalcy, churches will try to perform miracles to do away with the handicaps -- some with sincerity, others for exploitation. If God is good, loving and powerful, surely he can make broken minds and bodies whole; Jesus did. But the demons of Downs Syndrome are not to be exorcised. Prayer and spiritual sustenance are absolutely necessary for the handicapped and their families, but not as an easy answer or a quick fix.

Some churches promote normalcy by leaving the handicapped to the “professionals” --  the therapists, social workers, physicians and other modern healers trained to deal with special-needs persons. Often this approach seems prudent, since most congregations are not staffed or equipped to respond to the handicapped. But it may obscure the church’s call to relate the gospel to all humanity. Further, it may segregate the handicapped, rather than affirm them as members of the Body of Christ. Laity and clergy can be trained to work with the handicapped (where are the seminaries in this field?), and lack of special training is no excuse when it comes to relating as persons to persons.

In response to that challenge, some congregations are re-evaluating their ministry to the handicapped, These churches not only provide access to buildings but also offer Christian nurture, training and service for individuals with special needs. They accept the fact that the handicapped will not be made “normal” by miracle or therapy but must be offered the promise of wholeness through the gracious sign of a beloved community. These congregations do not turn from prayer even though no miracles occur, nor do they idealize the harsh realities of life for the handicapped. They do not flee from service even though they lack technical training. How then can they serve? A basic plan might include the following.

First, churches should develop a strategy of response to the handicapped even when such individuals are not already present in the congregation. Then they may aggressively (dare we say evangelistically?) seek out special-needs people in the community. “We don’t have any handicapped is a pathetic excuse for failing to develop strategies which will make the church a place where those with special needs may experience acceptance and offer their own unique gifts.

Second, in formulating those strategies, churches must recognize that diversity of needs requires a diversity of programs. Worship services, church-school classes and other gatherings must be adapted to an increasingly varied special-needs population. One all-inclusive class for all the handicapped is an inadequate -- perhaps even inappropriate --  response. Learning disabilities, multiple handicaps, hearing and visual impairments all necessitate a personalized approach.

Thus, programs cannot be ironclad but must be adapted to fit the unique needs of each handicapped individual. Consistency may also be a problem. People who endure a barrage of teachers, therapists, physicians and other specialists five or six days a week may need a day of rest from all such activity. Some Sundays a trip to church is more hassle than help for the handicapped, yet they need religious nurture nonetheless. Can churches understand and respond creatively?

Third, local congregations should consider ways to provide services for the handicapped who live in the community but who may never affiliate with the church. Such a response is increasingly crucial in a time when federal and state funds are being withdrawn from entitlement programs for the handicapped. Could a church, for example, hire a therapist to serve handicapped preschoolers? (Such programs have been among the first to suffer in federal cutbacks.) Recreation and music therapy might be a means for offering handicapped youth both practical help and religious nurture.

Finally, churches must provide an environment in which the handicapped and their families can express a wide range of emotions regarding their condition. In their obsession with normalcy, churches often want to hurry the handicapped to wholeness without making room for the anger, doubt and fear which are also a part of their special situation. Liberals often imply that a change in language will turn the handicapped into more normal human beings -- a worthy but sadly superficial response. Conservatives want to protect divine sovereignty at all costs by insisting that normalcy is enhanced when the handicapped learn to “praise God for their weakness,” or to see themselves as the gift of God. That response fosters needless guilt in those who cannot praise.

Church must be a place where the handicapped can confront the reality of their situation and vent their accompanying anger creatively, without guilt. Sometimes there is praise, sometimes anger; always there is the reality of life and struggle. Always there remain those hard questions which the handicapped and the rest of us must ask together as people of God: What does their presence suggest about the nature of God and the reality of suffering? Is there a difference between viewing the handicapped as gifts of God and viewing their handicaps as God-given gifts? What is the role of Word and sacrament for those who cannot conceptualize but who need the signs of grace nonetheless?

What is the nature of wholeness for all those waiting on the Kingdom? And we continue to ask, “Are you the One, or should we wait for another?” And turning quietly toward the leper, Jesus of Nazareth replies . . .