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Biblical Theology of Disability

The Wheaton Center for Faith and Disability’s Biblical Theology of Disability is foundationally rooted in Genesis to Revelation. Various Christian scholars and those whose lives are impacted by disability have given their valuable review and input. Below are 10 pillars of disability theology for you to build on. (Updated on Oct. 19, 2021)

Preamble: 

What is perceived as a disability and who gets labeled accordingly can vary from culture to culture. When measured against some level of minimal or average performance or standing, we must acknowledge the arbitrariness of such standards. Furthermore, disability is not partial to any race/ethnicity, any religion, sex, age, or socio-economic class. If we have not yet been touched by a disability (whether physical, intellectual, developmental, or neuro-atypical)—or by mental illness—we or one of our loved ones are likely to be impacted eventually.

1. God’s Image Bearers: A Glorious Reflection

Genesis 1:26-27 tells us that all people are made in the image of God as the pinnacle act of creation and are designed for intimate relationship with God and others. We each bear God’s image individually as integrated persons of body and soul/spirit not limited by our capacities. We also, however, image God collectively. As image bearers, our glorious purpose is to reflect God’s character into the world individually, as families, and as communities.

2. God’s Image Bearers: A Distorted Reflection

However, since creation's corruption described in Genesis 3, our ability to reflect God accurately has been fractured. As human persons, we still image God, yet the reflection is now cast in distorted ways. For we have all been alienated from God through rebellion—our hearts have become bent to our own will and our purpose distortedly focused on our own glory. At the same time, we experience differing elements of brokenness in every aspect of our personhood as a result of being born into—and living our lives in—a world impacted by the effects of the fall. We experience brokenness in our bodies, our minds, our intellect, our emotions, and our social relationships. Brokenness and difficulty are common to the human condition. Disability often draws unique attention to our difficulties and their impact. Disability is experienced both functionally (through bodies that do not work as we expect them to) and socially (through relationships that do not respect, support and affirm as we need them to).

3. God’s Promise to Remedy Creation's Corruption

And yet, God never leaves us without hope. Even in the Garden, after the fall, God proclaimed that a woman would bear a Seed who would crush Satan’s head (Gen. 3:15), to overcome all alienation that separates us from God and each other—bringing restoration to the brokenness and difficulty experienced in this age.

Building on Genesis 3:15, Isaiah 53 predicted that when this Seed came he would have no beauty or majesty that we should desire him. He would be despised and rejected, a man of sorrows acquainted with the deepest grief. The One who would crush Satan’s head would himself be crushed in order to redeem us from our sin and to heal our brokenness. He would be pierced for our transgressions and crushed for our iniquities.

4. God’s Remedy Is Jesus

The Gospels tell of Jesus’ life, death, resurrection, and ascension as the initial installment of God’s promise of full restoration in His future return. In the testimony of the Apostles and Prophets, we see Jesus as the Messianic Seed, a resurrected Jewish God-man, who opened the door to both Jews and Gentiles for complete salvation, including the “crippled, blind, and lame” (Luke 14:12-23). Moreover, all who invite in and embrace these individuals described as having various disabilities are promised a reward in the age to come (Luke 14:14).

5. God’s Goodness and Sovereignty in the Face of Trials

In John 9—the story of Jesus’ encounter with the man born blind—we see Jesus’ most clear example of how the functional and social aspects of disability are reversed. First, the Messiah corrects his disciples’ misconceptions that the man born blind experienced this disability because of personal sin (which created heartbreaking social barriers for the man born blind). Instead, Jesus declares that “this happened that the works of God might be displayed in his life.” The man’s disability was made purposeful in the hands of a good, loving, and sovereign heavenly Father—working in the context of a broken world. Secondly, Jesus restored the man’s vision—the function of his sight. This demonstration of God’s power was an initial installment toward the full restoration of the brokenness of the fall. We see Jesus holding in tension human brokenness and difficulty with divine value and purpose. We must do the same.

6. God’s Economy

In God’s economy, human value is not measured by what we can do or not do, but instead by Whose we are. When Moses hesitated to accept God’s commission to deliver his people by citing a self-perceived limitation or disability, God responds by saying, “Who made the human mouth? Who makes him mute or deaf, seeing or blind? Is it not I, the LORD? Now go! I will help you speak, and I will teach you what to say” (Exod. 4:10-12). God sees no barriers to using the weakness of those with and without disabilities to accomplish His purposes. Again, the Apostle Paul declares that the seemingly weaker members of the believing community are indispensable and to be given double honor (1 Cor. 12:20-26). Furthermore, weakness is actually portrayed as a platform to perfect and display God’s power (2 Cor. 12:9). Those perceived as weak and less worthy of praise by human standards are not only suitable—but at times they are uniquely gifted—for displaying God’s glory and goodness.

7. God’s Law of Love

God is love (1 Jo. 4:8). Jesus said, "As I have loved you, so you must love one another" (John 13:34). Love necessarily makes demands on how we treat other people (cf. 1 Cor. 13). As finite creatures, human beings are all limited in various ways. Additionally, none of us are autonomous and completely self-sufficient—nor are we meant to be. Disability can enhance the visibility and tangibility of God's love within a community by focusing love’s demands where they are needed most and reflect God’s character best.

8. God’s People Respond

As God’s people, what is our role in responding to disability? The church is to manifest God’s wisdom in love to a watching world (Eph. 3:10-11) as we live in counter-cultural ways that reflect the values of God's kingdom on earth. With Jesus as our Head, we constitute His Body. We are called to preserve unity in diversity (including diverse abilities)—until we grow into the maturity and stature of Jesus (Eph. 4).

The unity of God’s people does not depend upon talent or intellect. It depends on our union with Jesus. This is a relational oneness in Messiah (who himself is one with the Father) and with one another (John 17). Furthermore, as God has placed each part in the Body just as He wanted (1 Cor. 12:18), so each has a divine purpose and gift that serves the Body (1 Pet. 4:10). Indeed, God has “put the Body together, giving greater honor to the less honorable so that there would be no division in the Body, but that the members would have the same concern for each other so that if one member suffers, all the members suffer with it; if one member is honored, all the members rejoice with it” (1 Cor. 12:24-26).

9. God's Presence and Purpose In Suffering

Responding as God's people requires us to walk in love by clinging to Jesus and building up His Body so that all members are present and every gift is received. While suffering in this age is unavoidable, God desires for all people to belong and flourish in community. God does not promise to remove all sources of suffering in this age. He does, however, promise to be with us and never leave us in our suffering. Furthermore, God often pours out His blessings upon His children through the loving presence, words, and deeds of others. Therefore, people of all abilities need one another for the unity, diversity, and growth of His Body in the perfect love of God—all for the glory of God!

10. God’s Ultimate Restoration of All Things in the Age to Come

The Seed predicted in Genesis 3:15 came into the world the first time to crush the serpent’s head and bring salvation to all who put their faith in Him (Rom. 10:11-13). Jesus, this King of the Jews and Desire of All Nations (Haggai 2:7) will come again to subject the enemy to final judgment. In the Days of Messiah’s reign there will be no more mourning, crying, or pain (Rev. 21:3-4). Together we look to His return. The Spirit and the Bride say, Come (Rev. 22:17)!

You can look forward to a series of upcoming blogs that will give emphasis to portions of our Biblical Theology of Disability text from a group of leading experts. Stay tuned!