The Apostle Paul, in 1 Corinthians 12:12-31, teaches us about how the body of Christ, the church, is made up of many parts. Many parts that combine to make one body, baptized by one Holy Spirit… He goes on to describe the various parts, firstly through metaphor (foot, hand, eye, ear, head etc.) and then by role (apostles, prophets, teachers, doers of miracles, healers etc.). We might know what our role is, where we fit, what we are gifted in, how we can serve; or we might still be searching for our place in this body, unsure of what our role might be…
But what about children and young people with additional needs or disabilities? Where do they fit in this picture? What is their place in the body? What could their role be? Well, I believe that there are two ways to answer these questions, individually and collectively, so let’s give both a crack as we tackle this together…
Everybody has a role to play in the body of Christ’s church, regardless of their age, gender, whether they have a disability or not, whatever… There are no exceptions, as Paul himself points out “You are the body of Christ. Each one of you is a part of it.” (1 Corinthians 12:27 NIrV) And note, Paul doesn’t say that those who are young, or have additional needs, are any less able to be part of this body. There is no distinction… If God has called a 10-year-old disabled child to lead, or to teach, then their calling should be tested, recognised and encouraged just as anyone else’s should be. To suggest that somebody who uses a wheelchair, or is blind, or deaf, or has a learning disability, is unable to be used by God in this way, is unable to respond to God’s calling to serve in this way, is to not only grossly misunderstand disability but is to put human limitations on God!
Paul himself puts it well… “The eye can’t say to the hand, “I don’t need you!” The head can’t say to the feet, “I don’t need you!” In fact, it is just the opposite. The parts of the body that seem to be weaker are the ones we can’t do without. The parts that we think are less important we treat with special honour.” (1 Corinthians 12:21-23a NIrV) Note the parts I’ve emphasised… The parts that seem to be weaker, the parts we think are less important… we can make the mistake of reducing the position of those we deem to be weaker, less important, with those with disabilities often being viewed in this way. It’s a human response, not a heavenly one. Paul shows us that God doesn’t think like this, and neither should we… those we might overlook we can’t do without and should treat with special honour!
Paul tells us what happens when we get this wrong, and when we get this right… “If one part suffers, every part suffers with it. If one part is honored, every part shares in its joy. You are the body of Christ. Each one of you is a part of it.” If we treat those with additional needs or disabilities poorly, including children and young people, we all suffer as a result through missing out on all that they bring both individually and collectively to the church. All parts of the body of Christ, his church, should be equally honoured, and all should share in its joy.
As well as the individual roles that each of us, including children and young people with additional needs or disabilities, can play in the life of the church, there is a collective inspirational and informative role that those with additional needs and disabilities, including children, can play. Let’s use some of the metaphorical ‘parts of the body’ that Paul mentions in order to expand on this some more:
Feet: Feet are all about moving us forward, taking us to places… By being inclusive, and being led forward in the best ways to achieve this by people of all ages with additional needs or disabilities, including children, the church can reach out more effectively, reach everyone, and be a church for all.
Hands: Hands are used to greet others… By greeting everyone into the body of the church, including children, young people and adults with additional needs or disabilities, helping everyone to belong, to identify their God given role, and to serve the rest of the body of Christ, we create an environment that is honouring, impactful and joyful for everyone.
Ears: The church could do an awful lot worse than to listen to people of all ages who have additional needs or disabilities. So often, generally unwittingly, churches decide what people need and go ahead with implementing it without once asking those they are trying to serve if it is what they want. Inclusion is too often ‘done unto’ disabled people rather than ‘done with’ them. Let’s use our ears more.
Eyes: Too often I hear people say to me “But we don’t have anyone with additional needs in our church!” Statistically, one in five children and young people have an additional need of some kind, but many are ‘hidden’ disabilities or differences, such as Autism, ADHD, or Dyslexia. Churches with elderly members within their congregation are likely to have those who have become less able as they have got older. I doubt that there is any church that has nobody who has an additional need or disability! And, even if there is an exception out there somewhere, that church will be located in a community full of people with additional needs and disabilities of all ages… we just need to look a bit harder!
Head: Sometimes we just need to think about what we say… The enthusiastic worship leader who excitedly shouts out “Let’s stand and worship!” could be a lot more inclusive by changing what they say to “Let’s stand and worship, if you are able”. Sometimes we need to think about the effects of what we say and do… The children’s work leader who told a mum of a boy with ADHD that her son would not be able to come to club as he would be “a health and safety risk” for example… Sometimes we need to understand just a little of what it is like to live 24/7 with a disability, and to learn how to be better at making church the best place that a disabled person, or a family with a disabled child, can spend time, can belong.
We can, as the church, get this right… we must, as the church, work together, all of us, to get this right… As Paul shows us, “In that way, the parts of the body will not take sides. All of them will take care of one another.” (1 Corinthians 12:25) There are no excuses…
24th October 2017
Image rights: Orchard Community Church (main header), Roosevelt Church (One Body Many Parts), vxvchurch.com (Bible passage header)
Here is the passage that we’ve been dipping into in this blog post, using the accessible edition NIrV version:
1 Corinthians 12:12-31 New International Reader’s Version (NIrV)
One Body but Many Parts
12 There is one body, but it has many parts. But all its many parts make up one body. It is the same with Christ. 13 We were all baptized by one Holy Spirit. And so we are formed into one body. It didn’t matter whether we were Jews or Gentiles, slaves or free people. We were all given the same Spirit to drink. 14 So the body is not made up of just one part. It has many parts.
15 Suppose the foot says, “I am not a hand. So I don’t belong to the body.” By saying this, it cannot stop being part of the body. 16 And suppose the ear says, “I am not an eye. So I don’t belong to the body.” By saying this, it cannot stop being part of the body. 17 If the whole body were an eye, how could it hear? If the whole body were an ear, how could it smell? 18 God has placed each part in the body just as he wanted it to be. 19 If all the parts were the same, how could there be a body? 20 As it is, there are many parts. But there is only one body.
21 The eye can’t say to the hand, “I don’t need you!” The head can’t say to the feet, “I don’t need you!” 22 In fact, it is just the opposite. The parts of the body that seem to be weaker are the ones we can’t do without. 23 The parts that we think are less important we treat with special honor. The private parts aren’t shown. But they are treated with special care. 24 The parts that can be shown don’t need special care. But God has put together all the parts of the body. And he has given more honor to the parts that didn’t have any. 25 In that way, the parts of the body will not take sides. All of them will take care of one another.
26 If one part suffers, every part suffers with it. If one part is honored, every part shares in its joy.
27 You are the body of Christ. Each one of you is a part of it. 28 First, God has placed apostles in the church. Second, he has placed prophets in the church. Third, he has placed teachers in the church. Then he has given to the church miracles and gifts of healing. He also has given the gift of helping others and the gift of guiding the church. God also has given the gift of speaking in different kinds of languages. 29 Is everyone an apostle? Is everyone a prophet? Is everyone a teacher? Do all work miracles? 30 Do all have gifts of healing? Do all speak in languages they had not known before? Do all explain what is said in those languages? 31 But above all, you should want the more important gifts.