Intellectual Disabilities and The Church

by Allyson Howell (Todd) October 19, 2020

Do people with intellectual disabilities belong in the church?

If you know someone with an intellectual disability, this question might make you wince. Most people don’t have to look at their freckle-faced, hazel-eyed sister with Down Syndrome and wonder if the church will do all it can to make her feel like she belongs. For some of us, this question may be a sour reminder of times when ignorance has hurt the ones we love, or when good intentions have gone awry. 

I trust most churches desire to love people with intellectual disabilities, and every true Christian at least believes that all humans have value and belong in the family of God. Most churches are good at including those with intellectual disabilities. They may have special classes, services, or ministries for those with intellectual disabilities. 

It is good and noble to include those with disabilities in the life of the church, but this cannot be all we do.

Imagine I invited you to a party. You come to my house, I greet you, talk with you, make sure you get a plate or drink, tell you where the bathroom is, and thank you for being there. I’ve included you and made you part of a whole. But let’s say you don’t know anyone else at the party. Including you is simply not enough. Instead, the most loving thing for me would be to integrate you. This would require more work on my end – I would need to bring you along to talk with some other friends, tell them about who you are, what you do, and facilitate connections between you all. By the end of the night, you should not just attend the party but belong there. 

The goal of the church is not to create dichotomies between different groups of people. Rather, the goal of the church is to “walk worthy of the calling you have received, with all humility and gentleness, with patience, bearing with one another in love, making every effort to keep the unity of the Spirit through the bond of peace” (Ephesians 4:1-6). Here and all over the New Testament we hear the common exhortation to be unified, to be one body, to have distinction – yes – but never at the expense of unity (1 Corinthians 1:10, Ephesians 2:11, 1 Corinthians 12, Colossians 3:14-15, Romans 12:3-5).  

Integration of all members fosters unity in the church, but it also takes hard work. 

I’m no expert on intellectual disabilities nor should you expect an exhaustive list from me about ways to pursue integration. I simply have personal experience and a desire to see the church take active steps toward love of their intellectually disabled neighbors. 

Before I walk through my suggestions, I want to lay a brief Biblical foundation. Though the Bible does not discuss intellectual disability directly, it does provide several passages and examples to form a theology of disability. In the Old Testament, God’s care for the imago Dei and the counter-cultural ways that David, and all other Israelites, accepted the disabled is a testimony that God has always and will always care for the marginalized and misunderstood. The Old Testament also grows our longing for a perfect Savior. In the New Testament, Jesus’ resurrection body bears the marks of his earthly death, which communicates that disabilities do not scare God, nor does the resurrection mean that this integral part of a person with an intellectual disability is inherently sinful and must be perfected. 

Personhood is the foundation of integration. As with any minority group, social class, or gender, the imago Dei must be the starting point. There is no us vs. them in the kingdom of God. The church falls under the unifying banner of Jesus Christ. Each member bears his or her individual strengths and weaknesses, but their value is found first in the life breathed into them by God. With that as the foundation, a church body can then plan to care for people with intellectual disabilities while also asking how every member of the church can contribute.

First, the church can make adjustments to be hospitable to those with intellectual disabilities. 

When a congregation has members with intellectual disabilities, an easy first step is to ask them and their family members how the church service can structure itself to ensure that no one is hindered from corporate worship. This will likely require some sacrifice on the church’s end, but Christians are responsible for one another, and showing hospitality in worship is part of this responsibility.

People with intellectual disabilities are capable of deep joy, sorrow, and anger. Emotions are an integral part of the human experience. The church can make adjustments not only to the intellectual portion of a liturgy so that it is more accessible, but also to emotional aspects. Engaging the emotions of those with intellectual disabilities is not manipulative, but hospitable in that it encourages them to love God with their not just their mind, but their heart, soul, and their whole person.

Can your Sunday service reduce the volume of the music or lessen the intensity of the lights to create a less stimulating or distracting environment? Can someone on staff create a sermon or note-taking guide? Can you train small group or Sunday School leaders on good question-asking skills? Questions like this can start the process of creating a more hospitable church for those with intellectual disabilities. 

Second, the church can pursue love and friendship with those who have intellectual disabilities.

Friendship is when I recognize another’s imago Dei and allow an active love to flow from that recognition. If members of a church are actual friends with people who have intellectual disabilities, the temptation to view a person as a ministry or service project is diminished. 

Friendship is one of the most practical ways to grow in understanding and recognition of the imago Dei in all humans. Unity and love are birthed from true friendships and a church congregation can integrate believers with intellectual disabilities through this basic human relationship.

The church cannot assume she knows what someone with an intellectual disability needs without asking questions. If I am not friends with you, it would be foolish for me to assume I know your favorite coffee drink and bring you a vanilla latte if all you really like is cold brew. 

Love and friendship are often characterized by curiosity. If you have someone in your congregation with an intellectual disability, how can you be a better brother or sister to them? What can you learn about them that makes them feel loved and known?

Third, the church can use the gifts of those with intellectual disabilities for God’s glory and the benefit of all. 

Those with intellectual disabilities can and should benefit from the service and ministry of the church. In the same way, the church needs the gifts and strengths of those who have intellectual disabilities. Prayer, hospitality, encouragement, exhortation, and many other God-given gifts are not limited to those whose minds the world deems “normal.”

If the gospel is not off-limits to those with intellectual disabilities, then service to the people who believe this gospel is not off-limits either. God draws his children to himself in salvation, and by the Holy Spirit he empowers all his children to make disciples of all nations (Matthew 28:18-20).

The church would look more like heaven if those with intellectual disabilities were fully integrated in the life and ministry of the church. When the church views the intellectually disabled not as charity cases, but as brothers and sisters, we will surely see a more heaven-looking congregation.

How can those with intellectual disabilities serve your church? Can they greet others at the door? Can they pray for fellow members? Can they lead the body in worship? When a person with an intellectual disability flourishes, the whole church flourishes.

For The Glory of God and the Benefit of the Church

My sister has taught me much about trusting God. Those with intellectual disabilities have much to teach us. They can exemplify simple, unadulterated faith, can welcome outsiders without hesitation, and they understand real love.

Many of us trust in our own ability to live the Christian life. We are often unaware or outright defiant of our weaknesses and elevate our knowledge of God over faith in God. A Christian who has an intellectual disability sometimes has a better grasp of faith than the rest of us. The impairments of their minds often create clearer paths toward belief in God. Their hearts are not obstructed by their minds, and this innocent love of God brings him glory and teaches other Christians to yearn for childlike faith (Matthew 18:1-6). 

As the church learns to welcome those who are marginalized like those with intellectual disabilities, she could benefit by looking at the lives of those she seeks to welcome. While doctors and pro-abortionists debate “quality of life” that someone with an intellectual disability might have, the very people whose lives they’ve deemed invalid are welcoming outcasts without a second thought. Those with intellectual disabilities sometimes have a better grasp of the imago Dei than the rest of us. They see humanity first, and everything else second.

The church can also learn valuable lessons from the love and forgiveness that those with intellectual disabilities show. Many times, these believers are quicker to forgive, freer with their love, and genuinely forget the sins of others. This Christ-like interaction with other humans encourages the church to be like them. 

The church cannot continue to isolate people with intellectual disabilities or relate to them as a hero relates to a damsel in distress. Rather, the church must move from inclusion toward full-fledged integration. Christians with intellectual disabilities belong in the church. Adjustments should be made to integrate them, they should grow in deep friendships with other believers, and their gifts should be used to glorify God and benefit the church.

God did not make a mistake when He breathed life into people with intellectual disabilities. He purposefully designed these people to bring Him glory in ways that others cannot. He invites the intellectually disabled into His kingdom, and He invites the church to love and be loved by them.

Editor’s Note: Though this article is detailed, there are many more nuances and discussions surrounding this topic. The author adapted this article from a paper that further covers some of these topics. You can access the original paper here.

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