Special Needs as a Model for the Christian Church Collective

I am blessed to have friends from all walks of life. You are straight, gay, male, female, old, young, of many religions, atheists and from every political perspective that I can think of. I feel like this offers me an interesting perspective when major US and world events occur. I don’t intend to take sides on any of the political topics that I mention. This post has nothing to do with that. Instead, it has everything to do with the Christian response to politics as a whole and what our role is in this world as followers of Jesus.

I know that this viewpoint will cause a lot of disagreement, but I propose that all of the arguing between Christians when it comes to right vs. left, gay vs. straight, welfare, gun control, etc… is all a huge bunch of crap. It seems that Christians grab on to these concepts and base their faith around them rather than Biblical teaching.

“Well, if you’re a Christian, then surely you vote for __________.”

“If you are a Christian, you must be against _______ group of people.”

“Come on Christians, let’s make our mission to go and protest ________.”

Come on! I get so angry with how much effort Christians put in to telling people that they are wrong. When did Christianity change from loving like Christ to getting to choose who is worthy of the Gospel? Why do we always feel the need to be right all the time? To tell others what they are doing wrong? To fight about every little thing that we disagree with?

I know that some of you will say, “But you can’t really think that these issues aren’t important?” They are important in terms of human rights, equality and how we help those in need in our country. However, they are NOT important in terms of how we view people or how we love them. And I truly don’t think that they are important to God in terms of who gets into heaven and who doesn’t. I often feel that it must hurt Him so much to see people condemning one another in the name of Christ for things that just don’t matter in the grand scheme of our lives.

What does this have to do with Special Needs? I’m glad you asked! I am so blessed to be the director of a program for families with special needs. I often get comments from people telling me what a nice thing I am doing for those people, or how my job is so nice and there needs to be more people like me. But, what no one understands is that I am one of the privileged few who gets to see a glimpse of the way that the Church Collective should work.

Before anyone gets any ideas that this is going to be a fuzzy, feel-good special needs story, let me give you some perspective on some of our major moral, ethical and philosophical issues in America. And let me let you in on a little secret. NO political perspective is in favor of people with special needs. There is no right or left. Only, special needs families vs. the system as a whole. For example…

-We debate gay marriage while people with special needs aren’t able to marry ANYONE, EVER, because there are not enough programs in place to help them live successfully as independent adults.

-We have lengthy debates over who wore what to which award show when some people with special needs wish that they could dress and bathe themselves.

-A pregnant mom finds out that her baby has Down syndrome. She loves this child already. One side tells her that her only option is to abort because the baby isn’t their view of perfect and therefore is of less value than other children and not worthy of life. The other side tells her that she will go to hell if she aborts so she must keep the baby, but she better not ask for help when the baby is born. Funding is being cut for that. If she does ask for help, they will make her take drug tests and treat her like a second-class citizen for not being able to do it on her own before they will help the baby that they told her to keep. They are pro-birth, not pro-life.

-We debate about racism and kill one another over the color of our skin while some people with special needs wish that they could see what their friends and family look like.

-We debate about whether or not everyone in the Good Ol’ US of A has an equal shot. Guess what? They don’t. Hard work and persistence don’t pay off if you aren’t able to advocate for yourself.

-We argue about healthcare and call for reform while people with cognitive impairments are being denied organ transplants because of their IQ score, not because of their insurance plan. They die while we argue.

All of this being said, look at the first century Church in the accounts in the Bible. It was not made up of scholars and politicians. It was made up of people in desperate poverty, people living in fear, people being persecuted unto death. Also, it was made up of Jews and Romans, two groups so unbelievably opposite in values, political affiliation and in every aspect of their daily life routines that they should have been at odds, even killing one another, but they didn’t.

Now look at individuals with special needs. Last week, we had a new adult with special needs join our weekday program. He had never met anyone else in the room. He walked in and I introduced him to the group. This group of people is made up of adults who all have some form of cognitive impairment. Some are unable to speak, some have trouble moving, some don’t hear well, all are unable to hold down jobs or live alone. Most don’t have a lot of social opportunities outside of our group. Ten minutes after the new person’s arrival, he walked over to me, gave me a hug and said, “I love it here! You guys are my family!” The next day, his mom called me to thank me and said that after 50 years of her son’s life, he found a place to belong.

No one in the group asked him what his political affiliation was. They didn’t ask if he liked women or men. They didn’t ask him what kind of clothes he wore. They didn’t ask why he looked a little different. They simply saw someone who wanted to be a part of their group, so obviously he should be. Then, they spent 10 minutes asking him about himself and really listening to what he said. They loved him from the moment he walked in the door simply because he was a person and people deserve love.

What do these two groups have in common? Neither the first century church or our individuals with cognitive impairments have the time for or the luxury of debating unimportant issues. When people need one another for survival, whether it be physical or emotional survival, there isn’t time to argue and disagree about things. Paul even warned the first century churches not to fight amongst themselves and let little things get in the way of the gospel. When you are persecuted by the world around you, you band together. Race, gender, financial standing don’t matter when you need one another so desperately.

So what do both of these models say about the way church should be done? First of all, they tell me that if there is any type of person who walks into my church that I don’t think should be there, I am doing Christianity WRONG. Second, they show that nothing about us other than the fact that we are made in the image of God has any bearing on our value and our need to be loved. The Bible calls us to love like Christ and also tells us that Christ loved us so much that He gave His life for us. Unless we are okay with ignoring one part of this or the other, there is no way that we can promote hate toward anyone and still be followers of Jesus.

I hope that no one hears me saying, “Love the sinner, hate the sin.” To me, that phrase has become a way for Christians to ridicule people who they disagree with but still feel good about themselves. If we can tell ourselves that we love people but just hate what they do, we aren’t getting away from all of the judgmental attitudes that non-Christians attribute to us. We need to change the ending and simply say, “Love the sinner, because we are all sinners who need Jesus.”

I know that some people will take this to mean that I think we should just be tolerant of everything and that there is no real sin or that everyone should just do what feels right to them. I absolutely believe that there is real sin in the world. I have my own strong opinions of what is right and what is wrong. But here’s the thing, it is not up to me to decide who is worthy to receive the gospel and who isn’t. It isn’t up to me to tell people that they are intrinsically bad. It is up to me to be the hands and feet of Jesus in a hurting world. The worst sin that I could think of would be to use my words or to live my life in such a way that if someone found out that I was a Christian, they wouldn’t want to be one.

The sad truth that seems to be very prevalent in churches today is that if you agree with everything that they stand for, you’re good to go. You get to go to heaven. And since you have it all together, you can condemn those who disagree with you. Once people agree with you and fit in, they can come to your church as well. But there are multiple problems with this.

First, it means that we are putting petty differences on a pedestal. We are taking the small things and making them big. For goodness sake, we can’t even get away from speaking badly about other Christians who are from different denominations, let alone talking about non-Christians.

Second, condemning others for their faults means that we are assuming that we have it “right.” We know exactly what the Bible means, how to interpret it correctly and are able to follow it word for word. As I said before, I have my own definite definitions of what I believe is right and wrong. But I also know that I am probably wrong about some of it simply because I am human. I also don’t think that being wrong while being genuine in my faith will keep me out of heaven. Assuming that any one group of us is totally correct is astoundingly arrogant.

Finally, if we are going to church to be comfortable, we are not living like Jesus. Working with families with special needs has taught me that my walk with Christ will be painful. Not only that, but it should be painful. Somehow we have bought into the lie that once we choose to follow Jesus, He will make our lives easy. Oh my friends, I will tell anyone and everyone who will listen to me that Jesus is my savior and that He died for me. He is the reason for my life. He is the only one that makes this world make any sense at all and I love Him with my whole heart. But He has made my life so much more complicated and difficult.

Why are we so scared as Christians to let pain, adversity and sin into our little church bubbles? That’s what the church is there for. Why can’t we see that we are as weak as we perceive our friends with special needs or as the persecuted first century church? Because we are born sinners, we must realize how desperately we need one another no matter our race, gender, orientation, political affiliation or anything else.

Church is the place for broken people to love one another to Christ. Church is the place to belong when we are hurting so badly that we can’t bear to walk alone anymore. Church is the place for us to love one another unconditionally when we agree on NOTHING but our need for a savior. Church is the gospel with flesh and blood.