Extending ministries

People With Disabilities Bless the Body

When the church finds ways for them to exercise their spiritual gifts, the entire body rejoices.

After church services, my dad lit up the fellowship hall. Men lined up to shake his hand. Children sought his attention. Women plied him with coffee and cookies. I observed this phenomenon Sunday after Sunday for more than a decade.

Dad didn’t possess one of the greater spiritual gifts Paul refers to in 1 Corinthians 12:31. He wasn’t a preacher or teacher. He wasn’t a prophet or a healer. He was an ordinary guy, a farmer, then an extension agent in a small Iowa county. His career ended in 1961 after multiple sclerosis seriously affected his sight and balance the year before he turned thirty.  

The gifts I observed him practicing during those years didn’t quite match the ones Paul listed in 1 Corinthians 12 and elsewhere in Scripture. Yet I confidently assert that my father possessed spiritual gifts (my reasons are both scriptural and personal).

I saw how everyone benefitted when my dad engaged with others.

In 1 Corinthians 12:7, Paul says that God grants spiritual gifts to all believers. The English Standard Version (ESV) puts it like this: “To each is given the manifestation of the Spirit for the common good.” This short sentence contains some profound truths.

First, this verse states that each believer is given a spiritual gift by God, and it offers no exceptions or loopholes. If a person belongs to Jesus, he or she has a spiritual gift—even if we, as observers, can’t quite pinpoint it; and even if their developmental delays or communication issues don’t allow them to complete a spiritual gifts survey.

Additionally, spiritual gifts are for the common good. Every Christ-follower within a body benefits from the gifts of other members of the body. These benefits are not subject to a believer’s limitations such as age, intelligence, social standing, financial status, race, gender or mental and physical well-being.

Finally, believers are given spiritual gifts to do good. By exercising our gifts as God intended, we engage in His redemptive work on earth. Through our gifts, believers who are part of the body of Christ accomplish positive change.

These scriptural truths resonate with my personal experience: I saw how everyone benefitted when my dad engaged with others. His disability allowed him to manifest the gift of hospitality in unique ways. He put kids at ease answering their questions and let them explore his wheelchair. His sense of humor, his lack of self-pity and his willingness to acknowledge the elephant of his disability in the room put adults at ease.

We don’t like suffering, so if we assign that role to others and not ourselves, we feel better.

Because he put people first, they were able to put him ahead of his disability. With hindsight of more than fifty years, I recognize he also possessed the gift of mercy toward individuals and a society that made little room for people with mobility issues. He didn’t complain about buildings inaccessible to wheelchairs, the absence of cut away curbs on sidewalks and bathrooms with doorways too narrow for him to enter. Instead, he showed compassion to people embarrassed by his struggles and to men frightened by the specter of illness cutting them down in the prime of life.

In 1975, Dad experienced either a major multiple sclerosis downturn or a stroke. While the cause was never fully determined, the effects were immediate. He was unable to attend church again. The common good he brought to the body of Christ where our family worshipped came to a crashing halt. Paul’s words in 1 Corinthians 12:36 (ESV) accurately describe the situation:

“If one member suffers, all suffer together; if one member is honored, all rejoice together.” 

Our initial tendency, as members not (yet) affected by disability or special needs, is to focus on the “one member suffers” portion of the verse. We look around for those who, according to our measure, are suffering. We don’t like suffering, so if we assign that role to others and not ourselves, we feel better. But the next words in this verse destroy this line of reasoning. If all are to suffer together, then all are to remain present and engaged in the entire body to share in the suffering.

No believer, regardless of ability or disability, mobility or immobility is to be left out, because sharing in one another’s suffering allows all to be present and to practice their spiritual gifts for the common good. This can be an uncomfortable truth for those uncomfortable in the presence of suffering.

What Paul says next provides a new and hopeful vision: To parallel the suffering of the body of Christ, we see honor and rejoicing. When the body of Christ honors and values those with disabilities and special needs and finds ways for them to exercise their spiritual gifts, the entire body rejoices. 

Paul’s call here is not to define each person’s gifts. His call is for churches to create cultures that allow every believer to practice their gifts and to benefit when fellow believers practice theirs.

This call, this vision is worth pursuing. It’s a vision embraced by the EFCA’s All People Initiative and the Disability and Special Needs Ministry, compiling resources for church leaders who want to see every believer exercise their spiritual gifts. A recent session of the All People Initiative Webinar series provides an overview of available resources and how to access them.

My life is immeasurably richer due to my father’s influence. His presence and his gifts enriched the members of our family church as long as he was able to attend. I pray your church will find ways for every member to be present when your body gathers to exercise the spiritual gifts God has given them for the common good.

Jolene Philo

Jolene Philo grew up in a caregiving family and raised a son with medical special needs. As a teacher, she created an inclusive classroom for children with disabilities for 25 years. Her books for the special needs and disability community, including Sharing Love Abundantly with Special Needs Families: The 5 Love Languages® for Parents Raising Children with Disabilities, which she co-authored with Dr. Gary Chapman. She hosts the award-winning blog DifferentDream.com. See Jane Run! the first two mysteries in her series featuring characters with disabilities, was published in June of 2022.  

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