Inclusion in the Christian Church...When To Be or Not To Be "Politically Correct" ...a question for Christians to pray about.

INCLUSION IN THE CHURCH: WHEN TO BE OR NOT TO BE "POLITICALLY CORRECT"                a good ....question for Christians to pray about.  

By Debra Hume Petermann, a Christian sibling/guardian of a man with severe mental retardation.                                                                                         

Edited By Cherie Morrow, a Christian mother of a young man who has autism.

I am often asked why the Vineyard Christian Fellowship-Columbus,Ohio, , offers a "segregated" or different children's Sunday school class, TenderCare, for some children with disabilities. After all, we live in the 90s when the concept of "inclusion" is "politically correct". To answer this question, let's first review the current world view of inclusion, then God's view of it; and finish by looking at how to implement Biblical inclusion in our ministries for individuals with disabilities.

The World View
Note: These definitions are general and are intended to clarify our discussion of this issue. "Inclusion" refers to "including" children with disabilities in the same activities that typical children experience. "Mainstreaming" refers to including students with disabilities in typical classrooms rather than educating them in separate classrooms for disabled students only.

The trend toward inclusion started in the early 1970s. Unlike the movements for the rights of minorities and women, persons with mental retardation historically had few advocates speaking on their behalf. Finally, from 1973 to 1975, historic legislation was passed to correct previous injustices. Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act of 1973 prohibited discrimination against handicapped persons in federally-funded programs and protected their rights to education and to participate fully in community life. The Education for All Handicapped Children Act of 1975 (Public Law 94-142) guaranteed a free, appropriate education to every American child, regardless of handicap--an education "designed to meet their unique needs." The goal was to provide disabled students an education in the least restrictive environment--students were no longer to be segregated. Individual Education Plans (IEPs) became the vehicle for meeting this goal.

Both education professionals and parents turned to mainstreaming as the solution to injustices in the disabled community--for very different reasons. Parents saw, and many still see, inclusion as the way to ensure their children enjoy the same educational experiences and benefits that typical children routinely receive. School districts and school boards saw it as a way to reduce costs. Special education can be expensive, especially when administered in separate classes, with separate teachers and related services (e.g., occupational therapists, speech and language therapists, wheelchair accessible desks and other facilities). The Federal government funded much of the cost of special education until the early 1980s, but in the early 1980s Federal funding slowed. In the 1980s, education professionals began promoting mainstreaming as beneficial to both children with disabilities and typical students.

Inclusion of adults in the public arena increased with the passage of The Americans with Disabilities Act of 1990 (ADA). This law provides "comprehensive civil rights protection to individuals with disabilities in the areas of employment, public accommodations, state and local government services, and telecommunications." It easy to see the great efforts by both government and public businesses to make their facilities architecturally accessible. Many private businesses have also made good faith efforts, at a cost to themselves, to make their workplaces more accessible to disabled persons. Thanks to the ADA and generally changing
attitudes about inclusion created by the other laws mentioned, many new doors are opened to people with disabilities, creating better employment, increased independence and social interaction, and more mobility within the general population--a higher quality of life.

God's View
Inclusion is not new. It was first initiated by God, who created us to have a personal relationship with Him--to include us in His world. [We love because He first loved us (1 John 4:19).] So, if we were created to be with God, why do we need inclusion? What separates us from God? Sin. In God's eyes, we are all spiritually disabled by sin. "For all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God" (Romans 3:23). Sin is what separates us from a personal relationship with our Holy God.

But God doesn't leave us without any hope of restoration with Him. God provided a bridge to restore us: "For God so loved the world, that He gave His only begotten Son, that whoever believes in Him should not perish, but have eternal life. For God did not send the Son into the world to judge the world but that the world should be saved through Him" (John 3:16-17). It was the very act of Jesus dying on the cross for our sins that created a bridge of restoration for those who believe (Romans 5:8). This was done at no cost to us, but at a tremendous cost to Jesus, so that we may enjoy a personal relationship with God (John 1:12). Jesus said "I am the way, and the truth, and the life; no one comes to the Father, but through Me" (John 14:6) and "Ask and it will be given to you; seek and you will find; knock and the door will be opened to you. For everyone who asks receives; he who seeks finds; and to him who knocks, the door will be opened"(Matt. 7:7-8) (emphasis added). This invitation to inclusion--the bridge--was created by God. Each one of us chooses whether to accept the invitation.

Thus, the concept of inclusion is truly God's heart. He invites all to His banqueting table (Luke 14:12-15). The Old Testament provides a clear example, through the only man called, "a man after God's own heart"--King David. Mephibosheth, son of Jonathon, grandson of Saul, became disabled from an accident at the age of five (2 Sam. 4:4). Jonathon had found favor with King David, so the king made an oath to Jonathon which stated that David would not cut off his loving kindness from Jonathon's house forever (1 Sam. 20:15, 2 Sam. 9). After Jonathon's death, King David asked about survivors from Jonathon's household and was told about Mephibosheth and his son Micah. David had them brought to Jerusalem to live and invited them to share his royal table. In this way, Mephibosheth, a person with a disability, came to sit daily as an honored guest at the king's banqueting table every day. The Lord has made a similar promise to all of His children; it is His heart's desire that all of us sit together at the same table (Luke 14:7-24). Some are not physically healed before they share the table; however, all are included at the same table. And the Lord's banqueting table sits in the Kingdom of God that exists not only in heaven but also in the here and now, in the midst of a fallen world.

In addition, Jesus consistently personalized His invitations to the Kingdom table. Jesus was on a mission to reach the lost--all of them (John 3:16, Luke 15:3-7). He ministered to each person as an individual, meeting them in whatever life circumstances He found them, and adapted his invitation to each one. For example, when Jesus healed the deaf man (Mark 7:32-37), He first pulled him away from the crowd (v.33). The 1998 world view would call that exclusion; God calls it mercy. Jesus knew that He was going to restore this man's hearing. He also considered this person's individual needs--the noise of the crowd would have been quite painful to newly restored ear drums. In addition, Jesus talked to the deaf man in his language--sign language (v.33). Jesus stood in the deaf man's shoes, not only to heal him, but to make personalized accommodations to bring him to the banqueting table. In honoring the deaf man's differences, Jesus practiced Biblical inclusion. The scriptures provide many examples of personal touches of the Savior's hand. If we look through God's lens, every Christian can find the Savior's personal touch--the personalized accommodations made--in our own lives.

The world view of inclusion proclaims to be guided by such Biblical principles as equality for all and focusing on our similarities. Unfortunately, as in most secular situations, ideals that are not grounded in Biblical truth, fall short of God's will in deed. Thus, inclusion as practiced by the world often lacks the heart of God. One parent described the difference between Biblical inclusion and worldly inclusion this way, "Politically correct inclusion focuses on teaching disabled people to fit into a typical situation (basically, changing them). Biblical inclusion focuses on adapting the typical situation to include disabled persons just the way they are, whatever their disability." This parent rejoices that God, through Christ, has set her free from the world's view of inclusion. "My son's life purpose is not to adapt so he can be like everyone else; he is fearfully and wonderfully made (Psalm 139), with special, God-given gifts to share--just like every Christian."

God's plan turns the politically correct inclusion mindset upside down. It says that every human being is disabled--each of us carries every day, and will forever live with, the disability of our sinful nature. As we exchange our worldly view for God's view, we begin to recognize that we are not so different from our disabled brothers and sisters after all.

And how have churches been living out God's view of inclusion? Unlike our God, churches have been unwilling to do what it takes to include all in the body of Christ. God's perspective simply does not exist in most churches. The government interventions described earlier did not impact churches because, like private businesses, churches are exempt from the ADA unless they rent their facilities to the public for such things as weddings or daycare. Thus, churches have either ignored or remained unaware of the need for inclusion, despite the obvious strides made by public and private entities over the last 20 years. It is even more disheartening to report that some churches choose to remain indifferent to the disabled population.

Even so, some believers attempt to include persons with disabilities as they answer the Great Commission. But their efforts often become entrapped by worldly views of inclusion because the church has not educated itself about God's view of inclusion. For example, churches often depend on the current diagnostic labels for persons with disabilities (e.g., retarded, quadriplegic) and their implications to "help" them decide who they should invite and who is able to "understand" spiritual things (John 15:26). I confess that in the beginning of the TenderCare ministry, my ignorance of God's view caused me to make the same mistake. Thankfully, God taught me that labels are not only man-made and ever-changing, but, more importantly, they do not reflect the soul within the person. Only after He exposed the lies tied up in labels was I free to practice Biblical inclusion at The Vineyard. Thankfully, God's view of things is always bigger than mine!

Counting the Cost
Believers don't simply accept Jesus' invitation of inclusion. The Great Commission calls believers to provide opportunities for all to hear this invitation--we must share the Good News with others. Jesus instructed, "Go therefore and make disciples of all the nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit, teaching them to observe all that I commanded you" (Matt 28:19-20a) (emphasis added). If churches continue to exclude people who have a different life experience, such as a disability, we will not grow to be a family that looks like Christ--a Bride that demonstrates Jesus Christ's mercy, empathy, suffering and compassion. Therefore, as servants of Christ, we must choose to make Jesus' salvation and the Bride of Christ (the church) accessible to all (Matt. 18:1-5). A "numb" (indifferent) church is actually a barrier, keeping the children of God away from both Christ and His calling on their lives (Matt.18:6-10).

Practicing Biblical Inclusion
The Lord has used a simple class--TenderCare--to open the doors of His church to minister to the "very least of these"--those persons with whom Jesus closely identified. He said, "For I was hungry, and you gave Me something to eat; I was thirsty, and you gave Me drink; I was a stranger, and you clothed Me; I was sick, and you visited Me; I was in prison, and you came to Me." Then the righteous will answer Him
saying, "Lord when did we see You hungry and feed You, or see You a stranger, and invite You in, or naked and clothe You? And when did we see you sick, or in prison, and come to You?" And the King will answer and say to them, "Truly I say to you, the extent that you did it to one of these brothers of Mine, even the least of them, you did it to Me." (Matt 25:35-40) We have a loving God who accepts us as we are, identifies with us and desires to have a personal relationship with each one of us. Our God will go to whatever extreme He chooses to woo us into His loving arms, even dying on the cross, so that we may be called "His child" and be included in His family, the church.

God has taught me that, as His church, we are to go to whatever extreme He chooses to woo all into His loving arms and His family. By the power of His Holy Spirit, He continues to reveal to The Vineyard staff and congregation how to follow the examples He provides in the scriptures. He expands our vision daily. However, there is a general trend in His guidance of our ministry to the disabled. He constantly points out to us how simple it is--we simply need to minister to the disabled population like any other lost soul or new believer. Here are some tips from our experience:

* Follow Jesus' example of accepting people with disabilities as they are and ministering to their individual needs--even if doing so isn't considered politically correct (1 John 15:17).

* Discard labels as a means of developing ministries to the disabled population. Labels, when used beyond diagnostic needs, tend to encourage more segregation. God calls us to look beyond the disability and seek the person's heart: "Man looks at the outward appearance, but the Lord looks at the heart"
(1 Sam.16:7).

* Practice humility. When we think about how we will reach out to others through the perspective that we are all spiritually disabled, attitudinal barriers are often exposed and easily destroyed by the love of Jesus. Then we are equipped to look at the practical ways God might be calling us to minister to individuals in our communities.

* Apply your current methods of inclusion. Don't we already adapt our approach (e.g., times we meet, places we meet, nature of ministries, practical resources and structures) to support current believers in pursuing God's call on their lives? Use that same mindset in adapting to support disabled believers. As believers, we are called to encourage disabled persons to use their unique gifting to glorify God (John 9:1-3).

* Commit to overcoming attitudinal barriers. At The Vineyard, we have learned that the majority of our barriers to inclusion came from broken, worldly attitudes. Call on the power of the Holy Spirit to expose and eliminate these (see the next section for more information).

* Seek God's heart. The most important thing a church can do to break out of the world's practice of inclusion is to ask God to create a passion for Biblical inclusion in the hearts of everyone involved--from pastors to the youngest child in the congregation.

What about these barriers--attitudinal and others?
In preparing our churches to include all, we need to overcome two barriers: architectural (physical) and attitudinal (what takes place in the heart). Architectural changes can be difficult and expensive to an already existing facility, but God has promised to provide everything we need when we choose to obey (Isaiah 28:16, Matt. 16:18, Psalm 127:1; Eph. 2:18-22). Thus, even with physical barriers, the underlying problem is mostly attitudinal. Attitudinal barriers such as fear, ignorance and selfish indifference, have not only kept the physical doors to the church locked to the disabled, they also make it difficult for "typical" persons to be invited and/or to feel welcome.

Exposing and changing the "hidden" attitudinal barriers within each church member's heart is a very difficult challenge--but not too difficult for the Holy Spirit. As with most of the challenges we Christians face in our desire to obey God's plan for our lives, we must first let Him expose our broken, worldly view, then bring us into alignment with His view, before we can obey His will.

The Bottom Line

We Christians must take back what is our responsibility, to share the Good News to all (the Great Commission) and give back to God what is His responsibility. It is the task of God's Holy Spirit to reach, minister to and convict the hearts of each one of us, even a person who is mentally retarded (John 16:7-15). I take great comfort knowing that God is not limited by the things that limit we spiritually disabled human beings.

I challenge you with 3 things:

1. Pray for guidance about what God would have you do.

2. Risk being different. Step out in faith, obeying God's view of inclusion. Then stand back and watch His handiwork. You will find yourselves richly blessed by "the least of these" as you reach out and touch them with the Savior's hand.

3. Don't let the current politically correct definition of inclusion blind you to the doors that God wants to be open in your church. He's inviting persons with disabilities to His Banquet Table and there is plenty of room (Luke 14:22).

Thank you for allowing me to share these thoughts with you! If you would like to share your thoughts too, please write or email me

Debra Petermann
Director, Bridge Builders
Vineyard Christian Fellowship-Columbus
Columbus, Ohio 43081
(614) 890-0000/Fax 890-5056

Cherie Morrow, A free-lance editor/writer, mother of a son with autism                                                                                                                                          Please visit Joshua's Garden. A Mother's Meditation