Q: Someone in our church has an intellectual disability and we are not sure if she has a clear understanding of the Gospel. Should she should be baptized?
We recently received a question similar to this, and it is one that has come up on multiple occasions. This post is not intended to be a comprehensive answer, but rather to point in the direction of potential responses. We recognize that there are many different baptismal traditions and, while this article references sources that practice ‘believer’s baptism’, we hope that it will be useful for framing the conversation in a variety of contexts.
I’m not sure that I always have a ‘clear understanding’ of the Gospel!
I think of Paul’s statement: “I see in part, I know in part, but one day I will see and know in whole.” All of our knowledge falls so far short of the complete revelation of God – His immeasurable love and grace, as an example. Does God reject us, or give us a grade based on the simplicity of our understandings? No, He accepts us right where we are. He then works with us on the little we are able to understand. I think of St. Anselm’s principle that God is “that than which nothing greater can be conceived.” God is always greater than our understanding.
Faithfulness means acting on the little that we do know
It is helpful to re-orient ourselves to to what we already know. While in-depth understanding of Gospel and rigorous preparation for baptism is wonderful, at its heart lies a message of simple faith. One of my favourite passages on this truth is 1 John 5:1-2. We become children of God when we believe that Jesus is the Christ. John does not say this is demonstrated by reciting Creeds from memory, rather it is shown in loving God and God’s children.
- Love God
- Obey his commands
Baptism is an act of obedience in response to God’s love, just as Christ was baptized in obedience to His Father. It was this same love and obedience that brought the Son of God to die on our behalf.
We know that the Gospel is embodied.
Christians in modernity thought their task was to make the Gospel intelligible to the world rather than to help the world understand why it could not be intelligible without the Gospel. Desiring to become part of the modernist project, preachers and theologians accepted the presumption that Christianity is a set of beliefs, a “worldview,” designed to give meaning to our lives.
This is an overly-intellectual way of saying that we tend to over-intellectualize the Gospel. Viewing the Good News as a set of beliefs has turned proclamation of the Gospel into a theoretical diatribe – a lecture! To receive the Gospel, then, comes to mean passing a test on “What is the Gospel?” rather than embracing the Good News in faith. At the Summer Institute on Theology and Disability in Atlanta this year, much of the conversation reflected the need to reclaim an embodied theology. In our embodiment we proclaim a tactile Gospel. As John reminds us, “We proclaim to you the one who existed from the beginning, whom we have heard and seen. We saw him with our own eyes and touched him with our own hands. He is the Word of life” (1 John 1:1). We proclaim God’s love, grace, mercy, acceptance, forgiveness, gentleness and hope through all of our senses as we live the Gospel in action.
We are baptized into a Body
Another product of modernity is hyper-individuality. Baptism, though, is a sign of community – welcome into the Body of Christ. Mark 2 tells the story of a man with a disability who was forgiven (the ultimate healing) through the faith of his small community. No man, woman or child is an island, and we come to know faith through a community. It is this same community that welcomes us, by faith, through baptism. Melissa Florer-Bixler writes for the Anabaptist Disability Network that “Baptism makes us into the people of God by compromising all competing allegiances to God’s kingdom. The Gospels tell us that rival allegiances include family, nation, wealth, and even capabilities.” As the body of Christ is obedient to His Great Commission (Matt. 28:19), the new disciple is obedient to ‘baptism into death’ (Rom. 6:3), rising from the water to be welcomed into this faithful resurrection community.
We have previously featured Jason D. Whitt from Baylor university in A place for Camille. Jason has written a stunning article from the Baptist perspective on Baptism and Profound Intellectual Disability. Here he describes baptism and communion as “acts of belonging.” Whitt writes,
Since the ordinances are acts of belonging that are constitutive of identity, they cannot be personal acts of symbolic remembrance. Baptism and the Lord’s Supper are acts of threefold agency: God, the Church, and the candidate. Because they are given by Christ to the Church, there must be a body of believers gathered together who can offer them. When people turn to Christ in faith and become new creations, it is the Church that forms them into the new identity discovered in the Gospel narrative.
Baptism is a sign of belonging to community. It is not intended to be a surface-level act of compliance, but an an act of obedience that forms one’s identity as part of a larger Body. We can go on to observe that not only is baptism a communal act that forms the identity of the person who is baptized, it is an act of an individual that forms the identity of the community.
Paul writes that we are baptized by one Spirit so as to form one body: the Body of Christ. Building on this metaphor in 1 Cor. 12, we know that each member helps to form the identity of the body and “those parts of the body that seem to be weaker are indispensable.” Melissa Florer-Bixler describes how this changes the question that we ask about baptism:
In the end, in the diverse community of gifts that forms the body of Christ, the question is not whether, or under what circumstances we should baptize people with profound disabilities. The question is, can we be the body of Christ without them?
Changing the question…
I hope that these thoughts have been helpful for you as you consider baptism and intellectual disability. The principles we have explored should be transferable even though the examples primarily focus on profound intellectual disability and believer’s baptism. This study is by no means comprehensive, but I hope that it encourages us to shift the focus from limited individuality to the gifts of the Body of Christ and from intellectual assent to embodied faithfulness. Rather than asking whether someone has the intellectual capacity to assent to the gospel, perhaps the questions should be:
1. Has she experienced the tactile, embodied Gospel in the life of the church – in word and action?
This may mean that we need to expand our understanding of what it means to embody the Gospel. While proclamation of the Gospel will still include sin, confession, faith and repentance, we will need to learn to express these in ways as diverse and embodied as the people who we encounter.
One way to start this journey is to explore Vertical Habits from the Calvin Institute of Christian Worship. Deeply relational and accessible words can communicate profound truths of our relationship with Christ.
2. Has she found belonging in the Body of Christ?
This may mean that we need to open our doors wider, to practice deep hospitality where people with disabilities of all types experience belonging in a powerful way. Radical Hospitality for the Rest of Us explores, in an engaging way, the ways in which hospitality and belonging relate to the mission of Christ. Feel free to connect with Christian Horizons or explore our Church Resource Toolkit for resources on accessibility and welcome.
3. Does she seek to be faithful to Christ, to love others, and to express her gifts in community?
This may mean that we need to be open to the diversity of ways in which people contribute their gifts and abilities to the Body of Christ. Whitt reminds us that people with intellectual disabilities may “teach about patient perseverance, or living in a moment without concern for tomorrow. For some people with profound cognitive disabilities, their gift to us may be simply presence—being and not doing. Other gifts may be gentleness, peacefulness, joy, wonder, or simply silence.” How prepared are we to receive gifts in the diverse ways that God has given them?
In exploring these aspects of faith, we find that the questions become more about how prepared we are as a community to receive people into the full life of the church. Yes, we should baptize people with intellectual disabilities. Yes, we should work to prepare people for baptism and for following Christ. Ultimately, though, we need to work toward being the kind of community where the Good News of Christ is inescapable. Where, through our love, service, forgiveness and grace with one another, we live into the reality of who we are as the Body of Christ. Baptism is the sign of belonging to this Christ-shaped community.
We would love to hear your stories and insights! What are your thoughts or experiences with baptism and disability?
This article was written by Neil Cudney and Keith Dow, based on a post that originally appeared in January, 2013. We also encourage you to check out Baptisms and Bathtubs, a story on how every Sunday could be baptism Sunday!