Holey, Wholly, Holy Discipleship

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Disability Series, Part 2

Whenever I would read, study, or teach John 20:24–29 my focus was almost always on what Thomas doubted. Rarely did I consider what it was that Thomas would believe before I was challenged and taught by Sandra[1]. Looking at illustrations of “doubting Thomas,” my eyes were always fixated on Thomas and the weakness of his faith. However, as Sandra looked at an image set beside this passage in her Bible study workbook, she was not looking at Thomas—she was looking with him. Sandra and Thomas were looking at the risen and perforated Jesus. Both saw a whole Jesus, regarded as holy, despite his being filled with holes. Midway through our lesson, Sandra raised her hand, “What about me?” she asked, “If Jesus has his holes, will I have my eyes? Will I have Down syndrome? Will I still be me?” These are not simply questions of a speculative eschatology, they are profoundly important for how it is that we go about the process of discipleship here and now.

If the risen and glorified Jesus is holey, wholly, holy, and our aim in discipleship is to look more like Him, then how do we disciple in brokenness (holey)? How do we embrace the whole, not simply neurological, person (wholly)? How do we form followers of Christ who look like Him (holy)?

Sandra’s question deeply challenged me, because I had subconsciously assumed that she needed a greater process of glorification and transformation than myself. But if Jesus has holes and is whole, then maybe my understanding of wholeness and holiness had been convoluted. If Jesus is perforated, then perhaps Sandra was not in need of a greater transformation than me. What if in fact I needed greater transformation, so that I might better image Christ in ways that Sandra already does? What if my discipleship and methods of curriculum adaption were all centered on bringing those with intellectual disabilities toward greater resemblance to their neurotypical siblings-in-Christ, focusing on their ability to memorize verses, doctrines, and facts, rather than guiding them on the process of becoming more like Christ himself?

By reflex, most pastors will race to the academy, searching for books and articles when faced with these questions, asking themselves what theological peg can plug these holes. However, in doing so, we focus again on the perplexity of Thomas rather than the hands and feet of Christ where the answers lie. Scholarly writings are certainly helpful and even essential for the formation of our methods, but similar to the popular saying “if you’ve met one person with autism, you’ve met one person with autism,” the same could be said of all disabilities. To form an approach to discipleship based on a method, rather than a person, sees the Christian enterprise as industrious rather than biological; we are the “body of Christ,” not the “instrument or mechanism of Christ.”

Holey discipleship begins in the presence of another person, learning before leading, embodying the spirit of theologian Henri Nouwen. Nouwen said of a man named Adam, who could not speak or move without assistance, that he was “his friend, his teacher, and his guide.” From Adam, Nouwen learned what it meant to believe in his belovedness, through Adam’s “way of radical vulnerability,” which Nouwen recognized was also the way of Jesus.[2] If we are to attempt a holey discipleship, then it is incumbent upon us as disciple-makers to know our students and to know ourselves; to recognize not only where their learning is impaired but where our own (sometimes hidden) impairments dwell. We must move from seeing “holey-ness” as brokenness to exploring how God designed our beautifully diverse humanity to be stitched together into the beautiful wholeness that we call the body of Christ, a body that the Apostle Paul states has no dispensable parts but rather a diversity of abilities and inabilities that make the body function as it should. An ear is unable to see, yet it is indispensable to the whole (1 Cor 12:16).

Wholly discipleship will seek to minister with an understanding of the whole as indispensable, recognizing the neurological dimension of humanity but not to the exclusion or detriment of the other aspects and functions of the body. Wholly discipleship will force churches to grapple with the reality they may have drifted into a form of practical Gnosticism, thus compromising the gospel and creating inaccessible and non-inclusive worship services that are primarily focused on word-processing rather than gospel-materializing. This approach to discipleship has served to dismember the body of Christ in our unwillingness to see how different parts of the body play indispensable roles. This dismemberment is reflected in research that shows nearly half (46.6%) of special needs parents refrain from participating in religious activities because their child was not included or welcomed, and more than half of special needs parents (55.8%) reported that they had kept their child from participating in a religious activity because support was not provided.[3]

How do we move to wholeness? It requires a change in our perspective. When I was teaching my Sunday School class years ago, I believed that I was there solely to minister, to care for people with disabilities, and to adapt materials to their needs. I did not believe I was there to be ministered to. I saw my role as benevolent, not as an opportunity for me be a co-laborer in Christ’s Kingdom alongside these brothers and sisters.[4] Wholly discipleship rejects the notion that some are ontologically ministers and others are recipients; it seeks from the start to recognize our interdependence and how these roles must be fluid for the sake of our spiritual growth.

Lastly, holy discipleship will integrate holey-ness and wholeness to deemphasize memorization and comprehension as the primary means of measuring spiritual growth and give greater attention to practices of being alongside of knowing or doing. Most curriculum written for those with intellectual disabilities tends to focus on knowing and doing, utilizing various methods of verse memorization and Bible story comprehension through games and activities. These methods can serve as phenomenal “ramps” toward inclusion, but for some with profound intellectual disability, these activities are another barrier to inclusion, separating the so-called “higher-functioning” from the “lower-functioning.”[5] As a corrective, holy discipleship, emphasizes the cultivation of our responses to Christ. As Thomas responded to the holey, wholly, holy Jesus with a worshipful exclamation of “my Lord, and my God” (John 20:28), we seek to integrate and recenter our discipleship around practices of being—such as awe (praise), regret (confession), sorrow (lament), and gratitude (thankfulness)—habits that Barbara Newman, in her book Accessible Gospel, Inclusive Worship, describes as “a common denominator for all worshippers of Jesus.”[6] Such habits integrate the many facets of what it means to be whole while allowing room for our diverse holey-ness to participate in a variety of holy ways. In holy discipleship, that which is whole and holey, we better reflect our king who stands “as a lamb as though it had been slain” (Rev 5:6) and his Kingdom of misfits.

In Luke 14:15, one of the religious scholars (a lawyer or Pharisee) reclining at a banquet table with Jesus calls out “blessed is everyone who will eat bread in the kingdom of God!” (ESV). Jesus replies to the scholar that God’s kingdom is not accurately represented at their table; rather, the kingdom banquet table that He has designed would be made up of those social and cultural misfits who would be called from the margins (Luke 14:12–24). For us the question is simple: will our Sunday school and small group tables reflect His?

Continue reading this series: Part 3


[1] I am changing her name for her privacy.

[2] Henri J. M. Nouwen, Adam: God’s Belove’d (Maryknoll, NY: Orbis Books, 2012).

[3] The National Organization on Disability, “Religious Participation: Facts and Statistics,” nod.org, accessed September 21, 2021, http://www.nod.org/religion/index.cfm; Melinda Jones Ault, “Participation of Families of Children with Disabilities in Their Faith Communities: A Survey of Parents” (PhD diss., University of Kentucky, 2010); David Briggs, “Study: US Churches Exclude Children with Autism, ADD/ADHD,” Christianity Today, July 20, 2018, https://www.christianitytoday.com/ct/2018/july-web-only/study-us-churches-exclude-children-with-autism-addadhd.html..

[4] I was personally helped here by Dan Vander Plaats’ book There Is No Asterisk, where he writes of “5 stages of disability attitudes.” Vander Plaats argues that our aim should be to be “co-laborers,” which he describes as “the highest expression of relationship in which each participant is encouraging, equipping, and challenging the other to become and achieve all they were created to be and do.” This type of discipleship welcomes all people to contribute wholly and recognizes each person as an integral part of the whole. Dan Vander Plaats, There Is No Asterisk (Palos Heights, IL: Elim Christian Services, 2016).

[5] The terms “high-functioning” and “low-functioning” are generally frowned upon within the disability community but are occasionally used to differentiate between those who are more independent, literate, verbal-communicators, and those who require greater assistance. These labels are unhelpful as there is no technical definition of either of these categories nor which abilities would place a person in one group as opposed the other. The term “low-functioning” is especially pejorative and undescriptive.

[6] Barbara J. Newman, Accessible Gospel, Inclusive Worship (Wyoming, MI: CLC Network, 2015), 37. Newman calls these “vertical habits” and they include praise, confession, lament, illumination, petition, gratitude, service, and blessing.