Disability and displaying the works of God in the Church

April 7, 2014

In Exodus 32, Moses had been gone 40 days and 40 nights after being summoned into God's presence on Mount Sinai. The Israelites began to worry. They decided that they needed a tangible image to represent God’s presence in their midst. The golden calf they fashioned was an object to provide confidence that God was with them and that he was for them (Exod. 32:1-6). They were not rejecting God, but they were defining the terms of their trust. In the American church, the golden calf we have fashioned is strength, ability, intellect and giftedness.

The golden calf of the Israelites’ was an attempt to domesticate God. An image often seems so much more appreciable than words, and that has been true since the Garden of Eden. In the Garden, God provided his image bearers an amazing bountiful provision and said, “You may surely eat of every tree of the garden, but of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil you shall not eat” (Gen. 2:16). But after the serpent questions the word God had spoken, the text tells us God’s image bearers “saw that the tree was good for food, and that it was a delight to the eyes” (Gen. 3:6) and they ate. They trusted what they saw over what God said.

God said to Paul, “My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness” (2 Cor. 12:9). Paul responded to God’s word by asserting, “Therefore I will boast all the more gladly of my weaknesses, so that the power of Christ may rest upon me. For the sake of Christ, then, I am content with weaknesses, insults, hardships, persecutions, and calamities. For when I am weak, then I am strong” (2 Cor. 12:9-10). Too often, we want God, but we want to negotiate the terms of our trust: If I am strong, able, gifted, intelligent, articulate and in a recognized position of power, then I will see my value and know my usefulness in the Kingdom. “I will trust you if I see viable reasons to trust me” is anti-gospel logic. Paul contends that boasting in ones strength reflects the wisdom of the world and is the way of a fool (1 Cor. 1:18-2:5; 2 Cor. 11-12).

As followers of the crucified Messiah, our eternal hope is bound up in strength displayed through weakness (2 Cor. 13:4), and followers of Jesus the Christ are commanded to take up their cross and follow him (Matt. 16:24). Consequently, gospel community is formed by and nourished by strength through weakness. The church of the Lord Jesus Christ ought to be the one place in the cosmos where weakness is rightly valued and where we know that physical and mental strength is not wellness. The church is not a gathering place for the cultural elite but a sovereignly designed community of the ignoble, weak and low (1 Cor. 1:24-31). This is never clearer than in the physically and mentally challenged people who are followers of Jesus Christ. They are a gift to the church because they do not have the mirage of strength in which many of us trust.

Our triumphalist brand of evangelical Christianity often assumes one-way discipleship—the strong help the weak. However, the church desperately needs to learn that we do not simply need to help people with physical and mental challenges, but we need them to help us become more faithful followers of Jesus. We distort the gospel message and have malformed Christian community when we fail to understand the power of weakness in Christ. We must not only use our advantages for the advantage of others, but we must also use our disadvantages for the advantage of others. The physically and mentally weak have a vital role in the church by teaching those with self-deceptive outward strength how to display genuine spiritual power by being “content in weaknesses” for the sake of Christ (2 Cor. 12:5).

I once heard Joni Eareckson Tada, a quadrepalegic for almost 5 decades, say people often ask her if they can pray for her healing to which she replies, “Yes! Would you please ask God to get rid of my peevish attitude in the morning when I wake up, and please, I have such a sour disposition when there’s too much work on my desk.  And, you know, I really am a workaholic so I wish you would pray about that.” Tada concluded her testimony by thanking Jesus for not physically healing her because her weakness had made her strong.

Successful NFL and college football coach Gene Stallings’ son, Johnny, was born with Down syndrome and doctors said he would only live a year or two. He lived 46 years, and Stallings said, “When he was younger I prayed to God that he would change Johnny. That he would make him right. But you know what God did? He changed me.” Stallings repeatedly says, “If the good Lord asked if he could give me a perfectly normal child or Johnny, I’d pick Johnny every time. No doubt about it.” I once heard one of Stallings daughters say in an interview that she prayed God would give her a Down syndrome child, and then she added; if that sounds strange you must not have known Johnny.

A short time ago at the church I pastor, Millie Hunt was baptized and gave a powerful testimony of her salvation. Her testimony moved the congregation in a compelling and palpable way. Millie’s baptism was slightly different, most in our church provide a verbal testimony from the baptistery, but Millie is nonverbal—she has autism. Recently Millie received an iPad and began to communicate with amazing clarity. As she studied the Gospel of John with her parents it became clear that she understood the Gospel of Jesus Christ, and on her iPad one day she typed, “Dear God, this is Millie, please, please, I need you to love me and forgive my sins. I love you. I want to live for you.” Then she typed, “I know God is with me now. Mom, please give me a hug.” In the testimony she shared with the church prior to her baptism she wrote, “I love Jesus because He loves me and gave Himself up for me. God made me an autistic woman to display the works of God in my life. Hallelujah! (John 9:1-3)”

When Millie came out to be baptized, aided by her father, I told her that in Christ she had all of the strength she would ever need. As a church family we have tried to help Millie and the Hunt family in every way we can, but Millie has helped us far more than we have helped her. There are gospel lessons that we can only learn from Christians who are self-evidently weak. After hearing about healings, a huge crowd gathered at a home where Jesus was in Capernaum including four men carrying a paralytic. When they could not get near Jesus through the crowd, they climbed on the roof and let the man down through the roof. Jesus spoke to the paralytics deepest need saying, “Son, your sins are forgiven” (Mark 2:5) and when scribes complained he was blaspheming, Jesus physically healed the man as well (Mark 2:11). The account concludes by noting “they were all amazed and glorified God, saying, ‘We never saw anything like this!’” The four men had helped the paralytic, but they were forever helped through being witnesses of sufficient grace.

Jesus is not a sub-contractor in our project to live our dreams. Our dreams are pathetically small and empty. In Christ, we abandon our dreams and are swept into the reality of Jesus and his Kingdom. In the Kingdom of Christ, our self-acknowledged weakness is a foundational credential (2 Cor. 10:17-18). He delights in choosing and using “the weak to shame the strong” (1 Cor. 1:27), and he will not be domesticated by the self-referential wisdom of the world. Often the physically and mentally disabled are the most well among us, but it is hard to notice while we are staring at the golden calf of our strength, ability, intellect, and giftedness. If all of this sounds strange to you then you must not know Millie or someone like her, but for the sake of the gospel, I pray you will.

You can watch Millie's baptism video here:

Article 12: The Future of AI

We affirm that AI will continue to be developed in ways that we cannot currently imagine or understand, including AI that will far surpass many human abilities. God alone has the power to create life, and no future advancements in AI will usurp Him as the Creator of life. The church has a unique role in proclaiming human dignity for all and calling for the humane use of AI in all aspects of society.

We deny that AI will make us more or less human, or that AI will ever obtain a coequal level of worth, dignity, or value to image-bearers. Future advancements in AI will not ultimately fulfill our longings for a perfect world. While we are not able to comprehend or know the future, we do not fear what is to come because we know that God is omniscient and that nothing we create will be able to thwart His redemptive plan for creation or to supplant humanity as His image-bearers.

Genesis 1; Isaiah 42:8; Romans 1:20-21; 5:2; Ephesians 1:4-6; 2 Timothy 1:7-9; Revelation 5:9-10

Article 11: Public Policy

We affirm that the fundamental purposes of government are to protect human beings from harm, punish those who do evil, uphold civil liberties, and to commend those who do good. The public has a role in shaping and crafting policies concerning the use of AI in society, and these decisions should not be left to those who develop these technologies or to governments to set norms.

We deny that AI should be used by governments, corporations, or any entity to infringe upon God-given human rights. AI, even in a highly advanced state, should never be delegated the governing authority that has been granted by an all-sovereign God to human beings alone. 

Romans 13:1-7; Acts 10:35; 1 Peter 2:13-14

Article 10: War

We affirm that the use of AI in warfare should be governed by love of neighbor and the principles of just war. The use of AI may mitigate the loss of human life, provide greater protection of non-combatants, and inform better policymaking. Any lethal action conducted or substantially enabled by AI must employ 5 human oversight or review. All defense-related AI applications, such as underlying data and decision-making processes, must be subject to continual review by legitimate authorities. When these systems are deployed, human agents bear full moral responsibility for any actions taken by the system.

We deny that human agency or moral culpability in war can be delegated to AI. No nation or group has the right to use AI to carry out genocide, terrorism, torture, or other war crimes.

Genesis 4:10; Isaiah 1:16-17; Psalm 37:28; Matthew 5:44; 22:37-39; Romans 13:4

Article 9: Security

We affirm that AI has legitimate applications in policing, intelligence, surveillance, investigation, and other uses supporting the government’s responsibility to respect human rights, to protect and preserve human life, and to pursue justice in a flourishing society.

We deny that AI should be employed for safety and security applications in ways that seek to dehumanize, depersonalize, or harm our fellow human beings. We condemn the use of AI to suppress free expression or other basic human rights granted by God to all human beings.

Romans 13:1-7; 1 Peter 2:13-14

Article 8: Data & Privacy

We affirm that privacy and personal property are intertwined individual rights and choices that should not be violated by governments, corporations, nation-states, and other groups, even in the pursuit of the common good. While God knows all things, it is neither wise nor obligatory to have every detail of one’s life open to society.

We deny the manipulative and coercive uses of data and AI in ways that are inconsistent with the love of God and love of neighbor. Data collection practices should conform to ethical guidelines that uphold the dignity of all people. We further deny that consent, even informed consent, although requisite, is the only necessary ethical standard for the collection, manipulation, or exploitation of personal data—individually or in the aggregate. AI should not be employed in ways that distort truth through the use of generative applications. Data should not be mishandled, misused, or abused for sinful purposes to reinforce bias, strengthen the powerful, or demean the weak.

Exodus 20:15, Psalm 147:5; Isaiah 40:13-14; Matthew 10:16 Galatians 6:2; Hebrews 4:12-13; 1 John 1:7 

Article 7: Work

We affirm that work is part of God’s plan for human beings participating in the cultivation and stewardship of creation. The divine pattern is one of labor and rest in healthy proportion to each other. Our view of work should not be confined to commercial activity; it must also include the many ways that human beings serve each other through their efforts. AI can be used in ways that aid our work or allow us to make fuller use of our gifts. The church has a Spirit-empowered responsibility to help care for those who lose jobs and to encourage individuals, communities, employers, and governments to find ways to invest in the development of human beings and continue making vocational contributions to our lives together.

We deny that human worth and dignity is reducible to an individual’s economic contributions to society alone. Humanity should not use AI and other technological innovations as a reason to move toward lives of pure leisure even if greater social wealth creates such possibilities.

Genesis 1:27; 2:5; 2:15; Isaiah 65:21-24; Romans 12:6-8; Ephesians 4:11-16

Article 6: Sexuality

We affirm the goodness of God’s design for human sexuality which prescribes the sexual union to be an exclusive relationship between a man and a woman in the lifelong covenant of marriage.

We deny that the pursuit of sexual pleasure is a justification for the development or use of AI, and we condemn the objectification of humans that results from employing AI for sexual purposes. AI should not intrude upon or substitute for the biblical expression of sexuality between a husband and wife according to God’s design for human marriage.

Genesis 1:26-29; 2:18-25; Matthew 5:27-30; 1 Thess 4:3-4

Article 5: Bias

We affirm that, as a tool created by humans, AI will be inherently subject to bias and that these biases must be accounted for, minimized, or removed through continual human oversight and discretion. AI should be designed and used in such ways that treat all human beings as having equal worth and dignity. AI should be utilized as a tool to identify and eliminate bias inherent in human decision-making.

We deny that AI should be designed or used in ways that violate the fundamental principle of human dignity for all people. Neither should AI be used in ways that reinforce or further any ideology or agenda, seeking to subjugate human autonomy under the power of the state.

Micah 6:8; John 13:34; Galatians 3:28-29; 5:13-14; Philippians 2:3-4; Romans 12:10

Article 4: Medicine

We affirm that AI-related advances in medical technologies are expressions of God’s common grace through and for people created in His image and that these advances will increase our capacity to provide enhanced medical diagnostics and therapeutic interventions as we seek to care for all people. These advances should be guided by basic principles of medical ethics, including beneficence, non-maleficence, autonomy, and justice, which are all consistent with the biblical principle of loving our neighbor.

We deny that death and disease—effects of the Fall—can ultimately be eradicated apart from Jesus Christ. Utilitarian applications regarding healthcare distribution should not override the dignity of human life. Fur- 3 thermore, we reject the materialist and consequentialist worldview that understands medical applications of AI as a means of improving, changing, or completing human beings.

Matthew 5:45; John 11:25-26; 1 Corinthians 15:55-57; Galatians 6:2; Philippians 2:4

Article 3: Relationship of AI & Humanity

We affirm the use of AI to inform and aid human reasoning and moral decision-making because it is a tool that excels at processing data and making determinations, which often mimics or exceeds human ability. While AI excels in data-based computation, technology is incapable of possessing the capacity for moral agency or responsibility.

We deny that humans can or should cede our moral accountability or responsibilities to any form of AI that will ever be created. Only humanity will be judged by God on the basis of our actions and that of the tools we create. While technology can be created with a moral use in view, it is not a moral agent. Humans alone bear the responsibility for moral decision making.

Romans 2:6-8; Galatians 5:19-21; 2 Peter 1:5-8; 1 John 2:1

Article 2: AI as Technology

We affirm that the development of AI is a demonstration of the unique creative abilities of human beings. When AI is employed in accordance with God’s moral will, it is an example of man’s obedience to the divine command to steward creation and to honor Him. We believe in innovation for the glory of God, the sake of human flourishing, and the love of neighbor. While we acknowledge the reality of the Fall and its consequences on human nature and human innovation, technology can be used in society to uphold human dignity. As a part of our God-given creative nature, human beings should develop and harness technology in ways that lead to greater flourishing and the alleviation of human suffering.

We deny that the use of AI is morally neutral. It is not worthy of man’s hope, worship, or love. Since the Lord Jesus alone can atone for sin and reconcile humanity to its Creator, technology such as AI cannot fulfill humanity’s ultimate needs. We further deny the goodness and benefit of any application of AI that devalues or degrades the dignity and worth of another human being. 

Genesis 2:25; Exodus 20:3; 31:1-11; Proverbs 16:4; Matthew 22:37-40; Romans 3:23

Article 1: Image of God

We affirm that God created each human being in His image with intrinsic and equal worth, dignity, and moral agency, distinct from all creation, and that humanity’s creativity is intended to reflect God’s creative pattern.

We deny that any part of creation, including any form of technology, should ever be used to usurp or subvert the dominion and stewardship which has been entrusted solely to humanity by God; nor should technology be assigned a level of human identity, worth, dignity, or moral agency.

Genesis 1:26-28; 5:1-2; Isaiah 43:6-7; Jeremiah 1:5; John 13:34; Colossians 1:16; 3:10; Ephesians 4:24