How can churches be more inclusive of disabled persons?

April 12, 2021

Lamar Hardwick was 36 years old when he discovered he was on the autism spectrum. As a pastor, his diagnosis prompted a journey of considering how the church treats its disabled members. Disability and the Church: A Vision for Diversity and Inclusion is a practical and theological exploration of the church’s responsibilities to the disabled community. Often disabled persons are overlooked, pushed away, or made to feel unwelcome. Hardwick insists that the gospel affirms God’s image in all people and offers practical strategies to build stronger faith communities that better include disabled brothers and sisters. He shared his valuable insights in the interview below. 

Disability and the Church is not only pastoral and theological, it is personal as well. Why did you decide to write it?

In December of 2014, after years of silently struggling with social anxiety, sensory processing challenges, and a host of other challenges, I was diagnosed with Autism Spectrum Disorder (Asperger’s). I was 36 years old at the time of my diagnosis. Although I had already been in pastoral ministry for several years, my discovery led me to examine the difficult journey that I had into pastoral leadership and many of the ways that autism had apparently impacted my experiences with the church. I realized that among all of the success that I had experienced, there were still significant barriers that I had to overcome. A large part of my calling to serve the church is to help the church understand how it can become more accepting and inclusive of the disability community, a community that is often not represented well in local churches.

What were the circumstances leading up to your autism diagnosis?

Although I wasn’t diagnosed until I was an adult, I always knew that I was different as a child. I began to understand that there were significant differences between me and other children around the age of 7 or 8 years old. The best description that I can give is that it has always felt like the world was in on an inside joke that I didn’t understand. In 2013 when I was transitioning into a lead pastor role at a church, I hit a proverbial wall. I was really struggling with making the transition socially, and I had begun to hear stories of people reporting having negative interactions with me. 

Until that point, my ministry had primarily been serving the youth and young adults of the church. I like to joke that all teenagers are socially awkward, so socialization wasn’t as much of a struggle for me. Eventually, I had to ask myself the difficult question, “What do people experience when they experience me?” It was a tough question to ask, but I knew that I was missing something, and I needed to find the language to articulate what I had been struggling with my entire life. I would eventually seek help from a professional psychologist who would diagnose me with autism spectrum disorder.

How did your autism diagnosis impact you? How did it impact your ministry?

My autism diagnosis actually provided me with much-needed clarity as well as confidence. For the first time in my life, I understood myself in a way that made sense and that helped relieve me of the pressure to be someone that God did not create me to be. I had spent my entire life trying to be the type of person that everyone thought I should be, which was extremely difficult to maintain. When I was diagnosed, I felt a sense of relief. I finally accepted my humanity and became more confident in God’s plan for my life. I actually spent approximately two years with the therapist that diagnosed me working on unraveling the very complicated history of living so long without a diagnosis. As a result, my ministry actually begin to flourish. As time moved on, I began to gain a greater sense of what God was calling me to do in service to his church. For me, getting a formal diagnosis made my life, ministry, marriage, and parenting much more enjoyable.

You titled your introduction “A Love Letter To The Church From An Autistic Pastor.” What do you hope the church understands after reading your book? 

My prayer is that the church understands the profound love that the disability community has for the local church. The disability community has long been knocking on the church’s doors not just because we need the church, but because we love the church. 

How does the biblical theme of table fellowship speak into conversations about disability and the church?

In Luke 14, Jesus attends a dinner party where a man with a disability is also invited. Upon seeing that the party hosts only invited the man to exploit him and to trap Jesus in a Sabbath day controversy, Jesus heals the man and dismisses him from the dinner party. Jesus later tells a story at the dinner party about how to build a banquet. The banquet, or table fellowship, was an analogy for the kingdom of God. In both his address to the party hosts and in his parable, Jesus prioritizes the disability community as the community that is first invited to the table. In inviting them first, Jesus demonstrates that building his kingdom and his church begins with inviting and including this community that is often pushed out on the margins. Unfortunately, we continually build the banquet (the church) backward because we don’t prioritize the disability community first. 

What advice would you give to individuals with disabilities who would like to serve in the church?

The church has been a difficult place to navigate for disabled persons. I know this struggle well. With that in mind, I believe that persons with disabilities have incredible insight, wisdom, and gifts to offer the church, and I would encourage them to contend for their faith by finding ways to contribute those gifts. As a Christian, belonging to and serving in the church is a part of their birthright, and it is time that we help the church grow by offering our service to the church Jesus is building. It may be challenging to find just the right opportunities and location to serve, but don’t give up. The church needs you. 

How are individuals with disabilities overlooked in conversations about diversity and inclusion? How can the church amend this oversight?

The disability community is actually the largest minority group in the world. Around 20% of the world’s population identifies with some form of disability. To have a robust and honest conversation about diversity, we must turn our eyes to the largest and often marginalized minority group in the world. As the church continues to push the boundaries for becoming more ethnically and racially diverse, we need to zoom out and pay attention to a much broader definition of diversity.  If we can address the issue of disability within the diversity conversation properly, it will empower the church to become much more efficient at addressing issues of racial and ethnic diversity. 

What are ways that the church can advocate for and champion disabled persons?

I often say that you can discern an organization’s commitment to diversity by evaluating who it allows to lead. If the church truly wants to champion people with disabilities, we must become more intentional about placing disabled persons in leadership positions within our churches. Their voices will be crucial in shaping the future of our churches and will assist us with the necessary learning needed to strengthen the church’s commitment to this community. Without the voice of leaders with disabilities in the church, there will always be a void of disabled people in the church. 

What are some unique lessons the church can learn from our disabled brothers and sisters?

One of the primary images of the life of faith found in the New Testament is the image of the ongoing contest between flesh and the spirit. The Apostle Paul writes about it often. In many ways, persons living with disabilities know this contest well. Our bodies often make decisions for us that we do not choose, many times leaving us with only our faith to help us forge forward into a world that is not always accommodating or understanding of the challenges we face daily. In many ways, people with disabilities model the contest between flesh and spirit in very practical, everyday, ordinary ways. Our bodies are in constant competition with our hopes, dreams, and faith in a better, brighter future. In that reality, I believe the church can learn from the disability community about the role of faith in a Christ-follower’s life. 

You can purchase Disability and the Church: A Vision for Diversity and Inclusion here

Andrew Bertodatti

Andrew Bertodatti is a minister in New York. He resides in New York City with his wife, Karen, and their son. Read More by this Author

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