What does the Bible teach us about disability?

November 7, 2023

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) report that roughly 25% of the United States population has a disability. Within Christian thought, theologians such as Amos Yong, John Swinton, and Sarah Barton are elevating disability as a theological focus. Even further, the Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission (ERLC) has published numerous articles on disability, and the Southern Baptist Convention (SBC) has passed resolutions about the topic. So, what is disability, and how does the Bible lead us to respond to it?   

What is disability?

Within the field of disability studies (a generally secular, interdisciplinary academic discipline), most scholars consistently agree upon three frameworks through which society understands disability and how persons with disabilities function in the world: 

Biological: The biological view of disability contends that disability is a biological dysfunction of  an individual person. To correct the disability if at all possible, medicine is used to repair what does not properly function. 

Social: The social view of disability asserts that disability is a social construct. Eliminating disability would mean constructing society in such a way that each person can fully participate in society without restriction. 

Moral: The moral view perspective of disability articulates disability as a special moral status, either as a punishment for a sin or as a particular blessing from God. Neither is substantiated by scientific or theological view, but belief in this theory is common. 

In considering the validity of each of these frameworks to explain disability, it ought to be noted that most people with disabilities do not use the moral perspective to think about their disability in any meaningful way, as it is largely considered to be pejorative to those with disabilities. Further, the biological and societal framework can explain the same disability in different ways. 

Disability in the Bible 

How does the Bible explain disability? While the Bible never offers its own definition of disability, it provides much to think about regarding the role of disability, particularly as it relates to God and his redemptive work. 

The doctrine of the imago Dei found in Genesis 1 necessarily includes persons with disabilities. A person with a disability, regardless of the type of disability, is equally made in the image of God, bearing the same dignity and possessing the same responsibilities of personhood that all people retain. 

Additionally, as the story of God and his people unfolds throughout Scripture, it cannot be told without the integral role of persons with disabilities: 

This is not to say that the Bible is a monolith regarding God’s response to disability. For example, consider the man with the withered hand in Mark 9. Jesus heals the man, and when the disciples ask why the man was disabled (a cultural question referring to the possibility of physiognomy), Jesus responds by saying it is for the glory of God. If Mark’s story were to be prescriptive of disability in the Bible, then disability could be understood as a form of worship to serve as edification to God. However, not even Jesus responds to disability in the same way in every situation. Conversely, the story of Zaccheaus offers a new texture to the discussion of disability.

As Amos Yong argues based on his study of the language used to describe Zacchaeus, he likely had congenital dwarfism, a permanent physical disability. When Jesus and Zacchaeus meet, Zacchaeus is never physically healed, but this does not stop him from receiving the forgiveness of his wrongdoings and immediately participating in the work of God. The story concludes with Jesus calling Zaccheaus a “son of Abraham,” a culturally significant identifier demonstrating his spiritual lineage as a direct descendant from this father of the faith. 

In light of the complex understanding of disability that the Bible offers, the most fundamental conclusion is that persons with disabilities are made in the image of God and continue to be used by God to bring about his economy on Earth. And as we apply modern understandings of disability to Scripture, light is shed on how one can think about disability and the people of God. This is not to be a summative explanation of all there is to think about disability. However, by studying the Bible from a particular angle, the richness and complexity of the text can be made robust as we pursue in greater depth and clarity of who God is and how he continues to work today.  

3 Christian responses

What then is the proper response to the Bible being full of stories of how persons with disabilities are a necessary part of God’s redemptive work? The following are just three potential responses for Christians seeking to more closely embody the heart of God: 

1. Read: One of the best ways to immerse yourself in the world of disability as constructed in the Bible is to read books written on the topic of disability that consider it from a Christian perspective. Consider books such as Connor Bales’s Counted Worthy, Amy Kenny’s My Body is Not a Prayer Request, or Henri Nouwen’s Adam. Each of these books offers a compelling story of life proximal to disability and reflection on how that speaks to the Kingdom of God. 

2. Participate: Perhaps you live in a community that is resource-rich and can provide the social infrastructure for persons with disabilities to actively participate and be involved in the community (organizations such as L’Arche USA, Camp Barnabas, or Reality Ministries do a great job in this capacity). By becoming involved with such organizations, a common life is created with persons with disabilities, offering a foretaste of the divine economy in that each person is recognized as a full and equal member of the body of Christ.

However, though this is not possible for all persons and churches everywhere, it this does not mean one should fail to work toward participation in the mission of God as it relates to persons with disabilities. A great place to start is with this resource written by Andrew Bertodatti on how churches, regardless of resources and capacity, can better incorporate each person to their community. 

3. Pray: While reading is a noble way to become more informed, educated, and aware, it is not the same as in-person experience. Although not all communities have developed social infrastructure for full inclusion of persons with disabilities, this does not mean there are no persons with disabilities in the community. By praying for not only an awareness of persons with disabilities in your community, but opportunities to become friends, learn from, and be formed by these people also made in the image of God, we avail ourselves for the Holy Spirit to work in profound and transformational ways in our lives. 

Jackson McNeece

Jackson McNeece is a Master of Divinity student from Oklahoma City, OK. In May of 2020, Jackson graduated from Baylor University with a degree in Medical Humanities. Throughout his studies at Baylor, he developed an intense curiosity for medical ethics, particularly within a health care setting. While studying at Duke … Read More

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