artistic depiction of God in a wheelchair throne
artistic depiction of God in a wheelchair throne

There is a seemingly logical connection between the word “disability” and the idea that something is wrong.  For a paraplegic, there is something wrong with a person’s spine and/or legs.  For a visually impaired person, there is something wrong with their eyes.  What if the problem, though, is not with that person’s eyes?  What if the problem is that we live in a society in which it is nearly impossible to function without vision?  In an informative discussion of “Paul and Asklepios,” Stanley states that:


To be “healthy” is to be capable of performing the functions necessary for personal maintenance on a daily basis.  To have a “disease” is to experience some sort of dysfunction within the human biological system, while being “ill” refers to the sufferer’s subjective and socially conditioned perception of being unwell.  Finally, the term “sickness” describes the sense of meaning that others give to the person’s complaint and the roles that the sufferer is expected to perform in a given context.[1]

Even in Paul’s first-century world, all of these terms describe the need for a person to function within a set of parameters determined by the context they are in. So, if disability is a function of society and culture, what follows is that disability is also a function of religious communities.  If people’s physical state doesn’t impair them but rather their environment, it becomes so much easier to control the variables in offering welcome.  The problem of the environment can be solved, even when faced with a medical state that can not be solved.  This idea lets go of fears and awkwardness about those we welcome and frees us to make a friend where we would otherwise see a project.   Disability, then, is ‘any condition or situation that prevents a person from existing in society or culture in a way that is deemed to be adequate or expected.’

Despite what many believe today, God does not call us to be counter-cultural or to separate ourselves from society.  He calls us to be passionately sociocultural beings– in a way that honours Him.  John 17:15 reads, “I do not ask that you take them out of the world, but that you protect them from the evil one (LEB).  As soon as the church steps away from society, they lose their ability to be of influence in that society.  When we reject culture, we stop caring what happens to it.  Christians should be leaders in advocating for disability (and many other things) and the church should be a bright example of how to create a world that is fully livable to those with disabilities.  Because, by the previously stated definition of disability as a product of our society and culture, if we create a world for those with disabilities, they are, in that sense, no longer disabled.


“My Body is not a Prayer Request”[2]

The question we address here is not if or how to welcome people with disability.  Practical needs are often easy to discern.  The only theological reference needed to decide if we should be welcoming is “Jesus loves me.”[3] The real question is why we don’t: “Why is it so easy for our faith communities to say that the disabled population is welcome and loved, yet so difficult to attain the level of comfort and knowledge needed to live that out?”   Let’s try to examine these questions from both sides:  the roadblock on the part of our churches, and the roadblock from the disability population. 

As a wheelchair-bound “spoonie”[4] with an interest in disability advocacy and law, I have had unique opportunities to hear how people in the disability community perceive the church.


I have identified several prevalent thoughts and beliefs:[5],[6]   

The Underlying Thought

The Message to the Church

The Truth Explored

There is nothing wrong with me. Therefore, I do not need resources, and I do not need prayer or healing.     

English Journalist Candida Moss gives a heart-wrenching description of Jesus as “a cathartic scourge that wanders around eradicating disability from the world… That relegates people with disabilities to just being there to show the power of God…They’re not really real characters or real people who have feelings and needs and personalities.  That pushes them to the margins of the story.”[7]

How can we better communicate that healing happens because we are loved and fully accepted… that physical healing is a by-product of a healthy, inclusive relationship with God and others?

I will be disabled in heaven.

"I think that if I’m not disabled in heaven, I’m not myself so I certainly hope I’ll still be disabled in heaven…I still want to be me.  And I don’t think that I would be me without the conditions that I have.”[8]

There is a difference between being disabled in heaven, and being who you were because of your disability (resilient or strong).


It is also worth exploring exactly what parts of a person’s condition are disabling to them.  For example, the mole on my left hand doesn’t prevent me from doing anything, so there is no reason for my new body to be mole-free.

There must be disability representation in every context around me. 


This means that Paul must have been seriously disabled, and even that God the Father must be a wheelchair-user. 

"In fact it's not just any old chair, it's the best chair in the Bible. It's God's throne, and it's a wheelchair. This made me feel like God understands what it's like to have a wheelchair and that having a wheelchair is actually very cool, because God has one."[9]

When we ‘put God on the throne’, something happens.  That choice has the power to transform.  So too for putting God in a wheelchair.  There is power there, and we need to tread cautiously.

As a person with a disability, I find this list devastating.  It is heartbreaking to hear such a loud cry for acceptance, welcome, and the resources needed to function in the world, yet a simultaneous denial of the Source of all those needs.  These false ideologies are being created because people can not find what they are looking for in the truth – and they are keeping people from the healing God has for them.

Many say they have a ‘right’ to be disabled and that there is nothing wrong with their bodies.  Yet, choosing to identify as a person proud of their disability means stating you have a disability, which is essentially defined as something wrong with your body.[10]  If a person doesn’t believe there is anything wrong with them, then perhaps ‘disabled’ isn’t the best term to identify with.  There’s a danger of getting lost in semantics, so let’s reinforce the critical distinction here.   It’s the difference between saying, “There is nothing wrong with my body,” and saying, “There is something wrong with my body and I still have value and purpose.”  The first is an attitude of denial that misses out on any opportunity for accommodation or healing. In contrast, the second bears the completeness of all the beauty and transformation inherent in the gospel.  Let’s explore the expression of that gospel in the life and writings of Paul, who had a unique experience of disability in his own life and those around him.


All Things Paul

The Apostle Paul is legitimately a person the disability community is drawn to. Yet, despite his experiences, Paul is relatively silent on matters of physical health. There is no difference between Paul's words to the disabled and his words to the able-bodied. Read with this awareness, we come out of Paul’s letters with a deep desire to love and welcome the disabled, not because they are different from us, but because they are the same. 


What Paul’s Life Was Not

The need to see disability around oneself is an indicator that one does not feel included by those who are not disabled.  What often results is looking for disability where there is none, constantly fighting for the sake of equal representation.  The motive is pure, but taken to the extreme, it’s unreasonable.   

Rose interviews Becky Tyler, a young believer with a life-altering disability who has an interest in theology. She uses Ezekiel 1 as a description of the throne of God being a wheelchair, suggesting that the true anthropomorphic representation of God the Father is as a wheelchair user.[11]  The first chapter of Ezekiel reads:

And I saw the living creatures, and look! A wheel was on the earth beside each of the living creatures that had four faces. The appearance of the wheels and their construction was like a wheel within a wheel. When they moved, they went toward their four sides; they did not veer at all as they went. And their rims were high and awesome, and all four of their rims were full of eyes all around (Ezel 1:15-18).


There is one main problem with putting God in a wheelchair.  He is not. Passages with the same degree of anthropomorphism as Ezekiel 1 are rare in scripture, and even in this situation, the genre points to a symbolic understanding of the text. It is a passage that is all at once poetic, apocalyptic, and prophetic. The genre suggests a highly symbolic reading, not a literal one. Even then, it is a stretch. We do not need to knock out the spinal cord of the God of the universe to love and welcome people with disabilities.

I have spent many hours of late exploring this idea of “a Disabled Apostle.”[12] Isaac Soon deserves much credit for writing a book that needed to be written—an exploration of possible scenarios of disability in Paul’s life.  However, one must apply some interpretive limits. Soon, I feel, makes too many assumptions, blowing a little bit of evidence out of proportion—like using a hairball to make a whole other cat.  The result is a series of claims around Paul’s physical state that are unrooted in scripture.  The last thing I want to do is weaken my argument by basing it entirely on an assertion that Paul (or God!) had physical disabilities that he never had.  

This is one of the fallacies described in the introduction – the need to find examples of disability where there are none.  This comes, and rightly so, from a desire to feel included and ‘normal’.  However, that does not mean that every minority can be represented in every situation.  It is simply not possible. It would seem that the Apostle Paul knew that it was unachievable to speak to every minority or marginalized group. So instead, he gave a message that was for all. Paul writes to the Galatians that “there is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither slave nor free, there is neither male and female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus” (Gal 3:28).  There is neither disabled nor able-bodied.

When Christ took on our human nature, He became all our infirmities, including our disabilities.  God understands suffering and weakness insofar as He takes on our humanity, but He is not disabled, especially under the new definition of disability established above which would require him to be functionally disabled.  As prophecy foretells (Isaiah 53:4) and the gospel fulfills, “He himself took away our sicknesses, and carried away our diseases” (Matthew 8:17). 


What Paul’s Life Was

Paul’s context for disability and healing is infinitely complex.  He was born into a Greco-Roman world that was slowly forming the intellectual framework of what would become modern medicine.  In his own writings and the book of Acts, we see hints of Paul’s experience of disability.  Paul had experiences interacting with the sick and suffering, providing healing and compassionate care as he was able (Acts 13:9-12, 14:9-10, 16:16-18, 19:11-12, 20:9-10, 27:33-38, 28:8-9).   He also had his own experiences with suffering and illness throughout his career (14:19-20, 16:22-24, 16:26-34, 21:27-36, 22:23-26, 23:10, 27:21-26, 28:3-6), was plagued by an ongoing “thorn in the flesh” (2 Cor 12:7-8), and had the unique experience of temporary blindness upon his conversion (Acts 9:8-9, 17-19).  Paul was described as “a man small of stature, with a bald head and crooked legs, in a good state of body, with eyebrows meeting and nose somewhat hooked, full of friendliness; for now he appeared like a man, and now he had the face of an angel.”[13]  Acknowledging the desire and need for those with disabilities to self-identify, we discover from Paul’s summary in 2 Cor 11:23:33 that he considered his physical ailments to have played a significant role in who he was and what he did.

Paul’s life demonstrates that those with disabilities, minor or severe, can be called to effective and powerful ministry.  He demonstrates the need to come together with all people in our ἐκκλησία, and that physical healing can and should occur when accompanied by other levels of inner healing.   




On Mute

 Considering his lifetime of experiences, Paul is unexpectedly mute on the subject of disability in his letters. He could have written about the need for discernment in distinguishing physical ailments from spiritual oppression.  He could have described the healings of Christ in greater detail and given direction as to how his followers could reproduce such medical signs and wonders.  He could have foreseen the questions that would inevitably arise about how Christ healed the sick.  Believers wondered how it was different for Jesus to use dirt and saliva to heal when pagan Asklepian healers would do the same.[14]  He could have discussed the promise of physical healing and the command to lament and pray together when we come into sickness (see Psalm 6:2-6).     He could have empathized with what it must feel like for a disabled person to be constantly ‘pushed’ towards healing prayer and the expectation of a new body, all while being expected to believe God loves them just the way they are in the body that they have. 

Considering his own experience of medical struggles Paul’s apparent silence on the matter is indeed unexpected. But why was he silent?  There are two possibilities.  Either he was silent for a reason, or he wasn’t actually silent.  Perhaps the fact that he didn’t say anything says more than he could have said by saying something. 


ἀσθένεια as a Teleological Completion of Power

One thing Paul does write about is ἀσθένεια, here translated as “weakness.”  In the second Corinthian epistle, we read:

On behalf of such a person I will boast, but on behalf of myself I will not boast, except in my weaknesses. For if I want to boast, I will not be foolish, because I will be telling the truth, but I am refraining, so that no one can credit to me more than what he sees in me or hears anything from me, even because of the extraordinary degree of the revelations. Therefore, so that I would not exalt myself, a thorn in the flesh was given to me, a messenger of Satan, in order that it would torment me so that I would not exalt myself. Three times I appealed to the Lord about this, that it would depart from me. And he said to me, “My grace is sufficient for you, because the power is perfected in weakness.” Therefore rather I will boast most gladly in my weaknesses, in order that the power of Christ may reside in me. Therefore I delight in weaknesses, in insults, in calamities, in persecutions and difficulties for the sake of Christ, for whenever I am weak, then I am strong (2 Cor 12:5-10).


One might arguably place ἀσθένεια among Paul’s favorite words (see Rom 6:19, 8:26, 1 Cor 15:43, 2 Cor 11:30, 13:4, Gal 4:13, 1 Tim 5:23).  Marva Dawn is a brilliant theologian and also lives with a permanent and life-altering disability.  She engages in a discussion of the word τελέω as it relates to ἀσθένεια. A traditional translation of 2 Corinthians 12:9 suggests that God’s power is not complete without weakness – that His power is even greater than it was before because of his assumption of our weaknesses.  Yet, an examination of the Greek word τελέω suggests a different meaning.  First, the word τελέω doesn’t only represent completeness, but an ending of something because of that completeness. Also, there is no pronoun here to suggest that the power spoken of belongs to God.  What we are left with is that ἀσθένεια is “the end” of power – not God’s power, but power in general.[15] [16]  To 1st century Christ followers, the end of power would have been a promise sweet to behold.  The end of power was the end of government, institutionalized religion, slavery, and corruption.  It was the end of Rome and the end of oppression.

Dawn also introduces us to the verb “to tabernacle”[17] and the idea that God tabernacles (LXX σκην) among us when He “pitches His tent” in our midst. Tabernacling represents the behaviour of God in the full extent of His holiness – it is His choice as holy God to take on the weakness of His creation in place of His power. God dwelling among us was not a new concept to the people. In Exodus 24:16 they saw the Glory of God settle over Mount Sinai, and much later in John 1:14 they saw the Word incarnate take up residence in the body of the Son. Finally, the people would one day hear a loud voice proclaim,

“Behold, the dwelling of God is with humanity,
and he will take up residence with them
and they will be his people
and God himself will be with them.
And he will wipe away every tear from their eyes,
and death will not exist any longer,
and mourning or wailing or pain will not exist any longer.
The former things have passed away” (Rev 21:3).

Weakness. This is where our suffering Savior says, “I like this spot. I am going to pitch my tent.”  

In describing Christ, Paul does not hesitate to use “both ‘disabled’ and ‘powerful.’ He preached not only ‘Christ crucified,’ the ‘disabled’ Christ (‘crucified in weakness,’ 2 Cor 13:4), but also the glorified, powerful Christ – the Christ beyond all disabilities and limitations, including the limitation of death itself (e.g., Rom 6:9). It is the paradoxical connection between the two that is the center to Paul’s message.”[18]  This paradoxical connection may be wrought with meaning, but it holds a simple truth – the two terms are not mutually exclusive. The fact that Paul doesn’t write about weakness and then segue directly into physical disability speaks volumes here. It says: “People with disabilities have weaknesses like any other. The power of God through Christ is equally manifest in disability.  It is a good place to pitch a tent, among the disabled, for they are the same.”   


We Are the Same

Catholic theologian and philosopher Jean Vanier devoted his life to the care and community of those with severe developmental disabilities. He comments:

When I talk about ‘inclusion’ of people, whether they are those with disabilities, beggars like Lazarus, or people suffering from AIDS, I am not talking only about starting up special schools or residences or creating good soup kitchens or new hospitals.  These are, of course, necessary.  I am not just saying that we should be kind to such people because they are human beings.  Nor is it a question of ‘normalizing’ them in order that they can be ‘like us,’ participate in church services, and go to the movies and the local swimming pool.  When I speak of the inclusion of those who are marginalized I am affirming that they have a gift to give to all, to each of us as individuals, to the larger forms of human organization, and to society in general.[19]


We can not be effective in Ministry unless we humbly acknowledge we ultimately have the same basic needs as those we serve.  Those basic needs present differently in different people, a distinction not limited to those with disabilities.  One person’s need for acceptance may have to do with their gender, and the next person, occupation.  The underlying need for acceptance, though, is the same.  Suppose we start humbly admitting that even in our equality, we all have needs that differ from the person sitting next to us in church. In that case, we unlock not only the ability to welcome our disabled brothers and sisters but a world of blessing and promise in our own lives as well.


Same Difference

So how do we celebrate our differences and meet unique needs without denying equality?   We need to welcome those with disabilities as equals, but also as a person with a disability, for that is what they are.  One way to understand this is to examine our needs as they pertain to our body, soul, and spirit.

“As post-Enlightenment beings, we separate medicine from both magic and religion, and call this liberation, or progress; the Greeks did not.”[20]  In the 1st century, the connection between physical and spiritual was assumed, and it was normal to attribute illness or disability to demonic forces.  “Regarding the causes of sickness, patristic authors generally echo what we saw in our study of Jewish thought: sickness can be an expression of divine displeasure, a test of human faith, the work of demons, or a product of living in a fallen world.  Here and there someone notes that sickness can result from a poor lifestyle, whether chosen or circumstantial, but religious explanations dominate”[21]. Today, these are implications that many people living with disabilities would be highly offended by. So how can we come to a healthy understanding of the interrelationship between body, soul, and spirit? 



The needs of the body are practical ones.  For those with disabilities, these can include having “moral access” to resources[22], practical supports like help with housework or transportation, and necessary accommodations to access church buildings and to be able to participate in activities and programming. 

As in our world today, Paul’s readers had many choices for medical care and healing.  While some extremes would have been obviously inappropriate (a blood sacrifice in a pagan temple?) there were still many options. 

Even the gospels are silent on how to imitate Christ’s healing. “None of the stories makes any claim that others could achieve similar results by following Jesus’s example, [so] it is easy to see how they might have been used by later generations to justify “magical” forms of healing.”[23]  Paul himself didn’t comment on different types of medical care or healing. “Christians who were seeking guidance from their founding texts about the propriety of various types of healing would have found little to aid them….[for] God is the giver of health, regardless of the channels through which it comes.”[24] 

Other physical needs are practical supports (financial, housework, or meals), physical access (to buildings and spaces used) and access to programming (a reasonable level of accommodation to allow the person to participate fully in the activity in question). 


Soul and Spirit

When it comes to the needs of the soul, there is little that is unique to those with disabilities. However, God calls those who experience intense suffering and pain to lament and grieve together in his presence (see Psalm 6:2-6). This is yet another opportunity for a person with a disability to come into community, or even to serve to guide others through the process of lament and grief.  Other needs of the soul can include mental health therapy or education, helping a person to manage the intense emotions that come with these processes.

The needs of the spirit uniquely parallel the needs of the body. Our biggest spiritual need is healing prayer. I chose to place healing under the category of Spirit for a reason. For Paul (Acts 19:11-12), and even for Christ himself (Mark 2:3-12), when a physical need was presented to them, the prayer of healing would be a spiritual one.[25] Even in Paul’s own life, his “physical malady was considered to have been a satanic scourge…whatever the existential dimension of Paul’s thorn in the flesh, its phenomenology justified the accepted social and cosmological associations:  this unimaginable pain can finally be attributed only to the forces of darkness that opposed God’s saving intentions.”[26]

Even in this brief discussion of body, soul, and spirit, it is evident that the lines between the three are ill-defined.  When we understand healing as a holistic and all-encompassing process, we are well-equipped to demonstrate to those with disabilities that healing comes because they are fully loved and accepted by God.


Pitching the Tent

The process of entering into the community of Christ is ultimately the same for any of us.  We come to church with our struggles, with weakness that hurts us and holds us back. It is the privilege of the body of Christ to welcome, connect needs with resources, and love others as we ourselves are loved.  When you have a group of people eager to welcome and a group of people hungry for welcome, you don’t have a problem – you have an opportunity.  This is our chance - to acknowledge and celebrate our differences intentionally, never losing sight of our sameness, and to examine the needs and characteristics of body, mind, and spirit, never forgetting that they, too, are one.  This is a much larger conversation than the pages of this paper can hold. 

Born in 1910, Dr. John Nash Ott was a writer, photographer, and researcher and “had reported in his books that prolonged tent camping could cure illness.”[27] This only half-serious assertion is magnified infinitely when we add to it that the God of all Glory is pitching the tent.  He chooses to tabernacle here amongst the weak and disabled.  So, in the words of Peter at the transfiguration of Jesus, “Lord, it is good that we are here…!  Let’s pitch a tent”[28] here, united in our ἀσθένεια. 

[1] Christopher D. Stanley, Paul and Asklepios:  The Greco-Roman Quest for Healing and the Apostolic Mission (London, UK: T&T Clark), Chapter 1.

[2] Amy Kenny, My Body Is Not a Prayer Request (Grand Rapids, MI: Brazos Press, 2022).

[3] This I know. For the Bible tells me so.

[4] A term used to describe a person with a chronic illness.

[5] Unfortunately, none of these conversations were on record, and I am unable to give credit where it is due.  I was fortunate, though, to find the same sentiments expressed by Damon Rose of the BBC. 

[6] Damon Rose, “Stop Trying to Heal Me.” BBC News (27 April 2019):

[7] Candida Moss in Rose, “Stop Trying to Heal Me.”

[8] Candida Moss in Rose, ”Stop Trying to Heal Me.”

[9] Becky Tyler in Rose, “Stop Trying to Heal Me.”

[10] This distinction may be physical, social, or cultural.

[11] Rose, “Stop Trying to Heal Me.”

[12] Isaac T. Soon, A Disabled Apostle:  Impairment and Disability in the Letters of Paul. (Oxford, UK: Oxford University Press).


[13] Onesiphorus quoted in Abraham J Malherbe, “A Physical Description of Paul.” Harvard Theological Review 79 (1-3): 170–75.

[14] It should be noted here that in Paul’s time, it was normal for believers to access resources like Asklepian temples.  Stanley notes that “as late as the fourth century, leaders were exhorting their congregants against visiting Asklepian temples and engaging in ‘magical’ practices, so it appears that Christ-followers continued to visit Greek and Roman healers long after the time of Paul.  Unlike Paul, however, this later generation of leaders felt compelled to confront Christians who behaved in this manner” (Stanley, Paul and Asklepios, Chapter 8).

[15] R.C.H. Lensky. The Interpretation of St. Paul’s First and Second Epistles to the Corinthians (Minneapolis, MI: Augsburg Publishing House, 1937) in Marva Dawn. Powers, Weakness, and the Tabernacling of God.(Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 2001), Chapter 2.

[16] Dawn, Powers, Weakness, and the Tabernacling of God. Chapter 2.

[17] Ibid., Powers, Weakness, and the Tabernacling of God. Chapter 2.

[18] Martin Albl, “For Whenever I am Weak, Then I am Strong” in This Disabled Body, ed. Hector Avalos (Atlanta: Society of Biblical Literature, 2007), 147.

[19] Jean Vanier, Becoming Human (Mahwah, NJ: Paulist Press), 83.

[20] Helen King, “Comparative Perspectives on Medicine and Healing in the Ancient World,” 281; quoted in Christopher D. Stanley, Paul and Asklepios:  The Greco-Roman Quest for Healing and the Apostolic Mission (London, UK: T&T Clark), Chapter 6.

[21] Stanley, Paul and Asklepios, Chapter 8

[22] Essentially this refers to having permission from the church to access the secular medical resources required for their care.  For example, some faith communities discourage the use of psychiatric medication, a distinction that is very important to the person requiring said medication.

[23] Ibid., Chapter 8.

[24] Ibid., Chapter 8.

[25] When physical healing does happen, it is a by-product of healing that IS body/soul/spirit. We hear the words of Jesus to the paralytic in Mark 2, where it would appear that the paralytic is not healed physically until after the exchange with the scribes. I see no other evidence of physical healing solely for the purpose of restoring health.

[26] Amos Yong, The Bible, Disability, and the Church (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans), Chapter 4.

[27] Steven Magee, Hypoxia, Mental Illness, and Chronic Fatigue (Independent).

[28] Matthew 17:4, paraphrase mine.