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Why there are more disabled leaders in the Bible than you think

Ros Bayes takes a fresh look at some of the Bible's most well known stories

At a time of crisis we begin to ask questions about what effective leadership looks like.

Take, if you will, a journey of imagination with me. Picture us going back 4,000 years to the early pages of the Bible. You need someone to lead the nation, perhaps for many decades, and speak truth to power. Who are you going to choose?  A fluent orator with a charismatic personality?  Or a man so embarrassed by his speech impediment that he refuses to speak in public and his brother has to do it for him?  In Moses, God chose the latter.

Or imagine you need someone powerful enough to deliver a besieged city where the people are so famished they’re eating the bodies of the dead while a mighty army is ranged against them. Who are you going to choose? A band of warriors brave enough to face down the foe? Or a bunch of men whose limbs are stumps with nerves devoid of feeling, ravaged by the disabling effects of leprosy? These were, in fact, the four men in 2 Kings 7 whom God tasked with checking out the enemy camp, finding it deserted and sharing its provisions with the starving citizens.

Perhaps you can foresee that under a particular leadership the tribe will take a damaging turn, and you need someone who can pronounce a blessing so powerful in its spiritual effects that it will change the course of history for the generations to come. Who would be suitable for this task? A priest or learned scribe who has studied the works of God in previous generations?  Or an old man, too frail even to leave his bed? Once again, it was the latter whom God chose. (Genesis 48:8-20)

Or suppose that the Church is in its infancy and you are looking for someone who can both travel extensively throughout the known world planting churches and also write what will become the core of the teaching by which God’s people will live for the rest of time. Would you choose someone young and fit enough to withstand the rigours of voyaging, independent enough to find his way around without help? Or a man whose eyesight is so poor that he fails to recognise the high priest, accidentally insults him and has to apologise (Acts 23:1-5); who has to dictate his letters to someone because he cannot see well enough to write them himself (Romans 16:22, Galatians 6:11, Galatians 4:13-15); who cuts an unimpressive figure and is a poor speaker (2 Corinthians 10:10)? This description, of course, fits the apostle Paul whom God appointed and certainly didn’t disqualify for his disability.

Often, when we think about disability in the Bible, our minds go to the New Testament, and we frame it in terms of those whom Jesus healed. In a world with no medical treatment and no social security, healing was probably the most urgent need of those people. Notice though, that Jesus didn’t make that assumption. He gave them the dignity of being able to express their own wishes. For example, he asked questions such as, “What do you want me to do for you?” (Mark 10:51) and, “Do you want to get well?” (John 5:6). Nor was the disability the first thing he noticed about someone when he met them. First he saw them for the person they were, and the spiritual needs they carried, and attended to those as a priority before turning his attention to their physical condition. (Luke 5:17-25)

But disability in the Bible is not restricted to these stories. There are numerous instances where we see disabled people playing a vital role in God’s purposes for his world. God saw in Moses something which Moses had not seen in himself. He went on to lead the nation for 40 years, out of a captivity that seemed never-ending and to the very borders of the Promised Land. The four men with leprosy who saved the besieged city of Samaria give us a powerful metaphor, with disabled people contributing and indeed essential to the life and health of God’s people.

When churches recognise the great gift in the disabled people in their community, they are truly blessed. I think of one church I have visited several times in a country not known for its equal treatment of disabled people. A young autistic man with Down’s Syndrome is variously referred to by his fellow church members as a prophet and a pastor. He takes part in, and often powerfully leads, the worship, and is always one of the first on his feet when an appeal is made to come and lay hands on someone and pray for their needs.

Maybe God prizes obedience and dependence over ability and self-reliance

Maybe it was more important to God to choose those who lacked confidence in their own abilities and were fully reliant on him than those who displayed the qualities we would perhaps look for in leadership. Maybe God prizes obedience and dependence over ability and self-reliance. Perhaps it’s more important to him to be able to turn someone around and mould them to lead in his way than to find a ready-made leader who lacks that sense of personal inadequacy.

Jesus went so far as to say that without those who can’t see and those who can’t walk the house is not full. (Luke 14:21-24) Our Christian Disability charity Through the Roof take its name from the story of the man who was lowered through the roof to Jesus by his four friends, because bringing disabled people to Jesus is we're all about. The Lausanne Committee for World Evangelization has identified disabled people as one of the world’s most unreached people groups, with an estimated 90-95% never hearing the Gospel in their lifetime. What a tragedy, when God has such an important role for disabled people within his church.

Ros Bayes is training resources developer at Through the Roof. She help provides resources and training for church leaders to identify and meet the needs of disabled people in their area. Learn more at throughtheroof.org

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