Is the Gospel 'Closed' to the Mentally Disabled?

Should the Bible be taught to those with severe cognitive disabilities?

That was the question posed by John Knight, the senior director of development at Desiring God, who explored whether or not the Gospel appeared “closed” to those who couldn’t necessarily understand the Word of God.

Challenged by one of John Piper’s messages titled “The Word of God is at Work in You” based on 1 Thessalonians 2:13-16, Knight began to wonder if a few of the observations the megachurch pastor made about the text applied to the disabled as well.

He first looked at verse 13b, “When you received the word of God, which you heard from us.”

Quoting Piper, Knight shared, “God spoke, humans gave his word through their words, and the Thessalonians heard that. They heard the sounds. They knew the Greek language. They construed meaning with their minds.”

“God uses humans to deliver his word, and he delivers it to humans. Human minds hear and understand the word from God, and then another set of human minds receive it from those human mouths and again hear and understand it.”

As the father of a child with severe cognitive disabilities, including blindness, autism and cognitive impairments, Knight found an issue with the observation.

“My son Paul can ‘hear’ from the sense that his ears work, but he cannot understand or make sense of most of what he hears,” he revealed. “And he also cannot communicate much of what he actually understands. Is the Gospel closed to him?”

Fortunately, Piper highlighted another point that appeared to answer his question: As the Thessalonians heard the words of Paul, God acted on their minds and hearts.

“What [God] did was enable them to receive Paul’s words as the word of God,” Knight recalled the preacher saying. “He opened their mind and heart to know that Paul was speaking the word of God, and he gave them the inclination to receive it for what it is, not mere human words, but God’s word.”

If it was necessary for God to make this understanding possible for people with “normal” cognitive abilities, it was possible for God to do so for those with limited cognitive abilities, the author explained.

“After all, he knows everything about every human being that he has made, and when compared to God, all of us live with pretty impaired cognitive abilities!”

The work of the Holy Spirit enabled all people to embrace truths about who God is and what he has done, Knight noted. The actor was and is God.

Dr. Jeff McNair, the director of the MA program and the Disability Studies Institute at California Baptist University, agreed that faith development was on many levels the work of God’s spirit.

However, he also shared that Christians should not only rely on “a miracle of God for an individual with a disability to learn something.”

“There are pedagogical practices which have the best chance of facilitating learning outcomes in the individuals,” McNair told The Christian Post. “It is these kinds of practices which should be employed also in faith development.”

Though he understood that God’s word would never return void, he believed that if people only relied on miracles for God’s word to work in a person, Christians were not using the mind that God gave them to understand how people learn.

“I have often joked that if we exclusively rely on miracles, the byline for our ministries should be, ‘Come to our church. It will be a miracle if you learn anything!’”

Having been involved in ministry with intellectually disabled adults for more than 30 years, McNair learned that faith development could be approached in a variety of different ways, finding what was most effective for certain individuals.

“The idea of teaching the Bible implies a broad array of approaches, strategies, objectives, outcomes, etc.,” he added. “The Bible can be taught as content, as lifestyle, as behavior, as well as many other things.”

“As a professor of special education specializing in the education of persons with severe disabilities, I can tell you there is much that individuals with intellectual impairments learn and can communicate about their faith.”

Many have learned to pray, love their neighbor, memorize Scripture and comfort others in times of stress.

“I have learned that faith development is the best objective and that content knowledge can come in a variety of ways,” he concluded.

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