“For the church is not a human society of people united by their natural affinities but the Body of Christ, in which all members, however different, (and He rejoices in their differences and by no means wishes to iron them out) must share the common life, complementing and helping one another precisely by their differences.” – C.S. Lewis
A warm and sunny Sunday in May began. A wife, about 40 years old, and her husband got ready for church. As they arrived, many were dressed up and bustling towards their seats. The pastor approached the pulpit after the opening song. “Welcome to our church. Today is a special day: Mothers’ Day. We would like to recognize all the mothers. If you are a mother or a grandmother, please stand.” A good number of women, over half the church, stood as they proudly proclaimed their motherhood status. However, the woman sat next to her husband not moving. Her eyes cast down. Even at 40, she was not able to join her friends. But, not only were her eyes cast down, but other eyes looked at her in sorrow that she could not join the celebration. She was childless.
This situation is not uncommon in churches today. Many people experience an isolation in the church and feel unrecognized because they do not fit a certain category. These people never stand in recognition. These individuals eventually leave the church as they feel like they have no purpose in the church. In this post, I would like to address this issue and look at three major groups that have been ignored in the church for their contribution to the heritage of the church: the disabled, the childless, and African-Americans.
The Body of Christ
The church is not a building. It is a group of people. Ekklēsia is the Greek word translated church. This word refers to those that are called out. But, the church is not just a group of people. Throughout the New Testament, the church is known as the Body of Christ (Romans 7:4; 1 Corinthians 10:16; Ephesians 4:12; Colossians 1:24). Paul takes the imagery to tell us that all Christians are part of the body of Christ and all play an important role that is individualized in the Body of Christ (1 Corinthians 12).
In 1 Corinthians 12, Paul not only describes the Body of Christ, but he also corrects two wrong attitudes believers had about the Body of Christ. Verses 12-20 states that people should not say since they are not like others in their talents, they are not as valuable to the church. Paul says there is a diversity and Christians should not be jealous over other people in the church. Instead, God has made diversity in the church and given everyone gifts and abilities to play an individual, yet team role in the church. This is the aspect mainly preached on.
But, the second attitude is not really discussed and belongs to our discussion: verses 21-26. Parts of the body begin to turn on each other. The more visible parts, the eye and feet, say to others who have not as much visibility, “we have no need of you.” Paul condemns this attitude. Instead, Paul states that all parts have their roles and the ones that seem not as visible are to have the same honor as the ones that get honor in public view. This is to be how the church should see each other in each person’s contribution to the church and its mission.
The church today falls into the second attitude. As the story relayed, there is a minority of people who do not fit in a category that is typically honored or recognized in their contribution to the church. Many childless couples feel shame when they can’t stand on Mothers’ or Fathers’ Day. Those with disabilities are not even seen as those who can contribute to the church. And, many church leave out the contribution of African-Americans to the church throughout history.
The Contribution of the Disabled
Many with disabilities have contributed to the church despite many physical or mental obstacles. One of these is Joni Eareckson Tada. In her early life, she was paralyzed from the neck down. Yet, that does not stop her from from serving God in the church. She encourages many people through the books she has written (see Beyond Suffering Bible). She reaches out to other families with children with disabilities. She also paints with her mouth the glories of God seen in creation. Many others with disabilities can do many things for Christ. Yet, they are in need of a chance and in need of recognition.
The Contribution of the Childless
Many churches see motherhood and fatherhood as the pinnacle role for Christian men and women. Yet, there are Christians who do not have children of their own because of physical issues. Some marry someone with children or adopt children; yet, they have no biological children of their own. However, in the church today, there is a stigma for those who do not have biological children. There are two famous men in church history who were married, and yet were childless: C.S. Lewis and John Calvin. These two men had step-children, but they never had biological children.. Yet, from the legacy these men left us, the childless can contribute the church in mighty ways. Think about the last time you read or watched “The Lion, The Witch, and the Wardrobe.” How did the Chronicles of Narnia impact you or children you know? How has Screwtape Letters or Mere Christianity deepen your faith? How did The Great Divorce make you ponder over Heaven and Hell? Or, think of the time you thought about the Reformation. How has Calvin influenced the church as we know it today? How did he change the way we see the Bible? These are great contributions of childless men. Think about who is in your church who is childless and how they feel when motherhood or fatherhood is seen as the “end goal” for Christians. Don’t they have a place and a role to play in the Body of Christ?
The Contribution of the African-American Heritage
One group that seems forgotten constantly are the African-Americans. When thinking of American church history many do not think of African-Americans. Instead Jonathan Edwards, Billy Graham, D.L. Moody, and other white Americans come to mind. Yet, many African-Americans have had impact on the church. Think of songs like Were You There When They Crucified My Lord?, Swing Low, Sweet Chariot, Soon and Very Soon, Give Me That Ole Time’ Religion, It’s Me, Oh Lord (Standing in the Need of Prayer), and He’s Got the Whole World in His Hands. These are all songs written by African-Americans. Many of these came out the the dark period of slavery. These are memorials proving that even though many slave owners tried to keep slaves in a “man-made Christianity” (read Unholy: The Slaves Bible), God worked to show his Gospel power in the African-American population despite these dark times. So many names have contributed: Henry McNeal Turner, Martin Luther King Jr., and James Weldon Johnson for example. It is time the church allowed this group to stand up and honor all they have contributed. I highly suggest reading Ain’t Gonna Lay My ‘Ligion Down: African-American Religion in the South.
Contributing in Fellowship
As Paul states in 1 Corinthians 12, the church is the unified Body of Christ, yet is filled with diverse individuals in fellowship with one another. The Greek word for fellowship is Koinōnia. In 1 John 1:3, John tells us that we, as believers, have fellowship with other believers that mirror the fellowship the Father has with Jesus and then with us. Yet, it is more than just potlucks and getting along in the church. In Romans 15:26, the word Koinōnia has another word picture: contribution. Fellowship in the body of Christ means seeing that all believers have a contribution to give. This means that true fellowship in the Body of Christ is seeing the individual contributions of each Christian in the unified mission of making disciples of all nations. All believers and all Christians, no matter their background, have been redeemed by Christ to make their individual contributions for the Kingdom of God (Colossians 3:10-11).
A Change for the Church
The disabled, the childless, and African-Americans have all contributed to the church and yet many go unrecognized without honor which Paul says should be given (1 Corinthians 12:24-26). We recognize mothers and fathers, and pastors, but when was the last time the church took time to recognize the contributions of one of the groups mentioned? Think about church history, and the church today, without their gifts and talents being used for Christ. What things would be missed without these groups?
How can the church remedy this issue? Could, during Black History Month (February), at least two Sundays be given over to teaching on the contributions of African-Americans? Could we take time to educate our congregations about the contributions of the disabled and the childless? Are there any other groups of people in your church that are not recognized?
Martin Luther King Jr. observed that Sunday is the most segregated hour in America. Even today, the New York Times and CNN agree this sad reality still takes place. How can the church reverse this sad reality? It could start by letting them stand.
* This does not cover all the contributions of all three groups, and provide all answers to this issue. However, I encourage you to research more on each group and their contributions to the church. Always be a life-long learner for the sake of His Name.