Kinship in the Household of God: Towards a Practical Theology of of Belonging and Spiritual Care of People with Profound Autism
Book overview by Cynthia Tam
Published on October 7, 2021 by Wipf & Stock Publishers
Suggesting that the church can learn from the experiences of people with disabilities on what it means to belong together as a community may seem a piece of unusual advice. Yet, there is ample evidence that the experiences of people with disabilities challenge our thinking on many fronts, such as: what it means to be a person, how we should love one another in the community, and particularly, how the church can live out our calling to belong as one body in Christ with many and different members. Therefore, in this book, I sought to learn from the experiences of people with profound autism. I want to show how their experiences with the church inform and challenge our understanding and practices of belonging.
By profound autism, I refer to individuals who do not use speech as their primary means of communication. They also require intensive support for personal care. People with profound autism commonly experience rejection and sometimes abuse in society. They are also least welcomed by the church. By bringing the readers into the experiences of two profoundly autistic young persons with their respective church community, I demonstrate how profound autism magnify the deeply rooted issues of belonging in the church. While we often refer to each other as brothers and sisters in Christ, how we function as a community does not always match our call to be children of God caring for each other as beloved siblings. What is also evident is that welcoming a person with profound autism is a transformative experience for the church.
The experiences in these two church communities led me to reflect and reimagine the Christian relationship as covenantal kinship. Guided by the teaching of Paul and Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s theology, I remind readers that it is God’s covenantal faithfulness fulfilled in Christ that gives us the privilege to be incorporated into the body of Christ, thus becoming God’s children. With or without autism, any person who obeys God’s summons can come to Christ by the power of the Spirit to become God’s child. As such, I argue that people with profound autism, who have a relationship with Christ, should be baptized and accepted as church members. They should also be discipled along with all members of the church to grow in Christlikeness.
Just as we experience sibling rivalry in our human family, human life in God’s household can sometimes be messy. We need to learn to constantly renegotiate and realign our relationships, with Christ as our Mediator and the Spirit as our Guide. I conclude by urging the church to practice solidarity with all God’s children, recognizing that each member is indispensable regardless of their neurological status. Living out the image of a loving family is our call and a witness to the God who is love.
Dr. Cynthia Tam (bio): Dr. Tam is an ordained minister with the Christian and Missionary Alliance. She serves as a pastor at The Living Room Church and the national coordinator for disability ministries for the C&MA. Cynthia graduated from University of Aberdeen with a Ph.D. in Practical Theology under the supervision of Prof. John Swinton. She is currently teaching a missional ecclesiology course with the Alliance Stream at Tyndale University. Cynthia was involved with the founding of Village Eulogia for Families with Special Needs that serves families affected by disabilities and remained active in the ministry.