A different way of looking at “Christian Privilege”

While checking my social media accounts upon returning home from an evening with my lovely wife, I saw that #ChristianPrivilege was trending on Twitter. If you click the link, you’ll find a number of comments that are somewhat less than complimentary about the teachings and practitioners of our faith.

Not being a recent college graduate or someone who might be considered a social justice warrior, my first instinct was to think of the incredible privileges we enjoy as Christians. I was studying Romans 8 earlier this week. Just within that one chapter of the Bible, we’re reminded of the following privileges:

  • Freedom from condemnation (verse 1)
  • The presence of the Holy Spirit within us (verse 9)
  • Eternal life (verse 11)
  • Status as the adopted sons and daughters of God (verses 14-16)
  • Justified before God (verse 33)
  • Conquerors (verse 37)
  • United forever with Jesus (verse 39)

In the social justice sense, privilege is often defined as

Unearned access to resources (social power) that are only readily available to some people because of their social group membership; an advantage, or immunity granted to or enjoyed by one societal group above and beyond the common advantage of all other groups. Privilege is often invisible to those who have it.

The concept of privilege is frequently associated with the theory of intersectionality that seeks to describe culture in terms of oppression resulting from inequalities in power or social influence associated with identification with a particular group identity.

Intersectional theory asserts that people are often disadvantaged by multiple sources of oppression: their race, class, gender identity, sexual orientation, religion, and other identity markers. Intersectionality recognizes that identity markers (e.g. “female” and “black”) do not exist independently of each other, and that each informs the others, often creating a complex convergence of oppression.

In some ways, the Christian life represents the ultimate demonstration of “unearned access to resources.” As a result of Jesus’ death and resurrection, all who are recipients of God’s unmerited favor (otherwise known as “grace”) are justified by faith and gain access to the very throne of God.

Where it doesn’t fit is the “only readily available to some people” part of the definition. Scripture is clear that adoption into God’s family and membership in the church is available to all.

For God so loved the world, that he gave his only Son, that whoever believes in him should not perish but have eternal life.

John 3:16 (ESV)

Jesus said to her, “I am the resurrection and the life. Whoever believes in me, though he die, yet shall he live, and everyone who lives and believes in me shall never die. Do you believe this?”

John 11:25-26 (ESV)

Because, if you confess with your mouth that Jesus is Lord and believe in your heart that God raised him from the dead, you will be saved. For with the heart one believes and is justified, and with the mouth one confesses and is saved. For the Scripture says, “Everyone who believes in him will not be put to shame.”

Romans 10:9-11 (ESV)

From a Christian anthropology, the ultimate “oppression” might be seen as any barrier or impediment that gets in the way of people coming to faith in Jesus. We as individuals do that when we act in a manner that compromises our witness. The institutional church does so whenever it acts in a way that drives people away from the Gospel. The church does so when it tolerates the systematic abuse of women and children, when persons in position of leadership place too much importance upon seeking access to political power, and when it twists and distorts the gospel to the point at which it becomes devoid of all meaning and power.

What might fit into the concept of “Christian Privilege” is the way in which the leadership of churches from every theological orientation often fail to recognize and act upon the many barriers (physical, cultural and programmatic) that become impediments to persons with physical, intellectual, developmental and mental health disabilities to full participation in the life of the church. Here are some questions church leaders might consider in examining the ways we disadvantage children and adults with disabilities:

Do we hide behind our exemption from the Americans With Disabilities Act to justify our reluctance to eliminate the physical barriers to the spaces in which worship and other ministry activities take place?

Does your church not only welcome persons with disabilities, but give them meaningful opportunities to serve?

Does your church shame individuals with mental health conditions by making blanket assumptions that their condition is a result of personal sin or some other spiritual failure?

I would think that the idea of privilege as it pertains to status and persons with disabilities in the church is one area both theologically liberal and conservative churches might consider without the divisiveness often associated with intersectionality theory. With that said, I’d like to issue a little challenge.

In our experience, it’s VERY unusual to encounter requests for assistance in launching or growing ministries to persons with disabilities from the types of churches that embrace the concepts of privilege and intersectionality. Prove me wrong. Feel free to fill the comments section below with links to the ministry initiatives your churches have launched to elevate the status of persons with disabilities in your church. Here’s a link if you’d like free resources or support from our staff to help you launch or grow your disability ministry.

Our true Christian privilege is the privilege to serve. One of the best ways for Christians to change the ways in which our faith is perceived by secular culture is through serving and elevating the status of the most vulnerable in society.
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Are you a pastor or ministry leader searching for resources to better understand how to support children, adults or families affected by mental illness in your church or in your community? Check out Key Ministry’s Mental Health Resources page, containing links to video, articles and topical blog series designed to help you minister with persons with common mental health conditions. Also available through the website are a free, downloadable mental health ministry planning tool designed to accompany Mental Health and the Church, along with links to recommended books, like-minded mental health ministry organizations, relevant research, sermons addressing mental illness, social media resources and a compilation of stories from families affected by mental illness.

About Dr. G

Dr. Stephen Grcevich serves as President and Founder of Key Ministry, a non-profit organization providing free training, consultation, resources and support to help churches serve families of children with disabilities. Dr. Grcevich is a graduate of Northeastern Ohio Medical University (NEOMED), trained in General Psychiatry at the Cleveland Clinic Foundation and in Child and Adolescent Psychiatry at University Hospitals of Cleveland/Case Western Reserve University. He is a faculty member in Child and Adolescent Psychiatry at two medical schools, leads a group practice in suburban Cleveland (Family Center by the Falls), and continues to be involved in research evaluating the safety and effectiveness of medications prescribed to children for ADHD, anxiety and depression. He is a past recipient of the Exemplary Psychiatrist Award from the National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI). Dr. Grcevich was recently recognized by Sharecare as one of the top ten online influencers in children’s mental health. His blog for Key Ministry, www.church4everychild.org was ranked fourth among the top 100 children's ministry blogs in 2015 by Ministry to Children.
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