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In her two-part series, “Disabling Ableism,” Melanie A. Howard encourages Christian educators “to engage in our mission-driven work by rooting out the ableism that separates us from one another and denies us the flourishing for which were created.” We warmly affirm Howard’s intent to raise awareness of the often-latent bias of ableism, to increase access to educational and social opportunities for people with disabilities, and to celebrate their inclusion as equally valued members of the people of God. As a biblical scholar and parent to a child with a physical disability (Ensor), I deeply appreciate Howard’s attempt to look to the biblical text for insight and guidance while simultaneously acknowledging the concerns emerging from the disability community. It is this attempt to build a bridge between these two horizons that gives Howard’s approach potential and moves us to join the conversation by offering a gentle critique.

In foregrounding current disability research, Howard presents three models of disability: medical, social, and cultural. Howard embraces the cultural model (which understands normality and disability as cultural constructs in need of redefinition) and turns to three passages of Scripture as examples of it: the healing of the leper (Matt 8:1–4), the exorcism of the Gerasene demoniac (Mark 5:1–20), and the eunuch memorial (Isa 56:1–8).

While the attempt to link the model to text is noble, it ultimately falls short. In both Gospel passages, the leper and the demoniac are reintegrated into society not because Jesus created new discursive environments, but because his miraculous power ontologically changed those persons through healing and exorcism. Far from rejecting cultural constructs, Jesus acknowledges the reality of institutions (the temple cultus), their norms (Levitical purity maps), and their functionaries (the need of priestly authorization for the leper to reintegrate into society, Matt 8:4).  Similarly, Jesus treats the demoniac (Mark 5:1–20) not as a victim of a faulty cultural paradigm, but as one who needs set free from the forces of evil, using the language of removal (“come out of the man, you unclean spirit,” Mark 5:8).1 In both instances, reintegration is only possible after healing; that is, once the individual is no longer disabled by leprosy or demonic possession. These passages would suggest that Jesus shared or at least accommodated himself to the dominant paradigm of his society in which leprosy and demon possession remain at odds with God’s vision of human flourishing. If a contemporary disability model would apply, it would be the medical model.

Likewise, the granting to eunuchs “a monument and a name” in the Temple (56:5) may not be a “vision of inclusion” that fits the cultural model. First, the language of radical inclusion into temple space relates explicitly to foreigners, not eunuchs (Isa 56:7). Second, while foreigners are welcomed, the reference to the eunuch monument likely provides for their symbolic presence for posterity without nullifying Deuteronomy 23:1. Third, the point of the symbolic presence of the eunuchs within sacred space seems to be that God will make up for their impairment by granting them a memorial that fills in the gap created by their impotence. Certainly, by doing so, Isaiah destigmatizes the condition and makes room for such persons within the Lord’s assembly, but we are not convinced it is a vision of culture redefined. As Adam Smith rightly notes in his own response to Howard, “When Isaiah welcomes eunuchs into the Kingdom of God, he is not celebrating diversity; he is welcoming people who have been maimed.”

We wish to offer 2 Corinthians 12:1–10 as a more fitting analogy to the cultural model. There Paul narrates his heavenly ascent, which is interdicted by the inflicting of a “thorn in the flesh” (often speculated as a physical disability2) that prevents Paul from being “conceited” or, better, “ascending” to the throne room (2 Cor 12:7b–8).3 Paul’s unsuccessful ascent is matched by his unanswered pleas for God to remove the disabling thorn. What Paul receives from the Lord, however, is the voice of affirmation and commendation: “My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness” (2 Cor 12:9). The voice moves Paul to reinforce his countercultural policy of “boasting” in weakness in its manifold forms because of Christ’s powerful presence in the midst of his impotence (12:10).

Panning out to the broader literary context, Paul’s tale of apocalyptic inability maps onto a larger discussion of Paul’s social disability before the Corinthians. Detractors within the community have evaluated Paul negatively as one who is “humiliating face to face” (10:1), “weak when present,” and empty of impressive words (10:10).4 The precise referent of these criticisms remains debated, but scholars agree that critics considered Paul to lack the socio-cultural ability necessary for his leadership of the community.5 As I have written elsewhere, Paul’s disability was so serious that it cascaded into the questioning of his legitimacy within the community (10:7b; 13:3a; 2:16–3:4), and accusations of deviant character (1:17; 2:11; 7:2b; 12:16–18), an accusation not entirely foreign to the disability community.6

Through Paul’s narration of his failed apocalyptic ascent, he writes to recalibrate communal norms in light of the crucified and risen Messiah. Amid the contest for Paul’s legitimacy, he redefines the norms of boasting as “boasting in the Lord” (10:17). Likewise, “the one the Lord recommends” is legitimate, not the one who self-promotes (10:18). It is little surprise, then, that Paul parades a list of some twenty-six different hardships in 11:16–33 as evidence of weakness and failure before moving to his climactic failed apocalyptic ascent. There Paul receives those very words of affirmation from the Lord as the recipient of the divine gift (12:9a) and responds with his boast in the Lord (12:9b–10). As Crafton helpfully summarizes, “According to the Corinthians Paul did not measure up. According to Paul, the Corinthians needed to change their measuring rod.”7 Paul, then, is legitimate after all, though not according the Greco-Roman canons of beauty, power, or ability, but according to the standard of the Crucified One whose “power is made perfect in weakness” (2 Cor. 12:9).

Taken together, then, the Gospels’ portrayals of Jesus’ healing ministry plus Paul’s testimony to Jesus’ employment of a disabled apostle suggest a synthesis of contemporary medical, social, and cultural models of disability. In this blended view, Christians may applaud, make use of, and advance medical science that aims to alleviate and cure disabilities while also supporting agency, accessibility, and accommodations for those with disabilities. Above all, they should challenge cultural valuation of one’s intrinsic worth in terms of one’s abilities. Such a synthesis will enable us to do right by persons with disabilities while also doing justice to sound exegesis of Scripture.


  1. Unless otherwise noted, Scripture quotations ESV.
  2. See Murray J. Harris, The Second Epistle to the Corinthians: A Commentary on the Greek Text, NIGTC (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 2005), 858–59.
  3. Paula Gooder, Only the Third Heaven?: 2 Corinthians 12.1–10 and Heavenly Ascent, LNTS 313 (London: T&T Clark, 2006), 191–200; Jonathan B. Ensor, Paul and the Corinthians: Leadership, Ordeals, and the Politics of Displacement, LNTS 652 (London: T&T Clark, 2022), 196–98.
  4. Translations Ensor’s.
  5. See Ensor, Paul and the Corinthians, 116–17.
  6. Ensor, Paul and the Corinthians, 116–19, 135–64.
  7. Jeffrey A. Crafton, The Agency of the Apostle: A Dramatistic Analysis of Paul’s Response to Conflict in 2 Corinthians, JSNT 51 (Sheffield: JSOT Press, 1991), 55.

Jonathan B. Ensor

Jonathan B. Ensor, Ph.D., is Assistant Professor of Biblical Studies at Oklahoma Wesleyan University.

Jerome Van Kuiken

Jerome Van Kuiken, Ph.D., is Professor of Christian Thought at Oklahoma Wesleyan University and an adjunct instructor in theology for Wesley Seminary at Indiana Wesleyan University.