Sometimes it takes someone saying something ridiculous to make you question the underlying assumptions of your theological tradition. Tennessee preacher Greg Locke recently did just that with a sermon in which he suggested that people who live with disabilities requiring a wheelchair “don’t have any faith.”
Locke is a well-known online personality who originally rose to popularity a few years ago after he began posting videos of himself angrily ranting about various political issues to his social media channels.
In more recent times, Locke has expressed that he wishes to pursue “meekness” over “meanness,” though that desire has made him no less bombastic in the pulpit. For instance, in line with his new emphasis on deliverance ministry, Locke has been calling out what he believes to be the common “demons” of our society, at one point suggesting that while children living with autism have received a clinical diagnosis from trained physicians, they are in fact merely demon-afflicted.
This past weekend, Locke set his sights on physical disabilities, arguing that American Christians would rather “celebrate sickness” than see it healed.
Claiming that a lack of miracle healings in the modern American church is owing to belief that God is “crippled,” Locke went on to rail against ADA requirements for church buildings.
“You know one of the largest expenses we have in buildings? The amount of handicap parking and handicap accessibility that we have in our churches,” Locke said.
Locked continued, “Now, let me make you mad for a minute and I don’t really care. Why is it you pull up to a church that says they operate in faith, then you have 50 handicap parking spots? Ain’t nobody laid hands on them handicapped folks yet?”
“We just expect that people are going to leave the same way they came to church,” he went on to say. “We oughta start having some signs out there that don’t have, like, ‘handicap accessibility,’ people in a wheelchair. We oughta start having signs of a wheelchair laying down and somebody just walking up.”
“‘Well, pastor, I think you’re being insensitive,’” he mocked. “I think you don’t have any faith is what I think. I mean, we celebrate sickness in the American church.”
Certainly, Locke’s statements are as ridiculous as they are harmful. Nevertheless, they betray certain assumptions held by many evangelicals that, when taken to their most extreme logical ends, result in the types of cartoonishly regressive rhetoric espoused by Locke and others like him.
Here are at least two of those faulty assumptions.
A Subtle Influence of the Prosperity Gospel
The terms “prosperity gospel” and “prosperity preacher” usually conjure up images of private jets and exorbitantly expensive suits and watches. We think about churches that encourage old ladies to give their social security checks to already lavishly wealthy preachers in exchange for promises of health, wealth, and prosperity.
So when we see someone like Locke, who wears relatively simple clothing and holds church in a large tent (albeit a state of the art, climate controlled tent), we tend to think that there is no danger of prosperity preaching. However, subtle nods to prosperity theology are present not only in Locke’s preaching but in the beliefs and assumptions of many evangelicals—preachers and parishioners alike.
The core belief of the prosperity gospel is that if you give to God, you will get from God. Most obviously, prosperity preachers have long asked for “seed faith” donations that they claim will yield miraculous returns in terms of the giver’s finances and physical health.
But while it’s easy to call out such preaching as a grift, many of us have still absorbed some of the theology behind it. We imagine that if we give of our finances to God sacrificially that we are guaranteed future success in our finances. We imagine that if we give to God our faith and devotion, he will hear our prayers and grant us physical healing. We imagine that if we give to God our sexual purity in singleness, he will reward us with a sex life beyond our wildest imaginations in marriage.
Certainly, God has a propensity toward blessing his people, and he does call us to do all of these things as we follow him. More often than not, our devotion to him makes us more attuned to the ways in which he is working things for our good, increasing our capacity to enjoy the blessings he has given us—though God is still able and willing to perform miracles in our lives as well.
However, we are not in a quid pro quo relationship with the Almighty. As Jesus said, God “makes his sun rise on the evil and on the good, and sends rain on the just and on the unjust” (Matthew 5:45). In other words, good things happen to bad people, and bad things happen to good people.
God cannot be manipulated. What’s more is that through the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ, we have already been given abundantly more than we ever deserved. And as we pursue the abundant life that Jesus came that we might have, blessings tend to multiply in our lives over time.
Nevertheless, we don’t always get everything we asked for. If you suffer from a disease or live with a disability, you might not be healed before you meet Jesus face-to-face. If you struggle with same-sex attraction or gender dysphoria, you might not ever be free from that struggle until the new creation. If you live under difficult circumstances, you might not ever be materially rich until you enter the kingdom.
None of this is based on your performance. It’s not based on how much you prayed or how hard you believed. It is part of the difficult reality of living in a world marked by sin and brokenness. Jesus has promised to renew all things, and he will. But it certainly won’t be on the basis of our spiritual performance, and the full experience of that redemption may not come on this side of eternity.
An Extreme Emphasis on Pragmatism to the Detriment of the Least of These
The other assumption that Locke betrayed with his rhetoric about ADA compliance was done in such passing that you might not have even caught it.
Nevertheless, Locke’s gripe about how much it costs to make a church facility fully accessible to people living with disabilities exposes a deeply pragmatic approach that is characteristic of the evangelical movement—at times to the point of further marginalizing already marginalized groups in our midst.
To be sure, pragmatism has served the evangelical movement in many ways. For instance, perhaps no one has been more innovative than us when it comes to evangelism, from the evangelistic crusades of old to the current trends in digital outreach. These innovations have come from our desire to be effective and efficient in the ways we use our time, talent, and treasures in order to achieve maximum impact.
On the other hand, this sense of pragmatism has also, at times, caused us to overlook the very kinds of people with whom Jesus spent most of his time, including people living with disabilities.
The math equation is simple. Every week, a church has a certain number of people attend its Sunday service. Of those people who attend, only a small percentage of them have serious accessibility needs. For a small or medium-sized church, it may only be one or a handful of individuals.
Measure that number against how much it costs in terms of effort and resources to make a facility fully accessible to people with disabilities (it is sometimes considerable), and ADA compliance comes to be seen as a roadblock to “the great work God wants us to do in this city,” if not a complete afterthought.
Churches have long leveraged religious exemptions from ADA compliance to cut costs and avoid having to make their campuses a welcoming space for people living with disabilities. And when you break it down to how much accessibility will cost per weekly attender who actually needs it, the math is pretty simple. It’s pragmatic. If we want to be effective and efficient, accessibility should not be high on the priority list.
May Jesus never be as pragmatic with me in my needs as we have often been with others.
God might not ever heal a person’s legs this side of eternity. But what if he wants to use your church to participate in the miraculous healing of their soul? And since when was Jesus only willing to serve people up to a certain dollar amount? Is he not the one who left the 99 to pursue the one? May the same be said of us.
Furthermore, the disabilities that people carry are not an impediment to our communities of faith. These people often offer some of the most profound spiritual insight of anybody in the pews. People with disabilities are created in the image of God and thus worthy of dignity—full stop. But we also cheat ourselves out of the unique blessing of their presence when we fail to create inclusive enough spaces, both in terms of our physical facilities and our attitudes toward them.
So let us repent of our pragmatism.
May we repent of the pragmatism that beckons us to give to God only in the hopes that he will address our specific needs and desires. And may we repent of the pragmatism that causes us to believe that certain vital needs are more important than others based on how many people have them.