[Note: Questions and Ethics is a monthly series in which Dr. Russell Moore provides insight into how Christians should navigate through life's most challenging moral and ethical issues.]
I have a really interesting question that came to me from a pastor who says, “Dr. Moore, in our church I am very careful about baptizing people. I make clear in my preaching that God can save people at any age, but often it is harder to determine whether or not say, a five-year-old has been saved as opposed to someone else. And so we take baptism very seriously. We work very slowly in interviewing people. And one of the requirements we have at our church is that everyone who is being baptized will give a short verbal confession of faith in the baptistry as to his or her faith in Christ and salvation experience. But here’s my problem: We have a severely autistic teenager in our congregation who isn’t comfortable talking very much at all and is certainly not comfortable talking to people who are not his parents. He communicates mostly with his parents via iPad. And so how do we interview him for baptism? His parents say that he has come to Christ. How do we interview him for baptism, number one? And number two, do we exempt him from giving a verbal testimony in the baptistry?
That’s a really good question. I am glad that this was asked. One of the things that many of our churches are needing to think through right now is how do we as local congregations deal with the issue of disability? And frankly, if in your congregation you are not grappling in some way or other with the question of disability, then I think you should probably ask why? Are there people in our community that we are not reaching? Are there people in our church that we are not asking the right sorts of questions to minister to them? But most congregations are going to have to think this through.
Pastor, I think the way you ought to handle this is to treat it the way you would if you were dealing with a new believer who doesn’t have the capacity to speak or to hear. How would you handle that? The way that you would probably handle that is to find some other means to interview that person, maybe with a sign language interpreter or in some other way, and then accommodate that disability in that way. Somebody with severe autism along the lines that you are mentioning—from what you are describing here, it’s not as severe as it can be—but it is not that this is a person who doesn’t want to talk. Don’t treat this simply as somebody who says that they get nervous. This is a disability that this person has, a real challenge that this person is facing. And so because, for you, talking is an easy thing, don’t assume that if you push this person enough he is going to be able to talk. No. This is the situation that he finds himself in. and so enable him to live out a godly life in Christ as someone who has autism.
I think the way you do that is to work through his parents. So if the way that they are communicating with him right now is via iPad, great! Use that medium, and tell the parents the sorts of things that you ordinarily would be looking for in someone who is coming to faith in Christ: What is his testimony? What is he trusting in? What is he hoping in? What is his heart conviction? That sometimes can be difficult to ascertain, but not impossible to ascertain because of communication.
As a matter of fact, for those of you who are ministering to people with autism both as parents and as pastors and youth pastors and children’s pastors, there is a really good book I would recommend called The Reason I Jump. And it is by an autistic child who is writing and explaining—and there was a system where he was able to do this, to write this book, I think through computer technology—to talk about why he does the things that he does. And so some people think that this is just a habit you’ve picked up or this is an irritant. He is explaining that no, this is the way I see the world in a way that is different from you.
So have compassion upon that, and talk through his parents. If he communicates best through iPad, great! Just ask them for the things that you want to know. Then, in the baptistry, don’t require him to give a verbal testimony in the same way that you wouldn’t require someone who couldn’t speak, didn’t have vocal chords, to speak. What would you do? You would come in and say that we have a unique situation here. My new brother in Christ, “Ronny,” he has some challenges in his life that he is taking on that he is overcoming. He is not able to give a verbal testimony, but we have communicated with him, and we have full confidence that he trusts in the Lord Jesus Christ. He has repented of his sins. He has put his faith in him. And so, “Ronnie,” based upon your profession of faith, I baptize you now, my brother, in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit.
I think that that’s the right thing to do. I think that this is in many ways similar to the situation that we see in the gospels where the man who could not walk, his friends picked him up. They took him to Jesus. They tore the roof off the house and lowered him down. I think that’s the way that we ought to do it. And as you are doing that, communicate very clearly to your congregation that the gospel of Jesus Christ is not just for those who would consider themselves to be “well-bodied.” The gospel of Jesus Christ is for everybody. And so people, no matter what our disability, no matter what we are carrying with us through this life, can follow after Jesus and be faithful and contributing saints, members of the great cloud of witnesses and of the body of Christ. And I can’t think of anything that’s better news than that.
What’s your question for us? Send it to me at firstname.lastname@example.org. Anything that you are trying to think through, maybe it’s something that you were reading in the Bible in your devotional time. Maybe it’s a conflict that’s going on in your workplace or a decision you are having to make in your family or in your neighborhood or in your church. Whatever it is, send it to me at email@example.com, and I will give it my best shot in answering it for you.