John Swinton, in his recent book Becoming Friends of Time, raises an important question about discipleship. He invites us to ask if  the intellectually disabled can truly be disciples of Jesus. His focus is on the lives of people with profound and complex intellectual disabilities. With that focus he invites us to ask what role the intellect plays among those of us called to follow Jesus. Swinton reminds us that Jesus called the disciples to himself, not to an idea, a creed, or an ideal.

“Over time they learned what it meant to know things about him. However, that was not the criterion for their discipleship; it was the consequence of their discipleship. Coming to know things about Jesus—who he was, what his mission was and so forth—came about as a consequence of being with Jesus, not as a prerequisite for discipleship. . . It appears that the essence of discipleship has first and foremost to do with being with Jesus and learning to trust him.”

I administered the Sacrament of Baptism to Infants and the intellectually disabled

As a pastor also to the people with intellectual disabilities, I had to decide whether they should be permitted to participate in the sacraments. As a Lutheran I had no difficulty with administering the sacrament of Baptism to them and to infants whose minds are just beginning to develop. We Lutherans—and millions of Christians of various denominations—have long agreed that is vital that we baptize infants even though they have not the ability to understand the meaning of Baptism intellectually. Our understanding agrees with Dr. Swinton. Faith is first and primarily trust in the person of Jesus. So in the rite accompanying the Sacrament of Baptism we ask parents, sponsors and congregants to speak on behalf of the infants being baptized since they are as yet unable to speak for themselves. What follows then are questions put to the candidates, asking them to renounce the devil, all his works and all his ways. Then they are invited to confess their faith in the Triune God, Father, Son and Holy Spirit, using the words of the Apostles’ Creed. And finally, they are asked if they desire to be baptized.

Many of us also have the practice of inviting baptized children to accompany their parents who receive the Sacrament of the Altar—Holy Communion. However, it has not been our practice to share the bread and wine of the Sacrament with those children. Instead, we usually invite the children to knee humbly  with crossed arms as we say something like “Remember that you are baptized and that Jesus forgives and loves you dearly.” In many parishes it is also the practice to limit the administration of the Sacrament only to those who have been instructed carefully and then publicly confessed their faith intellectually in the Rite of Confirmation. You may or may not know that Lutherans do not consider Confirmation to be a sacrament.

The more recent Lutheran practice of separating First Communion from the Rite of Confirmation

However, in recent decades the practice of separating First Communion from Confirmation has appeared. Children as young as 10 years—or even younger— are considered capable of understanding that this is no ordinary meal, but that Jesus is present in the Bread and Wine to comfort and assure us of His love and forgiveness. So as a parish pastor I began to have children from other congregations in my confirmation classes who were already communing at the Altar long before they had been carefully instructed and participated iin the Rite of Confirmation.

Faith is trust, not primarily propositional knowledge

And that takes us back to Swinton’s question: Should people with profound intellectual disabilities or people with advanced dementia be allowed to participate in the rituals and practices of faith such as Baptism and the Lord’s Supper? He goes on to remind us that to deny them presumes that we Christians need to know something or do something in order that we can relate to God. And that makes relating (faith) primarily a human enterprise. Again, to quote Swinton,

“If a lack of a certain attitude toward propositional knowledge is in some senses important for becoming a disciple, it may be that our brothers and sisters living with profound intellectual disabilities are in a stronger position before God than are those of us who are in many ways held back by our intellect and the desire for life to be reasonable. The apparent “foolishness” of the lives of people with intellectual disabilities may be wiser than human wisdom, and the perceived “weakness” of such lives stronger than human strength.”

“If what has been argued thus far is accurate, faith seems more like trust than like propositional knowledge. Not that propositional knowledge is not important. It is simply that, for the original disciples at least, propositional knowledge was something that emerged from the experience of trusting in Jesus rather than the other way around.”

If I were still a parish pastor these conclusions would surely cause me to question my practice of not administering the Sacrament of the Altar to those members of the congregation who were intellectually disabled. What are your thoughts?

John Swinton is a Scottish theologian. He is the Chair in Divinity and Religious Studies at the School of Divinity, History, and Philosophy, University of Aberdeen, Scotland.