The First Will Be Last and the ‘Church of the First’

the first will be last

So the last will be first, and the first will be last (Matthew 20:16).

As I mentioned last week, I have a hard time feeling like I belong in the church. Yet, I believe that the only way to really make a difference in the world is through the church.

I also mentioned that part of moving forward is allowing those whom the history of the church has ignored or suppressed to criticize the church. One such criticism comes from my experience of the church as it relates to persons with disabilities, specifically, persons with intellectual and developmental disabilities:

The church has been in the business of keeping the first first, and trying to make the last first, too: the church has become the ‘Church of the First.’

Let me explain.

If we, the church, are the church of Christ, then we can only be understood in light of Jesus’ mission. “The church has its true being in the work of Christ.” Therefore the church is only the church insofar as it participates in the mission of Jesus. The church exists in, and is, that tension between the history of Christ and the hope for the coming kingdom. As the church, the task we are charged with is the liberation of the present from the chains of the past in hope of the future.

The messianic mission of Jesus consists in preaching good news to the poor, proclaiming the release of the captives, recovering sight to the blind, liberating the oppressed, and proclaiming the year of the Lord (Luke 4:18-19).

So if this is the messianic mission of Jesus then it follows that the church is only the church if it is also participating in this mission of healing the sick, liberating the oppressed, and preaching good news to the poor. These are the last: the sick, the oppressed, the poor.

There are a number of issues that this brings up.

First, what does it mean to be poor? While there is certainly an economic dimension, to limit our understanding of the poor to just a matter of money misses the larger point. Jürgen Moltmann describes the poor this way:

“The poor are all those who have to endure acts of violence and injustice without being able to defend themselves. The poor are all who have to exist physically and spiritually on the fringe of death, who have nothing to live for and to whom life has nothing to offer. The poor are all who are at the mercy of others, and who live with empty and open hands. Poverty therefore means both dependency and openness.”

While I have written elsewhere about the economic dimension of people with disabilities, what is important to note is that Moltmann characterizes the poor in terms of vulnerability, dependency, and openness. The rich, on the other hand:

“…are all the people who live with tightly clenched hands. They are neither dependent on others nor open for others. The rich will only be helped when they recognize their own poverty and enter into fellowship of the poor, especially the poor whom they have made poor through violence.”

A second issue participating in the mission of Jesus brings up is the question as to why Jesus attended to the poor and not the rich? Surely the rich need to hear the Jesus’ message as much (arguably more) as the poor? Again, Moltmann:

“In the gospel of Jesus the specific form of the coming rule of God is the fellowship of the blind who are to see, the prisoners who are to be freed, the poor who are to be happy, and the sick who are to be healed. With them the exodus of the whole people begins. They already praise and thank God here and now in the fellowship of the wretched.”

The church, as the church, is formed by the fellowship of the blind, the imprisoned, the poor, and the sick. The church begins with the last. In my experience, the church has too often started with the rich and then made attempts to include the poor. They start with the first and then go to the last.

But the church cannot be the church if it functions in this way.

I can understand why, in my experience, the church has started with the first and attempted to include the last. It is not easy to give up everything that makes you the first.

“The abasement which is meant by humility is not a private virtue but the social entry into solidarity with the humble and the humbled.”
– Jürgen Moltmann

Unlike the path the church has taken, the way forward in the mission of Jesus (and the church) is not to keep the first first, or keep the rich rich, and try to make the last first or the poor rich. It is by making those who are last first by removing our privilege of being first and giving it to the last. This requires a vulnerability and openness which the “church of the first” do not want to do. It requires giving up our privilege and our security for the sake of the other.

“…[B]rotherhood is achieved not through the idea of freedom from restriction but in the first instance only through the removal of the privileges enjoyed by one person beyond another, and by one group beyond another. In its new application, the removal of privileges already possessed or acquired cannot be for its own sake but only ‘for other;’ it must therefore be directed towards the equal distribution of power and responsibility to all who are endowed with the Spirit.”
– Jürgen Moltmann

The way the church has ignored and marginalized people with disabilities, intellectual and developmental disabilities in particular, has been born out of the desire to maintain the first as first. The very presence of people with disabilities in the church creates a problem for the first – it is much easier being the first if you pretend the last don’t exist.

It seems to me that it is easier for the church to justify serving those in poverty and those who are homeless than people with disabilities. Why? Because it is easier to try and get them to be “the first” without giving up our place as “the first.” We can raise money, hold food and clothing drives, offer shelter, etc., all without actually giving up our position at the top. Then, we can all enjoy the splendor of being first together.

But people with disabilities threaten this model. No matter how much we try, people with intellectual and developmental disabilities will never be cured. Nothing we as the “church of the first” can do will change that. If the poor can be characterized as, “…those who are at the mercy of others,” and who are dependent upon others, then persons with intellectual and developmental disabilities will always be the last.

What needs to happen in the church is much more radical than making the last first. It isn’t that the last need to share in being the first, but that the first need to give up being first on behalf of the last. Only then can the church be said to be participating in the mission of Jesus and can honestly claim its right to call itself the church.


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5 thoughts on “The First Will Be Last and the ‘Church of the First’

  1. Samuel Dickey ·

    It seems like we’re never going to get there (wherever “there” is) until nobody is first.

    That’s a pretty radical vision. We’ve never seen it lived out before, at least not most of us or even many of us. What would a world where those with intellectual and developmental disabilities are no longer dependent on others be like?

    In the meantime, too many people make money from the injustice, and not all of them are bad people. Therapists of all sorts and social workers and yes, clergy, make money from the way things are.

    The church is far from perfect…but it has its prophets who point us closer and closer to where we ought to be. We all get frustrated, but I see the church as our only hope. The problem is that the church is just like Soylent Green…it’s made of people.

    1. Nathanael Welch ·

      These are great points, Sam. I don’t really have any answers either, though I share your sentiments. Also, it isn’t that I want to get to a place where people with disabilities aren’t dependent on others to live – but where their dependence doesn’t mean they are treated differently. Because if we are all honest and truthful with our situation, we are all dependent. It is just that persons with disabilities have that dependence at the front of their experience with others.

      I, too, see the church as our only hope. That is why I’m not ready to give up on it or its vision of the future just yet.

  2. Tyler Klenske ·

    God damn, man. That second to last paragraph is exactly what I’m aching to hear and talk about. Always appreciate your insistence on radical reading of scripture. Please continue to keep up the conversation.

    1. Nathanael Welch ·

      I almost didn’t include that paragraph. I’m glad I decided to. Thanks for the support!

  3. kb ·

    I have lived with very similar thoughts and feelings for most of my life; but I would not have been able to articulate it in such a profound and powerful way.
    Personally, I am greatly disappointed, and truly saddened, by the lack of empathy, and/or, basic acknowledgment, by churches in regards to the developmentally and intellectually disabled. My soul literally aches at the dismissive attitude that I have experienced over many years. All I can think about is the scene where Jesus is washing the disciples feet; he tells them “14 Now that I, your Lord and Teacher, have washed your feet, you also should wash one another’s feet. 15 I have set you an example that you should do as I have done for you.” (John 13:14-15). Just a few verses later He adds, “20 Very truly I tell you, whoever accepts anyone I send accepts me; and whoever accepts me accepts the one who sent me.” So…how can the church simply, and repeatedly, turn a blind and uncaring eye towards the intellectually disabled?
    I am grateful for your work, and words!!!!

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