It's one of those stories that makes you want to cry and scream at the same time. A Christian school in a small town in Maryland is punishing one of its seniors by refusing to allow her to participate in graduation ceremonies next month. Her crime? She got pregnant — and unlike many in similar situations, Maddie Runkles is continuing her pregnancy, rather than trying to hide her sin by aborting her child.
The story, which was published over the weekend in The New York Times, has infuriated scores of Americans. It also sadly has reinforced negative stereotypes of Christians as legalistic and hypocritical jerks, who simultaneously rail against abortion, while shaming those who choose life.
Unfortunately, the damage this incident has done to the reputation of the church, not to mention the soul of this poor girl, cannot easily be undone. But I hope the Christian community will learn from this situation, so we can avoid repeating these regrettable mistakes.
Christians often fall into one of two ditches when dealing with sin in their own communities. Either we completely overlook it and err to the side of compromising holiness — or we fail to forgive, punish harshly, and miss the heart of the gospel. What's needed is a proper view of biblical discipline — a practice that seeks to restore and heal, not wound and punish.
Discipline Is Designed to Lead to Repentance
There's no doubt Scripture suggests severe consequences for professing Christians who sin, especially those who sin sexually. In First Corinthians 5, for example, the apostle Paul instructs the church not to associate "with anyone who claims to be a brother or sister but is sexually immoral or greedy, an idolater or slanderer, a drunkard or swindler. Do not even eat with such people."
Today, many churches and Christian communities completely neglect this command. They not only ignore sexual sin, some churches even celebrate it. This is wrong and unbiblical, and by criticizing the actions of Maddie's school, I do not mean to condone those who treat God's commands with contempt.
However, the purpose for administering consequences is to lead a wayward person to repentance. In First Corinthians Paul says, "hand (the sexually immoral) over to Satan . . . so that his spirit may be saved on the day of the Lord."
What the administrators at Maddie's school seemed to miss is that in Maddie's case, the goal of discipline has already been achieved: she is repentant. Maddie reportedly confessed her sin during an "emotional session in the school auditorium." In her words, "I told on myself. I asked for forgiveness. I asked for help."
Certainly, Maddie will have to face the natural consequences for her sin, which she seems prepared to do. But adding a punishment to what Maddie has already endured serves no redemptive purpose. It is simply punitive and cruel, and reminds me of the actions of the religious leaders against whom Jesus railed. "They tie up heavy, cumbersome loads and put them on other people's shoulders," Jesus said, "but they themselves are not willing to lift a finger to move them."
God Always Welcomes Repentant Sinners
To see the actions of Maddie Runkles' school, one would think the story of the Prodigal Son ended with the father whipping his son and relegating him to a shed on the edge of his property. Certainly, if anyone deserved harsh treatment, it would be a son who squandered his father's inheritance on "wild living."
Yet the father in this story does the exact opposite. Scripture says, "while (the son) was still a long way off, his father saw him and with filled with compassion for him; he ran to his son, threw his arms around him and kissed him." Then, the father put a robe on his son, indicating that he was restoring his son to his original place in the family. The father puts a finger on his son's hand, displaying his great affection for him. And then in an almost scandalous display of grace, the father throws a great celebration for his son who has returned.
This is how God responds to sinners who repent. In fact, Jesus said there is "more rejoicing in heaven over one sinner who repents than over 99 righteous persons who do not need to repent."
My father once told me a story about how his church growing up responded to a young woman in Maddie's position. Like Maddie, the pregnant woman confessed her sin before the church. But unlike Maddie's school, the church then immediately gathered around the weeping girl – hugged her, prayed for her, and then committed their love and support to her as she moved into motherhood. This is how Christians who understand the gospel act. They love the repentant sinner; they don't punish her.
Our Response to Sinners Serves as Either a Warning or a Welcome
Commenting on Maddie's situation, Rick Kempton, chairman of the board of the Association of Christian Schools International said, "(Maddie) is making the right choice. But you don't want to create a celebration that makes other young ladies feel like, 'Well, that seems like a pretty good option.'"
This comment stunned me. I'm glad Mr. Kempton believes Maddie is making the right choice by choosing life. But do leaders of Christian schools really think they have to punish girls who get pregnant or other girls will want to follow in their footsteps?
The truth is the shame these girls experience is overwhelming, not to mention the fear they feel about raising a child without a husband, and the sadness they feel about relinquishing their career and education plans. Though children are always a blessing, getting pregnant outside of wedlock violates God's design and therefore has serious and unavoidable natural consequences. Believe me, this fact is not lost on the other girls in the school.
Christian leaders in this circumstance should be less concerned about warning other young girls (and why is no one speaking about the boys?) – and more concerned about welcoming repentant sinners. Unfortunately, the message these administrators are sending is that if you get pregnant, you'll be branded with a scarlet letter.
Is it any wonder, then, that more than four in 10 women who get abortions are churchgoers at the time of their abortions? A 2015 Lifeway Research study also found that only seven percent of women who got abortions discussed their decision with anyone at church, and two-thirds said church members judge single women who are pregnant.
This absolutely must change.
Yes, Christian schools and churches need to warn people about sin. And they need to administer discipline when professing Christians remain unrepentant. But they need to shout from the rooftops that God is not only willing, but eager, to shower His grace on those who repent.
Jesus took the punishment for our sin so we don't have to. And He welcomes the broken and the shamed into His family – not as illegitimate children relegated to places of dishonor, but as legitimate sons and daughters clothed in His righteousness and forgiveness.