By now, you’ve likely seen or heard the story of Maddi Runkles, a Christian teenager at a Christian school not far from my hometown. At the moment, she isn’t allowed to walk in this year’s graduation… because she is pregnant.
To me, this story is less about sexual purity and more about the practice of making sure we don’t “flaunt sin” as some conservative Christians may call it. In other words, it’s about shame.
Wrong choices have consequences, we think, and one of those consequences is you don’t get to have what others have. It results in this strange exaggeration of consequences typically to make an example and to make sure it looks like we, under no circumstances, support the choices made.
I saw it frequently while growing up, and even as a young adult. In a case similar to Maddi’s, a woman got pregnant out of marriage and was ostracized from the church until she married the father and had the baby. Years later, people took issue when that baby, then a child, would be asked to sing on stage.
“She shouldn’t be allowed to do that!” They would say. “That is flaunting sin!”
Yes, there are rules at the school. I understand that, and I understand that she obviously didn’t obey those rules. But the only reason she is being punished is because she obviously didn’t obey the rules.
This is the danger of shame.
Shame doesn’t make people make good choices, it makes people lie about the bad ones.
The message of her punishment is not “don’t have sex before marriage.” The message the other students are hearing loud and clear is “don’t tell anyone.”
There are other students in that school who have had premarital sex. There are other students in that school who are watching porn. There are other students in that school who are violating that code of conduct and statement of faith.
Five years as a Christian high school teacher and two years as a crisis pregnancy counselor has shown me as much.
The number one reason Christian girls sat across from me on the couch and told me they wanted an abortion?
I don’t want anyone to know I’m having sex.
They were going to keep having sex, but the “problem” was a baby would blow their cover, and they knew what that meant. In many cases that could mean lost position, lost standing, lost relationships, possibly even isolation from the church.
In a sense, we Christians have created our own moral crisis. The graceless way we approach issues has pigeon-holed people into making more bad choices to hide their other bad choices.
This isn’t how Jesus did it.
In fact, it is exactly the opposite of how He did and does it. It is in direct defiance of grace.
Jesus is the one who allowed a woman of ill-repute to worship Him openly. When the religious uptight complained, He silenced them, telling them that she understood grace far more than they did.
Jesus is the one who was known to hang out with prostitutes, and defended it by reminding his critics that He came for people just like this.
Jesus is the one who, when a woman caught in the very act of adultery was thrown at His feet to be stoned, called the religious out on their own hypocrisy. When they walked away, only He was left there alone with her. He had no lecture, nothing. Simply said, “I don’t condemn you, now go and sin no more.”*
That is grace.
At no point, under the grace of God, are we ever told to shame those who sin. Do we celebrate wrong choices? Of course not. But we do celebrate grace, forgiveness, restoration, and hope. Our faith is built on this.
Now, are there consequences for breaking rules in an institution? Of course. But I think it is the job of the institution to make sure the rules can be fairly enforced. It is also the job of Christian institutions to be sure there is a process of reconciliation available to restore someone in grace. The whole point of grace is restoration- giving you back your life and giving you far more than you deserve.
If you want justice, then pursue justice, but be sure it is fair. Grace, by its nature, isn’t “fair.” That’s why it’s so powerful, life-changing, and amazing. It gives me what I never deserved.
Grace is what makes Paul, a persecutor of Christians, one of the most influential members of the church. Grace is what makes David, an adulterer and murderer, a man after God’s own heart.
To me, it would be a beautiful picture of grace to see Maddi walk, not as a way to celebrate and say, “Yes, go ahead and get pregnant- no one cares!” But as a way to say, “There is grace here, and one decision doesn’t have to ruin the rest of your life. You can come to us and we will support you and do our best to restore you.”
Otherwise, I would encourage the school to anonymously poll your graduating seniors to see how many of them are sexually active and/or watching porn. Not only will it help you enforce your standards fairly, it will likely save your annual budget, because you’d probably be cancelling graduation.
*Edit: The original publication of this post quoted Jesus as saying “I don’t condemn you, now go” omitting the “and sin no more” or “and leave your life of sin” (depending on the version). This was an editing error not an attempt, as some posed, to change the meaning of the text. The inclusion or exclusion of the final phrase of Jesus’ command does not change the primary message of this post or the application to Maddi’s story.31