Judgment, Discipline, and Christian Witness

I read an article on the Washington Post this week titled “I got pregnant. I chose to keep my baby. And my Christian school humiliated me.” by Madeline Runkles. In the article, Madeline candidly talks about finding out she was pregnant as an 18 year-old high school student, deciding to keep the child, and telling her family. At first the school told her she could no longer attend classes on campus, hold any positions of leadership, attend sports events for the school, or walk at graduation. Later the board reconsidered and allowed her to attend her classes, but she still could not be in any leadership positions or walk at graduation. A school assembly was called where the entire school was informed of Madeline’s moral failure.

She then writes “When girls like me who go to pro-life schools make a brave pro-life decision, we shouldn’t be hidden away in shame. The sin that got us into this situation is not worth celebrating, but after confession and forgiveness take place, we should be supported and treated like any other student. What we are going through is tough enough. Having to deal with the added shame of being treated like an outcast is nothing that any girl should have to go through.”

After her story which was intended to help other girls in her position went public, she and her family received a lot of hate emails, rude posts on social media, and rude comments in person.

The Bible teaches Christians that they are to make moral judgments as to what is and what is not pleasing to the Lord. We are told to carry out church discipline, which I agree with, but we are also told to point others to the Gospel by how we live.

So was the school right for being perhaps overly harsh with this student? And how should this have been handled.

First, let me say that I have dealt with this issue before as I work at a Christian College now and have done so for the last 14 years.

Second, let me say that while I agree with Church discipline, the purpose of such discipline is to help someone repent so he or she can be brought back into good fellowship with the congregation (not simply to expel the person). Discipline is only needed when a member of the church publicly embraces a sin, and chooses to continue doing that sin after being implored to stop, knowing full well that it is sinful. In other words, the person in need of discipline is the one who embraces a sin, knowing it is a sin, and openly chooses to continue sinning.

Third, schools and churches want to protect their images and when people make choices that are visible it is sometimes difficult to know exactly what to do.

This leads to the answer to the questions above, was the school right and how should these situations be handled.

But to answer these questions I need to make a statement.

The Church in America has long attempted to sculpt an image of people who have it together. People who do what is right and who are beyond the struggles of those who do not know our God. This sculpting is not at all what is shown even of Jesus’ followers in the Bible. In the Bible, Christians are shown to be real people with real struggles. They make mistakes, but God uses them in spite of or even despite their failures and short-comings.

Instead, the image of the Church in Scripture is an image of people who help one another because life is hard. It is a picture of people bearing with one another in patience and helping one another carry their burdens. It is an image of people who strive to live according to the will of God, but who need to repent, confess, and learn from their mistakes.

As such, the church is not a place for the righteous, it is a place for the broken, the downtrodden, the sick, the poor, the destitute. It is a place for those in need of shelter, encouragement, strength, and love. It is a place for people to find peace.

No doubt, Christians are called to a higher standard, but they are also called to be brothers and sisters. To be a family where every member helps the other members. Where people are loved through their sins and struggles and empowered to overcome their sinful addictions. We are all addicted to sin, it is part of who we are in this world. Whether our sins are visible or not, we all come to the cross in need of forgiveness, redemption, and discipleship.

Yes this young woman made a very visible mistake, but I can guarantee that there are others at her school doing much worse and just not getting caught. In the past I have seen people lose jobs for less, but I think the best thing the school could have done is said to this young lady and her family, “we recognize that her actions were wrong, she should not be in a position of leadership for a while as she works out the issues and emotions surrounding this situation, but she may continue coming to school, she may walk in graduation, and we want to do everything we can to celebrate this new life with her. All life is valuable and God is in control of all life. Though the circumstances are not good, good may come out of these circumstances.”

I think churches should do more to help youth who get pregnant as should schools. I think that those who become pregnant are typically very aware of their sinful behavior from a Christian perspective (where sex is to be reserved for marriage), and as such the need for additional punishment is minimal. Removing leadership from such a student is wise because a church or school cannot have younger youth looking to that person for leadership initially after the fact, but once the student has been able to process his or her actions then perhaps moving back into such a position might be acceptable depending on the student. Becoming pregnant does not result in the loss of salvation. It does require some exercise in cultivating humility.

If we truly believe abortion is wrong (at least for the sake of convenience…and I do), then we must embrace these unwed mothers and help them as they have a hard road ahead. As the church, we can help these young mothers carry that burden and in so doing, we can build bridges to the Gospel, show love, and remind others that church is a place for the broken not just the well-put-together.