And as they continued to ask him, he stood up and said to them, “Let him who is without sin among you be the first to throw a stone at her.”
Maddi Runkles’ story has drawn no shortage of headlines. I relate to it. Like her, I live in Maryland. Like her, I’ve made mistakes, including having sex before marriage. Like her, I am preparing for the birth of an unplanned child (although, admittedly, my circumstances are much different – it’s my 3rd child within marriage). Finally, we both share the Christian faith.
I’m also no stranger to the world of Christian education, having taught in a Christian high school in my home state of New York. But I’d like to hope that our school would’ve handled things differently than hers. Particularly troublesome to me were Runkles’ closing remarks in the previous:
“Some pro-life people are against the killing of unborn babies, but they won’t speak out in support of the girl who chooses to keep her baby. Honestly, that makes me feel like maybe the abortion would have been better. Then they would have just forgiven me, rather than deal with this visible consequence.”
As a former school-teacher, pastor, and pro-life advocate, I’m all too willing to speak out in support of Runkles for choosing to keep her baby. She should be commended for doing the right thing, and while I hope the school may reverse their decision, I hope Maddi will find it in herself to extend grace to them even if they choose not to. Grace that she, quite clearly, has not received.
I wish I could say that her experience was an anomaly, unfortunately I know that it is not. The mission of Christian schools is often a blurry one. As a sort of extension of the Church, they sometimes attempt to act like one. Many parents enroll their children into faith-based education finding peace of mind that the staff will share their faith and values. However, the same faith is not always shared by the students. Students who are often forced to attend at their parents request.
This places Christian educators in a tough position. Their salary is dependent upon the tuition dollars of Christian parents, but their students tend to be a mix of the devout and the unconvinced-bordering-on-rebellious. What then to do, when one of the students breaks the Student Pledge that they signed?
The student may or may not have signed such a pledge nobly. They may simply have wanted to appease their parents. I make no judgment of Maddi’s heart when she signed this pledge, only God has access to that information. Nonetheless, the faculty now has the arduous task of trying to quench the bloodthirst of other Christian parents who fear their child might be corrupted by the sin of a student.
that “Maddi is being disciplined, not because she’s pregnant, but because she was immoral.” To give them the benefit of the doubt, let’s assume they are sincere in their desire to discipline her for her past immoral action. I fear this will be more damaging than restoring, and therein is where I take issue.
There is a difference between punishment and discipline. Discipline always has the end goal of restoration, whereas punishment is a punitive measure against disobedience. I cannot help but think that the school is being unnecessarily punitive. In my estimation, Maddi seems repentant for her past actions. In which case, she should be restored to the position within the school she once enjoyed. The Bible reminds us, “God’s kindness is meant to lead [us] to repentance” (Rom. 2:4). I don’t doubt that the school has put much thought into it’s decision, but the punitive nature of it doesn’t come across as kind.
Another issue is a more murky one, and is inherent to the existence of Christian education. The whole process of discipline, when it comes to the Bible, assumes the procedure takes place within a local church—not a Christian school. Yet, again, the process is supposed to be restorative. So for argument’s sake, let’s say this issue occurred in a church setting and not a school. So far as the Bible’s concerned, she should be allowed back into the community on consideration of the steps she’s already taken.
Heritage Academy is not a Church. It serves as an educational institution, not a vessel of God’s grace. Their logo, although it does mention knowledge, truth, and patriotism, makes no mention of grace. A mix that, in my estimation, is problematic. Part of the catalyst for creating Christian schools was to take advantage of the separation between Church and State that allows the freedom to educate and worship free from government interference. It seems Heritage holds allegiance to the state in equal importance to allegiance to God. The State is given the sword to execute justice, but the Church is given the Bible to mete out grace to undeserving sinners. Sinners like Maddi and me. I fear Heritage’s usage of the Biblical Sword (Heb. 4:12) will do much more harm than good.
It seems Heritage is at a crossroads: who should they emulate, the Church or the State? If the State, they should follow it in dispensing with rules of conduct regarding sexual ethics. If the Church, they should follow it in restoring repentant sinners to its fold.
Jesus Christ, the object of Christian worship, embodied truth and grace (Jn. 1:14). As a Christian education institution they’d do well to imitate him. While it is true the Bible forbids sex outside of marriage, the defining mark of Jesus’ ministry was grace (read forgiveness, restoration). So my prayer for Maddi Runkles is that she would follow Jesus boldly even when it costs her. Even if her school errs by treating her like a leper. Jesus counted lepers among his friends.
Jesus’ ministry was opposed by those in the religious elite of his day. It cost him to display grace to them. When they put him to death on the cross, he cried out, “Father, forgive them. For they know not what they do” (Lk. 23:34). May Maddi make these words her own in response to the ungraceful actions of those at Heritage. May she find comfort in the One who disarmed self-righteous people all-too-ready to throw stones at a woman caught in adultery (Jn 8:1-11). His words to her are fitting for Maddi: “go and sin no more.”
Continue to take the high road knowing that you’ve made the right decision. Even if you cannot walk on graduation day, you can walk alongside Jesus who has called you his own. At least that’s this pastor and former school teacher’s prayer. In being shunned by the self-righteous elite, you may find yourself in good company: the friend of sinners (Lk. 7:34), Jesus Christ.