Embracing Grace

The Courage of Maddi Runkels

By Rhonda Maydwell

Why is grace so difficult for me to embrace? I can barely comprehend God's grace gift to me — His Son nailed to a cross paying for my sins. I accepted it — wholeheartedly! I am thankful that God has grace for me — a sinner. Why, then, is it so difficult for me to extend grace to others in their sin? Or to even want to? My natural inclination is to blast drivers who cut me off or to scowl at shoppers with more items and speedy checkout lane allows and then pulling out a checkbook to pay. "Who should I make this out to?" Are you kidding me??!! This week my church decided to discuss a recent article published by the New York Times about a pregnant teen and her Christian school's reaction to her. The conversation was open, fair, and frank. It really got me thinking about not only how others perceive Christians and, sadly, how many of us actually are willing to accept grace for ourselves, but reticent to extend it to others.

The article "Pregnant at 18. Hailed by Abortion Foes. Punished by Christian School," written by Sheryl Gay Stolberg, also presented a fair representation of different perspectives. On the one hand was a small, private Christian school who required every student to sign a code of conduct in order to be enrolled in the school and was merely executing consequences to a student who had admittedly broken the code. On the other hand, here was an honor student, president of student council, who when she faced the fear of an unplanned pregnancy confessed not only to her parents and school administrators, but to her entire school (of older students). Maddi Runkels, the student in question, was terrified of disappointing her parents, teachers, and friends, and had even briefly considered abortion as an easier (and less humiliating) way of dealing with the pregnancy. But Maddi states she recognized her sin and wanted to confess, and was willing to accept consequences.

What caught Maddi and her family by surprise, however, were the nature of the consequences that seemed to them very shaming for a confessed and contrite girl. Maddi's father was the president of the school's board at the time, but he recused himself from any decisions related to his daughter (and ultimately resigned from the board altogether). Maddi was allowed to complete her classes but initially banned from returning to school (upon protest, the board changed this to a two-day suspention), removed from her leadership position on student council, and (most disheartening) will not be allowed to walk for her graduation later this month. It is this final punishment that has garnered the most debate. While pro-life advocacy groups feel Maddi should be lauded for her life-affirming choice, others side with the school that fear any punishment less harsh would encourage other girls to follow a similar path. The questions that this debate have ignited within me are:

What are the goals of discipline?
Where does grace fit in?

Formal discipline is a biblical concept. As a article states, "Church discipline is the process of correcting sinful behavior among members of a local church body for the purpose of protecting the church, restoring the sinner to a right walk with God, and renewing fellowship among the church members." While a school is not necessarily a church, the functions often overlap. The accountability would be similar, meaning that church discipline would be an appropriate model for school discipline. Matthew 18:15-20 outlines the steps and order this discipline should proceed. The next step is only instituted if the previous step(s) did not have the effect of restoring the sinner. These steps are:

Take it to the sinner (one-on-one)
Take 2-3 more (to confirm the details)
Take it to the church
Excommunication/separation from the sinner

Matthew is very clear that at any step in the process the sinner repents, you have "gained a brother" (or sister in this case). Nowhere in the Bible does it say to further punish or make an example of the sinner. Isn't this where grace comes flooding in?

I can't help but think of the woman at the well or the woman caught in adultery and how Jesus responded to them. Jesus did not wink at sin, cover it up, or diminish the seriousness of the sin in any way. What He did do, however, was to show the way to redemption, forgive, and restore the honor and dignity of these women who had sinned.

When speaking with the Samaritan woman at the well, Jesus did not moralize or shame her, but He did clearly name her sin. He had not only offered her the Living Water so that she would never thirst again, Jesus chose this woman in whom to reveal Himself as the Messiah. What an honor! Her response? She went back to her village and evangelized! She wasn't hurt, shamed, or embittered seeking out any media who will listen to her story.

Likewise, when the woman caught in adultery is brought before him, Jesus responds with truth and grace. He responds to the Pharisees who demand that she be stoned as was the law in an interesting way. Jesus begins writing words in the dust — perhaps the words were sins He knew the men were each guilty of, reminding them of their own sinful natures. Then He agreed to the stoning with the caveat that the one with no sin should throw the first stone. Of course, no one could throw the first stone — they were all sinners themselves. Jesus then turns to this woman, most likely naked and vulnerable, in her sinful state. He asks her if no one has condemned her. She replies that not one has. He states, "Neither do I condemn you. Go and sin no more." She becomes a lifelong follower of Jesus. Her dignity was restored as her salvation was given to her as grace.

When it comes to young Maddi, I guess I wish that her school officials had seen her as a soul instead of an infraction. A code was broken, no doubt, and consequences are bound to happen. Was it right to remove her from a leadership position? I think it was. When we are in a crisis (whether our own making or not), we are not in a position to counsel others. We are engulfed in our own crisis with nothing to give others for the moment. I faced this myself when my daughter had a mental health crisis a few months ago. Neither of us had sinned, but we were both consumed with the process of securing help and health for her. I took a break from work and writing for GotQuestions because I needed to focus my attention and efforts on my daughter for a season. Was it right to suspend Maddi while the church went in prayer and deliberations regarding how they handled the crisis from their perspective? I believe it was the right thing to do. I am also thankful the school allowed her to continue classes at school, rather than hiding her at home. Her sin may have more visibility than others', but she is no more or no less sinful than anyone else at that school. It's the decision to not allow her to walk with her classmates at graduation exercises that makes me sad.

If Maddi was not so grieved by her sin, or if she was hesitant to accept responsibility or consequences for it, I would feel differently. Then further steps in discipline would be necessary to bring about the desired effect of the sinners' restoration. Maddi confessed on her own, she took herself to the school to confess to the administrators. When the school wanted to tell the older students, Maddi insisted on confessing to her student body herself. Isn't it obvious how much easier this situation could have been (even if only in the moment) for Maddi to terminate her pregnancy rather than face ridicule, disappointed faces, and harsh consequences? Should she be lauded for not killing her child? No, but her decision should be honored. She has demonstrated her acknowledgment of sin, has asked forgiveness from her family, school, friends, and most importantly, from God. The further punishment of exclusion from graduation exercises is a shaming punishment. No further restoration occurs from it. As far as protection of other students who the school feared would sin similarly if Maddi was not punished, I fear the message they received was, when I mess up, it is better to conceal than confess. End a life rather than bring it forward. I pray that is not the case.

And regardless of how individual Christians might feel about this situation, we are all lumped together in the eyes of the world. How do we look to the world in a situation like this? Loving? Full of the grace demonstrated by Jesus? Forgiving? Sanctifying? I don't think we do. I think we look harsh. Judgmental. Hypocritical. Condemning. Vengeful. My pastor suggested, "Wouldn't it have been nice...if during the tearful confession Maddi made to her fellow students, that the faculty and administrators had come around her and prayed for Maddi? Prayed for her, then prayed for the students, and then asked for prayer for themselves to strengthen them all against the lure of sin?" In his song "Only the Good Die Young," Billy Joel sings, "You say your mother told you all that I could give you was a reputation. She never cared for me. But did she ever say a prayer for me?" There was an opportunity that was missed. A young woman, obvious signs of her sin on her person, repentant, confessing, and seeking forgiveness. She could have been restored in grace and dignity. That didn't happen. The world now has exhibit Z to the nth power that Christians talk the talk, but we don't walk the walk. We say "grace, love, forgiveness," but we shame, punish, and condemn. It's a sad day.

If I could see Maddi, I would tell her that I too was once a scared teen mom. I know what it is to feel embarrassment and shame. I also know that my Redeemer lives, and He lives in me. Not only are my sins forgiven, but my children are blessed. I am blessed. I have a close walk with the Lord that I treasure. You are a Christian and I pray you seek the Christian response to the sins of others inflicted upon you. My suggestion? Do unto them what they could not do for you. Forgive them. Jesus asked His Father to forgive his tormentors, mockers, and murderers because the "know not what they do." You do the same. Forgive them. Do not return shaming for shaming. Condemning for condemning. Harsh words for harsh words. Demonstrate compassion, empathy, grace, love, and forgiveness. In this you will take the lead. We are all sinners, but our only responsibility is our own actions. Reflect Jesus.

Image Credit: Andrew Malone; "Ultrasound!" (not of Maddi); Creative Commons

TagsBiblical-Truth  |  Christian-Life  |  Controversial-Issues  |  Current-Issues  |  God-Father  |  Sin-Evil

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Published 6-5-17