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Gospel Grace at Graduation

This week most high school seniors across the nation concluded their four year long academic careers by receiving public recognition for the effort they made to receive their diplomas.

An exception to the public aspect of this celebration is Maddi Runkles, a senior from Maryland who was excluded from participating in the graduation ceremony at the Christian school she’s attended.

Why?

Well, according to her principal, David R. Hobbs, “Maddi is being disciplined, not because she’s pregnant, but because she was immoral.”

If you’ve followed this blog for some time, you are probably well aware that I don’t endorse pregnancy outside of wedlock. However, as a follower of Christ, I believe that situations such as Maddi’s merit a certain type of wisdom and grace that unfortunately seem to be lacking in this instance.

Upon beginning her high school career at the Christian school, Maddi signed an agreement acknowledging that she would do her best to abide by the school code which contains a stipulation stating that the application of Philippians 4:8, “extends to my actions, such as protecting my body by abstaining from sexual immorality and from the use of alcohol, tobacco, and illegal drugs.”

In a recent podcast in which Maddi herself was interviewed, she acknowledged the stipulation and reported that she in no way promised to perfectly uphold it. It was interesting to listen as Maddi explained her situation to the hosts and detailed the injustice she has been experiencing as there are students at her school who have broken the school code by committing actions both immoral and illegal.

In light of this tension between Maddi and the school, I believe it is imperative that we, as believers, consider how we ought to respond. I have a daughter, mind you, she is one so my husband and I don’t often think about how we would respond were she in these types of situations. However, we also serve with high school students in the youth ministry at our church so sometimes these situations do become fodder for discussion in our home.

After seeing a video regarding Maddi’s situation released by Students for Life, I immediately clicked on the link to sign a letter of support for Maddi. However, as I began typing I realized that it would be unwise to jump up in support of Maddi when I didn’t have all the facts. The one fact I really wanted to know but was unaware of was whether or not Maddi is a Christ follower. I firmly believe it is important to show love and grace in these difficult situations and simultaneously I believe that one of the best ways to do so is by addressing sin and making sure the truth of the Gospel is known as Jesus is our only hope for salvation from sin and being made right with God.

After listening to her responses in the podcast, I learned that Maddi does proclaim to be a Christ follower and I was so thankful to hear her heart regarding all that is happening in her life right now. It made me sad to learn that her father, formerly president of the school board, went before the board to discuss the matter and eventually resigned as a resolution was not reached in Maddi’s favor. I was surprised and encouraged to learn that Maddi knew she needed to repent and rather than letting the school administration alert the student body about her circumstances, she stood up in front of the student body herself, acknowledged her sin and repented. Additionally, and most importantly, Maddi is choosing to give life to the baby boy in her belly even though at one point she admitted abortion was on her mind.

All this having occurred, Maddi has still been denied the opportunity to participate in the graduation ceremony. For a while, I was conflicted in my heart as I wondered if this were the most gracious response.

I  wrestled through the following questions while thinking through what I, as a parent, would have done:

  1. What facts don’t I know?
  2. What is the school’s response to this?
  3. How would I respond as an administrator?
  4. How would I respond as a parent?
  5. Is Maddi proclaiming to be a Christ follower?
  6. Is Maddi repentant?
  7. Was going to Students for Life necessary?
  8. How can the name of Christ be most glorified in this?
  9. How can Christ’s bride, the church, be most accurately represented in this?
  10. Who ultimately is in charge of delivering justice?

I don’t have every single fact of Maddi’s case but from what I do know, when things didn’t work out in Maddi’s favor, her father went to Students for Life to bring light to the injustice she has experienced. I had to ask myself though whether I truly thought Maddi was treated in an unjust manner. From what I know, I don’t believe she has been treated in the most gracious manner, but whether or not she has been treated unjustly I am still wrestling through. I haven’t lived for too long but one thing I do know is that there are always two sides to every story.

According to a letter released by Maddi’s principal, she is being excluded from graduation not because she is pregnant but because she was immoral. I struggle with this a bit because Maddi has already repented and sought the forgiveness of her student body. As a parent I am learning that discipline needs to include a painful consequence which Maddi has already experienced by being denied attendance at the school and the loss of her leadership position on the student council. Furthermore, Maddi will also deal with many natural consequences of her sin for years to come.

Denying Maddi access to participate in her high school graduation seems a bit ungracious and un-Christlike considering the way that God responds to His children when they sin and are repentant – 1 John 1:9 tells us, “If we confess our sinshe is faithful and just to forgive us our sins and to cleanse us from all unrighteousness.” There are various Scriptures that reveal God’s character toward His children who sin. One such verse is Isaiah 43:5 in which God Himself said,”II am he who blots out your transgressions for my own sakeand I will not remember your sins.”

Since God Himself chooses to not remember the sins of His children, we as His children should respond in the same manner. The world tells us we don’t have to forgive and forget, but the Word tells us quite the opposite. When Christ followers don’t exemplify the forgiveness and grace they’ve been shown by God through Christ, it has the tendency to make the Gospel message very unappealing to those who most need to hear it. 

In contrast, I don’t know that I fully support Maddi and her family going to Students for Life who unsuccessfully attempted to have the school administration reverse their decision. Since having requested the help of Students for Life, Maddi’s case has been plastered across the press and is now widely familiar due to being picked up by the New York Times.

The issues that arise with this are that a worldly news source with little to no understanding of Scripture and the way the church should function is now left to portray a dispute which, according to  Scripture, should have been resolved privately between Maddi, Mr. Runkles and the school administration with the goal of peace and restoration. Romans 12:14-21 instructs believers to: ‘Bless those who persecute youbless and do not curse them. Rejoice with those who rejoiceweep with those who weep. Live in harmony with one anotherDo not be haughtybut associate with the lowlyNever be wise in your own sightRepay no one evil for evilbut give thought to do what is honorable in the sight of all. If possibleso far as it depends on youlive peaceably with all. Belovednever avenge yourselvesbut leave it to the wrath of Godfor it is written, “Vengeance is mineI will repaysays the Lord.”  To the contrary, “if your enemy is hungryfeed himif he is thirstygive him something to drinkfor by so doing you will heap burning coals on his head.” Do not be overcome by evilbut overcome evil with good.’

There is also the additional attention that Maddi is receiving that is affecting her both negatively and positively and it seems she has endured so much already.

Would my husband and I have sought outside help if our daughter was in this situation?

Honestly, I don’t know but my hope is that we wouldn’t.

When it comes to responding to injustice, I know I would want my husband, myself and my daughter to respond in a Christ like manner. I am so thankful for 1 Peter 2:19-23 which shows us how Christ did this: “For this is a gracious thingwhenmindful of Godone endures sorrows while suffering unjustly. For what credit is it ifwhen you sin and are beaten for ityou endureBut if when you do good and suffer for it you endurethis is a gracious thing in the sight of God. For to this you have been calledbecause Christ also suffered for youleaving you an exampleso that you might follow in his stepsHe committed no sinneither was deceit found in his mouth. When he was reviledhe did not revile in returnwhen he sufferedhe did not threatenbut continued entrusting himself to him who judges justly. He himself bore our sins in his body on the treethat we might die to sin and live to righteousnessBy his wounds you have been healed. For you were straying like sheepbut have now returned to the Shepherd and Overseer of your souls.”

Of all humans to ever life, Jesus was treated in the most unjust manner as He was sinless yet suffered for the sins of all people.

As I have a sister who was a teen mom, I am grateful for Maddi’s heart to shed light on the ungracious treatment shown to teen moms inside and outside of the church, yet I wonder if the way in which she approached it could have been different. As a former school employee, I also understand the concerns of the school administration, yet I hope they will recognize and value the opportunity to demonstrate the grace of the Gospel and recant their decision to exclude Maddi from participating in her graduation.

My biggest desire in all of this is that the good news of God who made a way for sinful man to be made right with Him through the life, death and resurrection of His precious and perfect son Jesus Christ, will shine forth. I hope that both parties will be reconciled and that the humility, wisdom and grace shown will be so attractive that those who don’t know Christ will be reconciled to God through Him and that the beauty of His bride, the church will be radiantly on display.

Despite bits of the truth remaining unknown, I hope that Maddi will be able to hold her head high at the private graduation ceremony held in her honor today, knowing that, “There is therefore now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus,” (Romans 8:1).

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