Rethinking School Contractual Pledges after the Maddi Runkles Case
June 3, 2017
The MoS team just finished a prerecording discussing Heritage Christian School’s handling of the teenage pregnancy of Maddi Runkles, a senior with a 4.0 grade point average and the now former president of the student council. It will air on June 14th. Maddi, along with the rest of the students at Heritage, signed a contractual pledge that she would abstain from premarital sex, drugs, and alcohol. So the pregnancy reveals that not only did Maddi sin by having premarital sex, she also broke her pledge to the school.
Runkles is repentant for her sin. She is a young woman who professes Christian faith and is active in her church. She asked her school board for forgiveness when she confessed her sin and revealed her pregnancy. One understandable way the school reacted to the news of her pregnancy was by stripping away all of her leadership positions. Being that this is a Christian school with high moral standards, I can see how a moral failure like this would disqualify her for a time from leadership in the high school. But the further actions of the school seem beyond the scope of how to treat a repentant young woman who is taking responsibility for her actions. She was not allowed to be on the school campus at all during her pregnancy. This means that she could not even attend her brother’s games, she would have to complete the rest of her class work at home, and although she would receive her diploma, she could not walk with her classmates at the graduation ceremony. She has, however, after confessing her sin to the whole student body and asking for forgiveness in great humility, regained the right to attend her classes and I think attend her brother’s sports events as well. But she still cannot walk with her classmates at the graduation ceremony.
We discuss all of this on the podcast, so I’m not going to go into all those details here. But there was one thing that we brought up during the podcast that I would like to continue to discuss, and that is this contractual pledge that the students sign. This is nothing exclusive to Heritage. Many Christian schools require students to sign such a pledge. On one hand, it makes sense to want to have an official way to distinguish a Christian school and show that they are serious about moral behavior. Many parents send their children to Christian schools because they expect them to uphold Christian morality. Of course none of us want our children to be engaged in premarital sex or in the use of drugs or alcohol. It’s good to see that school administration actively promotes making good decisions.
However, I’ve never been comfortable with these kinds of school contractual pledges, and this recent news of how it was enforced with Maddi Runkles made me want to question the function and effectiveness of them. I’m all for a school promoting purity. But these pledges, and the way they are enforced, go beyond what a healthy church even requires from its new members. In the OPC, we do take vows to join the church, which are solemn promises. Here they are:
Vows of Church Membership
1) Do you believe the Bible, consisting of the Old and New Testaments, to be the Word of God, and its doctrine of salvation to be the perfect and only true doctrine of salvation?
2) Do you believe in one living and true God, in whom eternally there are three distinct persons – God the Father, God the Son, and God the Holy Spirit – who are the same in being and equal in power and glory, and that Jesus Christ is God the Son, come in the flesh?
3) Do you confess that because of your sinfulness you abhor and humble yourself before God, that you repent of your sin, and that you trust for salvation not in yourself but in Jesus Christ alone?
4) Do you acknowledge Jesus Christ as your sovereign Lord, and do you promise that, in reliance on the grace of God, you will serve him with all that is in you, forsake the world, resist the devil, put to death your sinful deeds and desires, and lead a godly life?
5) Do you promise to participate faithfully in this church’s worship and service, to submit in the Lord to its government, and to heed its discipline, even in case you should be found delinquent in doctrine or life?
Vows Church Members Make When a New Congregation is Organized
In reliance upon God for strength do you solemnly promise to walk together as a church of Jesus Christ according to the Word of God and the constitution of the Orthodox Presbyterian Church?
Notice that we are confessing important elements of our faith here, including the fact that we are sinners. We hate sin, and fight to live the life of faith and obedience according to our confession of hope in the Lord. Fellow members also vow to help us. The ministry of the church serves us by the appointed means of grace as we are being discipled and sanctified. We don’t sign a paper listing particular sins that we promise we will never commit. That’s pretty reductive. But, there is a mode of discipline set in place under the shepherding care of our elders for the aim of the glory of God and our restoration.
And that’s the thing about these signed school pledges: they validate condemnation of particular sins without providing a way of restoration. They don’t promote repentance. They leave a teenager in their shame because they are immediately cut off from their “Christian” community. And when we are talking about Maddi Runkles’ case, we are reversing over 2,000 years of Christian influence on the transformation of the moral sanctioning of sexual morality from the category of shame to sin. Runkles' growing teenage belly is a shame to the school and its “Christian” ethics. But the power of the cross tells us that Maddi isn’t permanently shamed. Christ has pursued her, and through her faith and repentance his blood covers her sin. She is restored. Both her body and her soul have dignity and honor.
Even if the institution says, “Yes, you are forgiven, but these are the consequences you signed onto,” this highlights my very issue with such a contractual pledge. By having students sign such a pledge, the sexual sin all of the sudden becomes an act that she is committing primarily against the school. Maddi Runkles, and this horrifies me, went before her student body tearfully confessing her sexual sin and asking for forgiveness. What is the school forgiving her for---committing the sexual sin or for breaking her pledge? Because her sin was first and foremost against the Lord, and she has assurance that he has forgiven her. It would be one thing if she was caught having sex, drinking, or using illegal drugs on school property. Public schools would also be handing out the consequences there. That would be a public, criminal act within the institution. But that wasn’t the case. And yet even Maddi's tearful confession and repentance was not good enough to restore her to her Christian school after committing a private sin.
So what is the effectiveness of the contractual pledge? It isn’t to restore the sinner. It is to warn others. It tells the parents, this is a “clean” Christian community and your children will not be contaminated by these three sins. Or will they? What does this pledge and the executing the breaking of it communicate to the students at Heritage Christian Academy? Maddi commented that she knew, even while she was coming forward and confessing her sin, that other students had broken their pledge and were still lying---even after being caught. Many of them knew. The message is that what’s most important is appearances and the reputation of the school. Some sinners against the pledge will be able to work the system. A growing belly will never make it. This perpetuates an environment of sneaking and lying. But Maddi Runkles revealed the fruit of her confession of faith by repenting and treasuring life, resisting the temptation to abort and pretend like she was someone else.
What message does a pledge like this and the consequences of breaking it really proclaim about purity? Instead of purity being rooted in Christ and the proper ordering of all of our desires in offering to God, it becomes something you lose and never regain. It’s a physical status, a commodity that can keep you in a school, an act of abstention that can later be exchanged for a “Christian” husband. But purity isn’t only about abstention. It is preeminently about our communion with God that overflows to our other relationships so that we love as he loves. We love as he loves us.
God is the one who has made a pledge to us in Christ. So rather than a contractual pledge, I would love to see Christian institutions asking how they can better promote this truth and how our communion with the Triune God affects our other relationships. And when Christians fall, I would love to see the culture in Christian schools be one where they help them come forward in honesty and lift them back up again, rooted in their faith.