As many have come to the defense of a pregnant teen at a Christian school who is being punished with banishment from graduation, pointing out that this kind of reaction pushes more women toward abortion, others concerned about teaching Christian sexual ethics have pushed back. “How can we teach the truth that premarital sex is sinful and serious if we don’t enforce the rules with punishment?” they ask. Others have suggested that anything short of shaming is libertine and normalizing premarital sex.
Witnessing these comments and debates breaking out on social media made me feel very appreciative for the faith community I was raised in for their pragmatically consistent commitment to life and sexual ethics.
I grew up going to Christian Reformed churches, and went to high school and college affiliated with the denomination. Premarital sex was always clearly presented as being a violation of God’s good command, and as having negative practical consequences as well (though not exaggerated ones). Fear of punishment or shaming from the faith community was never a significant motivating factor for me to remain abstinent. It was always love of God first, and desire to avoid natural negative consequences second. The same approach applied to abortion.
This perspective was not just “the official line” on premarital sex. It was a lived reality in these communities. These are some of the things I saw that reinforced pro-life sexual ethics without shame or punishment:
- We never “marched” and rarely protested at abortion clinics, but we gave plenty of money and volunteer support to crisis pregnancy centers.
- I had a classmate in AP History who missed that first period a lot, but she took the AP exam, and I later found out the reason for her absences was that she was pregnant. She had worn baggy clothes and nobody made a big issue of it. She came back senior year after having her baby and walked at graduation with us.
- During college I took ballet classes at a studio run by a precocious and ambitious young lady who had bought the studio her junior year in high school. She also ended up pregnant a few months later. She wrote a candid letter about the situation to the parents of all the children in the studio, and to my knowledge no one (or maybe so few it wasn’t noticeable) withdrew their kids, in this small town where something on the order of 80-90% of the residents go to Reformed churches. She kept teaching through the spring recital when she was 8 months pregnant. After having her baby, she kept growing the studio, married her baby’s father after she graduated from high school, enrolled in the college I was going to, and is still running that studio today, 20 years later. I even recently saw on Facebook a big liturgical dance that her students performed at one of the CRC churches in town.
- My own parents put a lot of effort and sacrifice into helping an extended family member through a crisis pregnancy too.
A proponent of punishment or shame might be quick to jump on these vignettes and say, “see! There were a lot of young people in that community having premarital sex and unwed pregnancy! The soft touch doesn’t work.” But that would be a false conclusion. The reason these stories stand out in my memory is that they were so unusual in their occurrence, though characteristically merciful in their treatment. And in fact, both the ballet teacher and the extended relative I mentioned were not students in Christian schools before their unwed pregnancies, but were drawn toward Christian community by the merciful treatment they received from it.
The common culture among my classmates in high school and college was never one that justified premarital sex or sought a thrill in “getting away with it.” It was a culture that encouraged early marriage rather than “burning.” A lot of my classmates got married in college or shortly thereafter. There was plenty of sneaking around to drink alcohol among my college classmates, which was punished by the school when caught (I suspect largely because moderate underage drinking doesn’t have weighty moral or natural consequences, so the college felt the need to apply synthetic pressure on the issue to uphold the law), so it’s not as if the students were unusually compliant or I was naïve about what was actually happening there. Though the school’s policy against extramarital sex had no such disciplinary teeth to it, hookup culture was inconceivable to us.
Bottom line: there is no excuse for Christians to fail to be merciful toward sexual sinners, or any kind of sinner. It is not mercy that gives scandal (properly understood as causing others to stumble in following God), but Christians who multiply sin by failing to show love and mercy. Honesty and charity are what save lives both physical and eternal, not shame or punishment.
image credit: https://pixabay.com/en/photos/shame/