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How Should Churches Respond To Unwed Mothers?


Confusion about living our pro-life ideals while upholding Christian teachings regarding chastity have recently been in the spotlight due to uproar over a story out of Maryland. High-school senior Maddi Runkles was removed from student government and prohibited from delivering the commencement speech or walking at her Christian high-school graduation, because she was pregnant. The resulting scandal is just a small symptom of a larger dilemma within the church: holding unwed, pregnant teen girls to a separate set of standards than others who fall from grace.

I was especially interested in this story because as a single, teen mom I had a similar experience. Although my family were not church-goers, I attended regularly with a neighborhood family whose daughter was my age. Throughout my childhood and early teen years I voluntarily woke myself almost every Sunday morning, crossing the street to join the neighbors in their car, before my own household was awake.

In my mid-teen years, attendance became sporadic. Similar to many Christian teens, I explored secular offerings for a short time before returning to church for good. The only distinction between me and my cohort was an unplanned pregnancy at 17 and the decision to parent my child, rather than abort him or choose adoption. By the time my son was 18 months old I’d separated from his (also teenaged) father. My two-person family’s life was centered around church and making our existence better. I was enrolled in trade school and working full-time. Things were moving in a positive direction.

There’s a Double Standard Here

During this time, there was a job opening for a helper in the after-school program at my church. I applied and was denied without interview. I didn’t think much of it until a few weeks later when someone off-handedly said I hadn’t been hired because of my potential influence on children.

I was mystified, but not because they’d refused me based on my single parenthood. At the time, I respected their reasoning, although it was disappointing. I was mystified because the woman hired had also become pregnant out of wedlock, married the father of her child, then divorced him quickly afterward. She wasn’t much older than I. Her story differed only in her choice to get married—and divorced. What about her influence?

What did her example have to say about the nature of Christian marriage and divorce? Wasn’t her breaking of the marital bond as serious a sin as my premarital sex? While I now understand she was most likely pushed into a marriage she didn’t want and probably felt as judged by the church as I did, the rejection stung for a long time, and eventually caused my departure from this congregation.

Over the years, with more experience in worldly realities, I thought I understood more about why I was denied employment, why her marriage happened, and why her divorce was accepted. I rationalized that an after-school program in a small church had more at stake in terms of “keeping up appearances” 25 years ago. But while watching the fallout from Maddi’s story, I’ve come to realize things within the church haven’t changed as much as I’d believed. We still make girls feel unwelcome in our houses of worship once the fruits of their indiscretions are evident on their bodies, unless they do the “right” thing and have shotgun weddings.

Our Actions Have Consequences

In an effort to be consistently pro-family and pro-life we can seem ruthless when it comes to supporting those who face “unexpected” pregnancy and the (often) resultant single motherhood. This creates a dangerous dynamic. Currently, there is a young girl at a Christian school who has watched Maddi’s story unfold and decided to end her pregnancy.

Both the spiritual danger to women in terms of guilt involved with procuring an abortion, and the potential loss of life for unborn children should make us cautious in our response to unexpected pregnancy. For example, after what I felt was a rejection, I drifted away from church once again, embarrassed and ashamed. I wondered if people were gossiping about me. I wondered who had made the decision not to hire me without an interview. The spiritual danger in forcing girls into marriages they don’t want can be just as lethal.

This was a good church, with generous communicants, a well-educated and kind pastor, and solid theology. As a young girl, I not only spent Sundays there, but many other days as well, since my neighbor was a kindergarten teacher in the day school. All summer she would bring me and her daughter to school and we would play while she prepared her classes. It was a sanctuary from a chaotic relationship between me and my mother. It still remains the church by which I judge all other churches. My identity as a Christian was formed singing the liturgy there, connecting me to ancient Christians, martyrs, and theologians.

But when I was denied this job, especially with little explanation of why someone in a similar situation was hired, I believed they had abandoned me. Even more traumatic, this rejection came when I was working hard to make a better life for my son. A part of me believed if I worked within the church, maybe people would see past “teenaged-unwed” and I’d be just “mom.” Instead the rejection was a statement. My child was as good as a scarlet letter, and there was no indication this would change.

Christianity Believes in Repentance and Restoration, Right?

Church is one place where love should be most apparent, but manifestations of charity can often be lacking. Our expectations of perfection hurt both the girl who shows up pregnant and unwed, and the one forced into a marriage she doesn’t want.

No matter the denomination, we can choose to mimic the attitude of a welcoming father, running towards prodigals who return to their congregations. We can pull them in, celebrating their return, placing them at the head of the table, and feeding them with word and sacraments.

As a thoroughly corrupted church body, as sinners ourselves, what do we do about the young mother who sits pregnant in our pew, no husband in sight? And though we’re primarily speaking of young moms here, how do we help the older single mom, who may have given up on God, or the young man who suddenly finds himself facing fatherhood when he hasn’t figured out childhood himself? How do we help him understand the importance of parenting his child, especially when the law often sees him as no more than a monthly support check?

How do we teach young people about the sacred vocations of marriage and family, and how an intact family is always best for a child, but avoid putting them in a position where divorce is all but assured?

Try Something More Constructive than a Protest

We can protest outside clinics all we want, but unless we’re willing to help families within our own church communities, abortions will continue to happen. This has little to do with politics or self-sufficiency. The reality is, few Christian girls feel safe sharing their crisis pregnancy situations, and it’s not because they’re poor, it’s because they know their situation will be judged on a separate scale from the indiscretions of their peers.

When we contract out loving our neighbor are we teaching our teens that helping families in crisis is an act of charity we do for the unchurched?

Studies show Christian women account for almost half of all abortions. I guarantee many of the post-abortive, Christian women involved in those studies were more concerned about disappointing their parents and church family than they were of having an abortion. Our pro-life churches support pregnancy resource centers, but most are community organizations, promoted loosely by a number of local congregations.

PRCs are wonderful, and their work is something to celebrate, but when we contract out loving our neighbor to the local PRC are we teaching our teens that the faithful are held to higher standards, and helping families in crisis is an act of charity we do for the unchurched? What if we choose to love in our own schools and places of worship? Would our empty pews be once again filled with intact families and babies who would otherwise be aborted?

We humans so easily preach about immorality, sometimes forgetting to separate sin from the fruits of sin. Being pregnant is not a sin, and God doesn’t punish us with babies. Our faith teaches that children are our inheritance from the Lord. He himself came as an infant, son of an unwed mother who faced far more censure than Runkles ever will.

Remembering this can help lead us towards being life-savers and world-changers. We can be love-bearers, gift-bringers, baby-sitters, and job-givers: we can be an alternative to the culture of death waiting for them every time they turn on a television or open the front door. There is a whole mission field waiting for our efforts, if only we choose to grasp the opportunity.