Cohabitation, marriage, relationship stability and child outcomes

6 December, 2018

An Institute of Fiscal Studies report (2013), on “Cohabitation, marriage, relationship stability and child outcomes”, has written that:

“It is well known that children born to married parents tend to achieve better cognitive and social outcomes, on average, than children born into other family forms, including cohabiting unions. The existence of such gaps is potentially important, given the long-term consequences of childhood cognitive and non-cognitive skills and behaviours for education, labour market and other outcomes in adulthood.”

“One of the hypotheses that is often put forward to explain why children born to married couples do better than children born to cohabiting couples is the greater stability of married compared with cohabiting unions: married couples are, on average, less likely to split up than cohabiting couples.”

The report then tries to explain away this explanation by saying:

“In both cases, however, it must be recognised that marital status may not be the cause of these differences. Cohabiting couples may differ from married couples in many ways other than their formal marital status, such as their education or the love and commitment in their relationship. Differences in relationship stability or the outcomes of children born to cohabiting and married couples may simply reflect these differences in other characteristics rather than be caused by marriage.”


“Our view is therefore that the gaps in [cognitive development and] socio-emotional development are also more likely to arise from the fact that different types of people choose to get married, rather than because getting married confers positive benefits on children’s behaviour.”

And where the gap for “other behaviours” – including that “children born to cohabiting couples are significantly more likely to engage in a range of risky and anti-social behaviours” – could not be fully accounted for – statistically, not casually – the authors are at pains to say that:

“It might be possible to eliminate the remaining differences if we had access to richer data. Bearing [this] in mind… we would strongly caution against interpreting a remaining significant association between parents’ marital status and their child’s participation in risky and antisocial behaviours as evidence of a positive causal effect of marriage on children’s behaviour.”

The IFS report then concludes that: “Overall, our findings suggest that the differences in relationship stability between cohabiting and married parents, and the cognitive and non-cognitive skills and behaviours of their children, mainly or entirely reflect the fact that different types of people choose to get married (the selection effect), rather than that marriage has a direct positive causal effect on relationship stability or children’s outcomes. On the basis of this evidence, therefore, there does not seem to be a strong rationale for policies that seek to encourage couples to get married, at least not if the aim is to increase these measures of relationship stability or child development.”

Much of this “selection effect” is explained, they say “by differences in the mother’s background, plus parental education, income and work status.”

Differences in the mother’s background include “that cohabiting mothers grew up in poorer environments than married mothers.”

However, what the report fails to highlight – even though it is there in the data – is that one of the largest and most significant differences is that cohabiting mothers were more likely to have come from a family situation where their own parents had separated! (See Table 3.1) It was the first and most obvious thing I looked for.

In other words, one way of looking a the dataset is that those who come from a stable family background tend to experience better outcomes and are much more likely to perpetuate the same by entering into marriage, which tends to result in better outcomes for their children.

Therefore, contrary to the report’s conclusions, the underlying data actually seems to provide “a strong rationale for policies that seek to encourage couples to get married”, if “the aim is to increase these measures of relationship stability or child development.”

The Two Witnesses of Revelation 11

10 November, 2018

It has been said that Revelation is the most biblical of books, as it alludes to stories and teaching from right across both Old and New Testaments of the Bible through its use of imagery, words and phrases. It’s worth also reminding ourselves that, in keeping with its genre of apocalyptic literature, the book of Revelation is loaded with pictures, which are just that – pictures that convey a meaningful message.

So, this post on the two witnesses of Revelation 11:1-14 is a result of reading the passage and being reminded of other parts of the Bible.

Here are my reflections, followed by some thoughts on how this peculiar passage speaks to us today. I hope it resonates with you. I welcome your thoughts.


Measure the temple, count the worshipper. But do not measure the outer court, given to the Gentiles to be trampled upon.

  • The faithful people of God, those in the temple of God, those who overcome by continuing to follow Jesus under pressure – these are marked out, preserved and not overcome by the forces that would trample down all in its domain. (See 2 Corinthians 6:16, Ephesians 2:19-22 and 1 Peter 2:4-5.).
  • Those outside the temple, in the courts, will inevitably be trampled by priorities, pressures and oppression of the powers of this world and this age. Instead of overcoming in the midst of pressure, they will be conformed and overcome by it.
  • See Matthew 5:13, especially in the context of witness and faithfulness to Jesus – “You are the salt of the earth. But if the salt loses its saltiness, how can it be made salty again? It is no longer good for anything, except to be thrown out and trampled by men.”

The two witnesses, which are the two olive trees and two lampstands:

  • Two because that’s the number of witness (see Deuteronomy 19:15; Matthew 18:16).
  • Lampstands because they represent the church (see Revelation 1-3).
  • Olive trees because they were anointed by the Holy Spirit and for the task (see Zechariah 4).
  • Olive trees because they represent the multiethnic church of Jews and ingrafted gentiles (see Romans 11).

Fire comes from their mouth and consumes their enemies:

  • The Holy Spirit, symbolised by fire, will give the witnesses of Jesus the words to say that no one can resist (see Acts 2:1-4 and Mark 13:11; also Luke 21:12-15).
  • Mark. 13:11: “Whenever you are arrested and brought to trial, do not worry beforehand about what to say. Just say whatever is given you at the time, for it is not you speaking, but the Holy Spirit.”
  • Luke. 21:12–15: “But before all this, they will lay hands on you and persecute you. They will deliver you to synagogues and prisons, and you will be brought before kings and governors, and all on account of my name. This will result in your being witnesses to them. But make up your mind not to worry beforehand how you will defend yourselves. For I will give you words and wisdom that none of your adversaries will be able to resist or contradict.”

Drought and plagues:

  • These all allude to Elijah’s and Moses’ ministry to deliver people from idolatry and false worship and out of slavery to the world system and powers, and to call people to wholehearted faithfulness to God (see Exodus 7-12 and 1 Kings 17-18).

Finished their testimony, killed, left unburied, resurrected, taken up to heaven:

  • These witnesses follow the way of Jesus, the slain and risen Lamb of God, the faithful witness and the firstborn from among the dead (Revelation 1:5) – through witness, suffering and death (carrying our cross and losing our life for the sake of Jesus and the gospel; see Mark 8:34-38), and resurrection (vindication; (see Romans 1:4 and 1 Timothy 3:16).
  • Jesus body was placed in a tomb (see Mark 15:46), these witnesses’ bodies were not placed in a tomb.
  • Jesus’ followers witnessed Jesus being taken up into heaven (see Mark 16:19). These witnesses’ enemies witnessed them being taken up into heaven.

Gave glory to God in heaven:

  • Despite all the plagues before (Revelation 9:20-21) and after (Revelation 16:8-11,21) this section in Revelation – the economic and natural consequences of living apart from God and in opposition to God’s ways – the people suffering these consequences did not turn God; in fact some cursed him instead.
  • Only when the followers of Jesus testify, suffer for their faithful witness to Jesus Christ and are vindicated by God, do the people glorify God.


Some Christian thought leaders call this the cruciform shape of Christian witness, i.e. the cross-shaped way of life that Jesus modelled and calls us into.

This is seen, for example, in the life and death of: Stephen in Acts 6, arguably a catalyst for the conversion of Paul the apostle; the many Christians killed in Romans coliseums for refusing to bow to Empire; the blood of the Martyrs of the English reformation; Jim Elliott and the five missionaries killed for their missionary endeavours in Ecuador.

All these suffered loss of life, but the history of the progression of Christian witness is also full of stories of those who died to self and carried the cross in order to love Christ by loving others, such as: Corrie ten Boom, holocaust-survivor who forgave the Nazi leaders and concentration camp guards who had effectively taken the lives of her family members; Elisabeth Elliott, who later spent two years as a missionary to the tribe members who killed her husband, Jim; Daniel MacArthur and Ashers Bakery, who with great dignity and at personal cost refused an order promoting a political message that cut across their conscience; and a whole host of more ordinary examples of self-sacrificing love in order to be faithful to Christ Jesus in word and in action.

The apostles Paul, Peter, James and John all spoke of this cross-shaped way of life and witness, helpfully applying it to a few different contexts.

2 Cor. 4:8–12: “We are hard pressed on every side, but not crushed; perplexed, but not in despair; persecuted, but not abandoned; struck down, but not destroyed. We always carry around in our body the death of Jesus, so that the life of Jesus may also be revealed in our body. For we who are alive are always being given over to death for Jesus’ sake, so that his life may be revealed in our mortal body. So then, death is at work in us, but life is at work in you.”

1 Pet. 4:12–14: “Dear friends, do not be surprised at the painful trial you are suffering, as though something strange were happening to you. But rejoice that you participate in the sufferings of Christ, so that you may be overjoyed when his glory is revealed. If you are insulted because of the name of Christ, you are blessed, for the Spirit of glory and of God rests on you.”

James. 5:10–11: “Brothers, as an example of patience in the face of suffering, take the prophets who spoke in the name of the Lord. As you know, we consider blessed those who have persevered.“

1 John. 3:16–18: “This is how we know what love is: Jesus Christ laid down his life for us. And we ought to lay down our lives for our brothers. If anyone has material possessions and sees his brother in need but has no pity on him, how can the love of God be in him? Dear children, let us not love with words or tongue but with actions and in truth.”


In summary, I’m suggesting that, in harmony with the rest of the New Testament, the two witnesses of Revelation 11 call us to faithfully follow the way of Christ Jesus in cross-shaped, self-sacrificial love and witness.

I’ll leave you with these words of Jesus that speak of self-sacrificing love, especially within the family of God, and the link to effective witness.

John 15:12–13: “My command is this: Love each other as I have loved you. Greater love has no one than this, that he lay down his life for his friends.”

John 13:14-15,34-35: “Now that I, your Lord and Teacher, have washed your feet, you also should wash one another’s feet. I have set you an example that you should do as I have done for you. … A new command I give you: Love one another. As I have loved you, so you must love one another. By this all men will know that you are my disciples, if you love one another.”


So over to you. What do you think?

I welcome your thoughts on my reflections and application. What resonates with you? What doesn’t?

Also, are there any stories that inspire you? Any thoughts on how to live this way?

“Is that not what it means to know me?”declares the Lord

7 April, 2018

In his book, The Patient Ferment of the Early Church: The Improbably Rise of Christianity in the Roman Empire, Alan Kreider identifies a number of features of the early local church that made it distinct from and attractive to the surrounding world. Despite high barriers to entry and belonging, these distinctive local communities of Christ grew patiently and persistently.

One of those characteristics was a practical care for the poor and needy, especially within the household of God, but also spilling over generously to those outsiders most in need—such as those trafficked, imprisoned, or the abandoned sick.

Today, there are Christian ministries doing remarkable works among the most destitute and vulnerable. Nevertheless, I would suggest that the local church is not broadly known for the place where the poor are welcomed to a common table of fellowship.

For many churches, ministry to the poor and needy can seem marginal—optional at best or a distraction at worst. With few exceptions, unlike the early church, care for the needy is not seen as a mark of a disciple, but a ministry program serviced by those so inclined and which may or may not be part of the central mission of a church.

But what if care for the needy is a central aspect of faithfulness to Christ as the people of God, distinctive and prophetic in the world?

In a remarkable passage in Jeremiah 22, God is explicit that the outflow of knowing God is justice and care for the poor. In contrast, exploiting others and demonstrating a lack of concern for the poor and needy is to forsake the covenant of the Lord and to be an idolater!

This article touches on the relationship between love for God and love for those in need. We will then consider how a lack of concern for the needy can be understood through the lens of covenant and idolatry.

Caring for the Vulnerable Has Never Been Optional for the Mission of God

Please read Jeremiah 22 for yourself. Here are some telling verses from the chapter:

3 This is what the LORD says: “Do what is just and right. Rescue from the hand of his oppressor the one who has been robbed. Do no wrong or violence to the alien, the fatherless or the widow, and do not shed innocent blood in this place…5 But if you do not obey these commands,” declares the LORD, I swear by myself that this palace will become a ruin… People from many nations will pass by this city and will ask one another, ‘Why has the LORD done such a thing to this great city?’ 9 And the answer will be: ‘Because they have forsaken the covenant of the LORD their God and have worshiped and served other gods’… 13 Woe to him who builds his palace by unrighteousness, his upper rooms by injustice, making his countrymen work for nothing, not paying them for their labor… 15 Does it make you a king to have more and more cedar? Did not your father have food and drink? He did what was right and just, so all went well with him. 16 He defended the cause of the poor and needy, and so all went well. Is that not what it means to know me?” declares the LORD. 17 “But your eyes and your heart are set only on dishonest gain, on shedding innocent blood, and on oppression and extortion.” (Jeremiah 22:3, 5, 8, 9, 13, 15-17, emphasis added)

These words were directed specifically to the kings of Judah, the covenant people of God. Today, I would suggest, they would apply to leaders of Christian communities in particular, and to anyone called by the name of Christ.

God makes it clear: to look out for the interests of the weak, vulnerable, and disadvantaged is the outward expression of what it means to know God. The one who loves God cares for the poor.

God makes it clear: to look out for the interests of the weak, vulnerable, and disadvantaged is the outward expression of what it means to know God. The one who loves God cares for the poor.


“‘He defended the cause of the poor and needy, and so all went well. Is that not what it means to know me?’ declares the LORD.” (Jeremiah 22:16).

This is a powerful and provocative passage that links our heart for God with how we treat other people—especially the needy among us. This, of course, is a theme that is emphasized again and again in the Bible. Many New Testament scriptures have the same ring to them:

• Jesus’ Great Commandment to love God and neighbor (Matthew 22:37-39)

• The parable of the Good Samaritan (Luke 15) in which Jesus explains that our “neighbor” can be as broad as anyone in need that we come across

• John, in his first epistle, asks, “If anyone has material possessions and sees his brother in need but has no pity on him, how can the love of God be in him?” (1 John 3:17), before going on to later state that “anyone who does not love his brother, whom he has seen, cannot love God, whom he has not seen” (1 John 4:20b)

• In Matthew 25:31-46, Jesus declares, “Whatever you did for one of the least of my brothers of mine [whether looking after the needs of the hungry, thirsty, poor, lonely, sick, or imprisoned], you did for me.” The converse is also true, as our Lord goes on to say, “Whatever you did not do for one of the least of these, you did not do for me.”

What a privilege and high calling, then, to love one another and our neighbor in practical and justice-promoting ways.

Challengingly, Alan Kreider in The Patient Ferment of the Early Church highlights that in the first few centuries after Jesus, a lifestyle of giving to the poor was (often) prerequisite to baptism—so explicit was the link between faith in Christ and care for the needy.

So explicit was the link between faith in Christ and care for the needy that a lifestyle of giving to the poor was often prerequisite to baptism in the early church.


To Neglect the Poor is Idolatry

Let’s turn our attention back to Jeremiah 22. In verse 9, God equated how kings exploited their people and oppressed or overlooked the interests of the weak, vulnerable, and disadvantaged—with “forsak[ing] the covenant of the LORD their God and…worship[ping] and serv[ing] other gods.”

Wow! Forsaking the covenant! Worshipping and serving other gods! These are seriously strong words.

It seems extreme, we might think—but that’s what it says. Here are two ways we need to start understanding and teaching this in our congregations.

1. We belong to one another in God’s covenant community

Firstly, when God establishes a covenant, it alters not only the relationship we have with Him, it also alters our relationship with one another.

In other words, God does not just have a string of individual covenant relationships; he establishes a covenant community, his family, his household, a new people that belong to him and to one another.

• “In Christ, we who are many form one body, and each member belongs to all the others.” (Romans 12:5)

• In Ephesians 2, Paul explains that Jesus, in his death, resurrection, and outpouring of his Spirit, not only brought us near to God, he brought us near to one another, in order to build us together to be a dwelling place of God by the Spirit (Ephesians 2)

• Paul offers strong words and warnings to the Corinthian church about the way believers were treating each other as they gathered to fellowship and share communion: “Do you despise the church of God and humiliate those who have nothing?…Anyone who eats and drinks without recognizing the body of the Lord (i.e. the members of the body or Christ in the midst) eats and drinks judgment on himself” (1 Corinthians 11:22, 29)

• It should not surprise us, then, to find that in the New Testament church in Jerusalem, “there were no needy persons among them because all the believers were one in heart and mind. No one claimed that any of his possessions was his own, but they shared everything they had”? (Acts 4:32-34; see also Acts 2:44-45).

If we overlook the needy in our midst (in our covenant community), then we are forsaking our covenant relationships and obligations—and, thereby, hindering the community instead of nurturing it.

2. Our (lack of) care for the needy reveals the orientation of our hearts

Secondly, how we are with others is a powerful reflection of whether we are living self-centered or Christ-centered, self-preserving or self-sacrificial, a life out of our own resources and energy or a life by the indwelling life of Christ. If self is still at the centre—if materialism, greed, material security, comfort or Mammon is somehow “controlling” us—then we are effectively idolatrous.

• “For of this you can be sure: No immoral, impure or greedy [covetousness] person—such a man is an idolater…” (Ephesians 5:5)

• “Put to death, therefore, whatever belongs to your earthly nature: sexual immorality, impurity, lust, evil desires and greed [covetousness], which is idolatry.” (Colossians 3:5)

We must understand: Taking advantage of—or overlooking the needs of—our brothers and sisters in Christ doesn’t just happen. It happens because something isn’t right. It happens because the flow of the love and life of God is hindered and self-interest is at work, which is idolatry.

But here is the good news—when we’ve lost our lives and found Christ and his life, we will love one another as he loved us.

By Jesus’ own words, we know, “By this all men will know that you are my disciples, if you love one another” (John 13:35). This is the distinctive and attractive aspect that Kreider describes of the early church.

A Call to Recover the Lost Connection Between Love for God and Care for the Poor

How do we respond to what we see so clearly here—that love for God is inextricably linked to care for the needy?

Let me offer some ideas, mostly in the form of questions. These are a start. And I look forward to hearing your thoughts.

What if a care for the poor and needy among us was restored as a corporate Christian practice of covenantal faithfulness in the local church? What if giving to the needy was not an on-the-side, if-you-feel-passionate-about-it ministry, but a leader-led, pulpit-proclaimed, embodied practice of the local church and a mark of healthy discipleship? Individual expressions of compassion for the needy will be seen as just that—but when the local church embodies this corporately, it’s witness to what God is really like will be seen on another level.

What could this look like? According to Kreider’s account, having a common fund was widely practiced in the local church. A fund to which every believer donated, according to their ability, and from which the community leaders distributed to needy members.

What if a common fund became commonplace in the local church today, as it was in first two centuries of Christianity?

What if a common fund became commonplace in the local church today, as it was in first two centuries of Christianity?


This sort of corporate practice of covenantal faithfulness, I suggest, cuts at the root of some of the idolatry in the West: idols of individualism, covetousness, comfort, and materialism.

Additionally, there are organizations out there that can help the local church find her way. Christians Against Poverty is a charity that started in the UK in 1996, and has since started serving in the Australia, New Zealand and Canada. It works through local churches to bring debt relief. It is a nationally recognized, award-winning charity, helping thousands of people, Christians and non-Christians alike, out of the crippling burden of unmanageable debt. In the process, many have come to faith in Christ.

Beyond considering to partner with organizations such as these, can the local church practice a fuller expression of “defending the cause of the poor and needy” among us, for “is that not (in part, at least) what it means to know” the Lord?

Whatever your reaction to this article, I invite you to respond to God by searching the Scriptures for yourself:

• See how often the Old Testament talks about God’s interest and action for the poor and needy, the orphans and widows, the stranger and the prisoner, the blind, the oppressed and those who are bowed low – for it is an expression of the reign of God through his Son Jesus, i.e. the good news.

• And explore afresh the New Testament’s call to live as an alternative, counter-cultural community, under the Lordship of Christ, i.e. the church, and what that looks like.

• Then ask yourself: Is practical care for “the needy among us” a central part of the mission of your church? How are we actively undermining the idolatry that prevents us from caring for the needy in covenantal faithfulness? What stories do you see around you of local churches doing this well together?


This article was first published at Missio Alliance on 9th March 208 under the title “Whose Job Is It to Care for the Poor?”:

Photo by Lawrence OP on / CC BY-NC

Echoes in Scripture – Elijah and Jesus

23 January, 2018

I’m struck by the parallels and contrasts between Elijah’s reaction to Jezebel’s threat and the events which followed, recorded in 1 Kings 19:1-8, and Jesus’ response in the Garden of Gethsemane to his impending arrest and crucifixion.

  • Elijah flees in fear from Jezebel with his servant into a wilderness.
  • Jesus – having set his face like flint to end his earthly journey in Jerusalem at the cross – walks with his disciples to a garden, singing a hymn.
  • Elijah then goes on alone a day’s walk into the wilderness.
  • Jesus goes on alone in the garden, a stone throw away from his closest three friends.
  • Elijah prays that he might die, and then falls asleep.
  • Jesus, in agony of soul, prays for three hours surrendering himself to the Father’s will, remaining awake whilst he closest friends were overcome by sleep.
  • Elijah is strengthened by the angel of the Lord to travel forty days to the mountain of God.
  • Jesus is strengthened by an angel to face false arrest, the ensuing trial and sentencing, culminating in crucifixion at a hill called Golgotha, meaning Place of a Skull.

The points above are the main things that grabbed my attention as I read 1 Kings 19:1-8. Below are some follow-on thoughts as I looked forward into Elijah’s story.

  • Later, Elijah is taken up into heaven, his mantle falls to his successor Elisha to complete the task God had given to Elijah.
  • Forty days after his resurrection, Jesus is taken up into heaven, and his disciples are anointed by the Holy Spirit to continue Jesus’ work on earth.
  • Elisha went on to do twice as many miracles as Elijah.
  • Jesus said to his disciples, recorded in John 14:12, “I tell you the truth, anyone who has faith in me will do what I have been doing. He will do even greater things than these, because I am going to the Father.” These greater works are open to anyone who has faith in Jesus, and examples might include people being healed as Peter’s shadow fell over them and as they came into contact with handkerchiefs and aprons that paul had touched, and Philip being ‘teleported’ from a desert road to a city about 30 miles away.

These are thoughts that stirred me as I read 1 Kings 19:1-8 in my new daily Bible Reading and asked God to speak to me. I don’t necessarily go hunting for it, but I always get captivated when I hear echoes of Jesus’ story in the Old Testament.

What do you think? What other reflections of Jesus do you see from the life of Elijah?

Rethinking the Nativity

26 December, 2017

What do you see when you think of the Nativity scene?

The traditional scene features the baby Jesus lying in a manger in a stable because there was no room at the inn, surrounded by Mary, Joseph, their donkey and some other animals, shepherds and their sheep, three kings bearing three gifts, a star above the stable, and angels filling the sky. Perhaps something like this:

Source: see reference 1

This is a composite picture drawn from the Bible… or is it?

In the description in the gospels of the scene of Jesus, there is:

  • No Inn – “no room for them in the inn” is better translated “no room for them in the guest room”. “Guest room” is a more accurate translation of the Greek word kataluma in Luke 2:7. Homes at that time often had a guest room, which typically was a small room build above or to the rear of the main, combined, living and sleeping area. Given the culture, it is unthinkable that Joseph would have stayed in an inn when he had relatives in his home town. But there was “no room in the guest room” – perhaps because it was already occupied by other relatives that arrived during the census – or, more likely, because there wasn’t enough room in the guest quarters to accommodate an imminent delivery.

Source: see reference 2

  • No stable – there is no mention of a stable. Luke’s account states that Mary placed Jesus in the manager. A “manger”, of course, refers to a feeding trough of sorts for animals. But managers were found in houses of that time and place, as domestic animals were brought into the lowest level of the home in the evenings for safety. The main living area was slightly raised from this entry level, and the manger would often be simply a depression in the floor of the main living area, which animals could access from where they were. So I see the baby Jesus lying in a manger, yes – not in a stable – but in a family home.

Source: see reference 3

  • No donkey – no mention of a donkey. It’s an assumption that this is how a pregnant Mary would have had to travel. This could be correct, but there were other options, some safer and more comfortable.
  • No animals – no mention of animals, though any animals belonging to the household may – following the arrival of the newborn – have been brought into the home for the evening.
  • No kings – magi (wise men, astrologers, astronomers), but not kings. And that there were three is an assumption based on there being three gifts.
  • No star – the magi that followed the star to Jesus arrived AFTER Jesus’ birth, up to, but no more than, two years later – hence Herod tragically ordering the killing of all boys, in Bethlehem, aged two years and under (Matthew 2:16). And certainly no star or magi at a stable, as Matthew 2:11 states that “On coming to the HOUSE, they [the Magi] saw the child with his mother Mary, and they bowed down and worshiped him.”
  • No angels – the angels appeared to the shepherds tending their flocks in the fields on the outskirts of Bethlehem.
  • No wintertime – no time is explicitly specified in the Biblical texts. However, based on when shepherds would be “watching their flocks at night” (Luke 2:8) – i.e. Spring through to October – Luke’s account of Elizabeth and Mary’s pregnancies, a case can be made for Jesus being born mid to late September, in the Jewish month of Tishrei (- see this article for more info:


What a different Christmas scene we have. Jesus born in a home, almost just like any other baby in Israel, with mother and baby tended by Joseph’s female relatives. But with a surprise visit from shepherds a short time after the birth.

William Thomson – a Presbyterian missionary to Lebanon, Syria and Palestine – wrote in 1857:

“It is my impression that the birth actually took place in an ordinary house of some common peasant, and that the baby was laid in one of the mangers, such as are still found in the dwellings of farmers in this region.”

Does it diminish the meaning at all? Not to me. It makes more sense to me to read the text again without the clutter of all the other elements. There’s a power in the simplicity and ordinariness of it all. If it wasn’t for the shepherds, perhaps no one except Joseph and Mary would have known. (Luke 2:1-20)

This new scene, as I now come to see it, resonates more readily and more deeply with me – because, for me, it is a better reflection of the Biblical account. And in that context, as the following to quotes state, it brings Jesus nearer still to our everyday lives.

New Testament scholar and Anglican cleric, the late Richard France, wrote:

“The problem with the stable is that it distances Jesus from the rest of us. It puts even his birth in a unique setting, in some ways as remote from life as if he had been born in Caesar’s Palace. [But] the message of the incarnation is that Jesus is one of us. He came to be what we are, and it fits well with that theology that his birth in fact took place in a normal, crowded, warm, welcoming Palestinian home, just like many another Jewish boy of his time.”

Professor of New Testament, Dr Tim Geddert, suggested that:

“A new reading of the text… challenges us to open our own living rooms for Jesus, making room for him not in the barn… [or] once or twice Church Services or maybe Christmas Eve and Christmas morning… but in our living rooms, right where the family lives, where the pets roam, where we work and sleep and play and eat – even when our homes are packed full of guests. … After all, they called him Emmanuel, God with us.”

Emmanuel, God with us.

One more reflection: This ordinary scene in an ordinary home in Bethlehem is interrupted somewhat by the arrival of the shepherds that same day to find “a baby wrapped in cloths and lying in a manger” (see footnote) – which, according to an angel that appeared to them whilst tending their flocks at night, was a “sign” for the shepherds in finding the “Saviour”, “Christ the Lord”, who who was born that day in Bethlehem, “the town of David”, (Luke 2:11).

What is interesting to me is that, by divine providence, the circumstances of his birth meant that Jesus:

  • The promised Messiah who would sit on David’s throne was born in the town of David.
  • The Bread of Life was born in Bethlehem, which means House of Bread.
  • The Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world was born in a town known for providing sheep for sacrifice in the Temple in the neighbouring city of Jerusalem.

So what do you see when you think of the Nativity of Jesus? Does it matter? And does it make a difference for you?


To conclude, to help us reflect on the meaning of the Christmas event, here are the words of the angels to Mary, to Joseph and to the shepherds announcing the nativity of Jesus:

“Do not be afraid, Mary… You will be with child and give birth to a son, and you are to give him the name Jesus. He will be great and will be called the Son of the Most High. The Lord God will give him the throne of his father David, and he will reign over the house of Jacob forever; his kingdom will never end… The Holy Spirit will come upon you, and the power of the Most High will overshadow you. So the holy one to be born will be called the Son of God.” (Luke 1:30-33,35)

“Joseph son of David, do not be afraid to take Mary home as your wife, because what is conceived in her is from the Holy Spirit. She will give birth to a son, and you are to give him the name Jesus, because he will save his people from their sins.” (Matt. 1:20-21)

[To the shepherds:] “Do not be afraid. I bring you good news of great joy that will be for all the people. Today in the town of David a Savior has been born to you; he is Christ the Lord. … Glory to God in the highest, and on earth peace to men on whom his favor rests.” (Luke 2:10-11,14)



The angel said to the shepherds that “This will be a sign to you: You will find a baby wrapped in cloths and lying in a manger.” (Luke 2:12)

In what way was it a sign? Was it so unusual to find a baby in a manger, and therefore it would be evident that among “all” the newborn babies in Bethlehem, this was the one? Or did a “sign” signify something else.

I asked Professor of New Testament, Dr Tim Geddert, about this. This was his reply:

‘Concerning the shepherds finding the baby, based on the angels “clues” . . . Yes, given the population of Bethlehem it would be quite UNLIKELY that two babies would be born in the same week, perhaps in the same month. Some have calculated that Herod’s murder of the Bethlehem babies could have killed about 20 babies. If that is anywhere close to correct, that is about 1 a month. On the other hand “sign” does not really have to mean “clue to help solve a puzzle”. It can be a “sign” like, for example “the sign of Jonah” and other “signs” in Scripture (miracles in John, etc.) that are not so much clues for a puzzle, but pointers to meaning.’

If the “sign” of the “manger” was a pointer to a deeper meaning, perhaps it alludes to Isaiah 1:3 – “The ox knows his master, the donkey his owner’s [master’s; Lord’s] manger, but Israel does not know, my people do not understand.”

Perhaps there was an ox and a donkey beside the manager after all!



  1. Photo sourced at:
  2. Rev. Ian Paul (2017) “Jesus was not born in a stable (honest!)”. (Blog post) See:
  3. Timothy J. Geddert (2007) “Enriching our Christmas Traditions”, a chapter from the His book “Double Take: New Meanings From Old Stories”.

“And who is my neighbour?”

9 July, 2017

In light of the divisions in American society that have been exposed and heightened by the US presidential elections, it may be a good time for followers of Jesus Christ to ask again the question: “And who is my neighbor?”

A lot has been written and said post-election, often in an attempt to deepen understanding on both sides. But there’s a real risk of “preaching to the choir,” talking past each other or reinforcing polar positions.

This article attempts to shift the balance of conversation from the horizontal plane to the vertical one. In other words, the intent is to promote our dialogue with—and particularly our response to—our Lord, without undermining our discourse with one another. In a time like this, we need to hear God speak into our situation and to make a right response to him.

To help us with this opportunity to hear God, let me ask you to slow down, reflect and complete the following sentence:

“The group(s) of people I seem to have the most wariness/anxiety over, fear of, or irritation/anger/animosity towards is/are ____________.”

What group do you have the most wariness over, fear of, or animosity towards?

The Shocking Samaritan

Now back to the question… “And who is my neighbor?”

The first time that question was asked, Jesus replied with what is now known as The Parable of the Good Samaritan.

We need to consider Jesus’ response carefully and deeply. But we need to make sure we read it in a way that shocks us like it did those who first heard those words.

The Samaritan in the story was anything but good from the viewpoint of those listening. They were despised, compromised, dishonest, treacherous, contaminants in society, and to be avoided as far as possible.

As New Testament scholar, Prof. Tim Geddert explains:

Jesus’ strategy [in responding to his enquirer] was not to pick a perfect example of merciful loving-kindness and let him demonstrate the right way to treat people in need. Jesus’ strategy was to shock his hearers by taking the least likely candidate… As surely as we link the adjectives “good” or “merciful” with… “Samaritan”, the Jews… would have supplied adjectives like “hateful”, “unclean”, “religiously-perverted”… Perhaps the parable still has the power to shock… if we try to imagine whom Jesus might have lifted out as his hero of compassion today.

Tim Geddert, Double Take: New Meanings from Old Stories

Who Offends You Most?

So how about, instead of ‘Samaritan’, we substitute in:

  • Blinded Trump supporters or blinkered Clinton advocates;
  • White evangelicals who “compromised the faith” by voting for either one of two morally-disqualified candidates, giving their vote away by nominating a third candidate or a write in, or not voting at all;
  • Supposed Christians who by their voting choices are inciting racism and misogyny or promoting corruption and fetal homicide;
  • Christian leaders who have (in essence) taken the Lord’s name in vain, used the Bible for partisan purposes, and – by failing to discern the underlying societal issues – have undermined the credibility and witness of the church;
  • Ignorant, conservative, working-class white males, or equally intolerant liberal elites with no empathy with the common working man;
  • Blacks, Hispanics, or minority groups who expect handouts, take our jobs and undermine our culture;
  • Immigrants (legal or illegal) who are an economic drain on – and a major security risk to – our once great nation;
  • [Your response to the sentence completion exercise above].

Choose a group that is most unlike you, most offensive to you—and then re-read the encounter between Jesus and this God-fearing lawyer who wanted to justify himself (Luke 10:25-37).

“What must I do to inherit eternal life?” 

“Love God with everything and love your neighbor as yourself.” 

“And who is my neighbor?”

“The one who showed mercy toward him.”

“Go and do the same.”

In other words, let us go and show mercy (in heart and in action) on:

  • Those most different to ourselves;
  • Those that we feel justified to look down upon and erect barriers against;
  • Those we think would judge and despise us.

It’s interesting what Jesus does here. In his reply to the question “And who is my neighbor?”, he refused to look at the merits of the “Other”. In fact, Jesus led the lawyer to answer his own question. I trust we have done something of that here.

As he so often does, Jesus—whilst remaining deeply practical—moves matters on to a higher plane. He lands the coin on its edge. It wasn’t about who was right or wrong, better or worse. And it certainly wasn’t about who was in or out of our obligation to love. It was—no, it still is—about us Loving God by Loving Others. Jesus moves it beyond our viewpoints, debate and discourse. And made it about our love and our actions. Not how worthy the Other is, but how WE ARE toward the Other.

It’s interesting – hopefully impactful – to note that it inconvenienced the Samaritan to show mercy. He had to change plans and go out of his way. It cost him both time and money.

Here’s the kicker: In a situation where we are missing each other in the discourse—when we hear Jesus speak—the question becomes, “How will I respond to my Lord?”


This blog post was first published at Missio Alliance under the title ‘Asking “Who Is My Neighbour?” After the Election’ on 9th December 2016.

Post-referendum reflections – Part 2: Plot holes result in Box Office flop

16 July, 2016

Despite a big budget, a 5-star cast and great special effects, significant plot holes in a storyline can leave movie goers deeply unsatisfied. 

The EU Referendum was certainly like that in at least one respect: 

The Remain camp failed to engage adequately with a major question in the minds of many undecided voters. 

Are immigration levels – the size of the city of Newcastle upon Tyne per year – sustainable? Simply that! That is not a racist question (necessarily); it’s a practical one. I voted to Remain, but this question of sustainable immigration levels was one that I felt was not addressed satisfactorily. (The irony, of course, is that it was and is still unclear what effect exiting the EU will have on immigration levels.)

Unaddressed, this would leave a significant plot hole in the Remain storyline.

Remain, however, did not engage with the question. Instead, as politicians often do, they answered the one they wanted, but even then not very well.  

Immigrants are net contributors to the economy, they said; “they put in more than they take out”.

 But what does that mean? Does it mean that those coming from overseas pay more in taxes than they take out in benefits? Does it mean that their tax contributions or labour more than offsets the demand on the healthcare and education systems? It would have been good to have had that detail.  

Without that detail or an alternate credible narrative, it is easy to imagine the worst – especially when people experience hospital/GP waiting times and competition for jobs, housing and school places – or just personal and societal disharmony and needing something to blame it on.

Without information to the contrary, logic would, for many, argue that it is ‘in fact’ unsustainable.

So the plot hole remained but the country didn’t, as the “Remain” campaign flopped at the Box Office!

Systemic racism: Insights on how to recognise and tackle the problem

11 July, 2016

In light of the recent, tragic and fatal police shootings of Philando Castile in Minnesota and Alton Sterling in Louisiana, Ben Sternke writes about the “systemic” nature of the problem – including how to recognise systemic racism and how to start addressing it.

I found what Ben wrote really helpful, and hope you do too. 

For context, African-American citizens are far more likely to be shot by police than whites. Only 13% of the US population are black. Yet of the 1,152 people killed by police in the USA in 2015, 30% were black.

Ben writes:

“The problem isn’t a few bad apples or even a ton of bad apples. The problem is SYSTEMIC and must be addressed at the systemic level.

Here are some examples of what I mean…

When those with power are given the benefit of the doubt and protected from accountability, (while the opposite is true for those without power), the problem is systemic.

When those with power can’t shut their mouths for a few minutes and listen to the stories and experience of those without power, instead knee-jerking into justifications and platitudes, the problem is systemic.

When my natural reaction and assumptions to seeing a black man reach for his wallet are fundamentally different from my reactions / assumptions when a white man reaches for his wallet, the problem is systemic.

I include myself in all of these, by the way. I am part of the system, my hidden assumptions about people have been shaped by the system even though I don’t like it.

Those are a few particular ways the problem is systemic.

Also, when parents of black children have to caution them about their interactions with those who are sworn to serve and protect, there is something wrong with the system.

When black friends tell me they are constantly “on alert” when crossing a street, because they’re afraid a cop will arrest them for jaywalking, the problem is systemic. (I NEVER worry about jaywalking.)

We would know this if we’d listen to them talk about their experience, the fear they live with every day.

Campaign Zero has loads of info on how the problem is systemic, and, most helpfully, ways you can get involved to change things.

I firmly believe the best way to create systemic change is at the grassroots level.

Me interacting with my neighbours in a new way is “changing the system.” Me choosing to ask my black friends how these news reports affect them, and just listening, is changing the system.

This is partly why, I think, we still have such a massive problem with racism in this country, frankly. Laws were passed (rightly so!), but racism was never transformed, it just went underground, because we didn’t really address it on the grassroots level as well as we could have.”


In kindly agreeing that I could share his comments (which were originally posted on Facebook), Ben stressed that they are “off the cuff” and “unedited”. Personally, I think they are all the more powerful for it.

So, what do you think? 


Ben Sternke, co-pastor of The Table, is involved in planting a network of missional churches in Minnesota. He is also co-founder of Gravity Leadership, which is focused on training Christian leaders to create and lead Jesus-shaped movement. Follow Ben at @bensternke.

Post-referendum reflections – Part 1: Democratic deficit

3 July, 2016

Does a propaganda-ridden campaign on both the Leave and Remain sides of the EU Referendum reveal a democratic deficit in Britain and perhaps other Western nations?

I – along with many others – have been less than impressed by some concerning issues surrounding the debate. Here are two such issues that most readily come to mind:

a) The evident misinformation (or at least a lack of transparency) – I would say, on both sides – that has left many Leave voters and non-voters regretting their voting choice. Whilst in many cases this was avoidable (such as protest votes and those that assumed that to Remain was an inevitable outcome) – some others voted based on being (they would say) misled by, at best, a lack of transparency by the Leave campaign and, at worst, downright deceit. Examples would include figures of payments to the EU (stated as gross, not net, and does not account for Britain’s automatic rebate), promised investment in the NHS (implied to be £350 million per week) and vast reductions in immigration levels (then implicitly guaranteed, now clearly uncertain).

b) A failure to effectively address real people’s real (or imagined) concerns, on both sides. Instead, there was a lot in the way of sound bites and scripted answers.

Asking people to make a democratic decision without arming them with the information they need and ask for is (I would suggest) democratically deficient or anaemic.

I wonder if other nations, not run on the same democratic principles that we are so proud of, are laughing at us right now. Maybe not, but I fear that the process surrounding the UK’s EU Referendum has not been the beacon of democracy in action that it could have been.

What do you think?

EU Referendum – Part 3: Sovereignty, democracy, immigration and trade

22 June, 2016

The first two posts looked at issues of Influence on, as well as the Stability offered by, the EU. In this last post, I highlight some other issues that have been in my thinking.

National sovereignty

I have an instinctive conviction about protecting national sovereignty – and that’s one of the main reason why I’d consider voting to Leave. Unfortunately, there are undemocratic principles and practices at work in the EU, which appear to erode our sovereignty – not to speak of the creeping movement and growing agenda toward closer political union. The changes of name from the EEC (European Economic Community) to the EC (the European Community in 1997, and then to the EU (European Union) in 2009 appears to reflect that journey pretty well. 


It seems highly undemocratic that unelected officials are making our laws and interfering with the application of our laws through the European Courts. 

I understand, however, that the UK has only voted against a very small proportion of the bills that made it into EU law. In other words, the vast majority of EU laws supposedly “imposed” on us are those we voted in favour of. 

An independent academic research organisation reports that: “From official EU voting records is that the British government has voted ‘No’ to EU proposals on 56 occasions, abstained 70 times, and voted ‘Yes’ to legislative proposals 2,466 times since 1999.  In other words, UK ministers were on the “winning side” 95% of the time, abstained 3% of the time, and were on the losing side 2%.”

Nevertheless, the “distance” we might feel exists between us and our UK politicians is amplified several fold between us and decision makers in the EU. And where we are represented by MEPs – well, I can’t imagine many British people feeling connected with or empowered by their own MEP, let alone our MEPs as a whole group representing our national interests in Europe. This is an ongoing problem that surely affects the sentiments of some voters.


There are many positives of immigration, from within and outside of the EU. Here is a blog piece written by a North East employer discussing what the EU referendum means to his business, including the advantages of being able to employ people from within the EU.

However, annual net migration at a rate of approximately a city the size of Newcastle upon Tyne does not seem sustainable to the rational mind. 

And I can’t help but feeling that the Remain campaign’s approach of ignoring people’s concerns on the immigration issue is not helping. Simply stating that immigrants are net contributors to the UK economy does not ease the unease. 

With pressures increasing on our healthcare and education systems and budgets remaining static at best, are we really to believe that net immigration at around 300,000 per year makes no impact?

For me, this remains unanswered. And neither side is willing to dig down beneath the top line statements of their campaign’s particular position. This has been typical, and is unsatisfactory and disappointing. Ho hum!


The Leave campaign says that there is no way the the EU will impose trade tariffs. However, I can’t see how we could avoid it, when the EU does with the USA and when other non-EU, European countries have to pay for the privilege  of trading tariff-free with the EU bloc.

Arriving at a decision

In the end, I can see – and in some cases – share both sides of the argument. Some questions remain unanswered for me and the lack of depth and detail on some/many issues has been unhelpful. So, I have chosen (instinctively or rationally) to prioritise some issues in order to arrive at a decision.

What about you? What do you think?

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