Archive for the ‘Social justice’ Category

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.”

“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

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.

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