Forgotten Luther III: Reclaiming a Vision of Global Community

A brief overview

The third Symposium in the Forgotten Luther series, with the help of five prominent church leaders and Luther scholars, invites congregations to develop a broader understanding of the global dimension of Christ’s mission in the world. Against the growing disparity in wealth and the rising tide of economic and political refugees throughout the world, the Symposium will reflect on Luther’s oft-forgotten social and economic reforms that flow from his central doctrine of justification by grace through faith.

The Symposium, together with a study book and subsequent video of the lectures, is designed to help congregation members develop a more informed global perspective. They will hear how churches in the Global South, in the face of many challenges, have come to understand how their proclamation of “the whole gospel for the whole person in community” entails a commitment to create new forms of ministry, some of which function in critical partnership with their respective governments.

The Symposium assumes that neither the Bible nor our confessional tradition assigns to any particular social, economic, or political system a special status or validity. Jesus’ words are instructive here, “The Sabbath is made for humans; humans are not made for the Sabbath.” The value of any social, political, or economic system, structure, or policy must be based on its ability to serve the good of the whole. The Symposium will ask, within the freedom and discipline of the Christian life (“faith active in love”), which systems, structures, and other forms of community life best serve the well-being of the whole of God’s creation.


The first Symposium in this series, “The Forgotten Luther: Reclaiming the Social-Economic Dimension of the Reformation” (study book published by Lutheran University Press, 2016), drew our attention to Martin Luther’s little-known but highly-consequential economic reforms, expressed visually in the common chest (Gemeine Kasten), an actual iron-clad wooden box which was the symbol or logo for wealth-sharing activities such as feeding the hungry and providing health care. In Luther’s view, the common chest was one way in which God’s love for all people could take on reality in daily life.

The second Symposium, “The Forgotten Luther II: Reclaiming the Church’s Public Witness” (study book published by Fortress Press, 2019), began with an historical reflection on the way Luther worked with the political authorities of his day, Frederick the Wise and the Wittenberg Town Council, to enact legislation that, for example, would ensure that all young people, including girls and poor children whom he had encountered in his Visitation to the rural areas of Saxony, had access to publicly-funded education.

It was clear in both Symposiums that Luther understood civil government to be responsible to God for containing evil, maintaining peace and good order, and ensuring that no person be hungry or in want.

This third Symposium, “The Forgotten Luther III: Reclaiming the Vision of World Community” will draw the global implications from Luther’s reforms. It will seek to listen to the ways in which churches in the Global South have drawn their own implications – theological, to be sure, but also social and economic - from Luther’s insights into the heart of the biblical proclamation. Some of these churches, inspired by Luther, have addressed difficult systemic issues that perpetuate illiteracy, hunger, and poverty and have shown convincingly how such activity is integral to the mission of the church.

Professor Carter Lindberg, in his ground-breaking study, Beyond Charity: Reformation Initiatives for the Poor (Fortress, 1993), has documented in depth how Martin Luther was inspired in the reading of Scripture to move beyond acts of charity to address the systemic causes of human suffering. In Luther’s time and in our time, these causes are directly linked to the economic and political systems of particular countries. As was the case for the biblical prophets, church leaders today, lay and clergy, have discovered that attempts to deal with the underlying economic structures have brought them into dialogue, and sometimes conflict, with their respective governments.

In the United States we have found that many church people are either a) unaware of Luther’s significant social-economic reforms or b) reluctant to engage the authorities of government because of the belief that the church should stay out of political life altogether. At times we have found that a deeply ingrained pietism, much of which was both beneficial and biblically-based, also produced a type of “quietism” (a refusal to get involved in public life), which was nothing less than an abdication of Christ’s call to discipleship.

The Occasion

The Symposium, “The Forgotten Luther III: Reclaiming the Vision of World Community,” takes place at a critical time in history when vast threats to the natural world are converging with acute economic hardship for hundreds of millions of people. Autocratic governments that disregard human and civil rights are contributing not only to the increased economic divide but also to the largest migration of human beings in history.

The Symposium is no mere academic exercise. It understands its purpose to be three-fold: 1) to take a serious look at the way the reform movement of the 16th century addressed systemic issues based on its reading of Scripture, 2) to listen to church partners from the Global South who have drawn some far-reaching consequences from their own encounter with Luther’s understanding of the gospel in their struggle against poverty, hunger, and exclusion, and 3) to provide a resource for congregations that are ready to accept the challenge, accompanied by their partners in the Global South, to address the causes of hunger and poverty. In brief, the Symposium, including the study process that results from it, considers itself to be part of the urgent mission of the church of Christ, namely, to “equip the saints for the work of ministry” in response to the crises that are engulfing our world today.