Lutheran Ethics in a Troubled Global Economy

Samuel Torvend. Luther and the Hungry Poor: Gathered Fragments (Fortress Press, 2008). 978-0-8006-6238-7.

[1] With the negative externalities of globalization ever more present in the United States due to the sub-prime mortgage meltdown and its effects on the United States banking and finance infrastructure and individual lives affected, social ministry is more relevant than ever. How we deal with the ethics and realities of globalization – wherein the chasm between the rich and the poor keeps getting bigger – should be a sustained focus of the church today. How we deal with effects of the economic downturn is also a focus for the Church in terms of managing infrastructure and ministries.

[2] A new book by Samuel Torvend, Professor of Religion at Pacific Lutheran University with special assignment in Reformation and Medieval History, brings into rich focus the sustained need for social ministry involvement by the Churches and the rich tradition that has enabled global Lutheranism to sustain social ministry and advocacy for social justice over the years.

[3] Samuel Torvend analyzes the basis for social ministry by looking at early Christian approaches to social ministry. In his book, Luther and the Hungry Poor: Gathered Fragments (Fortress Press, 2008), Torvend details how Luther’s upbringing formed the basis of his theology. He particularly notes that within Luther’s theology is a decidedly anti-capitalistic streak, an aspect of Luther’s theology that Torvend feels has not been fully developed. Luther’s support for the development of a community chest – arguing that social welfare was an extension of liturgy (“the liturgy after the liturgy”), and particularly, his comments against indulgences were examples of a theological bent towards social welfare. As Torvend notes,

“Luther would criticize the sale of indulgences – a theological, soteriological, and sacramental argument – but also drew attention to the social reality of the poor who were duped by preachers into handing over coins that could have fed a hungry child. Indeed, Luther was mindful of avarice and its remarkable power in human relationships” (pp. 117)

[4] Luther’s arguments against “usury” (banks charging exorbitant interest rates), are quite relevant given the state of the global crisis in finance, and the deleterious, predatory effects of subprime lending. Torvend insightfully notes,

“The practice of usury – making loans at inflated interest rates –ensured that the poor would remain in perpetual need, their paltry wages spent in paying off the interest but not the principle (sic), a form of economic servitude. This banking practice, denounced throughout the centuries by the church, readily condemned the poor to a hand-to-mouth existence and the chronic anxiety that accompanied such a life. This is not to suggest that Luther asked for the abolition of bank loans. Rather, he argued that an exorbitant interest rate should be regulated and dropped to the point where a banker was justly paid and a bank client was not perpetually impoverished. Alas, he lamented, Christ’s command, “Do to others as you would have them do to you” (Matt. 7:12) has been evaded and forgotten”. (pp. 122)

[5] Torvend’s book is a quite interesting and engaging study of how he feels Luther’s personal development as a son of parents of meager means affected the development of his theology, and how he aimed his theology towards a social welfare model without being explicitly political. He relies to some degree on the seminal work of Carter Lindberg relating to Luther’s theology and social welfare[1], but develops his own notions of how Luther’s theology relating to social welfare was, indeed, the “liturgy after the liturgy” – the need to deliver justification and grace. He effectively demonstrates how Luther’s theology spoke to the need for community – a community rooted in Word and Sacrament and in service of the Word. Part Two of the book, where he develops the notion of Eucharist as community in order to set the stage for ministry outside of liturgy, is especially powerful.

[6] As a professional student aid administrator with interests in church administration, I have been surprised by the fairly tepid theological response to the sub-prime mortgage crisis in the United States, and notably, its ripple effect on the education lending market. Further, it is quite surprising that the church as an institution has not taken more of a stand on the need for deepened financial literacy. Only one major document was found on the subject of financial literacy developed by the church in research for this review – a bibliography of resources for financial literacy for “newcomers” (read: immigrants)[2]. This, of course, makes complete sense, since transitions are quite necessary for immigrants, and effecting a social gospel within acculturation certainly fits within the Lutheran theological precepts of grace and justification.

[7] What I have been more struck by is the relative lack of focus by the church on developing such social ministry aims for all members. Indeed, the predominant social ministry model has been the development of social ministry organizations. Little focus is presented on microlevel social ministry efforts – that is, social ministry efforts concentrated within synodical levels or individual congregations. The ELCA social statement on economic life, developed in 1999, talks about how “churches, businesses, financial institutions, government, and civil society also play key roles”[3] but doesn’t really address how the forces of globalization prey upon society, and while it calls for social infrastructure needs, glaring in absence is a concentrated effort to impart a theological understanding for its members of the phenomenon of globalization and, notably, financial literacy –quite key given that one major facet of globalization is interlinked economies.

[8] Even more striking is the amazing lack of dedicated resources for inculcating financial literacy to those that serve the church. In research for my application to several seminaries (currently on deferred admission in a Master of Divinity program), as well as through professional research work attempting to develop an annotated bibliography of financial literacy resources, I have been struck by how little seminaries do to educate seminary students about church administration and finance – both individual finance and the administrative implications of overseeing a church congregation or a church organization. Only one seminary’s financial aid office offers a financial literacy component to their published material – incredulously, via a for-profit, non-United States entity – in spite of the recent Congressional efforts to impart financial literacy as part of the Higher Education Act and federal student financial assistance programs. No Lutheran seminary that I can determine has a required program on church administration or financial literacy as part of their curriculum – it seems to be reserved for extracurricular programming done by the church pension group or some other related organization, or simply, elective courses. The LCMS has a published document for clergy on tax issues, which seems to be a common thread amongst other churches in which the ELCA currently maintains full communion.[4] What is even more surprising is that a major Lutheran-related financial organization – Thrivent Financial for Lutherans – won a national award in fall 2008 from the Institute for Financial Literacy for their program, “More than Money Matters” – a program that could easily be sponsored for delivery within a synod or within/by individual congregations. There are other resources as well that address the relationship between money and theology.[5]

[9] This, in my view, is a serious breach of Lutheran ethics in the need to impart social justice in economic society. Luther’s emphasis on marginalizing avarice and greed for the justification of the individual requires the need for those serving the church to be well apprised of the economic and social forces that undergird that greed in order to preach truth to power. Seminaries could be a harbinger for the development of a renewed understanding about economic justice – starting with the effective teaching of church administration and finance for ordained leaders as well as lay leadership. Synods would do well to develop a synod-wide campaign to inculcate financial literacy within their congregations, particularly in light of the current economic times. Individual congregations would do well to reach out to their communities to invite them to such programs. Luther and Melanchthon both knew that their reforms required an educated class to “administer” the church – notably, to “administer” Word and Sacrament. They did not envision that such leadership would be ignorant of the realities surrounding them, just as they themselves knew that the development of their theology took place within a political context.

[1] See Carter Lindberg. “Luther on Poverty”. Lutheran Quarterly Volume VX (2001): 85-101.

[2] Lutheran Immigration and Refugee Service. Financial Literacy for Newcomers: Weaving Immigrant Needs Into Financial Education. Available online:

[3] ELCA Social Statement, “Economic Life: Sufficient, Sustainable Livelihood for All”.

[4] For instance, the United Church of Christ uses the 360 Degrees of Financial Literacy program of the American Institute of Certified Public Accountants – the only church with ELCA full communion that has a formal financial literacy program. The Episcopal Church has a personalized financial planning workbook for clergy, and its Church Pension group has a “Plan Ahead” program for postulants and candidates for holy orders. The ELCA has a “Control Your Cash Flow” and “Consumer Debt” statements on their web-site.

[5] Arthur, Sarah. Thinking Theologically About Money. (Abingdon Press, 2004).

David R. Smedley

David R Smedley is associate director for compliance and training in the Office of Student Financial Assistance at The George Washington University. A member of St Luke Lutheran Church in Devon, Pennsylvania (ELCA), he actively communes in the Episcopal Church in the Diocese of New York. He is a graduate of Temple University, with a master’s degree in public administration, with emphases on urban studies and research and policy analysis. He is on deferred admission to a master of divinity program, currently in self-discernment for the permanent diaconate. Views expressed are personal.