What resources can we, as Christians (and specifically Lutherans), access to help us address hunger or food justice issues? By resources I mean models or tools that inform a response. It may help to first recognize that people respond to need from various motivations. We may do so out of charity or humanitarian response. We may do so with a certain political or economic rationale or personal experience or some assortment thereof. These are commonly individual responses, which do not make them insignificant, but neither do they make the case for a collective response from a worshiping body. I suggest that we are at our best (which is to say engaging our faith sincerely), when we come together in community to make connections between theology and practice. It doesn’t seem wise ever to ignore the relationship between theology and practice, but given the expectations placed on (or apathy toward) communities of faith in our contemporary contexts the need for making connections seems vital. In this article I offer an historic example from the ministry of Martin Luther and make the case for its relevance in our efforts to connect theology and practice when we consider responses to hunger.
Luther and the Common Chest at Leisnig
In 1523 a congregation in the town of Leisnig embraced the evangelical movement that was sweeping through Germany. The local abbot attempted to recall Heinrich Kind, the congregational priest he had appointed, when Kind embraced the movement as well. The congregation rebuffed the abbot’s new appointment and elected Kind. The congregation then proceeded to take financial affairs and property into its own hands, turning to Martin Luther for theological and scriptural support in their procedures. Later that same year Luther published a verbosely-titled treatise, arguing on the side of the congregation. The congregation’s process of securing its funds was apparently difficult, as the city council was hesitant to provide access for months. The events may not sound novel to us, but in the context of the shifting theological landscape of the time it was quite the social and ecclesial experiment.
The situation at Leisnig spurred Luther to write Ordinance of a Common Chest. The treatise is somewhat prescriptive, which is to be expected considering it was a new endeavor. Similarities may exist between the common chest and church budgets of today in the sense that property payments, salaries, emergency funds, and relief in general were all taken from the common chest. However, the chest also functioned as a community trust through which the body of believers kept bequests, funded the education of children, and provided for all in need. Luther saw the common chest as a fund “out of which gifts and loans could be made in Christian love to all the needy in the land, be they nobles or commoners.” The inclusion of both nobility and commoner reminds us of the need to be attentive to mission over charity. Luther concedes that greed might be a primary motivator for those seeking to take advantage of the chest, and he offers this counsel: “Let each one examine himself to see what he should take for his own needs and what he should leave for the common chest.”3 There is a place for individual discernment, making it a matter of the heart. Just like any effort or project which is intended for mission, there is potential for good or corruption.
The Common Chest and The Lord’s Supper
One of the strengths of the common chest in Leisnig, at least in form if not function, is its integration within the life of the worshiping assembly. The agreement drawn up by the congregation reads as follows:
whenever our parish assembles in the church, two of our officials shall always be present to solicit each person for support of the poor, and the alms and love gifts thus received shall at once be contributed to and placed in these receptacles. Articles of food, being perishable, shall be distributed by the appointees among the poor as needed without delay.
This prescription sounds similar to contemporary food drives, especially when they are recognized within the worship service. The context of a worship service provides Christians with a common experience to explore ways of connecting theology and practice.
The sacrament of the Lord’s Supper is well suited for extending the liturgical life of the congregation into mission for the sake of the community. When we celebrate the sacrament together we recognize the gifts of Christ received by the assembly, we see that there is enough, and we ask what this humble meal means for how we treat our neighbors and respond to a hungry world. The document from Leisnig doesn’t make a direct theological connection between the Eucharist and the common chest, but in Luther’s description of what it means to partake in the Lord’s Supper he writes, “Here your heart must go out in love and learn that this is a sacrament of love. As love and support are given you, you in turn must render love and support to Christ in his needy ones.” As much as the sacramental meal reminds us of the love Christ has given and burden he has lifted, it also prompts us to respond to our community, especially those in distress and need.
The Common Chest and the Priesthood of All Believers
To oversee the common chest the congregation in Leisnig elected, from amongst itself, ten administrators representing different economic groups: two nobles, two from city council, three common citizens, and three rural peasants. Four locks were placed on the chest with one key given to each of the groups. Separation of government and church aside, we would probably bristle at the idea of placing people of our own congregation in stratified economic groups for the purpose of electing any sort of committee or team. I don’t know if it was any easier in the sixteenth century. As uncomfortable as the labeling may sound, the effort can be interpreted as a power-sharing attempt. It is an alternative to decision-making power being taken indiscriminately. In the Bible, the problematic nature of indiscriminate power is exemplified in the food disbursement that leaves out the Greek widows (Acts 6) and the factions that abuse the Lord’s Supper in Corinth (1 Corinthians 11). We can start to see the importance in viewing an effort like the common chest at Leisnig as something beyond charity. The structure in place demonstrates that the common chest is much more than just an interest project. It places people in the congregation in a position to work out the practicality of liturgy.
An Unbroken Stream
When it comes to making decisions about disbursements from the common chest, the instructions for the administrators are detailed:
Every Sunday in the year, from eleven o’clock until two hours before vespers, the ten directors shall meet in the parsonage or in the town hall, there to care for and exercise diligently their trusteeship, making their decisions and acting in concert in order that deeds of honor to God and love to the fellow-Christian may be continued in an unbroken stream and be used for purposes of improvement. These decisions of theirs shall be kept in the strictest confidence and not be divulged in unauthorized ways.
A description like this strengthens the connection between theology and practice while avoiding the conclusion that the function of this ministry is merely feeding the hungry. Can we imagine what “an unbroken stream” of the Lord’s Supper would look like in our contexts? And might this stream lead us to other areas of mission we have yet to consider? Our response may look different than Luther’s common chest, but this example certainly provides inspiration for discerning responses to hunger than go beyond a one-off appeal in favor of deeper integration into the liturgical life of the church.
For the congregation in Leisnig this social welfare mission was an expression of true Christian freedom and supported by their belief that Christians are to share their possessions. It was also thoroughly rooted in the Lutheran conviction that God’s grace constitutes an unbroken stream between justification and sanctification, between the gifts that God gives us and the gifts that we are called to give others.
The common chest at Leisnig is compelling for our own efforts to connect practice and theology, although our experience of Christian freedom has been shaped more by American individualism than pre-Reformation polity. But the important aspect of connecting theology with practice is to do so with authenticity. At some point, and this shouldn’t be news to anyone, we come to the realization that we probably don’t have a perfect response—the common chest faces a shortage of funds, the administrators get burned out, and that unbroken stream slows to a trickle. But revisiting and entering into our liturgical practices, especially the Lord’s Supper, for renewal is essential for receiving and giving God’s gifts. It is essential for seeing our neighbor. Letting the Spirit connect us to good tradition, we put our theology to work for the sake of God’s world.
ELCA World Hunger works to address hunger through a fourfold approach—relief, education, advocacy, and development—much the way Luther’s common chest was diversified in feeding both the bodily needs of the hungry and the educational needs of children. Why does such a comprehensive approach to hunger matter?
In what ways does your congregation’s response to food injustice function as an unbroken stream?
- ^ The Right and Power of a Christian Congregation or Community to Judge All Teaching and to Call, Appoint, and Dismiss Teachers, Established and Proved from Scripture.
- ^ “Ordinance of a Common Chest,” in Luther’s Works 45 (hereafter LW) ed. Walther Brandt (Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1962), 172.
- ^ LW 45:174.
- ^ “Fraternal Agreement on the Common Chest of the Entire Assembly at Leisnig,” LW 45:182
- ^ “The Blessed Sacrament of The Holy and True Body of Christ, and the Brotherhoods,” in Luther’s Works 35 ed. E. Theodore Bachmann (Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1976), 54.
- ^ LW 45:183.
- ^ LW 45:177. See also Acts 2:44-45, “All who believed were together and had all things in common; they would sell their possessions and goods and distribute the proceeds to all, as any had need.”