Financial Sin in the Churches of Christ

scrooge.jpgChurch of Christ preachers and congregations are often guilty of serious financial sin, actions which they claim honor God. Let’s start with the preachers.

Preachers

Social Security

In the Churches of Christ, most preachers opt out of Social Security, claiming they have Biblical reasons for doing so. In so saying, they take a false oath, hoping to save a little money. This hardly speaks well of their understanding of the Ten Commandments or of Romans 13–bearing false witness and refusing to pay taxes.

It’s a crime–fraud on the government–to file a false opt-out election. The election requires that the preacher certify he considers it sin to participate in a governmental social services program. Thinking it wrong to participate in a badly managed or under-funded program is insufficient.

IRS Publication 517 gives the rules. You may not elect out unless–

  • You are conscientiously opposed to public insurance because of your individual religious considerations (not because of your general conscience), or you are
    opposed because of the principles of your religious denomination; and
  • You file for other than economic reasons.

Well, the Churches of Christ, as a denomination, do not consider Social Security sinful. And every single minister I’ve discussed this with filed for economic reasons (“I think it’s a sin to make bad economic decisions,” one said.)

As a result, when our ministers get disabled or are ready to retire, they have no government support. Even Medicare is much more expensive for them, because premiums are based on participation in the Social Security system. (And they are usually very surprised by this discovery!)

Worse yet, some elderships encourage this irresponsibility. After all, the church is saved the cost of the Social Security match!

Now if the eldership made certain the preacher had good disability insurance and health insurance as well as a burial policy, paid the match to the preacher, and made sure the difference was invested prudently, well, the preacher might well be better off financially (not spiritually–the Ten Commandments aren’t conditioned on personal financial convenience). But churches and ministers just don’t do this.

And while some ministers behave quite sensibly, most do not. And they and their widows become burdens on the church and on family.

And many churches cannot afford the burden, leaving retired preachers to work as mall guards, janitors, or Wal-Mart greeters–if they are healthy enough to do so.

Health insurance

Worse yet, many of our ministers fail to carry individual health insurance–it’s too expensive. Or they invest in some hair-brained scheme that goes bankrupt. And even much worse yet, some elderships permit–even encourage–this irresponsibility. Few insist that young ministers carry health insurance. And when the minister needs to be hospitalized, he either becomes a burden on the church or is forced into bankruptcy.

Of course, a church with only one or two employees can’t get group health insurance. But (at least in this state) a church with four employees can. And they don’t. It’s too expensive.

Elders

Parsimony

Now, elders bear responsibility as well. Many refuse to pay a living wage. Many provide no health plan or retirement plan. A small church with only one or two employees can’t provide group health, but any church can provide a retirement plan with no administrative costs at all (IRA-SIMPLE and some 403(b) plans, for example).

Elders instead expect preachers to fund their retirements through an IRA, but IRAs have ridiculously low contribution limits. Moreover, in any other enterprise, it’s customary for the employer to contribute to the retirement of its employees. It’s hard to fathom a reason that the church should do less for its employees than the world does for its own!

Parsonages

Many churches provide a house for the preacher (parsonage). But a parsonage denies the preacher the ability to build up equity and gives him no place to live in his retirement. It denies him the benefit of an interest and property tax deduction. The preacher is never better off with a parsonage except in areas where housing is very expensive (parts of California, for example).

I know a church that evicted the preacher’s widow when the preacher died. They said they needed the parsonage for the next preacher! The deceased preacher had opted out of Social Security and had planned to work to supplement their retirement. His wife had dutifully served the congregation for decades as a volunteer, never working outside the home. She was left penniless. (What kind of man would have taken the house on such terms?)

If the preacher refuses to live in the church’s parsonage, insisting on a housing allowance, the church won’t hire him because they have to justify their investment! And besides, they like having the preacher close to the building, so he can be there to open and close up.

Often the church is in a neighborhood in decline, meaning the parsonage is in a bad part of town, meaning the preacher’s children will be in sub-standard schools and living in places that the members left long ago.

Some elderships place “good stewardship” above love, and figure they serve the Lord by impoverishing their staff.

What the Bible says

(Deut. 24:14-15) Do not take advantage of a hired man who is poor and needy, whether he is a brother Israelite or an alien living in one of your towns. 15 Pay him his wages each day before sunset, because he is poor and is counting on it. Otherwise he may cry to the LORD against you, and you will be guilty of sin.

(Matt. 10:9-10) Do not take along any gold or silver or copper in your belts; 10 take no bag for the journey, or extra tunic, or sandals or a staff; for the worker is worth his keep.

(1 Cor. 9:9-11) For it is written in the Law of Moses: “Do not muzzle an ox while it is treading out the grain.” Is it about oxen that God is concerned? 10 Surely he says this for us, doesn’t he? Yes, this was written for us, because when the plowman plows and the thresher threshes, they ought to do so in the hope of sharing in the harvest. 11 If we have sown spiritual seed among you, is it too much if we reap a material harvest from you?

(1 Tim. 5:18) For the Scripture says, “Do not muzzle the ox while it is treading out the grain,” and “The worker deserves his wages.”

Moses, Jesus, and Paul all teach the same thing. Jesus and Paul say it particularly of those who serve the gospel. They are to be paid and paid fairly. They are not to be taken advantage of.

God has not called us to squeeze the ministry as tightly as possible. Neither are we to be wasteful. That leaves a lot of discretion, but my observation is that we far more likely to sin by paying too little than too much.

I’ve heard it said, and I think there’s wisdom in it, that a minister should be paid on terms comparable to the members of the church he ministers to. A church should allow ministers to live a lifestyle comparable to that of the friends they’ll likely make in church–taking into account years of experience, education, and such.

If the church expects that wife to work for the church, they should pay her. Otherwise, she should be allowed to work outside the home.

This includes fringe benefits. If men in your community with a college degree and 10 years of experience typically get subsidized health insurance and a 401(k), then your minister who has similar credentials should receive the economic equivalent.

The most frequent counter-argument I’ve heard is, “But haven’t they chosen a more spiritual life?” The statement essentially says, “We get to make more money because we choose to be less spiritual.” Doesn’t that mean that it’s sin to make more money? What else could it mean?

But it’s not sin to make more money. The preacher will never make as much as the most wealthy in the congregation! It’s just a sin to underpay anyone for his labor–in church or out of church–for domestic or foreign ministry.

And the sin in church is usually worse because we often compound the sin by adding to the underpayment of salary failure to pay any fringe benefits and keeping the Social Security match we’d normally contribute to the preacher’s retirement. And we congratulate ourselves on our cunning negotiating skills!

This is how the world acts. Actually, I’m a lawyer, and I know. Most of the world–even the unbelieving world–acts much better than this.

It’s not everyone

I’ve spoken on this topic to elders across the country. Most are totally in agreement with me. But a few leave very quietly. I’m not polite about it. It’s a sin that brings shame to the Churches of Christ and to Jesus.

(I should add, we aren’t the only denomination that commits this sin. It’s just that we’re the ones who claim to know the Bible so well …)

Why we are so prone to sin in this way

This is all a natural corollary of divisiveness and a false doctrine of grace. When your congregations average less than 100 members, they often can’t afford to do things right.

But why such small churches? Because each town needs at least 5 churches so the warring factions don’t have to meet with each other on Sunday.

And because we aren’t even keeping our children.

Then again, it’s usually the preachers who teach a poisonous theology that leads to teeny tiny churches that can’t afford a major medical plan. You see, impoverished theology leads to impoverished congregations leads to impoverished preachers and widows.

Back to the original subject

Actually, the false gospel being taught by many within the Churches of Christ is precisely the reason we’ve developed a culture of abusing our ministers. After all, if God is sparing in his generosity, giving us just barely enough grace to get by (if that much), then this is how we should treat each other, isn’t it?

Indeed, it’s interesting how many of our “doctrinal” disputes are really about how to avoid spending money. Not all. But perhaps most–disputes over orphan’s homes, gyms, kitchens, fellowship halls, benevolence for non-Christians, cooperation in the support of missionaries, church support for Christian colleges … are all ultimately about reducing the cost of doing church.

I could go on–with lots of examples–but hopefully this point is made. Bad theology creates a climate–and a heart–that encourages bad behavior. This, at least, explains the behavior of some of our churches.

Avatar of Jay Guin

About Jay Guin

I am an elder, a Sunday school teacher, a husband, a father, a grandfather, and a lawyer. I live in Tuscaloosa, Alabama, home of the Alabama Crimson Tide. I’m a member of the University Church of Christ. I grew up in Russellville, Alabama and graduated from David Lipscomb College (now Lipscomb University). I received my law degree from the University of Alabama. I met my wife Denise at Lipscomb, and we have four sons, two of whom are married, and I have a grandson and granddaughter.
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20 Responses to Financial Sin in the Churches of Christ

  1. Anonymous says:

    amen

  2. Jeff says:

    I'm a minister who was mislead many years ago regarding social security, and I opted out. Can one opt back in? If so, will that require paying all of the back years? How would one opt back in?

  3. Jay Guin says:

    Some of the details may be found at http://jayguin.files.wordpress.com/2007/02/taxes-….

    Congress has enacted several amnesties, but none was in effect the last time I checked.

    The IRS has, at times, allowed a minister to admit to a false filing and get back on the Social Security system, but this requires the payment of 3 years of back taxes, with interest, and requires the services of a qualified tax attorney. Nor is there any guarantee that the IRS will even permit this in a given case.

    It has to be a lawyer, because you are about to admit to a federal crime, and you only want to do that to a lawyer. Lawyers have an attorney-client privilege that keeps them from ever testifying against you.

    It's very unlikely that the IRS would prosecute such a crime. Frankly, you'd think that they'd be delighted to have someone else paying taxes! But it's important that this be handled properly. You never know when you'll run into an overzealous agent who hates Christians.

    I'd think the lawyer would call the IRS district director's office, explain the problem without disclosing your name, and cut a deal to let you back in without risk of prosecution, in exchange for back taxes and interest. He'll want to negotiate to avoid having to pay penalties.

    I know this sounds crazy, but if your Congressman or Senator has enough clout in the Congress, they might slip an amnesty provision in the next tax bill for you. I suspect these get passed at the request of individual ministers, and the IRS doesn't object because they love getting ministers back in the system. The lawyer may be able to help.

    Congress is very anxious to collect more Social Security taxes, and another amnesty may have appeal–especially with an election year coming up!

    Now, ministers are self-employed for Social Security purposes, which means you'll have to pay Self-Employment Tax, not FICA, which is both the "withholding" amount and the "match." The match part is deductible, however, which helps.

    Most churches agree to pay the "match" for the preacher, even though they technically aren't required to do so. It's possible your elders would agree to pay the portion of the SET that they would have paid had you not opted out.

    Finally, you likely need an accountant to help you figure the SET. It's not so simple for a preacher. http://jayguin.files.wordpress.com/2007/02/taxes-… gives some guidance. But you'll likely have to file returns for prior years, and this will require the help of someone good with numbers (usually not the lawyer).

    Most accountants get this all wrong. The guidance in the link is right. I'm not always right, but I've done my homework.

  4. Jeff says:

    So basically, I have to find the money to pay an attorney and an accountant, and most likely pay back taxes — all on the salary of a minister in a church of 100 people? Not to sound unwilling to right a wrong, but it seems undoable in any practical way.

  5. Matthew says:

    Wow, and amen, it is sad, but what you write is true.
    http://www.matthewsblog.waynesborochurchofchrist.org

  6. Jay Guin says:

    Jeff,

    I truly appreciate your difficult circumstance. I've studied this because I've dealt with this.

    Although it's my experience that most ministers opt out improperly, I don't believe it is necessarily wrong. The requirements are–

    * You are conscientiously opposed to public insurance because of your individual religious considerations (not because of your general conscience), or you are opposed because of the principles of your religious denomination; and

    * You file for other than economic reasons.

    While, as a denomination, the Churches of Christ do not take such a position, the position would be consistent with our history. David Lipscomb could have signed the form in good conscience due to stances he took in his Civil Government book. B. W. Stone and many other 19th Century leaders likely would have share the sentiments. I am in no position to judge an individual minister's decision. Indeed, there likely are ministers for whom the election is entirely permissible.

    Remarkably, the IRS does not allow you to even change your mind. Suppose a minister changes denominations or simply changes his position and wishes to begin paying in to Social Security. The law says the election is irrevocable and doesn't allow him back into the system. It's strictly tough luck.

    Therefore, the argument goes, it is not wrong to stay outside the system, living with the consequences of the decision made–even if the election out was wrong.

    To add a bit to the argument, it's entirely possible that a minister might sign a false return while believing himself to be telling the truth. In such a case, he was not guilty of fraud or of bearing false witness or violating Romans 13. He was just badly advised. The election is nonetheless irrevocable.

    I suggested that it is possible to get back in, but that's only because the IRS has allowed it to happen in individual cases. There can be no assurance that they'd let you back in at all, as the guidance is sparse and there is no uniform policy permitting this–just instances where a local district office has done so.

    In short, there is an intelligent argument that although the election was wrong, staying in is inevitable and so the mistake is uncorrectable. Hence, there is no sin in staying in.

    As a result, my own congregation has not gone so far as to require ministers we hire to opt back in. We do prohibit a new opt out, unless they can persuade the elders they aren't filing a false tax return. No one has made that case yet.

    Jay

  7. Mark says:

    I am a minister in the Church of Christ and was counseled to opt out of SS 13 years ago by my CPA who is an elder in a Church of Christ but not the congregation where I preached at the time. I was simply told that this was an option available to me as clergy. Nothing was said about the issues you have brought up in this article. Has this always been true? Or was there a time when one could opt out simply because of the position held? I still pay SS on my part time jobs (school bus driver, teacher at a Christian school), as does my wife.

  8. Ron says:

    Brother Jay, you refer in your article to the Chruch of Christ as a "denomination". In your second reply to Matthew, you also refer to Chruches of Christ as a "denomination". I am not a member of a denomination. I am a member of the Church of Christ, not the Church of Christ denomination. I have been told that the root word for denomination is "division". Please read I Cor. 1:13, where Paul asked if Christ was "divided". In Matthew 16:18, our Lord told Peter that He would build His church, not His chruches. There are not any references anywhere to any other denomonations. In fact, Gal. 1:8-9, Paul says that anyone teaching any other doctrine or any other gospel should be "accursed" or "eternally condemned." Just some of my thoughts about referring to the Church of Christ as a denomination.
    Ron

  9. Jay Guin says:

    Mark,

    Many ministers have received similarly bad advice from otherwise competent CPAs. But to get it right, all you have to do is either read the opt out form, Form 4361, http://www.irs.gov/pub/irs-pdf/f4361.pdf, or else read one of the several IRS publications where they explain the law in layman's terms. Publication 517 is particularly detailed: http://www.irs.gov/publications/p517/ix01.html. Double check me.

    CPAs often give out bad advice on housing allowances, on withholding, and other issues unique to the ministry. I suppose the problem is in part due to the fact that they often do minister work gratis or heavily discounted and so don't take the time to confirm the many false ideas about ministerial taxation that circulate in the CPA community.

    I was legal adviser to my congregation long before becoming an elder. I've spent a lot of time trying to get this right, as I received so much conflicting advice from various accountants. My conclusions are laid out in http://oneinjesus.info/2007/02/11/tax-guide-for-c….

    See my comments to Jeff above regarding how to cope with the fact that you've made an election out. Sadly, there's just not a good solution in the absence of an amnesty. The election is irrevocable, and even the IRS can't waive that rule.

    Jay

  10. Jay Guin says:

    Ron,

    "Denomination" means different things in different contexts. Sociologists, anthropologists, theologians, and historians all have specific definitions they like to use. However, in my case, I was referring to "denomination" as used by the IRS in defining who can make an election out of Social Security. In that context, we are indisputably a denomination.

    Moreover, in the way most people use the word, we also easily satisfy the definition. I discuss this at http://jayguin.files.wordpress.com/2007/01/how-to… beginning on p. 13.

    By the way, the root word for "denomination" is from the Latin, meaning "to name completely." Check out dictionary.com.

    Consider these questions:

    * Does your church list itself in the Yellow Pages as "Churches of Christ" or "Nondenominational"?

    * Does "denomination" mean "church"? If not, then why does the idea of multiple denominations somehow imply multiple churches?

    * Do all denominations consider themselves part of a larger church or do some think of themselves as the only saved people? Baptists see themselves as a subset of the saved. The Orthodox consider themselves the only saved. That being the case, clearly "denomination" does not imply either result. Rather, the term addresses a different question.

    * If the Churches of Christ (in the Yellow Pages sense) are the only saved people, then would calling ourselves a denomination somehow contradict that claim?

    * If the Churches of Christ are Christians only but not the only Christians, then would calling ourselves a denomination somehow contradict that claim?

    * Isn't it fairer to say that we are in fact a denomination–people joined by a common name, heritage, and belief system–but a denomination under protest? That is, we are only separate because some believers are unwilling to accept our beliefs–but we aren't separate because we've chosen to be?

    * When we speak to one another and to world that surrounds us, shouldn't we use commonly used words in their commonly used senses? I mean, if we use "denomination" in a sense that foreign to our listeners, we'd may as well be speaking in tongues! Why not speak in the common tongue?

    That being the case, rather than coming up with our own peculiar meaning, shouldn't we use the term as the dictionaries do?

    Consider these definitions from dictionary.com–

    1. a religious group, usually including many local churches, often larger than a sect: the Lutheran denomination.

    1. a group of religious congregations having its own organization and a distinctive faith

    a group of people with the same religious beliefs

    Or this from Wikipedia: "A religious denomination (also simply denomination) is a subgroup within a religion that operates under a common name, tradition, and identity." Doesn't that sound exactly like us?

  11. Ron says:

    Are you saying that the Church of Christ is a denomination?

  12. Jay Guin says:

    Ron,

    It depends on your definition. As the word is used by nearly everyone and defined by nearly every dictionary, yes, we are a denomination. And for federal income tax purposes, we most certainly are a denomination.

    However, in the Churches of Christ, we've invented definitions for "denomination" found nowhere else. Although it seems that the meaning shifts depending on who is arguing.

    So I can't answer the question unless you provide the sense in which you use the word.

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  14. Mike says:

    Jay, interesting points made that I would agree with. The debate in the replies about the "denomination" issue is informative, but has nothing to do with your original article. I'd be interested in your view on a situation I have with a client (Church of Christ preacher). He was employed by a church related college and also was a preacher serving a small church. He exempted out of SE tax, but has had SS coverage through college employment. He no longer serves a church, and now works for a different church realated college which has offered to designate a part of his salary as housing allowance. this seems to be allowable under Pub 517. He is concerned that his previous election out of SE tax is a potential problem. I do not see that it is since the 4631 was an election out of SE tax not, FICA. I would agree that there is a bit of a theological ethical issue in that on one hand he was "opposed" to social security when he filed the 4631, but now is concerned about his social security coverage with the college. I just want to give him the correct legal advice which I do not think he got when he made the election and received counsel from another CPA. I do not expect that he will return to serving a church so the election out of SE coverage will not be a future issue. I agree with your assertion that there are a lot of preachers that do not have valid reasons for electing out of SE coverage.

    When counseling new preachers on electing out of social security, I thoroughly grill them on their reasons and inquire about non-church employment and how they view the concept of social security. If they readily accept the coverage from other employment, but want to elect out on their minsterial compensation, I generally will not assist them in making the election as I view them as simply "gaming the system."

  15. Jay Guin says:

    It may be possible to serve a college as a minister of the gospel, but it's far from automatic. It depends on services being performed. The law is very gray, especially when there is no denominational board overseeing the school.

    Assuming that he is performing what Pub 517 calls qualified services, then I'd think he'd be self-employed for SET purposes.

    IRC section 3121(b)(8)(A) gives the rule. A duly ordained minister of a church in the exercise of his ministry is self-employed for SET purposes.

    Section 107 excludes the housing allowance for a "minister of the gospel."

    IRS interpretations treat these as the same.

    Therefore, if you take the position that the minister is acting as a minister of the gospel on behalf of the college, he'd seem to be self-employed for SET purposes.

    I have trouble seeing how you can pay FICA and yet qualify for a housing allowance. I'm not saying it's impossible, but in any facts I can think of, it seems to be an inconsistent position.

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  19. BG says:

    Participating in Social Security goes against what Jesus Christ taught. Christians can no longer ignore the sins of participating in this government welfare program. It is imperative.

    http://www.scribd.com/doc/153352089/The-Sins-of-Participating-in-Social-Security-Christians-Cannot-Ignore-Anymore

  20. Avatar of Jay Guin Jay Guin says:

    BG,

    At the post you link, you argue,

    “I do not participate in Social Security, as all Christians do not, because coveting is a sin participants inherently commit. In simply desiring to receive Social Security payments, no matter how seemingly insignificant the desire may be in their own eyes, participants are actually wishing for the fruits of their neighbors’ labor.”

    Under the Torah, every third-year tithe went to support Levites and the poor.

    (Deu 26:12 NET) 12 When you finish tithing all your income in the third year (the year of tithing), you must give it to the Levites, the resident foreigners, the orphans, and the widows so that they may eat to their satisfaction in your villages.

    Why is this permissible, even holy, and the Social Security system immoral — by your logic that participating in Social Security is necessarily covetousness? Why aren’t the Levites, resident foreigners, etc. also guilty of covetousness by wanting money from those who worked hard to produce it?

    The Tithe was not optional or a recommendation. In no sense was it a voluntary gift. It was commanded by God — in the most serious tones.

    (Mal 3:8-9 NET) 8 Can a person rob God? You indeed are robbing me, but you say, ‘How are we robbing you?’ In tithes and contributions! 9 You are bound for judgment because you are robbing me– this whole nation is guilty.

    I don’t see how Social Security is covetousness. I certainly see that the system is badly designed. There are serious public policy issues as a matter of good government. I see all sorts of problems with it. But I don’t see how participating is sinful.

    We should not confuse our economic theories and theories of good government with God’s will — especially if we go so far as to accuse those who participate in an involuntary system of being sinners.

    Ministers of the gospel and a few others are able to opt out of Social Security, but most American citizens are required by law to participate –

    (Rom 13:1-7 NET) Let every person be subject to the governing authorities. For there is no authority except by God’s appointment, and the authorities that exist have been instituted by God. 2 So the person who resists such authority resists the ordinance of God, and those who resist will incur judgment 3 (for rulers cause no fear for good conduct but for bad). Do you desire not to fear authority? Do good and you will receive its commendation, 4 for it is God’s servant for your good. But if you do wrong, be in fear, for it does not bear the sword in vain. It is God’s servant to administer retribution on the wrongdoer. 5 Therefore it is necessary to be in subjection, not only because of the wrath of the authorities but also because of your conscience. 6 For this reason you also pay taxes, for the authorities are God’s servants devoted to governing. 7 Pay everyone what is owed: taxes to whom taxes are due, revenue to whom revenue is due, respect to whom respect is due, honor to whom honor is due.

    Paul was speaking of Emperor Nero (opinions as to the date of Romans vary, but this seems likely) and the Roman government, which was at the time urging its residents to worship the emperor as a god — and as “son of God,” “lord,” and “savior.” It was a pagan, blasphemous government, and yet Paul said that the Romans should pay their taxes.

    So I’m struggling to see how your theories fit together with the Torah and with Romans 13. But perhaps I’m missing something. I would love to keep my self-employment taxes!

    On the other hand, if your argument is that we should pay into system per Rom 13 and refuse to accepts payments from the system, I can see a very real biblical argument. But I’ve never met anyone willing to take that position, as it’s not the Libertarian viewpoint. But if Social Security is covetous, then taking the money is covetous, but paying the money in is not by itself. (Might it be a form of turning the other cheek?) So why isn’t that the right conclusion from your premises?

    Or perhaps the right outcome is to refuse to participate and go to jail. Going back nearly to Pentecost, many Christians have preferred jail to disobeying God. But I don’t see you suggesting that your readers should be willing to serve jail time rather than participate — and in the US, for all but ministers of the gospel and a few others, that is the choice you are putting your readers to. It really is.

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