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.
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.
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!
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.