May a Minister “Opt Out” of Social Security?

By Wayne Jackson

“Is it scriptural for a preacher to choose not to be under Social Security? The government allows this, but only on the grounds of ‘conscience.’ Some brethren are opposed to this. They argue that: (1) The exemption constitutes preferential treatment for preachers; (2) If a minister doesn’t have Social Security, the church would have to support him when he is older; in that event, he would be “getting something for nothing”; (3) It is a contradiction for a preacher to “opt out” of the program, and yet say that others may access it; (4) Not paying Social Security would amount to rejecting one’s responsibility to provide the best for his family, since personal money has a way of disappearing, while government money will not; (5) There are no religious principles that suggest Social Security is wrong, so one cannot reject it ethically."

Since the Bible does not specifically discuss the modern “Social Security” program, one can only suggest some principles that may apply to the various components of this inquiry. Our comments will correspond to the numbered points listed above.

(1) While it is not in the best interest of the kingdom of Christ for preachers to act like beggars, overtly soliciting “clergy” favors from the community (as if they are unable to merit a reasonable income), it is not a sin to accept gratuities from those who wish to express their appreciation for services rendered. This is a common practice in virtually every area of life. All of us accept gifts that we do not “earn.”

Every Christian taxpayer who itemizes in his tax-return is granted the benefit of deducting their regular contribution from their income, and, thereby, decreasing the amount of taxes owed to the government. Must we discard this blessing because not “every” Christian can itemize? Or should a Christian family, exercising principles of good stewardship, take advatange of this benefit allowing more of their resources to be used for the glory of God?

The government also allows churches tax-exempt status, under the presumption that these institutions render communities a benefit – in terms of moral and benevolent influence. Should churches reject this blessing simply because a Christian who owns a business cannot take such an exemption?

Additionally, the law grants certain tax exemptions for ministers that others do not enjoy. Must the gospel preacher render unto Caesar more than “Caesar” requires? Or may the minister accept the benefits gratefully, and operate as a wise steward with what he has gained? The astute person does not long debate this question!

It is no more of a breach of ethics for a preacher to accept a governmental benefit, than it is for a church or a family to receive such gratuities.

(2) Church members who would argue, in effect: “You need to be on Social Security so that we will not have to care for you when you are old,” reveal a very low estimation of gospel preachers and the work in which they are involved. They also demonstrate a negative disposition towards supporting preachers.

While one should assume the responsibility of seeing to it that his needs will be met in the twilight of his life, a personal retirement plan (perhaps in agreement with a local church) may well be a part of that preparation. Why is it that citizens of the world sometimes treat their workers with more kindness and generosity than some church leaders do? (See Luke 16:8b.)

(3) It does not reflect an inconsistency to suggest that one may prefer a certain way of providing for his future, while not condemning others who choose a different method. This is exactly the principle of Romans 14. There may be brothers who feel strongly about an “opinion” issue personally; under such circumstances, however, they have no right to force other saints into their mold.

(4) It is strictly a matter of opinion to suggest that the government is better qualified to provide for one’s future than he himself is. While some have no legal option as to whether to choose Social Security (a form of taxation) or not, if an option is granted, it is that person’s right to make the selection for himself. No one in the church should presume to dictate what everyone else’s course of action must be in matters of expediency.

Besides, no government in the history of the world has been stable perpetually. We must not forget that Americans survived and thrived for many years before there was any such program as Social Security.

(5) To argue that since the government allows for a Social Security exemption only on the grounds of “religious” conviction, and to then contend that there is no room for that rationale in any Christian’s thinking, is extremely judgmental – unjustifiably crafting law for others. They draw a nit-picking, Pharisaical distinction between “religious” and “conscience.” A conscience matter is a religious matter. Moreover, the government has allowed thousands of ministers to opt out of the Social Security program without pressing the matter. Case law is not to be ignored in this issue.

It is entirely possible that a man, with the privilege of choices, may be convinced quite strongly that the principle of Christian stewardship dictates to him that he is better qualified to manage his own future, than is a government whose interest in pursuing the will of God is nil.

This matter is one of personal judgment. No one – on either side of the issue – should condemn the other.

Note: An article in the Gospel Advocate (“Social Security,” Dan Wade, January 2009) contends that it is wrong for ministers to opt out of the Social Security program. This article offers another viewpoint.

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About the Author

Wayne Jackson has written for and edited the Christian Courier since its inception in 1965. He has also written several books on a variety of biblical topics including The Bible and Science, Creation, Evolution, and the Age of the Earth, The Bible on Trial, and a number of commentaries. He lives in Stockton, California with his dear wife, and life-long partner, Betty.