opting out

I took a week or so off from my blog—I had a terrific weekend in Indianapolis with the good people at College Park Church and also had to catch up on my grading—and I wanted to give some time for the emergents to move on to other sites (their ad hominem comments were not exactly edifying).

This week Justin Taylor linked to my post about ministers who opt out of Social Security, and as I skimmed through the many comments to his post I was surprised to learn that I was a humanist (really?) and that there were so many defenders of this practice.

Most of the arguments for opting out of Social Security were not persuasive, but I thought that Fred Greco made a helpful point—it’s worth reading the whole thing. Fred said that he opted out of Social Security because he did not think that it was right to take money from the church and hand it over to the government. He writes: “As a minister, I object to public assistance, because I am not a mere employee. I am a recipient of the beneficence of church members so that I might ‘be free from worldly cares and avocations’ (to use a PCA phrase).”

I think that Fred may have a good argument here—though I wonder if he allows the church to purchase health insurance or whether he relies upon “the beneficence of church members” so that he “might ‘be free from worldly cares’” when he is sick. And it doesn’t change the fact that Fred’s reason is not why most pastors opt out of Social Security.

If the government was doubling their savings every year (rather than stealing it from their lockbox), most pastors would have no objection to giving part of their church’s salary to the government. And that is why it seems obvious to me that most pastors opt out for economic rather than moral reasons, which is the one thing the IRS says you can’t do.

To summarize: if you can honestly say that you would opt out of guaranteed 100% annual returns from the government (obviously this is hypothetical), then I say that you have a moral objection to participating as a minister in Social Security. If you wouldn’t then you don’t. What could be more simple?





13 responses to “opting out”

  1. James,

    I saw the link to your blog from Justin’s. To answer your question directly – I do not have health insurance through the church. I purchase it directly as an individual. But I also wanted to flesh out a bit more what I said there:

    The point is that social security taxes and benefits (FICA) are related to *income* – purchasing health insurance (or a car, for that matter) are not. My point is that a pastor’s “salary” is more like a gift from church members than it is income as an employee. So I don’t think a pastor should collect governmental insurance from FICA. But it is a different matter with other income I have. I am perfectly willing to pay FICA (even self-employed “double” FICA) on income I earn as an attorney (I still do a little part time work. In fact, I have to by law. Ministers cannot really opt-out (as persons), they can only opt-out with respect to ministerial income.

    But I do appreciate your point about this not being a matter of “wise stewardship” (i.e. will I lose money if I am in Social Security). It is a matter of conscience, and I would opt-out my ministerial “income” even if the returns were 200%.


  2. Mike, I’m sorry I called you James. I don’t know where that came from! 🙂

  3. Mike,

    I stumbled upon your blog. I really enjoyed being in the audience and sitting under your teaching the other weekend at College Park.

    As a member of a religious order, I too had the option to opt of of Social Security.

    I chose not to opt out. Much like what you state, I have a great objection to putting money into a system that likely won’t be around when I become old enough to benefit from it (I’m 37 now). However, as the IRS defines things, it is in the receiving of the money that is the basis of the objection.

    If I honestly felt that family and/or church would be responsible for care, I probably would have a greater objection. But I think our Social Security system has become such the norm that family and even the church have abdicated what they once so willingly took responsibility for.

    There was no way, that I could in good conscience, opt out.

    Best regards,

  4. Andrew Ford

    How many forlorn clergy wanting to opt back in does it take to unscrew a revocation? I bet if enough clergy wrote their senators and asked for another opt back in period, that we could convince the IRS to let us relent of our SS decisions.

  5. What an interesting arc this story has…

    Mike: Ministers who opt out of SS are bringing disrepute on the Gospel, lying, and committing purgery unless you would go to jail rather than take part in the system.

    Me: Whaa–?? Did someone just replace my thoughtful friend and mentor with some finger-wagging knee-jerk?

    Josh G: Here’s a bunch of additional information to thoughtfully nuance the discussion.

    Mike: Oh, yeah…shades of gray. I forgot about shades of gray. Let me soften my three-fold condemnation of most of my former students and current colleagues.

    I gotta wonder if maybe considering the shades of gray and softening of the uber-judgment ought to have happened BEFORE the first post was fired off.

    Just sayin.

  6. mikewittmer


    I still stand by my original post, sorry if that makes me a finger-wagging knee jerk reactionary. Fred taught me that there are people who can conscientiously opt out, but I don’t think that I know many of those people. How is that not thoughtful?

  7. Because, in dealing with a matter of personal principle, you go beyond saying, “I can’t, in good conscience, opt out” and make accusations against those of us who have opted out (i.e. we are lying, bringing disrepute upon the Gospel of Jesus Christ, providing a hypocritical bad example for our congregations), unless we meet your–I would say, arbitrarily concocted (albeit borrowed)–litmus test of being willing to go to jail over the issue. Let me respond in two ways:

    1. Are you CONSCIENTIOUSLY opposed to paying for abortion? You apparently can’t answer yes unless you’re ready to GO TO JAIL for income tax evasion if (when) health care “reform” goes through and involves tax-funded abortions. Heck, you’re probably somehow funding abortions NOW through your taxes. Let me get your orange jump suit for you.

    In fact, by your definiton, you’re apparently in favor of everything the govenment does with your tax money. If you were really against any of it as a matter of conscience, you’d have already gone to jail, leaving your family in poverty. Do you see how silly that line of reasoning is?

    2. More importantly, I don’t know what IRS publication 517 is, but the document that *I signed* (after being urged to do so by a professor at GRTS) reads as follows: “I certify that I am conscientiously opposed to, or because of my religious principles am opposed to…for services I perform as a minister…public insurance.” (There’s a bunch of stuff about vows of poverty and Christian Science practitioners in there too, but none applies to me). I’m looking at the document right now and every time it says that the signer is conscientously opposed to SS, that is one of two options–the other being “or because of my religious principles am opposed.” That is an incredibly broad umbrella. I think Dave Ramsey’s interpretation is just about within its scope (although one would have to be more opposed to government handouts for services performed as a minister, rather than just being opposed to the government doing a crappy job at investing one’s money). All the same, I did not commit fraud or perjury in signing the document because I *am* against receiving SS for work done as a minister, EVEN THOUGH my conscience would not be horribly vexed were I forced to pay in (as most people are) and even though I certainly wouldn’t choose jail over having my SS witheld.

    And maybe I’m way off base, but I think I’m a pretty good example of sacrificial love to my congregation and communicate the Gospel faithfully without dragging it through the mud.

  8. mikewittmer


    I see what you mean about the jail comment, though to be fair I was quoting Russell Moore’s point, though to be fair I was endorsing it. I didn’t know that you opted out of SS, but I’m glad to know that you did so for the right reasons. My criticism is not directed at you but at the many who opt out because SS is a horrible “investment.” On my ordination day I was encouraged many times by a CPA to fill out the form to opt out, and the reason given was that I was lucky enough that I didn’t have to participate in this ponzi scheme anymore. I think we both know that this is the main reason why most pastors opt out. I don’t blame them for wanting to, but it doesn’t change the fact that this is an economic reason. Which means it’s illegal.

  9. Steve Young

    Just wanted to say thanks to all who have written and commented in both this post and Justin Taylor’s. I’m currently wrestling with this issue and your comments have been very helpful.

    I recognize that part of my motivation for wanting to opt out is selfish and concerned about my financial gain (or loss.) I’ve been paying into the system for 15 years, 10+ as a paid member of a church staff. My salary is not changing, but I will now take home less because of the “double” FICA tax. Granted, I have to figure the whole housing allowance thing into it, but because of my current situation, I think the end result will still end up with me taking home less.

    And I am not in this line of work for the money! But it stinks to be “penalized” now for being ordained.

    So anyway, thanks for the additional food for thought. The good news is that I have a wide window of time in which to decide, and I want to make the wise, Spirit-led decision.

    Oh… and correct me if I’m wrong, but FICA taxes (if not opting out) are applied to your income PRIOR to the housing allowance being applied, correct. (If I make $40k with $15k being an allowance, I pay FICA on 40k not on 25k, right)

    Just tyring to figure out how much to set aside for tax time!

  10. mikewittmer


    Thanks for your comment. Yes, you do pay FICA on housing allowance. The IRS has a helpful publication which explains how to figure the taxes. It’s a bit complicated, but once you do it you can use what you have as a model for future years.

  11. Pastor Mike

    In my view, the Bible is clear on how a minister of God should receive his/her pay.

    1 Corinthians 9:13-14 (NASB)
    13 Do you not know that those who perform sacred services eat the food of the temple, and those who attend regularly to the altar have their share [a]from the altar? 14 So also the Lord directed those who proclaim the gospel to get their living from the gospel.

    The “Exemption From Self-Employment Tax for Use by Ministers” is specific to an individual minister’s religious views on receiving a retirement income from the government. The objection is not based on the persons views on the tax, rather the benefit as it applies to the individuals ministerial income and nothing more! To opt out is not some broad indictment of government assistance and it is certainly not calling such things sinful as other blogs have suggested.

    BTW, on Biblical grounds, I (and many other Saints) completely reject the idea of retirement from ministry. As long as we breath we serve! Our roles may change but retirement… I don’t think so. One scripture that comes to mind is:

    2 Thessalonians 3:10 (NASB)
    For even when we were with you, we used to give you this order: if anyone is not willing to work, then he is not to eat, either.

    As to any monies owed to me from my secular days when I paid far more in to SS than I could possibly get back (at the rate of 1650.00 per month), this is money owed to me not compensation or even a benefit… it’s owed to me! It’s repayment and return on my investment.

    Also, obvious concerns over any governments ability to dictate what a minister can or cannot say or do in regards to their ministry is a real concern. Historically this has sort of thing has reared it’s ugly head somewhere in the world every century or so. In fact there are many places in the world today where just such fears have been realized. Counting on your lively hood from any such government compounds those concerns.

    One final word. One can have negative views on the SS system all together and not ne in conflict with their sincere conviction on opting out as a minister of the Gospel.

    These are my personal views and understanding of scripture. I neither condemn nor judge anyone (including ministers of the Gospel) who receive government assistance, nor should any other Christian! I am also a proud American and submit to all governmental authorities as the Bible commands. Remember, it is the government that offers this option and rightly so.

  12. Jorge Busg

    I appreciate the look into this issue. It does seem after reading all the comments that:
    1. Wittmer’s critique of pastors opting out just for the financial benefits, is valid.
    2. However, equally valid is the critique (on several basis’) that SS is terribly immoral, not least of which because it involves stealing from future generations, which even Wittmer admits is immoral. However, he says that he is content to snipe at pastors who taking the benefit with ill motives.
    3. It seems what’s being missed here is a desire to figure out what is right, and then share that with those who don’t think as clearly. If it is immoral, then those brothers who are doing it for the wrong reasons need to be rebuked and have the correct reasons explained to them. This is equivalent to someone who sees someone in need that he has the power to meet, but who realizes that he has ill motives (man pleasing rather than God-fearing) . The solution is not to say, “Sorry, I’m not going to do the right thing because I have ill motives,” but rather confess the ill motives and do rightly based on right ones! It seems that this misses the big picture goal not just of having right motives, but doing the right things with right motives.

    Does that makes sense?

  13. mikewittmer

    Jorge: by your logic, what would you tell someone who says they are refusing to pay their taxes because they believe the tax code is immoral? I would think you would tell them to pay their taxes. That’s all I’m saying in regard to Social Security.

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