Social Security and Pastors

One last thing that came in the welcome packet was a page-long argument for pastors to not opt-out of Social Security. The IRS allows clergy to do this if "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 if you are doing so "for other than economic reasons" (IRS publication 517).

There are several issues involved here.

1. Financial. To submit the governing authorities properly (Romans 13), ministers may not opt out simply because they can do better financially for their retirement outside of Social Securtiy (which is surely true).

2. Political. This clause also does not allow for conservative or libertarian types to opt out, simply because their political beliefs oppose public (government is a more accurate name) insurance. This is what I interpret the phrase "general conscience" to mean, as opposed to religious considerations.

3. Religious worldview. The statement DOES allow clergy to opt out if their denomination teaches against public insurance (only a small number of sects actually do, or if their religious beliefs drive them to oppose government insurance. Let's look at the latter a minute. It is the phrase which I think allows ministers who interpret Scripture properly to opt out of Social Security with integrity.

While we are called to submit to the governing authorities, those authorities have limits, and if they exceed them, or start usurping other God-ordained governing bodies (family or church) they become illegitimate authorities. The case against public insurance from Scripture could go many ways, but I'll leave you with one right now. Paul's discussion of widows in 1 Timothy 5 commands families to provide for parents first, and then, if the family can't, or it isn't there to do so, the church should kick in. Government is nowhere mentioned.

Opposing government insurance with integrity means not accepting Social Security, Medicare or Medicaid. One would lack integrity to opt out now, but then apply for Medicare at retirement. Most people say that this is not feasible to go without Medicaid, and so they either stay with Social Security or give up some integrity for financial benefit. I, in my youthful idealism think it is feasible to not receive Medicare on retirement. Any thoughts to the contrary for me?


  1. Not to the contrary, but a bit more specific.

    It isn't a blanket exemption based on religious conviction. If that were so, you should be exempt from all Social Security taxes. And anyone should be able to claim the exemption on the grounds of religious conviction.

    Instead, it is a religious conviction against government insurance funded from taxes on religious labor (I'm not sure of the exact wording). In other words, if you are bi-vocational, you could exempt yourself from Social Security taxes on what you are paid for your work as a minister, but not for your income from a secular job.

    And at the same time, while you choose to exempt yourself in that way, the IRS doesn't care if you accept Social Security payments based on the earnings from that secular job.

    So it's either a highly specific religious objection they are defining or, what's more likely, they simply realize that they can't afford to offer this as a blanket religious exemption. That would bankrupt the whole system when everyone tried to claim it.

  2. I'm not sure where I stand on this particular issue, but since I am in Canada and they do not allow opting out at all, it is a moot point in some ways. I wonder though, if an argument for government provided health insurance and the like could be made appealing to the governmental resposibility to protect the people. By that I mean an argument can be made that many of the private health insurance programs out there will find any loophole they can to avoid paying for medical care for those who are sick with diseases that are expensive to treat or who have chronic diseases that have no cure, but do have expensive treatments that allow them to function but again cost lots of money. Just a thought. As I said, in Canada there is no option to opt out of the government health insurance, pension, or the like at all.