Friday, April 15, 2011

Equal Elder Rule vs. Congregationalism

Much of the motivation for promoting equal elder rule comes from the desire to avoid unscriptural single pastor rule. That debate, however, ignores the concept of congregationalism, in which the congregation as a body rules. Opponents of equal elder rule point this out quickly, that equal elder rule is still rule by a few men at the top, when the New Testament gives us a concept of leadership that is more congregational.

Here's the rub: congregationalism is like communism. It's never been tried in its true form. Like communism, congregationalism usually stops at the point where a strong leader is guiding the group, but full control never actually gets turned over. The man in charge stays the man in charge and that's the way it is.

The reason for this is simple: most people are followers. Most people are sheep. Some will question leadership, some will oppose leadership, but most will meekly "baa" and go whatever direction the leader(s) takes them. This is the Achilles' heel of any democratic system.

I am not a sheep. Maybe I used to be a long time ago; but I am not any longer. When I sit in a church a watch people soak in nonsense from the pulpit it makes me upset. When I go to church and watch people jump onboard with the latest church push without asking questions it makes me sad.

That pure congregationalism is impossible vis-a-vis the typical human nature is shown clearly in the Scripture. Remember at Mt. Sinai the people of Israel said they did not wait to deal with God directly, they would rather that Moses tell them what to do. Nothing has changed!

This is not to say that a church should not be organized around congregational principles, and that the elders MUST rule. But there should be multiple equal elders, so that when the people invariably begin to follow and idolize them, they can be held in check, and held accountable.

Again, this is WHY the New Testament pattern is multiple equal elders in each church.

I say multiple "equal" elders, because I want to distinguish it from a hierarchy of elders such as a pastor at the top and assistant pastors under him. Then, when the people invariably come to expect them to rule, there will be "equal elder rule," not "single pastor rule," which is destructive and abhorrent.

Some might criticize my position as too pessimistic. Certainly, it could be said, such a "vacuum of power" is a concept that takes root among worldly estimations of leadership. Didn't Christ say that the greatest among us will be our servant, in direct opposition to the Gentile form of power that lords it over another? So then my position is taking for granted that the church will buy into the world's concept of power and rulership.

Well, here is where is gets even sadder. That's true! The basis of the egalitarianism that Christ identifies with his disciples and, by extension within the church at large, is based on service. But not just any service, but service to one another. In-reach service. "Each joint supplying" service.

Pastors, in their quest for growth, exchange this type of service for organizational service. That is to say, service now becomes primarily an outreach affair. Inward service is neglected/assumed/put in second place.

But wait a minute, you say. Aren't I advocating a "our four and no more" concept of church?

Absolutely not! Let's welcome the lost with open arms! But the assembly of believers exists to take care of itself, first and foremost. Evangelism is incidental to the assembly, as individual believers go out into the world.

Let me bring it all back in. Pastors give their assemblies a corporate mission/vision/purpose, co-opting "every joint supplieth" service into outreach ministry involvements. Christian service goes from defining the assembly to advancing corporate mission, thus in turn requiring corporate rulership.

The members of the church begin to require a CEO type leadership from their pastor at this point, and that's what they get. And frankly, most pastors aren't up to it, and burn out. In the quest for growth lies the seeds of their destruction.

It may seem like I am offering two different explanations. That's true, but it only serves to show that this situation is the fault of both pastors and members. Pastors that adopt a mission/vision/purpose for the church outside of itself deprive themselves of the opportunity to develop that "every joint supplieth" service that, in defining the church, ensures the continuity of congregational rule. On the other hand, members who view the church as just another organization expect out of pastors great and mighty things, and put them up in place they have no business being. All of these tendencies can be guarded against somewhat through the concept of equal elders.

The church exists for itself. Evangelism is incidental. Anything else requires a level of organization and rulership that subverts New Testament church polity. This is the hidden, unexplored issue that confounds much of the debate between equal elder rule and congregationalism.

Lastly, this is an issue that transcends denominational lines. We all ought to consider these things.

Thoughts on Social Security

I had to write about Social Security for a college class, so I started to dig into the issues since I never really paid close attention to it before. Below are my findings, a solution, and thoughts on privatization. Enjoy!

How Social Security works:

Workers pay social security taxes as part of FICA. The SSA pays out existing claims and puts the rest in a trust fund (3).
[Workers] --$$--> [SSA] --$$--> [Existing Claims] --$--> [Social Security Trust Fund]

This is the way the system was designed.

How the Social Security Trust Fund works:

Money put into the Social Security Trust Fund gets invested in special issue Treasuries (3):
[SSA] --$$--> [Social Security Trust Fund] --$$--> [Treasuries (government debt)]

Money removed from the Social Security Trust Fund involves the liquidation of these Treasuries (3):
[Treasuries in the Social Security Trust Fund] --$$--> [SSA]

Again, this is the way the system was designed.

In 2015, according to current projections, incoming Social Security taxes will not be enough to pay out benefits. At that point, the trust fund will have to be tapped, and this is where part of the controversy comes in: where will the US Government get the money to repay the Treasuries (4)?

On the face of it, this isn't strictly a Social Security problem. This is a government budget problem. If the Social Security Trust Fund is gone, it's because the government spent it without offsetting it by decreasing borrowing on the open market.

This is the question that defies a solid answer. Had there been no surplus Social Security taxes flowing into the Social Security Trust Fund, would government borrowing have remained the same? If so, then we as a nation have truly saved that money, and any tax increases necessary to pay it back would have occurred regardless of the existence of Social Security. If our government used that money to increase its overall borrowing power, then paying back Social Security will incur an additional burden we would not have had otherwise (2).

Suffice it to say, if we as a nation truly saved that money, and Congress did not use it to increase borrowing power, it's not a big deal.

But let's consider the more likely case where Congress took the bait and increased borrowing in response to Social Security surpluses. Let me state again: Social Security is not to blame, Congress is. Congress either 1) did not tax appropriately and/or 2) overspent. But in neither case were their actions forced by any burden imposed by Social Security (2).

Having to raise taxes to pay back the Social Security trust fund is not the fault of Social Security, it is the fault of Congress, and such tax increases are necessary only because Congress under-taxed and/or overspent. Social Security is a red herring to deflect responsibility. And it is sick and sad, because it places the burden of our wayward Congress on the backs of retirees.

General tax increases to preserve the solvency of the Social Security Trust Fund by providing funds to repay the Treasuries are a commentary on our federal government's long-term fiscal responsibility, not an indictment of Social Security.

However that's only part of the problem. In 2037, the Social Security Trust Fund itself will run out (4). It is at this point that Social Security truly becomes a problem in and of itself. Several scenarios present themselves:

1. Congress stops all transfers to the SSA as a matter of fully repaying the Social Security Trust Fund. Nothing else is done. Social Security FICA taxes are enough to pay 78% of benefits (4).

2. Same as #1, but Social Security FICA is increased. Social Security benefits remain the same.

3. Have Congress continue transfers to the SSA as a matter of supporting Social Security in the absence of Social Security Trust obligations. Nothing else is done. Social Security doesn't change.

4. Same as #3, but Congress continues transfers in a reduced amount. Nothing else is done. Social Security is able to pay out 90% of benefits.

5. Same as #4, but Social Security FICA taxes are increased. Social Security benefits remain the same.

Before making a selection, you should know that Social Security benefit obligations level off after 2035. This is important, because it occurs before the Social Security Trust Fund runs out. You really need to look at Figure II.D5 in SSA Trustees' 2010 report to understand the situation (4). What you will see there is:

1. Social Security surpluses running out circa 2009.
2. Social Security roughly breaking even until 2015.
3. Social Security benefits outstripping Social Security FICA income as it dips into its Trust Fund from 2015-2037.
4. Social Security reaching a maximum deficit of 1.5% GDP in 2035.
5. Social Security deficits reducing slightly until 2052, and then staying mostly even until 2067.
6. By 2085, the Social Security deficit is still slightly below the 2035 maximum.

Follow me here. In the first part of my post, I stake the position that Congress is responsible for repaying Social Security Trust Fund money. Because they are OUR Congress, we should accept whatever taxes are necessary to do so. By the time Congress is through paying off Social Security Trust Fund obligations, any reduction in transfers to the SSA after that point are a tax CUT. Because the Social Security deficit peaks before that point, merely maintaining those increased taxes and continuing transfers to the SSA is enough to solve the problem.

However, I fully understand the desire to avoid extra post-2037 expenses. The 2010 Social Security Trustees' report indicates that immediately raising the Social Security FICA tax to 14.24 percent from its 2010 level of 12.4 percent will, in addition to Congress paying back the Social Security Trust Fund money, ensure the solvency of Social Security until 2085 (4). At a US median household income of $52,029 (2008), that's an additional $957.33 a year per family over 2010 rates (5).
That's the "increase taxes only" route. The trustees' report tells us that an immediate cut equivalent to 12 percent of benefits would also achieve the same goal (4).

But what is the problem with this? These measures (benefit cuts and Social Security FICA increases) will come as costs to the citizen ON TOP OF general tax increases needed for Congress to repay the Trust Fund. We can't afford that now, but neither should we let Congress and ourselves out of the obligation to repay the Trust Fund. The Republican strategy seems to be one of avoiding fully repaying the Trust Fund through draconian cuts to Social Security. That's not the fair and moral thing to do.
The better thing to do is leave Social Security alone FOR NOW, and focus on repaying the Social Security Trust Fund in full. Do that, and you've solved the problem until 2037, at which time we can either continue our transfers to the SSA (problem solved) or reduce them with an equal offset from a combination of Social Security FICA hikes and benefit cuts (problem solved). Yes, we are looking at increased cost, but that is a consequence of changing demographics.

Repaying the Trust Fund and making Social Security less of a value (higher cost for less) isn't something we can absorb all at once. Let's focus on the Trust Fund now. If we can come up with the fiscal discipline to do that, we can afford to wait a bit longer to solve the longer-term Social Security problem. If we can't come up with the fiscal discipline to just repay the Trust Fund, adding an additional FICA burden or benefit cut isn't going to make it easier to do so.

Also, keep in mind that a percentage of the new taxes needed to repay the Social Security Trust Fund would have been needed anyway, in proportion to the amount of government borrowing that was not done on the open market due to Social Security Trust Fund Treasuries.

Now that we understand that every FICA dollar is needed to pay benefits, plus more, what would we be left with to privatize? I can't find an answer to this from anyone promoting privatization. This is probably because privatization, as a mainstream idea, went down in flames under G.W. Bush. If it had taken hold then, the surpluses from 2004-2009 could have been used to bootstrap such a scheme. Now, frankly, it's too late.

A powerful indictment of privatized Social Security is the finding of Stanley Logue in San Diego, CA. In 2004 he decided to go back and compare what his 45 years worth of Social Security FICA contributions would have earned under Social Security versus what they would have earned on the Dow Jones Industrial Average. The surprising finding was that the stock market investment lost out by about five thousand dollars (1).

It is also important remember that, fundamentally, Social Security is a form of insurance, NOT an investment scheme (1). The goal isn't to generate the highest payout for citizens, it is to preserve capital so that there is something to pay retirees. It is for this reason that Social Security is not a "Ponzi scheme."

Failure of privatized Social Security would only require new and costly government outlays to make up for that failure. Failures of this sort have been seen in Britain (1).

The idea that we could restrict such retirement accounts to safe investments fails too. One of the most aggressive "safe" investments, "Money Market" funds, barely even keeps up with inflation (6). Buying government debt, another "safe" option, is exactly what our current system is doing!

Of course, the recent economic misery is just a nail in the coffin for this bad idea.

(1) Francis, David R. "One Man's Retirement Math: Social Security Wins." December 27, 2004. Accessed April 14, 2011.

(2) Greenspan, Alan. "Economic Outlook and Current Fiscal Issues." Board of Governors of the Federal Reserve System. March 2, 2005. Accessed April 13, 2011.

(3) HowStuffWorks. "How Does the Social Security System Work?" HowStuffWorks. Accessed April 14, 2011.

(4) The Trustees of the US Social Security Administration. "2010 OASDI Trustees Report--financial Outlook for Social Security." Social Security Online. August 9, 2010. Accessed April 14, 2011.

(5) US Census Bureau. "USA QuickFacts." US Census Bureau. November 4, 2010. Accessed April 14, 2011.

(6) Waggoner, John. "5 Things You Can Do Now to Prepare for Rising Inflation." April 23, 2009. Accessed April 14, 2011.

Tuesday, April 12, 2011

On the ABC 20/20 Special About IFB Abuse

Some of you may have watched the ABC 20/20 special on Friday, April 12, 2011, concerning sexual abuse in IFB churches.

What we have been hearing about the Catholic church, we are now hearing about IFB churches. I think the two situations are similar. Some will respond that the Catholic church issue is more dangerous because it is the priests who are molesting, but that misses the issue, I think. The issue is that in both the Catholic and the IFB churches, what abuse HAS gone on was covered up well. The issue is not so much the abuse, as molesters can be found everywhere and anywhere that depraved men are able to give into their lusts. The issue is the cover up.

One way I was disappointed in the 20/20 special was that they didn't do enough to tie IFB churches together. One blurb about going to the same colleges was all that I saw. Another unfortunate omission was any fleshing out of what I call the Man-O-God syndrome, or excessive pastoral authority. It is the excessive pastoral authority that is the ROOT of IFB churches' tendencies to cover up, not just sexual abuse, but many, many, other abuses. It is this excessive pastoral authority that gives rise to accusations that IFB churches are a cult.

It is in this way that attacking IFB churches over molestation charges is precisely the wrong way to bring to light IFB error. I can understand that such attempts are the cry of victims seeking redress. I also understand that such attempts are an attempt to harness the sensational nature of molestation charges in the fight against IFB error. But in the end it doesn't stick, because it comes across as so much mudslinging. Now I think surely that these IFB churches ought to be held accountable for covering these things up, and the perpetrators dealt with. But as a broadside against the IFB network of churches in general, it's not going to be effective; rather, it has the potential to backfire.

The molestation charges, for one, don't tell the whole story of IFB cover-ups. You've got numerous "Man-O-Gods" scattered throughout IFB-dom guilty at this very moment of adultery, financial mismanagement, theft, spiritual abuse, and yes even sexual abuse. You've got "Man-O-Gods" controlling and dictating their church members' lives (whether that be requiring them to ask permission or demanding veto power). And it all gets swept under the rug because he's the "Man-O-God." As the English Lord Acton said:

"I cannot accept your canon that we are to judge Pope and King [and "Man-O-God" -ed.] unlike other men with a favourable presumption that they did no wrong. If there is any presumption, it is the other way, against the holders of power, increasing as the power increases. Historic responsibility has to make up for the want of legal responsibility. All power tends to corrupt and absolute power corrupts absolutely. Great men are almost always bad men, even when they exercise influence and not authority: still more when you superadd the tendency or certainty of corruption by full authority. There is no worse heresy than that the office sanctifies the holder of it."

And so we see at the very bitter end of all of this that it boils down to bad theology: the concept of power as expressed in IFB churches, that of a single "benevolent dictator," is entirely unscriptural. The New Testament gives us a pattern of equal elder rule for a reason.

So what's the right way to attack this? Expose all manner of "Man-O-God" wrongdoing and cover-up. Show how these "Man-O-Gods" abuse their position in myriad ways. No corner of IFBdom will escape the scope of THAT investigation.

But us Christians don't have to wait for another episode of 20/20. We need to reaffirm our commitment to Scripture and to Biblical church governance, and reject single-pastor rule.