Simony: Christians who wanna make a buck off you.

by K.W. Leslie, 01 May

Shades of Elmer Gantry.

Simony /'s(a)ɪ.mə.ni/ n. The buying or selling of religious things which are meant to be given freely, or given only to qualified individuals.
[Simoniac /saɪ.mə'naɪ.ək/ adj., n.]

One of my bigger pet peeves are churches who forget a significant part of our job as Christians is to preach good news to the poor. Mt 11.5, Lk 4.18, 7.22 They kinda forget they even have poor among ’em. Consequently the poor find church a surprisingly expensive place to go.

Certain churches don’t want you in their Sunday services unless you’re in your “Sunday best.” I’ve actually heard a preacher justify this idea by pointing to Jesus’s story where a king throws out a guest for not wearing his wedding clothes. Mt 22.11-14 He figures Jesus is the king, and you better show up for his church in your Sunday best. Can’t afford the clothes? Try the thrift stores. Keep looking till someone finally donates a suit or dress in your size. ’Cause the people of the church won’t offer you any help, and people never think to ask; they just assume they’re not welcome there. Which ain’t far wrong.

Once you can finally dress for church, you’ll find many churches have hundreds of activities—but nearly all of them have a fee. It’s $100 to go to the men’s retreat. It’s $50 to register for the women’s conference. It’s $40 per couple for the couples’ dinner. Childcare’s an extra $5. There’s a six-week class on spiritual gifts, and the book is $18.95. There’s an out-of-town speaker, and people from the church will carpool to hear him, but gasoline and parking will be about $10, and afterward they expect to have dinner at a nice restaurant, which’ll set you back another $15.

And I haven’t even touched on simony yet. Now I shall.

There’s a growing trend in revivalist churches: They wanna open a school. Nothing wrong with that; a lot of great Christian colleges began as revivalist schools. (I graduated from one.) Now, if we’re talking a regionally accredited school, with educated faculty, transferrable units, and recognized degrees, that’d be one thing. We’re not. We’re talking about Sunday morning bible studies, now taught five days a week, and now people have to pay $1,000 or more to attend. Same variable content and quality as those conference speakers I just mentioned. I once visited such a school and sat in on such a class: It’s basic information which every church should teach every Sunday. But at this church, they have no Sunday morning classes. All their classes are behind a paywall.

Bigger churches tend to have midweek services, like on Wednesday, Friday, and Saturday nights, to supplement the Sunday morning services, or accommodate people who couldn’t make ’em. One large church in my area put them behind a paywall too. Now they hold regular conferences: One of their pastors, or some visiting speaker, picks a topic, speaks two evenings plus Sunday morning, and the church charges $50 or more for the evening meetings. For some speakers, this (plus pushing their books) is their bread and butter. Content varies. Some of it’s actually good. Others are clearly winging it, and quote scripture out of context more often than not.

When churches first got wired for sound equipment, a lot of ’em included a tape deck, recorded the sermons, and sold ’em for a nominal fee. Maybe $1 to $3 per message, and they even splurged for a high-speed tape copier to keep up with all the requests. Nowadays churches just make MP3s of the sermons and stick ’em on their websites for free download. But some of them have decided these sermons are valuable resources, so it’s no longer a nominal fee: It’s at least $5 per recording, although a common trend is to bundle ’em into a full sermon series, which’ll run $20 or more.

Mission trips, which can be expensive enough as it is, often have a couple hundred dollars tacked onto their price. Sometimes because people wanna include a luxurious mini-vacation as part of their trip, which is fine if you have the money and time, but I don’t. But more and more often it’s because the people who are running the trip consider this an educational experience, with themselves as our teachers—and they included a class, maybe a workbook, and expect to be paid for their instructional time.

Some churches actually charge interns for their jobs. You remember what an internship is supposed to be, right?—free labor in exchange for experience or college credit? But various churches wanna throw some classes onto the program, then charge the interns for taking their classes. I once got roped into teaching one of those classes. I spent it teaching on simony. The pastor was not happy with me. You’ll soon see why.

All this money-making behavior is a growing cancer in the American church, and I’m starting to see some of it repeated in other countries’ churches. That’s why we need to object to it now, and loudly. The church and its ministries need to be funded by the regular offerings, not extra fees. Because the church needs to minister to everyone, not solely those who can afford it.

The history of simony.

The word simony comes from Simon, a Samaritan magician turned Christian. Tradition named him Simon Magus, and he kinda became a supervillain in early Christian fanfiction. But in real life, he was a new believer who at one time exhibited a serious lapse of judgment.

Acts 8.17-24 KWL
17 Then the apostles laid their hands on the Samaritans and they received the Holy Spirit.
18 Simon, seeing the Spirit was given because the apostles laid their hands on people,
brought them valuables, 19 saying, “Give me this ability too!
Thus when I lay hands on anyone, they can receive the Holy Spirit!”
20 Peter told him, “Your silver and you can go to Apollyon and hell.
You think you obtain God’s gift through valuables!
21 No part nor lot in this word is for you: Your mind isn’t straight before God.
22 So turn away from this evil of yours and beg the Master forgiveness.
If so, he’ll forgive you the intent of your mind—
23 I see there’s bitter gall, a link to wrongness, in you.”
24 In reply Simon said, “Beg forgiveness for me to the Master,
so nothing comes upon me like you’ve said.”

See, before the Christians showed up, Simon used to be a big deal; his tricks would amaze people, and they’d think it was God’s power. Ac 8.9-11 When Philip brought the gospel to town, along with God’s real power, it was Simon’s turn to be amazed Ac 8.13 —but as Peter realized, Simon was also bitter about having his thunder stolen. He didn’t merely want to grant people the Holy Spirit. He wanted to become a big deal again.

This is often why money gets mixed up in Christianity. People wanna buy access to God, instead of achieving it in an appropriate manner, in God’s appropriate timing. Or people wanna sell access to God—and make themselves a tidy little profit while they’re at it. Both these things are simony.

I’ve been told it’s not really simony unless the motive is greed. I was told this by a pastor who wanted to justify charging the people in his bible studies for their books:

He. “I’m not trying to make a profit. I’m only covering expenses. Books cost money.”
Me. “Yes they do. But whose expense is it?”
He. “What d’you mean?”
Me. “Who’s left holding the check if nobody buys a book?”
He. “Well me, I suppose.”
Me. “You’re not willing to donate the books out of the goodness of your heart?”
He. [blanches] “I can’t afford to.”
Me. “Not even if you sell your Blackberry?”
He. [scoffs] “I’m not gonna sell my Blackberry…”
Me. “There’s the greed.”

The Protestant movement was triggered by simony. In the early 1500s, the Roman Catholic Church sold indulgences as a fundraiser. An indulgence is formal, official forgiveness: If you sinned, you could be forgiven the usual way, by coming to Jesus in repentance, but custom was to do a few good works to prove this repentance. The Catholics had a shortcut for the good works: Get an indulgence. And back in medieval times you could buy an indulgence. People were buying ’em for their dead relatives, to get ’em out of purgatory; that’s a longer explanation which I won’t get into. The whole point of Martin Luther’s 95 Theses was his objection to this simoniac practice: Why was the church selling forgiveness instead of granting it free, like God does?

Well, because the church had expenses.

This has regularly been churches’ rationalization for charging tuition, charging for books, charging for conferences, charging for every little thing: We have expenses. Ministry costs money. And yes it does; of course it does! But it’s not meant to be financed by the very people you’re ministering to. It’s to be financed by those whom God has blessed with resources, by longtime believers who are paying it forward. Newbies shouldn’t be obligated to pay to grow. We’re Christians, not Scientologists.

Matthew 10.7-9 KWL
7 “Preach as you go, saying this: ‘Heaven’s kingdom has come near!’
8 Serve the weak. Raise the dead. Cleanse the leprous. Throw out demons.
You received it free. Give it free.
9 Don’t accept gold, silver, or bronze into your moneybelts.”

A lot of translations mangle verse 9 into “Do not get any gold or silver or copper to take with you in your belts,” Mt 10.9 NIV as if Jesus is speaking of his students taking money along, and he doesn’t want ’em to because he wants them to live off the land. That may be, but it misses the point. Jesus means he doesn’t want his apostles to accept donations. Pharisee faith healers were notorious for accepting money in gratitude, and even some Jews today expect a tip every time they bless you. That’s precisely what Jesus does not want his kids doing. Ktísisthe means “you could acquire for yourselves”—and this, Jesus forbade. They weren’t to preach the gospel for money. They were to stay with respectable people, Mt 10.11-13 not wealthy people. Money corrupts, 1Ti 6.10 and it’s not what Jesus wants his ministers to pursue. “You received it free. Give it free.” Mt 10.8

But the fact is, churches practice simony because they are pursuing money. Their people aren’t financially supporting them. And rather than confess their poverty, and cut staff, ministries, and resources down to levels which are commensurate with their budgets—and thus risk losing their people (who weren’t really giving to their churches anyway!)—the churches have decided to tax their people. With fees.

Sowing the seeds of bitterness.

The unintended consequences of simony? Oh, there are several.

First of all, the poor leave.

Or they don’t. But they can’t afford to participate in anything beyond Sunday mornings. So they don’t. If you ever wondered why so many people never come to weekday functions, figure out if there are any hidden costs in those weekday functions. Like books, or fees, or childcare. That’d be why. (Now, get rid of those hidden costs and watch the people show up.)

Secondly, everybody else—the wealthy, who may not necessarily be rich but certainly have the wherewithal to afford your church’s lifestyle—grow weary. ’Cause they’re never asked to contribute; they’re just expected to. It gradually begins to gnaw at them how they’re being nickel-and-dimed in every single church function. Gotta buy this, gotta pay for that; everything has a price tag, visible or hidden.

If they’re already Mammon-worshipers to any degree, it really accelerates the process: They quickly get tired of how the church charges them for every little thing. They want a church who isn’t so money-fixated. So they go looking for it.

Even if they’re not Mammonists, all the subtle little comparisons with the rest of the world will bug ’em in much the same way. Like how your church bookstore charges way more for stuff than Walmart or Amazon, even though the staff’s all volunteer. Or how your church coffeehouse charges way more for lattés than Starbucks—and of course the service isn’t as good, the coffee’s not as good, the pastries are obviously from Costco….

Even if this hasn’t frosted ’em, just wait till they spend $100 on a two-night conference, and the speaker shows up, blames the Holy Spirit for his lack of notes, teaches something worthless, and just makes it crystal clear that $100 was an utter waste.

You know what some Christians do when this happens? Try to get their money back. Not by asking for a refund: By taking stuff from the church till they figure they’ve got their money’s worth. If they’d ordinarily throw in a donation, now they won’t ’cause the church owes ’em. If they’d ordinarily consider it stealing, now they don’t ’cause the church owes ’em. Since they’re not really keeping tabs on how much they’ve taken—and since they’re developing the habit of taking from their church instead of giving—in the long run it’s gonna cost the church way more than that original $100. Hundreds more.

Stingy leadership? Stingy church.

Fight simony!

Most churches are generous. Even poor churches are generous. They don’t suffer from this problem. Yours may not, and that’s awesome. Mine doesn’t. But I used to go to a church that did, and I still have friends and family members in such churches.

So what can we do to oppose simony? Lots of things.

Be an “angel.” Keep your eyes peeled for any needy people in your church. “Adopt” them, so to speak: Take care of them. If they can’t afford a book, a meal, a retreat, or whatever, pay their way.

If it makes either you or them feel weird about it, do it anonymously, like Jesus recommends. Mt 6.3-4 They’ll wind up thanking God instead of you—and that’s exactly right.

Speak up! When a bible study requires everybody to buy a book, corner the group leader about it, like I did: Why can’t the church cover this cost, for the sake of those people who wanna be in this group but can’t afford books?

If there’s no money in the budget—hey, it happens—there’s still a very simple way to deal with the problem. Get up during the Sunday morning service and say, “We’d like to cover the cost of books for people who can’t afford them. If you feel led to donate something for their sake, make a note on your offering.” Then watch plenty enough money show up in the offering. (If it doesn’t, your church is probably too far gone, but more often you’re gonna be pleasantly surprised.)

Boycott conferences which overcharge. If any conference’s admission fee is greater than what you should be weekly contributing to your church, it costs too much.

No, there are no exceptions to that rule. I don’t care how badly you wanna hear that speaker, or how famous they are: It costs too much. It’s beyond your budget. If you can find some generous person to pay your way, fine; but you shouldn’t pay for it.

Thing is, if you find this rule applies to most of the Christians you know, the conference is horribly overpriced. Not only shouldn’t you go, you should probably lead a boycott on top of it. The conference organizers are blatantly practicing simony. Don’t finance their misbehavior. For that matter, you might wanna question everything they teach, considering this huge blind spot.

Besides, their books or DVDs likely cost way less.

Spend tuition only on college courses. If it counts as continuing education; if it includes transferrable college units; maybe if it’s tax-deductible (though not always). Incidentally, this advice applies to anybody who wants you to take a class, both inside and outside the church. Lotta scam artists in both places.

If you get ripped off: Don’t take it out on the church by not donating, or by swiping stuff. Don’t be evil. Return good for evil.

How? Well, you know that information you paid for? Make a point of giving it away. To everybody you can. For free. Hey, they should’ve given it away for free; you’re just making things right.

I remind you there are such things as copyright laws, so don’t upload their videos to YouTube, nor copy chapters of their books and stick ’em on the internet. But you can summarize all their main points in your own words, and post ’em anywhere and everywhere. Undercut the simoniacs’ business.

If you’re in charge: Find any way possible to eliminate or minimize fees and hidden costs.

If your bible study requires a textbook, get the church to pay for them. Or ask for donations, or buy them yourself. Or use free books which people can download from the internet. Or try not to require any book but the bible.

If you’re having a conference, fund it with offerings. If you’re having a luncheon, make it a potluck. (If you’re sick of mayonnaise-based potluck dishes, ban them!) If you’re hosting a retreat, a vacation bible school, anything which could cost a bundle, start holding fundraiser after fundraiser. The women of my church hold dozens, trying to make it so every woman in the church can attend their events—and therefore nearly every woman does.

Even if you’re holding a fundraiser, have some low-cost options for those people who can’t give all that much, but wanna give something. Quarters add up.

And don’t forget to provide childcare!

In general, live a lifestyle of generosity, and never stop reminding the people of your church to remember the needy. They’ll get the hint. When the Holy Spirit’s involved, generosity is far more contagious than stinginess.