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The Sale of Religious Instruction Considered Simony

Jan 29, 2024 — Conley Owens

In the past, the church was often plagued with crooked deals for power and prestige. For a price, one could purchase ecclesiastical office, whether it be an episcopal see or some title of lesser rank. These were positions that came not only with power but with prebend, a regular stipend that was substantial and secure. For the shrewd and unscrupulous, the upfront investment was small compared to the payoff.

Reformers in the church fought against this practice and labeled it “simony” after Simon the magician.

When Simon saw that the Spirit was given through the laying on of the apostles’ hands, he offered them money. “Give me this power as well,” he said, “so that everyone on whom I lay my hands may receive the Holy Spirit.” (Acts 8:18-19)

This practice largely thrived during the post-Nicene era and throughout the Middle Ages. However, it exists today in a new form. Rather than restraining itself to backroom dealings, it happens in the open marketplace. Rather than being a matter of church office, it is a matter of the gospel itself.

Authors sell books on biblical topics at double digit markups. Gospel conferences charge in the hundreds to hear solid preaching. Seminaries raise tuition to tens of thousands, and aspiring ministers pay in the hopes of becoming refined by the Spirit for the work of ministry. Each of these activities may have some supposed justification: “People don’t value what doesn’t cost them anything!” “The worker is worthy of his wages!” “We have to cover costs!” (More on that last one in a moment.) But the fact remains that this is a matter of modern day simony, treating the things of God as commodities to be commercialized rather than as heavenly blessings to be offered graciously.

Of course, this label on the sale of religious instruction may not be readily accepted by many. Let’s consider several objections.

Objection 1: Simony Refers to Buying, not Selling

In Acts 8, Simon is guilty of attempting to purchase the gift of the Spirit. One might object that it is odd for the activity of selling to bear his name when he only attempted to buy.

But what was Simon’s root sin? Was it merely attempting to purchase the gift of the Spirit, or was it rather his judgment that the gift of God was purchasable? Peter makes it clear that it is the latter, a matter of the heart.

But Peter replied, “May your silver perish with you, because you thought you could buy the gift of God with money! You have no part or share in our ministry, because your heart is not right before God. Repent, therefore, of your wickedness, and pray to the Lord. Perhaps He will forgive you for the intent of your heart. For I see that you are poisoned by bitterness and captive to iniquity.” (Acts 8:20-23)

Those who attempt to sell the gift of God are guilty of the very same sin. They openly regard spiritual things as items that may be exchanged for money.

Moreover, the historical definition of simony extended to both buying and selling. Consider this definition from Peter Lombard, the prominent medieval theologian.

Properly speaking, simoniacs are those who, like Simon Magus, wish to put a price on a priceless grace; and those who, in the manner of Giezi receive money for some sacred ministry, ought to be called Giezites. And yet all, whether givers or receivers, are called simoniacs, and both are struck down by the same sentence.[1]

That is, theologians have historically grouped both the sin of Simon and the sin of Gehazi (Giezi) under the banner of “simony.” Gehazi was the servant of Elijah who accepted payment from Naaman for his miraculous healing (2 Kings 5:15-27).

Objection 2: Simony Refers to Ordinations, Not Other Religious Things

Ordination to church office involves the laying on of hands (1 Tim. 5:22). In biblical examples, we also see this associated with an impartation of the Spirit (Acts 8:18; 2 Tim. 1:6). While Protestants would generally (and correctly) regard this feature of laying on hands as reserved to the apostles, the assumption such a gift continues to be communicated by the laying on of hands led the purchase of ordinations in particular to be regarded as simony. Just as Simon tried to buy the gift of the Spirit through the laying on of hands, crooked men who had obtained their office illicitly were guilty of attempting the same.

However, it should be clear that the heart of Simon’s sin extends to more than just matters that involve the laying on of hands. Rather, the purchase or sale of any spiritual thing freely given by God constitutes a sin of like character. Indeed, throughout history, theologians who addressed simony agreed on this, regularly defining it as a desire to exchange spiritual things for material things. For example, John Hus defined Simony as “an evil consent to exchange of spiritual goods for nonspiritual.”[2] Expositing Gregory the Great, one of the first to campaign heavily against simony in the church, he summarizes,

… whenever anyone confers a spiritual gift improperly either himself or through another, either openly or covertly either in consideration of service, of material gift, or human favor, he thereby commits simony, contrary to the Scriptures and Christ’s command, “Freely have ye received, freely give.”[3]

Objection 3: Simony Refers to Spiritual Things, not Teaching

If simony is a desire to exchange spiritual things for material things, one might readily object that teaching hardly fits into the category of “spiritual things.” Just as one may learn about science or literature, become an expert, and then charge students to receive instruction, one could do the same with the Bible.

However, this view misses what the Bible says about the nature of teaching within the church. It is not a natural matter but a spiritual one.

We have not received the spirit of the world, but the Spirit who is from God, that we may understand what God has freely given us. And this is what we speak, not in words taught us by human wisdom, but in words taught by the Spirit, expressing spiritual truths in spiritual words. (1 Cor. 2:12-13)

Any minister who seeks to instruct others about the things of God should not be seeking to impart human wisdom, but words taught by the Spirit. That is, successful Christian teaching involves a work of the Spirit who is freely given. To charge for this would be discordant with the gracious gift of God (Matt. 10:8).

At this point, one may object on historical grounds, observing that past theologians did not regard the sale of religious instruction as simony. While it was not common for works on simony to even address the matter of teaching, we do have at least one example of a theologian who was hesitant to label the sale of religious instruction as simony. Wycliffe writes,

In the same manner as a teacher should exchange knowledge eagerly with his pupils, so a preacher or minister of the sacraments should eagerly exchange a spiritual service or benefit for a small temporal stipend. Therefore, there is no sin intrinsically in such an exchange,…[4]

A few aspects of Wycliffe’s argument should be considered before accepting it. First, in context, he uses Isaiah 55:1 as evidence that teaching could be bought because it encourages people to “come and buy without money.” Yet the call to buy without money indicates that the grace of God should not be purchased at all, not that it should be purchased for a modest fee. Second, Wycliffe implies that even baptism or communion (the sacraments themselves) could be bought and sold. Third, Wycliffe is operating without working distinctions that would account for the call to supply ministers without a reciprocal exchange.

This last point is crucial. Scripture makes the distinction between reciprocity and colabor. While Jesus says that ministers should freely give (Matt. 10:8), he commands that they be supported by kingdom citizens (Matt. 10:9-10). While John says that missionaries should not charge those to whom they are sent (3 John 7), he also says that they should be supported by fellow workers (3 John 8). Armed with this simple distinction, we are free to say that ministers should never charge for the work of ministry, though they should certainly expect God’s people to support the work, and even condition their continued labors on that continued support.

What we see in Wycliffe is not a denial of this assessment but his attempt to wrestle with the matter of ministry fundraising apart from this reciprocity/colabor distinction. This is by and large a product of his situation in the era in which he lived. As the sale of ordinations ran rampant, he offers deep thoughts and distinctions on the matter. As the commercial sale of teaching was not a similarly common issue, he settles for a minimal accounting on the matter. We live in an era where the commercial sale of teaching is far more common; therefore, we are called to a greater clarity.

However, others working with similar definitions as Wycliffe came to the conclusion that the sale of teaching is indeed simony. The famous Counter-Reformation theologian Leonardo Lessius attempted to follow medieval definitions of simony to their logical conclusions. Albert Barnes—the famous Presbyterian Bible commentator—quotes him approvingly with the following translation:

It is Simony to teach and preach the doctrine of Christ and His Gospel, or to give answers to quiet the conscience, for money. For the immediate object of these two acts, is the calling forth of faith, hope, charity, penitence, and other supernatural acts, and the reception of the consolation of the Holy Spirit; and this is, among Christians, their only value. Whence they are accounted things sacred and supernatural; for their immediate end is to things supernatural; and they are done by man, as he is an instrument of the Holy Spirit.[5]

Objection 4: Simony Refers to Immaterial Things, Not Material Things

In the introduction to this article, I gave the examples of book prices, conference tickets, and seminary tuition. Each one of these has a material aspect: books are printed with paper and ink, and conferences along with brick-and-mortar seminaries require facilities. Should not ministers be able to charge for these things?

First, it should be evident that ministries engaged in this practice rarely limit their fees to material things. Digital editions of books are typically offered at prices which do not reflect the ease of distribution. Conferences and seminaries typically charge in order to pay the ministers involved, not merely cover facility fees.

While it may be appropriate to charge for food at a conference or housing at a seminary, often charging for such material things is a proxy for charging for spiritual things. Aquinas is representative of medieval theologians when he asserts that Scripture forbids not only the sale of spiritual things but also the sale of material things that are annexed to spiritual things.

A thing may be annexed to spiritual things […] as being dependent on spiritual things. […] such things can by no means exist apart from spiritual things. Consequently it is altogether unlawful to sell such things, because the sale thereof implies the sale of things spiritual.[6]

To “annex” one thing to another is to attach it in such a way that the other cannot be independently obtained. For example, if you require someone purchase a physical certificate in order to be baptized, you have annexed that certificate to baptism.

The Gratian Decretals, canon law which extensively addressed this sin of simony, similarly record the following:

Not only those who receive spiritual things, but also those who receive temporal things attached to them at a price, are judged to be simoniacs. Hence Malachi, speaking in the person of the Lord: “Who is there among you,” he said, “who will shut the doors and burn my altar for nothing? I have no will among you, says the Lord of hosts, and I will not accept a gift from your hand.” To shut the doors is not a sacred office of the officiating, but only an accessory to it.[7]

When one refuses to share his teaching unless someone purchases a physical book, he has annexed a spiritual thing to a material thing. The same applies to facility fees. Pew rents were quite common in western churches for nearly two hundred years. One could argue that they were not selling anything spiritual, only space on a bench. Yet today, we would look back and recognize this clearly as annexing a material thing to a spiritual thing and wrongly charging for the word of God.

Objection 5: Simony Implicates the Buyer

It may seem that this argument proves too much. If one has committed simony by accepting payment for religious instruction, then one also necessarily commits simony by purchasing it. Do we really want to argue that it is wrong for Christians to buy theology books, attend gospel conferences, pay seminary tuition, etc.?

Actually, this is not the logical conclusion of what has been argued here at all; it is a non-sequitur. While it is simony to consider spiritual things to be matters of commerce, those who engage in that commerce for lack of an alternative do not necessarily condone or espouse this line of thought. If something that should be given freely is withheld, those who use money in order to acquire it are clear from guilt. Consider Aquinas’s explanation of a circumstance where it would be right to purchase ordination to office.

It would be simoniacal to buy off the opposition of one’s rivals, before acquiring the right to a bishopric or any dignity or prebend, by election, appointment or presentation, since this would be to use money as a means of obtaining a spiritual thing. But it is lawful to use money as a means of removing unjust opposition, after one has already acquired that right.[8]

As an example, people should not be bought and sold; to engage in the purchase or sale of humans is immoral. Yet, if someone were kidnapped and held hostage, none would hold guilty a family member who pays the ransom. Now, depending on the circumstances, we might determine it unwise to pay the ransom. Perhaps it would confirm the criminal in his behavior and lead him to kidnap again. Regardless, the one who chooses to pay remains innocent of the charge of human trafficking.

The same may be said for those who buy religious instruction. There are times when it is wise to avoid such purchases in order to discourage this industry that commercializes God’s word. However, the one who buys teaching wrongly withheld from him is innocent of simony.

Conclusion

Though primarily a modern problem that takes a different shape than the sale of ordinations, the sale of religious instruction is rightly labeled simony. As such, it should be readily condemned. The contemporary church is saturated with this particular sin, but God is merciful to all who repent.

Then Simon answered, “Pray to the Lord for me, so that nothing you have said may happen to me.” (Acts 8:24)

The gospel has been given freely and should therefore be freely given. The same is true for all revelation that has been handed down from on high. To give such things freely is not a burden, but a wonderful privilege!

What then is my reward? That in preaching the gospel I may offer it free of charge, and so not use up my rights in preaching it. (1 Cor. 9:18)


  1. Lombard, Peter. Sentences, 4.25.2 ↩︎

  2. Hus, John. On Simony, 2. ↩︎

  3. Ibid. ↩︎

  4. Wycliffe, John. On Simony, 2. ↩︎

  5. Barnes, Albert. Micah 3:11, translating Lessius, Leonardus. De Justitius et Jure, 2.35.13. ↩︎

  6. Aquinas, Thomas. Summa Theologiae, 2.2.100.4. ↩︎

  7. Decretum Gratiani, Causa 1, Question 3. ↩︎

  8. Aquinas, Thomas. Summa Theologiae, 2.2.100.2. ↩︎

Conley Owens

Author of The Dorean Principle MDiv

Conley is a software engineer, a pastor at Silicon Valley Reformed Baptist Church, and a father of eight kids. He is also the author of The Dorean Principle: A Biblical Response to the Commercialization of Christianity.

I began exploring issues with licensing back in college, and over time I witnessed the substantial friction it created in ministry. I was convicted regarding the harm commercial practices cause the church, but for a long time, I was never sure if the Bible had much to say directly about the matter. It turns out it does!