The New Simonists
Today, we look at mega churches from a philosophical standpoint…footnotes included.
The practice of simony is alive in today’s church, particularly among independent, non- denominational churches with minimal accountability structures. The media is filled with various reports of abuse, control tactics and in some circumstances, misuse of church funds to further the platform and influence of the senior pastor. We have mistakenly given great authority to anointing regardless of character, resulting in church leadership practices that I refer to as the New Simony. Dante described our current ecclesiastical environment in his condemnation of Pope Nicholas III for his “avarice that brings grief upon the world, crushing the good, and exalting the depraved”.
Simony is defined as the purchasing of ecclesiastical office for the purpose of personal gain and furthers one’s influence. R. Kent Hughes correctly described Simony as “spiritual power in order to promote himself, preaching to gain recognition or status, or serving with an eye to advancement in the church’s power structure”.
Today’s trend to develop large mega churches, meeting in several locations, even in different states, looks suspiciously familiar to Hughes’ description. What drives the desire for such massive expansion under a single church’s supervision? Are these churches growing through evangelism, or by means of transfer growth from other churches? Expansion is contextualized publically as a way of “reaching as many people as we can”, yet such aggressive ambition resembles what Aristotle described as deviations away from the common good of the people and “toward a private advantage’.
Ed Stetzer, an advocate and defender of mega churches, cited that “about 44% of new members at mega-churches are from other local churches”, a number that he admitted is too high. Considering that these churches have thousands in attendance, that is a considerable amount of people who have transferred. In sharp contrast, the National Congregations Study (2006-2007) found that the median church attendance is 75 people. Based on these statistics, each 1,000 attendees at a mega church can conceivable empty out six churches of medium attendance. Like a huge forest fire that creates its own weather patterns, the prolific nature of megachurches create various possibilities of temptation due to an ethos of expansion, even at the expense of other churches. Transfer growth is not much different than the rationale of Socrates’ feverish city in taking their neighbor’s land in order to feed their ever growing appetites. The mission of the pastor’s vision of expansion becomes the central focus.
In the circle of pastors, it is rather unpopular to question the motives and ethics of our colleagues, particularly pastors whose ministries are widely known. We live in an ecclesiastical culture that equates size with success and it is appropriate to acknowledge such good works. They have large crowds for some valid reasons. Pastors of large churches are frequently given the opportunity to further expand their platform through various speaking engagements at other churches and conferences. Their vast exposure creates credibility which attracts publishers who are eager to tap into their marketability. It must be recognized that not all megachurch pastors began their work with the intention of creating a mass audience to address each week. But the current ethos of evangelicalism encourages such growth, and we measure our fruitfulness by the size of the church. A successful environment, began with good intentions can easily conceal the temptation of our souls to stray from virtue and become vicious. The church continues to operate well, while the pastor like Samson, did not know the Lord had departed from him (Judges 16:20).
Compounding the issue is that many megachurch pastors operate within an independent, autonomous, monarchial ecclesiastical structure. It is a short distance from a monarchy who seeks the good of the people, to any deviation that turns toward a self-serving gesture and creates a tyranny. What begins as a desire for the common good, can deviate into becoming a means for one’s private advantage. There is the understanding in these churches that the pastor is the one whom God speaks to regarding the direction and “vision” of the church. As a pastor, I think there is some truth to that ideal. However, are they hearing and implementing the leading of the Holy Spirit for our churches, or are they simply being “carried away by the pleasure” of fulfilling their own dreams and self-promotion? At what point is this no longer about the gospel and reaching people but rather an expression of greed? The church develops an unhealthy environment when the pastor is exalted by those around him as one who is super-virtuous, or as Aristotle described, “one as a god among men”. When this atmosphere has taken hold, people respond to the pastor in ways that are unhealthy and can inadvertently feed his flesh. This is where the enemy of our souls seeks to exploit any deficiency of character that begins “as incontinent in respect of their temper, their ambition and their greed for gain”. If left unchecked and un-repented of, incontinence grows toward the excess of heart and actions that rejects virtue and embraces vice. Unrepentant sin continues its destructive course. The modern day Simonist is attracted to such magnitude, but only as a means to express his own self-indulgence. He is not capable of handling such an environment without virtue of soul.
I am not suggesting that each and every mega-church pastor is or even has the potential to be a modern day Simonist. The context and structure of evangelicalism as it pertains to most megachurches, can bring great reward, but with it great temptation to exceed a virtuous life.
The danger in this is twofold. There is a danger to the flock that feeds on not only the weekly message but also the sub culture that is fueled by the pastor’s personality and vision. People not only learn biblical concepts, but they catch the state of character that is being modeled by their pastor. These are the keys by which people live their lives. Most people place a great amount of trust in their pastor and will acquiesce to whatever standard he upholds. They may be well taught in the scriptures, but if the application is not conveyed through a life of godly virtue, the flock will likely be deficient in submitting to God in areas that need to be transformed. Virtues, along with necessary the humility, are drowned out when the message is preached with an excess of high ambitions that projects a vain imagine. You cannot segregate the teaching of God’s word into a vacuum of virtue, while the example that is lived in front of a congregation is laden with vice.
Secondly, there is a danger to the soul of one who pastors such large flocks. The tyrant inadvertently builds a false world where he is flattered and appeased, rather than engage in honest communication. He loses his sense of reality and resides in a world of isolation. This produces a myopic perspective that is prone to spiritually abusing his subordinates, and congregation, including his family members.
In final analysis, the question becomes about who is able to rule?  Not all opportunities that present themselves are doors opened by God. God leads us along the path of virtuous, godly living, any deviation from that is not of Him. Education in areas such as ethics, justice, Aristotle’s doctrine of the mean (virtue vs. vice) , undergirded by biblical studies are “the most just claim”  for those who would lead. A good leader needs to understand that virtue entails our “emotional reactions, choices, values, desires, perceptions, attitudes, interests, expectations and sensibilities”.  Socrates recognized that the aim of education is the study of good, drawing the soul to an understanding of God. Accountability structures are needed, particularly in large churches where the bulk of attendees have little contact or knowledge of the daily operations and infrastructure. These are imperative in safeguarding the heart of a pastor so that he can walk ethically and in godly virtue, and thereby fulfill his ministry well.
 Tracy, Kate, Mars Hill Defends How Mark Driscoll’s ‘Real Marriage’ Became a Bestseller. [ posted 3/7/2014 10:15PM ] http://www.christianitytoday.com/gleanings/2014/march/did-mark-driscoll-real-marriage-earn-nyt-bestseller-status-.html , access April 4, 2014
 Dante, The Divine Comedy Volume I: Inferno, IXX, 103-105.
 Hughes, R. K. (1996). Acts: the church afire (p. 114). Wheaton, IL: Crossway Books.
 Aristotle, The Politics, III ,vii.
 Ed Stetzer, Debunking Megachurch Myths: Especially the One About Sheep Swapping , Feb 22, 2013, Christianity Today. http://www.christianitytoday.com/edstetzer/2013/february/debunking-megachurch-myths-especially-one-about-sheep.html, accessed April 5, 2014.
 National Congregations Study, http://www.soc.duke.edu/natcong/wave_2.html, accessed April 6, 2014.
 Plato, The Republic, II, 373d
 Aristotle, The Politics III, vii
 Aristotle, Ethics VII, vii.
 Aristotle, The Politics III, xiii
 Aristotle, Ethics, VII, i
 Aristotle, The Politics, III, xiii.
 Aristotle, The Nicomachean Ethics, II
 Aristotle, The Politics, III, xiii.
 Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy, Virtue Ethics, rev. Mar 8, 2012, http://stanford.library.usyd.edu.au/entries/ethics-virtue/ , accessed April 5, 2014.
 Plato, The Republic, VII, 521b-d.