Controversy and questions have dogged Hendrik "Hank" Hanegraaff since at least 1989, when he announced, at funeral services for Christian Research Institute founder Walter R. Martin (who originated the "Bible Answer Man" radio program now hosted by Hanegraaff), that Martin had designated him as Martin's successor.
Martin's family later disputed that claim, as Jill Martin Rische, the late apologist's daughter, has documented on her own apologetics website.
People like to argue about the work of outspoken apologists. So it's no surprise that Hanegraaff's latest move -- from an unspecified evangelical Christian affiliation to being received as a member of the Orthodox Church -- would garner media attention and controversy. After his conversion into an ancient, non-Protestant branch of the Christian faith, Hanegraaff's radio program has lost a significant number of radio stations, The Charlotte Observer reports:
On Palm Sunday, [Hanegraaff] and wife Kathy and two of their 12 children were “chrismated,” or confirmed, at St. Nektarios Greek Orthodox Church in southeast Charlotte. During the sacramental rite, a priest anointed them with oil and invoked the Holy Spirit.
And then ...
A photo of the April ceremony started popping up on evangelical news sites. Within a week, the “Bible Answer Man” had lost many of his listeners.
His sin in their eyes: Converting to Eastern Orthodoxy, the world’s second largest Christian denomination and one steeped in rituals, icons and mysticism – aspects of faith that seem foreign to many evangelical Protestants. Instead of tradition, they look to the Bible as the only infallible guide and the final authority on matters of Christian faith and practice.
As the news about Hanegraaff spread on social media and the Internet, between 100 and 150 radio stations dropped his nationally syndicated show from their daily lineups.
“That picture of Hank kneeling before a Greek Orthodox priest -- that was hard for many evangelicals to see,” said Mike Carbone, chief operating officer at The Truth Network, which booted the “Bible Answer Man” show from six of its stations, including those in Charlotte and Raleigh. “Hank is as likable a guy as you’ll find, but we were not able to go where he was going.”
Of course, the Bible Answer Man is not kneeling before a priest, although priests are praying over these converts. He is kneeling before the altar of the church, with icons of Jesus Christ and the Holy Apostles.
Obviously, it's kind of ironic that Hanegraaff's shift to Orthodoxy comes in the year when evangelicals (and even the Vatican Post Office) are noting the 500th anniversary of Martin Luther's acts in Wittenberg, Germany, which launched the Protestant Reformation.
Even more ironic for many of the evangelicals who contributed $4.1 million to the group in 2014 (according to the group's IRS Form 990, filed in 2016), Hanegraaff is affiliating with a movement his organization's CRI Journal once described as problematic vis-a-vis evangelical Protestant beliefs.
It should also be noted, as seen in the video clip above, that Hanegraaff is confronting more than just criticism over his membership shift. He's dealing with a recent diagnosis of mantle cell lymphoma, which the Observer noted is "a rare cancer." The diagnosis came roughly three weeks after news of his conversion into the Orthodox Church became public.
There's yet another bit of irony connected to the story, and it comes from Hanegraaff's own characterization of today's evangelical culture:
Like his listeners, Hanegraaff had long identified himself as an evangelical Christian.
But a few years ago, he found himself growing disillusioned with evangelicalism, with its megachurches, its star pastors and its devotion to branding.
“We live in an age of ‘pastor-preneur,’ where the pastor is the entrepreneur,” Hanegraaff said. “And the church has become consumerist. Instead of Christ being the end, Christ becomes the means to an end. Instead of people coming to the master’s table because of the love of the master, they come to the master’s table because of what is on the master’s table.”
It would have been nice to see a follow-up question such as, "You've written or edited 25 books, have a daily radio show aired nationally, and have for nearly 30 years positioned yourself as the 'Answer Man' when it comes to Scripture. Aren't you an 'entrepreneur' on the order of those you disdain?"
The question may have been asked, but if it was, neither the question nor any response made it into the story.
In just under 2.100 words, the Observer gives a pretty full history of Hanegraaff's influence in evangelical circles, and of his relationship with CRI. But I did find some missing elements that might have made the story more complete.
Along with no discussion of the controversy surrounding Hanegraaff's accession to CRI leadership -- the Martin family website offers a lot of material about the emotional toll of that move on many longtime CRI employees -- there were other areas of controversy, well documented in the media, that might have been addressed.
* In 2003, several CRI employees, including Hanegraaff and his wife, Kathy, reimbursed CRI for monies the Evangelical Council for Financial Accountability (ECFA) said were improperly reimbursed. Christianity Today reported on the matter as ECFA labeling CRI's payments "naive" bookkeeping.
* In 2005, CRI sued William Alnor, a onetime contract employee of the group, for defamation after Alnor's blog raised questions about a CRI claim that donor mail intended for the group was somehow misdelivered by the U.S. Postal Service in Rancho Santa Margarita, California. The suit was later dismissed, according to the Martin website.
It would be foolish to say The Charlotte Observer doesn't "get" religion, especially given the nuances displayed in its discussion of Hanegraaff's conversion into Eastern Orthodoxy. However, I wish that within those 2,100 some tougher questions about his ministry and, well, ethics had been posed for a response from the "Bible Answer Man."
UPDATE: For those interested in an in-depth discussion of this whole Orthodox conversion topic, click here for an interview between Hanegraaff and the popular Eastern Orthodox writer Frederica Mathewes-Green (a close friend of our own tmatt).
FIRST IMAGE: The photo that circulated in social media, care of the St. Nektarios Greek Orthodox Church.