Monday, April 17, 2017

Christian Research Institute President Hank Hanegraaff Goes Eastern Orthodox

It's time to revisit a topic I only write about once every few years. So if unless you're interested in the inside politics of Christian ministries, this entry probably won't interest you. However, I'm getting hits for some of the old entries dealing with the Christian Research Institute (CRI) and the President thereof, Hank Hanegraaff, because of some recent events.

Here's the gist of what has happened. CRI has been a Protestant ministry since it was founded in 1960. The three main branches of Christianity, as you may know, have been Roman Catholicism, Eastern Orthodox ("Orthodox Catholic Church"), and Protestantism. The split between Roman Catholicism and Eastern Orthodox goes back to 1054, to what your history textbooks would call The Great Schism. Protestantism, as distinct from Roman Catholicism, can be said to have split in 1517. Dr. Walter Martin founded CRI in 1960, and then Hanegraaff took over after Martin's passing in 1989. As of Palm Sunday this year (2017), Hanegraaff is officially and publicly a member of an Eastern Orthodox Church, so he can no longer be called a Protestant.

The thing is, not only is Hanegraaff President of CRI, but he's the public face of the ministry, hosting the Bible Answer Man program (which I haven't listened to regularly for a few years now), signing the letters and e-mails sent by the organization, and the organization sells his books, which he constantly mentions on the Bible Answer Man program. I find it important to note that books sold through CRI fund CRI. It isn't like when he plugs his books and notes they can be bought through CRI he's getting the money directly. However, he does get a very big salary (if I recall correctly, it's like over $400,000 per year) from CRI.

There are people in all three branches who say the other two branches are valid forms of Christianity, though having some errors in their teaching/practices. This appears to be the approach CRI has taken as a Protestant organization. However, there are also people in all three branches who say the other two branches are false churches, even to the point of saying their faithful adherents are lost.

Either way, it is a big deal that the President of a ministry that has been Protestant since it was founded 57 years ago is no longer Protestant.
Now, of course, anyone who is EO has to be happy about this. I'm not here to say EO is not the best faith tradition. But Protestantism is different, right?

Not too long ago, the Senior Pastor of the church I attend, who hadn't been there all that long and, from what I could tell, was doing a great job, made what seemed to be an abrupt announcement that he wasn't the person to lead that particular church for the next couple of decades, and he resigned. Having checked out some of his material since he left, my guess is that he had problems with the priorities and attitudes of the church and thought he could accomplish his ministry goals better elsewhere. (And no, as Senior Pastor, he did not have the power to redirect the church, at least not significantly.) He did the right thing by stepping down, even though a lot of people were bummed out about it and it meant the church would have to undertake another search for a Senior Pastor.

That paragraph directly above is relevant because I do think that man did the right thing by stepping down, even though I really liked his preaching. From where I'm sitting, I think the right thing for Hanegraaff to do is step aside. While it has to be tempting for him to say he's going to stay and CRI is going to be about "mere Christianity" and avoid what divides Eastern Orthodoxy from Protestantism, this diminishes what the ministry does. CRI has traditionally pointed out the differences between Protestantism and the other two main branches of Christendom, defending Protestantism while not declaring the other branches as apostate or heretical. Already, CRI has taken down from its website some of its analysis of Eastern Orthodoxy.

I have never, ever said before that Hanegraaff should step aside. There are many people who've said so over the years, for various reasons, but I have given him the benefit of the doubt. Ethically, though, CRI was built as a Protestant ministry and should be lead by Protestants. So it is time for him to go.

"Hold on a minute!" I know some people are saying. "When Hanegraaff counseled the leadership of the Worldwide Church of God towards evangelical Christianity, were you OK with their leadership staying in place?" Yes I was. Maybe it was because I was never a member or follower of the WWCOG (I do know people who were, though), whereas I used to be a regular financial supporter of CRI. Most importantly, though, my bias is that the WWCOG was previously concentrating on erroneous doctrine as some of their main foundation, and it was good for the organization to move towards Evangelicalism. Maybe you're in the EOC and you feel the same way I did about the WWCOG and so you think Hanagraaff should stay at CRI and make it an EOC-based ministry. I get where you are coming from. I disagree that it's the same thing, though, because I can accept that both Protestantism and Eastern Orthodoxy can both be considered within mainstream Christianity whereas the old WWCOG couldn't. I don't think that in this case this is a salvation issue, just an ethical one about how Christian ministries are run. Notice, though, that the leadership of the WWCOG at the time acknowledged that what was going on was a major shift, and many other "COG" groups formed as a result. If most of CRI's contributors and customers are Protestant, what happens now?

The way I see it, Hanegraaff should either (A) move on from CRI, or (B) admit that he's going to take CRI in a new, different direction:

A) Moving on from CRI: Hanegraaff is at the age where he might want to consider retiring altogether. He'd have more time for golf. A potential problem with this option is if Hanegraaff has turned CRI into little more than The Hank Hanegraaff Ministry. There was a time when the organization had several significant authors on-staff. I don't think that is the case any more. Hanegraaff moved the ministry from the west coast to the east coast and there were a lot of changes over the years. Has anyone been groomed to take over the ministry? At the heart of the ministry, over the years at least, has been 1) research; 2) the Christian Research Journal (which has been Elliot Miller's wheelhouse, from what I could tell); 3) inviting and answering questions, whether through the Journal or the Bible Answer Man or correspondence.

B) Proclaim a new direction for CRI: Admit CRI is going to be an apologetics ministry for "mere Christianity and Eastern Orthodoxy" because I don't see how the second part can be avoided with Hanegraaff at the helm. It would be really, really great if CRI handed over some stuff to Walter Martin Ministries and, perhaps, some other ministries lead by people who used to work under/with Martin. I'm talking about files, recordings, certain intellectual property, maybe even the CRI name itself. If I recall/understand correctly, the WWCOG was forced to hand over some of Herbert W. Armstrong's stuff to at least one other organization that was sticking with his views.

Well, that's what I have to say on this matter for now. I did want to throw in that I keep seeing CRI referred to as a "countercult" ministry. That was more so the case in the early years, especially since Martin had written The Kingdom of the Cults and other books specifically analyzing and countering cults. But calling today's CRI a countercult ministry is like calling Subway and Italian food restaurant. Yeah, Subway has Italian bread and a couple of Italian sandwiches, but most of what CRI focuses on these days is not countercult work. It is an apologetics and discernment ministry that addresses everything from bioethics to eschatology to evolution to media fads. I'm not saying CRI shouldn't do these things, I'm just saying that most of their focus these days is not on countercult work.

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