Hank Hanegraaff's Switch to Eastern Orthodoxy, Why People Make Such Changes, and Four Ways Evangelicals Might Respond
This past Sunday, the “Bible Answer Man” Hank Hanegraaff was welcomed into the Greek Orthodox Church. For a man who has built a valuable ministry on clear answers, this has sparked some questions within the evangelical community.
Now, I don’t know Hanegraaff, though I have benefited from his ministry at times. And I don’t know his motivations or concerns—though we get a glimpse of his reasons in the Christianity Today article on his change.
However, I have given thought over the years to the tendency of some to convert to Orthodoxy (for reasons that will become clear in a moment). Not all will fit the descriptions I give, and Hanegraaff may not, but perhaps it might give some context to Hanegraaff’s decision and to how evangelicals might respond.
Of course, I’m not giving every reason for every person, and this (already too long) article was started yesterday afternoon. Also, I’m not seeking to weigh in on all the complexities of Orthodox theology, but let me share a few observations that may be of help as evangelicals think through the issue.
The Rise of (Modern) Orthodoxy
The ortho in Orthodox literally means ‘straight way.’
The Eastern Orthodox Church (and other traditions like it) draws a line from antiquity to today and sees itself as the pen. Rod Dreher states, “Many evangelicals seek the early church; well here it is, in Orthodoxy.” Orthodoxy considers itself the early church in the 21st century, holding to ancient traditions and practices and a specific ecclesiological structure that matches what we see in the first few hundred years of Christianity.
There is an attempt to bring this straight line of originality into modernity. In 1987, Peter E. Gillquist led 17 parishes—representing over 2,000 people—to join the Antiochian Orthodox Christian Church in one day. His book, Becoming Orthodox, is a key book to understand the impulse.
Frank Schaeffer, son of renowned theologian Francis Schaeffer, also joined the Orthodox Church in the late 1980s. (Ironically, Frank has significantly strayed from Orthodox beliefs since then.)
There are many public examples like this, but I actually have a deeply personal connection to this conversation about the movement towards the Orthodox Church. My stepfather is an Eastern Orthodox priest in the Antiochian tradition. He and my mother both converted out of an Episcopal church that was both charismatic and evangelical, into the same group that Gillquist joined. (And, yes, I’ve read his book at their invitation.)
The obvious question is what draws evangelicals to more liturgical traditions—and why?
For people in some of those traditions, the answer is clear to them—they have found the true (or at least truer) church.
However, I think there are other factors at work, including the reality that many evangelicals struggle with the simplicity of evangelicalism, its lack of historic rooting, and more.
The Intellectual Evangelical’s Struggle with the Simplicity of Evangelicalism
I’ve observed a pattern with some of the most intellectual of evangelicals.
Among other things, some have a tendency to seek more traditional forms of ecclesiology. We find this here in my new neighborhood. Both at Christianity Today and at Wheaton College we have a disproportionate number of highly-educated evangelicals and so we see a higher percentage of people moving to such movements as Anglicanism, often as a result of genuine frustrations and much thought.
These theologically-interested believers often grow weary of two things: a lack of liturgy that ties us to our past and, for some (particularly those prone toward Orthodoxy and Catholicism), the need for a source of authoritative truth that is lacking in evangelicalism.
The first tendency is to fill in the gaps with formalized liturgy as a connection to the early church. I understand the impulse, even though I don’t experience it like many others do. For example, the first question in my interview for my faculty position at Wheaton College was, “Do you ever miss the liturgy of the Episcopal Church?” My answer was and still is, “Not really.”
It’s not that I don’t find participating in such worship meaningful. I do. But it does not have the draw to me that it has to many, perhaps because I grew up Catholic and came to Christ in the Episcopal Church. (I hope this won’t get me uninvited to the Anglican Church in North America annual meeting!) I’m a low church evangelical, and don’t feel the draw to liturgy that some do.
While I don’t experience the draw towards a more traditional liturgy, I greatly appreciate the rich tradition and love to worship with my liturgical friends. Actually, I recently preached in the Episcopal Diocese of Central Florida at the Cathedral Church of St. Luke, whose evangelical bishop was my pastor as a teenager—and I was thankful for the beauty of the liturgy and the clear proclamation of the gospel in the preparation of the Eucharist. (Bishop Brewer was a Southern Baptist seminarian who became an Episcopalian. I was an Episcopal college student who became a Baptist. We were two ships that passed in the ecclesiological night—and both for theological reasons.)
Yet many more intellectually-inclined evangelicals often struggle with the simplicity of evangelicalism. As a missiologist, my approach is, perhaps, simpler still—the ideas I (and many missiologists) advocate teach that the “how” of some parts of worship are shaped by the who, when, and where of culture.
This idea is almost offensive to some, and some who reject those ideas go down other, narrower, older paths. As such, moving to these traditions for liturgy that ties to the practices and expressions of the early church does make sense. In many ways, they find exactly what they are looking for.
The Early Church Form
The early church was indeed more focused on the Eucharist and was more liturgical in structure, nature, and expression. There are things we can learn from that today, but we have to also acknowledge that much of what we see was, indeed, cultural. As a missiologist, I’m not drawn into early Christian cultural forms and am concerned that some are equating them with eternal truth.
The question I want to answer: Are we looking for the right things? Do we want to model with exactitude the cultural form of the early church? Is that the ultimate value?
To be fair to those who embrace such approaches, some see the liturgical forms as part of what is mentioned in Jude 3, “The faith that was delivered to the saints once for all.” In other words, this is not tradition, with a lower case t, but rather part of the big-T Tradition that was passed on and intended to be normative two thousand years later.
But this liturgical connection is part of a larger desire to connect with a Christianity that is more rooted in history—something more than the church started when the electric guitar came into the sanctuary. So, to them, it’s not just missing liturgy, it is missing history.
The second tendency is the need for truth, which may explain not just the embrace of liturgy, which you could find in an evangelical Anglican, Lutheran, or even independent church, but the embrace of Orthodoxy and Catholicism.
Hank Hanegraaff has certainly been committed to biblical truth, and he has built a valuable ministry by advocating and expounding on scripture, and standing up the shoulders of others who did the same—like Walter Martin.
Yet, the evangelical bent towards Western individualism has opened the door to an ‘every Bible for itself’ mentality where, combined with the digital age, rogue armchair theologians can be equipped with major influence without proper ecclesiological accountability. It’s a bit of a “me version” world of Bible translation. Lacking a central definition and protection of truth can cause (and has caused) much of evangelicalism’s problems.
In Catholicism and Eastern Orthodoxy, that is not typically the case. In these church structures, there are tighter reigns on vetting truth and defining orthodox beliefs. Some see the Church organizationally as a means to preserve biblical truth from the changing tides of cultural waves.
In fact, we see many evangelical converts to Catholicism cite this protection of truth as one of the major factors of their decision, like former president of the Evangelical Theological Society, Francis Beckwith. Beckwith converted to Catholicism (and reluctantly resigned from ETS). Christianity Today interviewed him back in 2007 and he stated:
Evangelicals kid themselves when they believe that they can re-invent the wheel with every generation, that you have to produce another spate of systematic theology textbooks to teach people the stuff that has already been articulated for generations.
Figurative language abounds for those who make such transitions. Beckwith ‘swam the Tiber.’ The Tiber River surrounds the city of Rome, and this phrase is used to describe a recent convert to Catholicism. The Eastern Orthodox Church’s most senior leader is the Ecumenical Patriarch of Constantinople. Since the Bosporus Strait is located there, Hanegraaff would be so described as ‘swimming the Bosporus.’ Those who become Anglican ‘walk the Canterbury Trail.’
We see others have jumped in to swim and have found the waters are choppy.
People are drawn to these traditions for good reasons. Low church approaches have problems that we need to be willing to address. But I see many conversions to such traditions as a search for the denominational grail. People are trying to find the way back to the practices of the early church, and all claim to have the roadmap to get there.
It is a common thing for denominations to trace themselves back to the earliest models of church. Baptists did this through the trail of blood and baptismal practices. The Restoration Movement (which includes Churches of Christ) values restoring the New Testament church. Some Anglicans and Lutherans attempt to trace their roots through apostolic succession. The Eastern Orthodox Church traces their Patriarch of Constantinople to the Apostle Andrew. In reality, no one has it completely right and all such attempts have issues.
Furthermore, I don’t think we evangelicals need to, quoting Beckwith, “re-invent the wheel with every generation.” Although I can’t address them all here, there are other options besides elevating sacred tradition above its appropriate level.
However, some are under the impression that this impulse has led to a trend. It has not. It’s a small movement out of evangelicalism, though it seems large when you are in the receiving movement. For example, a few years ago, I asked the attendees at the Anglican 1000 to raise their hands if they were Evangelicals before they joined this movement— about 2/3 in that room responded.
However, and this is important to note, statistically, we see far more people are converting OUT of liturgical traditions than are coming TO them. There is really only one major trend now in American Protestantism: to large, non-denominational contemporary churches. (I am not saying that is all good, but it is the trend.) Everything else is more of a counter trend that may look big in your church or denomination if you are a recipient of the counter trend, but it does not show up statistically in the whole.
The numbers do not say if it is right or wrong—a lot of people can still be wrong. However, it’s important to note that “young adults are moving away from contemporary church to liturgical worship / Catholicism / Orthodoxy” is simply incorrect. Some are, but far more are not.
Yet there is a subset of evangelicals that are attracted to traditional liturgical church forms, but they are in the minority, with some searching for the denominational grail that their current context does not have. Higher profile individuals like Hank Hanegraaff certainly give attention to the discussion, and it’s a discussion worth having, but it’s a subset, not a trend.
However, it’s still important to think how we should best respond.
I suggest four ways to respond to this news:
Acknowledge we see through a glass darkly.
We do not see all that God is doing in the world, and we certainly don’t determine who is or isn’t a follower of Jesus. Hank Hanegraaff certainly hasn’t ceased to be a Christian (as some have said) any more than my parents have. Not that my opinion matters most, but I, for one, will continue to listen to him, even though I think the move to Orthodoxy is unhelpful for someone who has been the “Bible answer man.”
Though I think there are better answers for “the Bible answer man” then converting to Orthodoxy, I still can acknowledge that my own tradition needs to be reevaluated in light of scripture and, yes, the practices of the early church. During such times, it’s worth considering (and hearing why) Hanegraaff made such a move (along with Rod Dreher, Michael Hyatt, Frederica Mathews-Green, John Mark Reynolds, and many others). I can, and should, learn from their journey, though I may not take the same road.
Don’t normalize cultural church forms.
I’m not moving toward Eastern Orthodoxy, so let me add why. For one, I think the tendency towards (big-O) Orthodoxy and its liturgy is missiologically unhealthy, not just theologically problematic. Many segments of Orthodoxy take Hellenistic (or other) cultural forms, consider them normative to today’s context, and apply them as the “true” or “authentic” way.
That’s not helpful and it actually hinders the advance of the gospel, which in part explains why American Orthodoxy has far more converts from evangelicalism than it does from secularism.
Don’t import, export.
A better approach than importing and normalizing cultural church forms is one that is built on Sola Scriptura. In the way of Jesus, and walking in the Spirit, I believe we need to go back to scripture for each and every generation of Christians and ask, “What would it look like to live out this timeless scriptural faith in this time and in this place?”
This, then, exports the truth of scripture to our modern context.
Perhaps the 500th anniversary of the Reformation is a good time to remember the value of Sola Fide, Sola Gratia, Solo Christo, and Soli Deo Gloria as signposts for our unique expression of the gospel that goes deeper than tradition. In fact, it brings us to principles which are expressed in different cultural languages using different cultural methods.
(And it is worth remembering that the solas are biblical truths restated, not cultural truths discovered 500 years ago.)
Stay with the message.
We want to lovingly and graciously acknowledge that others will follow Hanegraaff and swim the Tiber or swim the Bosporus, but ultimately we are reminded that evangelicalism is a movement based on scripture sought to be lived out in a context. I believe Hanegraaff has walked in a place that is unhelpful and undermines his lifelong ministry of pointing people to the truth.
However, so have my parents, and I love them.
So have others whom many of us read and find helpful.
So, to those who’ve made such moves, I’d say what I say to my parents. (I imagine they’d actually agree, though we’d apply this in different ways.)
I’d say the simple words that undergird evangelicalism: Let’s follow Jesus, keep sharing the simple gospel, focus on the Bible, and think like missionaries in order to translate that truth to our modern context.
Ed Stetzer holds the Billy Graham Distinguished Chair of Church, Mission, and Evangelism at Wheaton College, is Executive Director of the Billy Graham Center for Evangelism, and publishes church leadership resources through Mission Group.