Orange County’s “Bible Answer Man"--whose radio show, heard on 125 stations nationwide, has long been a thorn in the flesh of televangelists--is facing a new battle, criticism from within his nonprofit organization.
Relatives of the late Walter Martin, founder of the Rancho Santa Margarita-based Christian Research Institute, contend that Hank Hanegraaff has departed from the organization’s mission of debunking unusual religious claims. They are demanding his resignation.
Hanegraaff, 50, was Martin’s handpicked successor when the founder retired in 1979. But in recent years, Martin family members have expressed concern about Hanegraaff’s leadership.
After a public rift with Hanegraaff in 1996, Darlene Martin, widow of Walter Martin, resigned from the institute’s board. Last October, the family sent Hanegraaff a letter detailing objections to his leadership.
“He’s not the man we believed him to be,” said Jill Martin Rische, Martin’s eldest daughter and executor of his estate. “We just want someone in charge who will continue the clear vision my father had for CRI.”
That vision, to be a leading think tank with a focus on evangelizing, has floundered, according to Rische, 42, who lives in St. Paul, Minn.
Instead, she claims, Hanegraaff has used the nonprofit CRI as a platform to sell his books and promote his two for-profit organizations. She also said Hanegraaff hasn’t returned some of her father’s personal belongings and claims he has mismanaged personnel at CRI.
Hanegraaff says the family’s claims are unfounded and that CRI’s mission has not changed since he took over in 1979.
“The basic concept has always been to equip people with the truth, so when a counterfeit looms on the horizon they know how to recognize it,” he said.
Hanegraaff also rejected the Martins’ claim that he uses the radio show to boost his royalty income. He said conditions of the organization’s membership in the national Evangelical Council for Fiscal Accountability bars him from receiving royalties from sale of books or tapes through CRI.
He acknowledged that he receives royalties from books sold in bookstores but said that radio listeners inspired to buy his books are more likely to get them directly from CRI. And in any case, he asked, “If I write books, why shouldn’t I get royalties?”
Hanegraaff contends that he’s paid a reasonable salary--$147,500 in the last fiscal year, the latest Christian Research Institute tax return shows. CRI took in nearly $7 million in the fiscal year ending June 30, 1999, its latest tax return shows. More than $6 million of that came in donations, with the balance from sales of merchandise.
As for papers or tapes that belonged to Martin, they have been returned, according to Elliot Miller, editor-in-chief of the Christian Research Journal and spokesman for CRI. However, he said, they are still unpacking things from a recent move, and if they come across any other possessions of Walter Martin’s, those will be returned to the family.
Miller said the family’s concern about Hanegraaff’s management stems from concerns expressed to the family by people who were loyal to Martin or felt that Hanegraaff was too young when he was appointed. He added that some of the unhappy employees were laid off but received generous compensations. After that, Miller said, an orchestrated attempt to discredit Hanegraaff was launched.
“Some of the people left with a very bad taste in their mouth,” Miller said.
But Kurt Van Gorden, now mission director for Jude 3 Missions in Victorville, Calif., says the concern is greater than one of money or loyalty to Martin. Van Gorden was one of those former employees who was there in 1979 when the mantle of leadership moved from Martin to Hanegraaff.
Van Gorden said he’s been very disheartened by Hanegraaff’s direction and his public scuffles with leading religious broadcasters.
“CRI today is going in a different direction than its original purpose,” Van Gorden said. “I wish that CRI or the Bible Answer Man program would do less attacking of Christians and more examination and evangelization of the cults.”
But Hanegraaff maintains that his mission--while spreading the Christian message--is indeed to debunk what he calls myths commonly held by charismatic Christians, including tales of people speaking in tongues and of tooth fillings miraculously turning to gold. Hanegraaff, whose show is aired in more than 125 cities in the United States and Canada, operates from a huge Rancho Santa Margarita office with wooden bookcases, big windows, leather couches and paintings of serene golf scenes.
His golf bag leans by his door, ready for a quick round. Hanegraaff lives in the gated community of Coto de Caza but says his salary is stretched thin by his eight children.
Hanegraaff said his focus hasn’t wavered from his predecessor’s and cites his 1997 book “Counterfeit Revival” as an example of his continued effort to evangelize and expose Christian hypocrisy. He said he considers criticism of charismatics to be just as important in today’s society.
Shifting Away From Scripture
Sitting in his plush studio, Hanegraaff pages through his dog-eared bible and explains to listeners about what he sees as Christianity’s shift from an age of teaching Scripture to an age of experiential pandering.
He has been an outspoken critic of the Trinity Broadcasting Network in Costa Mesa and the Benny Hinn ministries, now with an Aliso Viejo office, both of which he describes as organizations that “drag Christ’s name through the mud.”
“People either love Hank or hate him,” said Brandt Gustavson, president of the National Religious Broadcasters. “There’s hardly any in between.”
Indeed, Hanegraaff has amassed critics beyond the Martin family during his two decades on the airwaves. Local televangelists such as Hinn dismiss him as a reactionary.
“The kind of conduct [Hanegraaff] is suggesting isn’t in the scope of the Benny Hinn that I know,” said Hinn spokesman David Brokaw of Los Angeles.
But there are also strong Hanegraaff supporters.
“He’s the watchdog who keeps religious broadcasters on their toes,” said Stephen Winzenburg, communications scholar at Grand View College in Des Moines, Iowa, who has studied religious broadcasters for 20 years. “He wants to publicly point out the inconsistencies of religious broadcasters.”
Hanegraaff was extremely critical of the recent hysteria surrounding the millennium and outright dismissed the preachers who hawked hysterical apocalyptic visions of the turn of the century.
“If Christians aren’t credible with current events, then how can they be relied on to speak credibly about events that happened 2,000 years ago, like the resurrection of Christ?” said Hanegraaff.
Winzenburg applauds Hanegraaff’s role in the Christian community: “You don’t have fellow Christians keeping their leaders accountable,” he said.
Hanegraaff even had a hand in the Pasadena-based Worldwide Church of God’s conversion to mainstream evangelical Christianity in 1994 after meeting with leaders to implore them to return to a Biblically based interpretation of Christianity.
But a lack of accountability from Hanegraaff is exactly the problem, according to the Martin family.
“The Bible Answer Man needs to set a positive example for Biblical accountability,” said Rische. “This is not the case with Hank Hanegraaff, and CRI is better off without the negative notoriety Hank generates.”
But officials at CRI say Hanegraaff is doggedly continuing the work of Walter Martin.
“I believe that Hank not only has the boldness and vision that I so respected in Walter Martin,” Miller said. “But he also has the leadership and business skills to make Martin’s vision a reality, which he’s been doing over the past 11 years.”