In the early 1990’s when my employment with CRI was terminated, I was a member of the Reformed Episcopal church. One of my other church members was Jerry Kistler, who also had been fired from CRI for similar reasons as I was though sometime earlier. Jerry remained Reformed and so obviously we have our theological differences, but I have never known Jerry to be anything less than an honest standup guy. Given our common experiences with “para-church” organizations we used to joke that there was a little known variant reading in the Latino-Syrio-Aramaic of Matthew 16:18 where Jesus is reported to have uttered,
“Upon this para-rock, I will build my para-church.”
Comical though it is, it is a good summation of the attitude widely expressed in at least popular Protestant circles. Para-church organizations are said to work alongside of the church, helping it carry out its mission. Para-church organizations can do things that the local pastor simply can’t do. They can pool resources and information to “equip” the local pastor to do his job more effectively. That is of course the sell. I learned by experience that this simply was not the case.
The Money Changers of the Apologia
Para-church organizations are essentially businesses. The fact that they are 501c3 non-profit organizations really doesn’t change that. They are businesses that sell a product even if the content of that product is religious in nature. And because they are businesses they aim at turning a profit with the products that they “sell.” Sometimes they do not technically “sell” items. Rather they ask for a “donation.” There is a very good reason why they will call it that. Current tax law requires that any sales be taxed and the income reported if I am not mistaken. (Jehovah’s Witnesses learned this the hard way when they used to charge for their publications without giving Caesar his due.) Para-church organizations get around paying the taxes by simply asking for a donation. It also allows them to increase their profits.
So suppose they have a $15 book they want you to buy. So they announce it on the radio as this weeks “radio offer” or some such designation. And for a donation of $25 they will send you the book. The magic word “donation” gets them out of paying a tax on the transaction. It also renders the entire amount “donated” free and clear. In this way such organizations skirt taxes but also increase their profits. This is not to say it is illegal for them to do so but it is rather absurd. Given the ubiquity of Amazon and other on-line retailers, the same books and such can be had and for a far lower price than the “suggested donation” offered by a given organization.
It is true that often people want to make a donation in such circumstances but such practices blur the lines in the minds of many. Most people think that the book or other item simply costs $25. What they don’t know is that if they called up and simply asked for the given item without making “donation” the organization must give them the item for free. This is because the organization is simply asking for a donation. They cannot require it be paid because then it would not be a donation, but a price and prices are taxable. Furthermore, the “suggested donation” practice smacks of legerdemain and so should be beyond what a supposed Christian organization does. It would simply be far better to sell the item at a fair price and if someone wants to make a donation, they can do so. This is just one of many tricks “para-church” organizations utilize.
Another problem with these organizations is that they are autonomous. This stands to reason if you think about it because they are after all, just businesses. A group of people get together and form an organization for whatever reason, select a board, etc., and they are off and running. It is a bit more complicated than that, but in sum, that is what it amounts to. Anyone can be on the board and the board can be as large or as small as they like. And of course, anyone on the board can make as much money as the organization likes. (Hanegraaff is a perfect example. Just look at the 990 form from 2014 where Hank’s wife is on the board making about 167k) So having a board really doesn’t mean much, unless some outside organization over which the subject organization has no control picks the board members and sets their salaries. Both board members and the top dogs can make as much as they like with no oversight and no accountability and without the information being widely known by the public. Organizations like ECFA (Evangelical Council for Financial Accountability) are simply rubber stamps for a few basic reasons. The first is that ECFA receives their funding from the organizations they oversee, which gives them a vested interest in giving slaps on the wrist at worst. Second, ECFA members can drop out and then rejoin without any publicity. Hanagraaff pulled this a number of years ago for example to apparently get around specific financial acts that probably would not have been possible had CRI been under ECFA. But he kept the ECFA seal on all of the outgoing mail for years, giving donors the impression that there was financial accountability, when there wasn’t. CRI then quietly rejoined ECFA when they got nailed by another set of whistleblowers I believe in 2003 but without notifying their donors in a public statement. ECFA has no teeth.
Para-church organizations are also pretty much autonomous from any given ecclesiastical association. This gives them a number of advantages. First, they can broaden their potential pool of consumers. If they have no distinct theological and ecclesiastical allegiance, they have a wider base to sell their wares to. This is the reason Hanegraaff (among others) is selling the “Mere Christianity” line, as if there was some agreed list of essentials all the traditions agree on. (We do not even agree on the canon of scripture for example, which he ironically includes as an essential in his new doctrinal statement.) Second, if they aren’t under any ecclesiastical control, they are free to say and do whatever they like. Without ecclesiastical oversight, CEO’s, board members, etc. and such can make as much money as they like with no accountability whatsoever. This doesn’t imply that ecclesial accountability is foolproof. It certainly isn’t as if the Orthodox don’t have their fair share of financial scandals. But some degree of ecclesial accountability not only makes it more difficult, and more to the point it is entirely appropriate that there be some ecclesial oversight. In this way, para-church organizations are simply outside the church, which is a nicer way of saying that they aren’t the church in any meaningful sense but are rather parasitic upon it.
This highlights the fact that the very possibility of such organizations is built off either a Protestant ecclesiology or some tweaking of it. Classically speaking, the invisible church for the Reformers constituted the elect known only to God (as opposed to the ancient gloss of those who had died in the faith). The church is therefore wherever the elect are and are so gathered with the trouble being knowing who those happen to be or if you are in that number. True visible churches were composed of mixtures of elect and non-elect, which could be discerned to be true visible churches given specific behaviors (rightly interpreting the Word, rightly administering the Sacraments, etc., which of course is all dependent on the judgement of the elect.) This gets somewhat tweaked or rather dumbed down in popular evangelicalism to a rather nebulous notion of the church is everywhere in general but nowhere in particular. The church is just out there. In practice the church can be just about anything you want it to be. Consequently “para-church” ministries count as “the church” doing “ministry.” It is under this gaseous and vague cloak that “para-church” organizations generally operate, especially those who are involved in discernment and apologetics. No one seems to question it…ever.
Added to this is the fact that these organizations either start out as or morph into personality cults of sorts. They are structured around a given personality, who if they didn’t start out as a megalomaniac or narcissist usually ends up being one. A good rule of thumb here is to look at how many smiling pictures of the head of the organization exist on their literature or web page. Likewise, the amount of times or the number of places the top dog’s name appears on items, to the exclusion of anyone else, is also a sign of megalomania. (Here I am just using Hanegraaff as an example because it is one I know well, but there is no shortage of examples in other organizations.) So the BAM show call in number is 888-ASK-HANK. Then there is “Hank Unplugged”, Hank’s Daily E-Truth, Hank Speaks Out, Ask Hank, etc. It is worthwhile to note that some of these used to be designated by the organization’s name (CRI Speaks Out, etc.) rather than Hank personally. All of this for a guy who has far less education (and experience) than your typical Lutheran pastor, or Catholic or Orthodox priest.
Typically, when the top dog dies, the personality cult folds. This happens in a number of ways. There can be infighting over, shocking as this may seem, money or real estate. Such is the case it seems with the death of Chuck Smith and the on-going demise of Calvary Chapel. Other personality cults die a different slow death. Something in the market changes or they become old news, and then they can no longer compete. The “ministry” limps along for some time until it collapses. It is possible that the top dog can try to cash out by selling it off but this rarely happens for a few reasons. The first is that such businesses usually have little in the way of valuable assets to sell. Hanegraaff for example has about half the employees (about 20 now), that were there when I was there (over 40 then). The organization is consequently much “thinner” than it was and there is therefore much less to sell for that reason alone (there is also much less to cut too). Presumably they have rented office space, computers, desks and such but none of that is really valuable. There are all the documents and the name, but much of that is already on the internet for free. CRI produces very little if any in house proprietary material now so far as I can tell. It is difficult to do when Hank practically eliminates the research staff. There are the book rights but frankly there are only books under Hanegraaff’s name and those are all pretty much popular stuff. (I suppose it is difficult to find real academics to ghost write high level material for you to perpetuate the fraud that you actually have some expertise and competence.) The market has moved on and will continue to do so. He claims to have a book on theosis or deification coming, but I’d consider saying a Novena keep that from happening. Come quickly Lord Jesus!
Another problem with “para-church” organizations, especially in apologetics is that they tend to provide low level material for popular consumption. There is nothing wrong with that per se, but the demands of the market are such that they have to maintain that level of discourse in order to sell enough material to stay afloat or rather fund a millionaire lifestyle of their top dog. It is not as if they provide classes to move people out of popular literature into more sophisticated materials. If they did so, people would eventually not need them anymore since they would be able to find their way around a university library and find answers for themselves. So these organizations really have to keep things at a basic level. And this is why people with even an undergraduate degree in a relevant field generally do not utilize them or take them seriously. Frankly, If you are interested in church history, philosophy, biblical criticism, and such you’re better off with an Oxford Press catalog and Amazon Prime.
Two other problems require attention before I move on to something actually constructive. (Yes, I actually do write something positive from time to time. It isn’t all Grumpodoxy all the time ya know.) The current state of apologetic “para-church” organizations seems to have changed in the last decade without anyone as far as I know taking much notice. Two things seemed to have happened. It used to be mainly more mom & pop type smaller organizations with a few larger ones which tended to be actual think tanks. Now things seem to have been streamlined in a way that there are a few celebrity type “ministries” who are the big names who ride the circuit with some token up and comers tagging along for the ride. Everything seems to have been very much commodified and fits a pre-packaged formula.
The second thing that has happened is that a de facto Good Ole Boys network has been established. Everyone is on everyone else’s’ show, promotes each other’s works, etc. And on top of this, nary a word negative is really said about any of the other people’s views and such. They have each other’s fiscal backs as it were. Just look around at the usual suspects when Hanegraaff was outed by a picture posted on Facebook back in April. Some of them still slam Catholicism but when Hank’s conversion comes into the conversation, they do an Irish jig so as to not say anything too negative. (There is a bit of a back story to this that will come out in future posts.) To be sure the more Calvinistic heads exploded, but hey, they’re Calvinists. It is what happens every time someone venerates an icon. But for the most part, many of the usual suspects gave Hanegraaff a very big pass-Craig, Koukl, et al.. Do you think it might have something to do with the fact that CRI sells their books or that they appear on the BAM show? Naw, couldn’t be. As I said, they are businesses and nothing more.
One of the other pieces of evidence to consider is the fact that you have a major apologetic figure who traverses the globe doing well publicized debates with various atheists and other critics of Christianity while promoting major Christological heresy condemned by Protestantism, Catholicism and Orthodoxy and not a single one of these apologetic “ministries” has said a word about it for nearly twenty years. Why is it OK to designate the Jehovah’s Witnesses as heretics when they deny the Incarnation but it is not OK to do so when William Lane Craig does so? And again, why is it that Craig has been openly and unapologetically been promoting the Christological heresies of Apollinarianism and Monothelitism for nearly twenty years and none of these so called apologetic “ministries” has said so much as “Boo!” Am I the only one that thinks that is rather strange? What we have here is a Good Ole Boy network.
The last major problem with these entities is that rather than actually helping local churches, they actually harm them in a number of ways. The first way is that people divert funds away from their local churches into these businesses. And to be fair, most local clergy, especially in more traditional churches are not rich. They don’t live in a 3 million dollar mansion with a walk out golf course like Hank does. Many churches struggle to just get by and I know this is true for many Orthodox clergy and parishes in the US. We do not need something else to divert funds away from our parishes.
Secondly, they divert esteem, for lack of a better word, away from the local clergy and place it on to the para-church celebrity. There is some truth to the claim that these organizations can do what a given local clergy can do and that ends up being a problem for the latter. How is the local clergy supposed to compete for the hearts and minds of his parishioners, people who are actually under his spiritual care, in opposition to Mr. Celebrity? It is simple. He can’t. Added to this is that these businesses perpetuate the idea of a free floating kind of X-Files Christianity which is just “out there” somewhere that they magically just tap into. In this way they decentralize Christian communities and render them more unstable.
All of these and other problems come with the “para-church” model. And it is frankly distressing to see both Orthodox and for what it is worth, Catholics mimicking this popular evangelical model when it comes to apologetics. They are adopting the same commodification and standardizing formulaic approach that only serves to treat apologetics as a business, where the end goal is to sell materials and promote a set of itinerant speakers, with the attending cruises and such.
There is I think a better way to disseminate apologetic information within Christian communities. And such a way has a pre-existing biblical and traditional office to utilize. In Orthodox churches the deaconate has unfortunately become something of a stepping stone to the presbyterate. But this was not always so. There was a time when the deaconate was quite distinct in the life of the Church and also I might add quite powerful. Deacons served as the direct hand of a given bishop and had no small amount of authority and responsibilities. With all the talk of reviving the order of Deaconesses (note I said deaconesses and not “female deacons”), there is little to no discussion that I know of actually revitalizing the order of deacons. (If we are going to have segregated liturgies again, baptize women in the nude and have segregated teaching, I am all for having deaconesses who, following the councils must be past menopause or be widows, in order to accomplish those tasks for women. No takers?) This is not to say that we do not have deacons, but rather we should revive the diaconate to its rightful operation as a distinct order with all of the appropriate powers and responsibilities, and this can be done both within Orthodoxy and without.
Now it is no great secret that a great many of the people who are involved in apologetics in all of its various stripes are young men. Part of the problem they face is that few places actually offer degrees in apologetics. I am not saying Orthodox seminaries should begin constructing a distinct program for apologetics, though I would not be opposed to such a thing per se. I think good undergraduate training in philosophy for example will do just fine with the appropriate seminary education. Now I am not suggesting that we take sixteen year old Youtubers and make them deacons. I believe deacons should be a bit older, college educated and such. That said though, there are sufficient number of young men who might consider a ministerial vocation as a permanent deacon if it involved doing apologetics for their church. To be sure, being a deacon would not be limited to such a thing, but that fact only helps to make anyone who does apologetics and carries out parish or diocesan (or in a presbytery for Presbyterians) education in apologetics all the more likely to be well rounded and to know his people.
So restoring the diaconate to a more robust teaching position would be the first part of what I suggest. The second part is frankly stolen from the LCMS. The LCMS has for some time, to my knowledge operated its own in-house apologetic arm. They do their own research and issue their own statements, fact sheets, booklets and such. I am not aware of how extensive this may or may not be, but this seems exactly right, so kudos to the LCMS for at least making an effort and setting a good example. (See, I said something nice about some heterodox people.)
The benefits here should be obvious though. If there were a centralized office that produced materials for a given denomination, there would surely be some degree of oversight. There would have to be a review process and such, but this is all for the good. A review process means that a given church would have to make an effort to have qualified persons produce and review the material. Second, the benefit to a given church members would abound. First, people would know what perspective the literature was coming from right off the bat. I know for example when I pick up LCMS literature that I am going to get a Lutheran perspective. This serves the purpose of full disclosure. Second, local clergy then wouldn’t be set in competition with some guy on the radio with a “ministry.” Rather the materials produced would only help to amplify and aid the local clergy of their given parish. What is more, the funds wouldn’t be going to some organization that is feeding off the given church to support some radio personality pay for his mansion and his country club dues, but to the church itself. And of course there would actually be a place in various traditions for people to not only do apologetics, but actually to equip people to go out and use it. This could also only benefit youth programs in actually preparing them to survive college as Christians.
So I suggest coupling a centralized department in a given ecclesial structure with making apologetics part of the diaconate and delegating more educational responsibilities to permanent deacons and this of course includes paying them a decent wage, lest one starve the Ox while he is treading grain. Lightening the load of priests or other clergy by shifting it to permanent deacons I am sure would be a welcome change in most cases. In this way, the problems that “para-church” organizations pose could be eliminated or diminished. Besides, the diaconate is actually biblical and has a strong footprint in church tradition. Para-church organiztions, well, they are just dust in the wind.