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Ex-members label GCI a coercive environment

Former members of Great Commission International (GCI) describe it as subtle, dangerous and destructive.

Larry Pile, a Wheaton College graduate now living in Ohio, was a GCI church member for 5½ years.

He joined the evangelical group in 1970 in Arizona. “I liked what I saw,” he said. “They seemed to have a lot of good spiritual traditions.”

But his years inside the church gave him a different perspective. “I left when I saw the handwriting on the wall, that it was becoming more and more authoritarian and more and more cult-like,” he said.

He and other former GCI members tell of church elders increasing control over such basic aspects of day-to-day living as dating, employment and education. 

■ DATING IS discouraged, Pile said. “You’re practically engaged by the time you have what you normally consider a date. I do know of cases where couples were actually broken up by the leadership.”

The taboo against dating persists, said another ex-member who left GCI in 1986. He said he once drew a reprimand from an elder for having pie and coffee at a restaurant with a female church member without first asking permission.

“Before you even approach a woman, you should be prepared to ask her to marry you right there,” he said of the prevailing church attitude. 

■ AT ONE time GCI members were discouraged from having jobs or going to school full time, ex-members said.

“We were encouraged to get part-time jobs,” said Pile, “so that we could give more time to the church.”

“Education was really frowned upon as a sort of frill,” he added. “You didn’t need a college education to serve the Lord.”

Opposition to full-time work and education has eased in recent years, ex-members acknowledge.

One ex-member said his pastor advised him to pursue a degree in computer science, because with computer skills he could find a job anywhere.

“It certainly didn’t fit my interests,” the ex-member said. 

■ THE CHURCH discourages questions and uses guilt to keep its members in line, former members said.

“They put this heavy guilt on you,” said Keesey Hayward of Wheaton, a GCI member from 1984 to 1986. “You don’t want to cause waves, and so you just go along with it.

“If an elder said something, it was really God speaking,” he said.

“Anyone questioning was wrong,” he said. “It’s a very subtle but extremely strong way of squelching.”

“I myself was cautioned about listening to anything negative about the group,” said another ex-member of GCI, now a Wheaton College senior. “Leave the room if you have to. Change the subject. Just don’t listen to it.”

A DAILY schedule of church activities left little time for outside activities, and members who missed a scheduled meeting or activity were made to feel guilty, ex-members said.

“It was a coercive environment,” one ex-member said. “The mindset and the environment demanded of me that I give my all.

“I wanted to,” he added. “I was so sold on the vision. I was ready to commit all of my reserves, my time, my money … even to the point of yielding my will to the elders.”

He also was taught that “you should be willing to die for your leader,” he said. “You should be that committed to him.”

Hayward stops short of calling GCI a cult.

But, he said, “This is something I’ll do anything to keep out of my neighborhood. This is not of God.”

— Frank Callahan

The Sunday Journal (Wheaton, IL edition), November 6th, 1988