Church group draws fire

The Record, Wheaton College, Illinois/December 2, 1988

Concern over the practices of a church network in which Wheaton students have been involved has prompted various significant reactions.

The college has fired a guest-lecturer deacon of the group's local church. Former members have spoken out, warning students to be careful. And the National Association of Evangelicals has begun an investigation of the organization.

Critics say the authoritarian control of the 60-church Great Commission International over its members is psychologically destructive.

"I wouldn't call it a cult. However, they manipulate and control people. There's a lot of deception going on, and that's cultic," said former member Larry Pile, '65, who rose to the position of deacon before leaving his Ohio church.

Experiencing the contrary, senior Kristin Helmer, who attended the national headquarter church in Silver Spring, Md. for a year, said, "I know from being in it that it wasn't a cult. It was a sound, evangelical church."

But during senior Wayne Losey's three-month involvement with another congregation in 1987, he observed "destructive effects" on his own personality and spiritual life, and on the lives of other members.

His friends who were in the group for several years "had a lot of problems because they're so used to letting others make their decisions for them."

Pile, who worked in the group for over five years, cited deception: "When we established our student group at Ohio State University, we enlisted students to be leaders, even though their leadership was in name only. The church continued to hold authority in the group."

Professor fired

Last month the 19-year-old national movement started a new parish in nearby Glendale Heights. Former biology guest lecturer Dr. Aaron Vigil helped plant this church, according to its co-pastor, Dan Goering.

The college terminated Vigil's employment three weeks into this semester because "the church organization of which Dr. Vigil is a member and for which he was actively seeking to recruit Wheaton students is not in accord with the goals and educational aims of the college in either its polity or practices," according to a statement Dean Patricia Ward issued to the Record.

Ward explained that administrative policy prohibits proselytizing on campus. The faculty are "free to share their perspective, but not free to canvass students." She would not detail how Vigil violated guidelines, saying this is a sensitive personnel issue not totally resolved.

Ward said department chair Dr. Dorothy Chappell called 40-50 institutions before finding a replacement to teach Vigil's Comparative Anatomy class. But students have had to struggle through lab sessions without an instructor, according to senior Ernestine Julye.

"He was a good lab instructor. He knew his stuff well, and I was sorry to see him go," Julye said. Vigil did not proselytize in the classroom, according to senior Dean Volk, one of 23 students taking the course. Familiar with his housemate Losey's previous negative experience, Volk supports the college's action.

However, despite efforts by the department and lab assistants to make up for the lack of a lab instructor, seven out of eight people asked by the Record expressed frustration this week.

Vigil felt his termination was a "big mistake" but declined to comment further.

Many students interested

Pastor Goering explained that the new local affiliate of the national movement, Grace Community Church, called students to get "help in evangelizing an unchurched Glendale Heights. We were not trying to recruit anybody from Wheaton College."

He did not know exactly how many students his church had contacted, but the figure was over 100, he said.

"We had quite a number who indicated a great deal of interest, but we realized there were some things we should have talked through more with the administration," Goering said. "So we never really did follow through on it-at least we haven't as yet."

According to Goering, students called were among 22,000 reached in a telephone campaign directed at Glendale Heights, Carol Stream, Bloomingdale, Wheaton, and Glen Ellyn.

Junior John Schmalzbauer received a call. He said the caller was "very cordial" and did not pressure him. He invited Schmalzbauer to make Grace Community his home church, if he did not have one already.

"When I said that I already was going to a church regularly; he said, 'That's fine. We don't want to take you away from your church,' " Schmalzbauer recalled.

Arts and sciences dean Patricia Ward said that based on reports received about Great Commission, the administration feared students would have problems if they got involved.

Former members warn danger

Senior Wayne Losey said that though the group is sound theologically, it resembles various cults sociologically.

Alumnus Pile said the organization's enthusiastic call to evangelism, worship, prayer meetings, and personal devotions are "good things" that attract evangelicals.

"Wheaton College kids can be very susceptible to something like this. [Members] will present themselves as a really vibrant Christian organization that wants to return to the New Testament," he said. "You see the problems in the world and feel like you want to and can do something to change the world. Here comes a group that says you can," he explained.

Losey said members are sincere in their faith; the group's deviations are very subtle.

Assistant Chaplain Hutz Hertzberg referred the Record to one expert who asked not to be identified. This person counsels former members and questions several norms of the church: inordinate submission to elders, isolation from other Christians, and warnings not to listen to criticism of the church.

Members are mostly born-again but unaware of negative mental and emotional effects those norms may have, the counselor said.

On the issue of submission, alumnus Pile said, "We were taking on the same characteristics personality-wise. We were all told to do the same things, live the same lifestyles, emulate our leaders, even the way they dress."

In fact, senior Wayne Losey said that members let elders make financial, job, ministry, and even mundane decisions for them.

For example, Pile, who did not fully submit, said, "My wife Linda was told that I wouldn't be a good mate because I wasn't a true disciple. So a month before the wedding, she called it off." They married after leaving church.

In contrast, senior Kristin Helmer said leaders in her church did not tell her what to do. "I saw it with some people who asked for [advice]." But she explained new Christians sought guidance from mature leaders to follow God's will, which they were unfamiliar with.

Losey explained the subtlety of control: "The GCI leaders are so built up to be godly and wise, you really want to be like them, so you end up taking their counsel as God's will."

He left the group after reading an article in Great Commission's Cause magazine by national leader Dennis Clark saying believers can rest, knowing "God will sovereignly lead my life, controlling and directing me as I yield my will to others'."

Wheaton graduate student Alice Hayward, whose husband was involved with the group, warned, "You lose... lifelines between the individual and God through Christ."

As a result, the secular Cult Awareness Network, based in Chicago, has called the organization a "shepherding cult," which uses control mechanisms to gradually take over members' lives, according to Executive Director Cynthia Kisser.

Pastor Goering defended the concept of shepherding as a biblical term. "It is the primary function of leadership. The pastor has a responsibility to help people grow," he said.

NAE suspends group

Steve Johnson of the Spiritual Counterfeits Project, to which both Christianity Today and the NAE referred the Record, said, "From their statement of faith, they appear to be doctrinally orthodox."

However, the Berkeley-based Christian organization has not studied the church enough to publish an official position, Johnson said.

Great Commission joined the National Association of Evangelicals in October 1987. After receiving complaints about the group from around the country, the NAE this past October postponed renewal of its membership and is currently investigating the charges, according to Executive Director Billy Melvin.

"We were not aware of some of the issues that have been raised since" the NAE granted membership last year, although background checks prior to acceptance are pretty extensive, according to Melvin.

The counselor of ex-members said the group uses NAE membership to gain legitimacy with Christians, but in practice it isolates itself from other Christian groups.

Wheaton graduate Pile recalled, "Some of the leaders did think I was wasting my time [reading Christianity Today]." They down-played traditional, mainline groups.

Senior Wayne Losey described the isolation as elitism. "They'll say other groups are doing a good work-Navigators, Campus Crusade,...-but they would refer to those as '30- or 40-fold' ministries, and their ministry as '100-fold.' " Losey joined, not wanting to devote his life to a "second-best" ministry.

Deserter labeled slanderer

Pile explained that elitism made leaving the group difficult. Members would feel as if they were leaving God. Thinking Great Commission was "the best," they would overlook its problems, he said.

Contributing to that tendency is the third area of defining criticism as slander, which church leaders have written about in the organization's magazine.

The counselor, who asked not to be named, did so because members of the church are instructed not to deal with those who say anything negative about the church.

The person would become off-limits to those considering getting counseling and leaving the group if the church found out the identity, the expert said.

As an example of this, Losey said a close friend of his, who spoke at his father's funeral, "Now thinks that I'm a slanderer," and warns others against Losey.

Leader denies charges

Defending Great Commission, national leader John Hopler said, "There's no doubt that there's been a few people who have had some isolated negative experiences. You'll find that in any church." But those experiences are unrepresentative, and many charges "unfounded."

Regarding the three areas discussed above, he said they are not teachings of the church and neither he, nor pastors he knows, hold those views.

Rather, those with bad experiences have "blanketed the whole church" in terms of aberrant instances.

He does not deny that some pastors may have come across a little "heavy-handed," and that misunderstanding of "individual" leaders has given some members the "sense" of elitism.

But "If somebody is lording it over in a church, that's wrong.... I wouldn't want that," he said.

Denying any teaching against slanderers, he said, "I don't think there could be such a thing as a slanderer of Great Commission.... It always comes down to spreading things that are false against an individual."

Hopler does not plan to investigate criticism systematically because, "It's not true." He invited disgruntled members to settle questions by going back to individual pastors and confronting biblically.

But Pile noted, "Hundreds of people have left GCI and confronted their leaders." The typical response has been, "It's your problem."

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