Silver Spring Fundamentalists: Church Or "Cult"?

The Montgomery County Sentinel/February 6, 1986

Jean Liverman, 22, of Rockville says that for several months she was under the control of a locally-based fundamentalist Christian group, the Great Commission International.

The group made decisions for her, she says, telling her who she could date and where she could live. The pressure she felt to conform was so great that she eventually prayed that God would "kill" her personality so she would not go against the grain of the group's authority. From that point onward, she unquestioningly followed the will of the group, which has hundreds of Montgomery County members.

It took a deprogrammer hired by her parents eight straight days, she says, to free her from the influence of the group.

"I remember the oppression, the guilt and the loss of identity. You can't be in (the Great Commission) without being consumed by it. The group is cultic," she said.

Acccording [sic] to Liverman and nine other ex-members contacted by The Sentinel GCI at first seemed nothing more than a fundamentalist Christian group. But once they become heavily involved, GCI began to exert authority in every aspect of their lives, who they could date, who they could marry, where they could live, and how they should discipline their children.

Three of these members left GCI only after lengthy deprogramming sessions. They say psychological manipulation by GCI leaders led to an unquestioning adherence to the group's dogma and system of rewards and punishments.

Leader's of GCI refused repeated requests by The Sentinel to comment on these charges over a period of one month. The group's founder, James D. McCotter, of SilverSpring, declined to be interviewed. It is McCotter's policy not to grant interviews at all, according to McCotter spokesman Jeff Botkin.

"Any kind of a leader, such as a Jerry Falwell, is going to generate controversy. And if they spent all the time responding to the controversy they would never get any work done," Botkin said.

But current members of GCI strongly defend the group, which they describe as a biblically correct organization that allows its members to freely debate the scripture.

However, one anti-cult group warns that GCI may be targeting Montgomery County high school students. According to Nancy Howell, president of the Cult Awareness Council's Washington area affiliate, "the Great Commission Church is expanding their proselytizing to target our high schools. According to their magazine there are five areas in the country handpicked by the church where high schools will be blitzed. One of these is Gaithersburg."

"There have been instances of young people damaged by the control exercised by this organization over their education, social life, living arrangements, work, and virtually every aspect of their life. Personalities have been altered to the point where parents had to get counseling for their children," Howell charges.

Every Sunday morning hundreds of GCI members meet at Springbrook High School for church service. Members also meet in private homes in Montgomery County for Bible study at other times.

The founder of GCI, McCotter, is a 40-year-old ex-Amway salesman and Vietnam veteran who lives in Silver Spring. Great Commission International has approximately 5,000 members in 115 assemblies in the United States, Europe and Latin America, according to GCI members.

Liverman, ex-National GCI Elder Henry Hintermeister and others say that McCotter claims to have the spiritual authority of the Apostle Paul in the New Testament, and charge that McCotter requires members to accept his absolute authority.

McCotter started GCI, then known as "The Blitz," in Iowa in 1972. In 1978, according to Larry Pyle, who wrote a history of "The Blitz" movement, GCI first appeared in the Washington area when at least three GCI national leaders, Tom Short, Terry Bartley and Mike Kaetor, came to the University of Maryland as part of an outreach group from a GCI church in Columbus, Ohio.

Through evangelizing and recruiting college students who were then instructed to evangelize more, "New Life Christian Students," as the group was known at the university, quickly grew in size. Until 1983 the group held Sunday services in the Zoo-Psychology building on the College Park campus, according to Keith Cingel, an ex-member of GCI. The group began to hold Sunday services at Springbbrook about a year ago, according to a GCI spokesman.

During a Sunday service a month ago at Springbrook High School, nearly 400 people swayed in their seats as clean-cut musicians and singers performed "Praise His Name and See What Happens."

People at the service strongly defended the group and said ex-members' charges were nonsense.

According to Mike Robertson, who is responsible for the musical presentation on Sundays, "GCI provides a solid, very fundamentalist background to biblical teachings. It's not typical. Sunday morning is not the only time we get together. We live the Sunday experience.

"Without a doubt there is a great deal of spiritual freedom. We have the freedom to interpret scripture. We're encouraged to look at scripture in different ways. If it were otherwise, I would have seen it in the last five years."

Dave Libbon said that joining GCI was the beginning of strong and meaningful fellowship. "Here I could tell people loved each other. This group is committed to each other, " Libbon said.

"I'm sold on it," said Randy Steckel, who works as an usher at the Sunday service. "Just getting together with great people who love the lord."

GCI leaders refused to comment on the ex-members' charges. Generally, either church leaders declined to be interviewed or rather than commenting on the accusations or explaining church beliefs, they attempted to discredit their former members.

One church member did explain, in detail, the church's beliefs on such topics as not dating, the disciplining of children and why small groups of church members live together. However, he decided he could not go on the record.

"I'm not a church pastor, I don't feel comfortable discussing those things on the record," he said.

He referred The Sentinel to Pastor Rick Whitney. After a month of refused interviews on the part of GCI officials, one church leader changed his mind, about 30 minutes before The Sentinel was scheduled for its press run at the paper's Gaithersburg printing plant. Whitney agreed to an interview, of sorts.

"I would be more than glad to come sit down with you and your editor, and interact with you about your sources, to determine if your story is accurate," Whitney told a Sentinel reporter. Whitney said he would not discuss GCI over the telephone.

"Some of the former members are disgruntled people with serious personal problems, who we tried to help," Whitney, said, adding that the former members had become quite resentful of the church.

As far as discussing church beliefs on such subjects as spanking and dating, however, "I won't do that. Our positions are well known. We have tapes and books on that," he maintained.

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