Published: 1991, republished in 1993
In writing about Great Commission International (GCI), an organization founded in 1970 by "apostle" Jim McCotter, former member Jerry MacDonald notes that the group compares its leadership structure with a marriage. "GCI elders frequently refer to ones that have left the church as divorcing themselves from their family. They twist Scripture on God's hatred of divorce and use it as a coercive technique to keep people from leaving their churches. Thus, ones who leave are taught that they have actually left God and sinned. What it really means is that the elders have usurped the loyalty and the devotion that is due Christ alone and refocused it on themselves."2
MacDonald points out that the proof-text for the idea of "marriage" in relation to elders and leaders in GCI is found in Ephesians 5:22-6:9. The group cites 5:22 ("Wives, submit to your husbands as to the Lord") as the key to their hierarchical system of authority. "Just as wives are to be in subjection to their husbands, so the church is to be in subjection to the elders. It seems that the elders are the physical manifestation of the authority of Christ. Just as a family mirrors the church's relationship to the elders, so a wife and husband in the bond of marriage reflect the subjection the congregation should have to the elders."3
In the Great Commission International, much emphasis is placed on "trusting God's leading through others" - the "others" being those in leadership. In reality, this means surrendering one's independence, obeying in all things, and submitting to the leaders. As numerous ex-members of GCI have told me, it amounts to the subjugation of members to the leadership. Failure to comply with the authoritarian dictates of the group can result in ex-communication, a common practice in GCI and other abusive-church groups.
If you do not give up your independence and follow in harmony, you will be reproved for "sowing discord in the body," and if you still do not "harmonize," you will be excommunicated for faction-since, according to GCI, there is no difference between trusting God and trusting a GCI leader.4
In abusive-church situations, the "spiritual family" often displaces the biological family, and church leaders assume the role of surrogate parents. The founder of Great Commission International, Jim McCotter, is said to have usurped "the very authority of parents over these young people" by allowing youthful "elders" to exercise greater influence in the lives of the young adults than did their own parents.10
One of the most encouraging evidences of change appears to be taking place within the Great Commission Association of Churches, formerly named Great Commission International (GCI). Founder Jim McCotter is no longer associated with the organization. The current leadership (which includes many of the original leaders) has been consulting with evangelical pastors, lay persons, former members, and various well-known Christian organizations in an effort to chart a new course. I have met with several of the national leaders on two occasions, and I am convinced of their sincerity in wanting to begin a process of restoration and healing, as well as their desire to chart an organizational change.
The Great Commission leadership has sought to identify a number of "errors and weaknesses" that they feel were caused by incorrect or imbalanced teaching, the youthful immaturity of some leaders, and a number of other factors. In personal correspondence with me, one of their national leaders stated, "We have a desire to forthrightly acknowledge errors and problems that existed and yet not inaccurately or needlessly dishonor what the Lord has done in our past … "
Former members of GCI are cautiously optimistic about the unfolding events and, frankly, they are a bit surprised. Others are more cynical, fearing that the effort is an insincere gesture in order to achieve acceptance and legitimization from the evangelical mainstream without fully acknowledging the depths of the hurt which has been caused over the years. At this writing, the effort at reconciliation and restoration is in process. Many will be watching to see the outcome and the nature of change that emerges. The Great Commission Association of Churches may well prove to be a model for other authoritarian groups to emulate.