International Churches of Christ
By Tal Davis
Official Names: The International Churches of Christ
(ICOC). Also known as The International Church of Christ. (Formerly known
as The Boston Church of Christ or Boston Movement.) Local congregations are
usually designated by the community's name. Two examples are the Atlanta Church
of Christ and the Nashville Church of Christ.
Founder: Kip McKean (born May 31, 1954, Indianapolis,
World Headquarters: International Churches of Christ,
3530 Wilshire Boulevard, Suite 1750, Los Angeles, CA 90010, (213) 385-5434, Web
Active Participants: In 2001, the ICOC claimed 188,000
people in weekly worship attendance in 407 churches in 171 countries worldwide.
Membership: 128,809 (Source: www.icoc.org
[cited 15 March 2001])
Ministries Associated with the ICOC:
Publications International (DPI); Kingdom News Network (KNN); HOPE for
Children, Inc. (adoption agency); Kingdom Kids; HOPE Worldwide; UpCyberDown
(online commnuity) The Radicals, a Christian Rock Band.
At one time one of the fastest growing new religious groups in the United
States, Canada, and around the world is the Intenational Churches of Christ
(ICOC) movement. For two decades, religious observers have watched this
offshoot sect of the mainline Churches of Christ grow from only 30 original
members to tens of thousands of adherents.
Much has been published and said in the media about the ICOC's doctrine and
practices. Consequently, the church has earned a reputation both in secular and
religious circles as controversial and even at times abusive. NAMB Apologetics
and Interfaith Evangelism has received hundreds of inquiries from pastors,
parents, and relatives of people who have fallen under the ICOC's sway. This
Belief Bulletin examines the history and controversial beliefs of the ICOC. It
provides a biblical analysis of the ICOC doctrine and suggests specific
principles for encountering and/or evangelizing ICOC members.
Short History of ICOC
In the spring of 1972,
17-year-old Kip McKean was a freshman at the University of Florida. Though
mildly religious, it was not until he was baptized that year into Gainesville's
dynamic Crossroads Church of Christ that McKean says his life truly
After three years of intense discipleship by Crossroads ministers and his
graduation from college in 1975, McKean went to serve as a Churches of Christ
campus minister at Northeastern Christian College in Philadelphia, Pa.
Disturbed by the lack of commitment of the school's students, he left the next
year to begin a ministry at Eastern Illinois University. That campus ministry
grew under McKean's charismatic leadership. Nonetheless, he felt a growing
disenchantment with what he saw as the shallow spiritual condition of most
mainline Churches of Christ.
In 1979, the Lexington (Massachusetts) Church of Christ invited McKean to
serve as pulpit and campus minister of their shrinking congregation. In June of
that year, McKean and 29 others in Lexington committed themselves to restoring
true bibical Christianity, as they saw it, to the world. ICOC leaders point to
that event as the foundation of their "restoration" movement.
The next few years, McKean and his team developed their philosophy of
radical discipleship and designed an effective strategy for expansion, which
they called the "key" or "pillar" plan for church planting. Thus, over the next
two decades, the church grew rapidly as ministers were sent from the mother
church to cities worldwide including London, Chicago, New York City, Toronto,
and Moscow. In 1983, McKean's church began to hold regular services in the
spacious Boston Opera House, so it changed its name to the Boston Church of
Christ. About that time, McKean also began to teach that only those who were
baptized by immersion and were submitting to his concept of discipleship were
actually saved. Thus, he required all new members of his movement, even those
coming from other Churches of Christ, to be rebaptized.
Early in the Boston movement, leaders from many Churches of Christ visited
the Boston Church of Christ to learn its techniques of discipling and missions.
However, criticism grew due to disagreements over church organization and what
many perceived to be the Boston Church's of Christ heavy-handed approach.
McKean and his movement gradually disassociated from the mainline Churches of
Christ. In 1988, the final cord was cut when the Crossroads Church of Christ in
Gainesville, where McKean began his ministry, formally broke fellowship with
The Boston movement continued to expand internationally, so in 1990, the
church decided to move the headquarters from Boston to Los Angeles, Calif.
McKean turned over leadership of the mother church to his brother Randy McKean,
moved to the West Coast, and the next year officially named the movement The
International Churches of Christ.
In 2002 Kip McKean abruptly resigned as world leader to focus on
strengthening his marriage leaving the group's future leadership in
The ICOC's statement of belief declares, "The Bible is the only written message
of God inspired by the Holy Spirit and without error (2 Tim. 3:16,17; 2 Pet.
1:19-21)." (From ICOC Web site: www.icoc.org/html/whoset.html [cited
6 March 2001].)
The ICOC states that all Scripture is inspired by God and is to be
applied to people's lives. He says it is relevant and it is to be compared to a
scalpel that cuts out a cancer (sin) (Heb. 4:12-13). He also declares that the
Holy Spirit inspired the writers of the Bible, that there is no private
interpretation of it, and that unbiblical traditions and creeds are to be
rejected (Matt. 15:1-9). (ICOC Web site: www.icoc.org/html/articles/bible/bible.html
[cited 6 March 2001].)
Biblical Response: The ICOC concept of biblical authority
is shared by most evangelical Christians. Indeed the Bible alone is our final
written authority for faith and practice. However, the ICOC violates the
standard of "no private interpretation" by requiring its members to reject all
reasonable interpretations of many Bible passages except those of Kip McKean
and the ICOC.
Jesus Christ is Lord
The ICOC rejects the historic
creeds of the Christian faith, arguing, as do many cults and sects, that true
Christianity was distorted and even lost in the early centuries of the New
Testament era. Thus, they avoid as much as possible utilizing theological
language or concepts not found specifically in the Bible.
The ICOC apparently is, nonetheless, in agreement with orthodox historic
Christian doctrinal views on the nature of God (the Trinity), the deity and
humanity of Christ, His sacrificial atonement, and the personality and deity of
the Holy Spirit (Matt. 28:19; John 1:1-14; 5:17- 18; 8:56-59; 10:30-33; 14-16;
1 Cor. 8:6; 12:4-6; 2 Cor. 1:21-22; 13:14; Col. 1:15-20; 2:9; 1 Pet. 1:2).
Salvation: Disciple = Christian = Saved
The ICOC maintains, as do other historic Christian groups, that mankind is
corrupted by sin and is lost and bound for eternal separation from God in hell.
However, unlike most evangelicals, the ICOC rejects the concepts of salvation
by grace through faith in Christ alone. The ICOC maintains that faith in Christ
is necessary, but it is only one of the several ingredients in the salvation
process listed below.
Only Disciples are Christians
The ICOC argues in its
literature that salvation is only available to those who are deemed
"disciples." Kip McKean stated in his "First Principles" Bible studies that
Jesus demands His followers be "disciples" and that the term "Christian" is
only applicable to those who are true disciples. True disciples are those who
have consciously abandoned all other allegiances to that of commitment to
Christ alone, as McKean understood it.
Key elements of true discipleship, according to ICOC, are total denial of
self, baptism for the remission of sins, acceptance of persecution (even from
family or friends), the practice of biblical stewardship (tithing), and above
all, unquestioning submission to the ICOC church authority. Every new prospect
and member is assigned a discipler by church leaders with whom they must speak
daily. ICOC "disciples" are expected to confess all known sins (past and
present) to their discipler and to submit all major decisions for them to
counsel. The ICOC warns its members that willfully to disobey their discipler
or to break fellowship with the movement puts them in danger of losing their
salvation and going to hell.
Biblical Response: Certainly Christians are required to
follow Jesus' requirements for discipleship. However, the ICOC's understanding
of that term goes beyond the biblical perspective. The Bible clearly teaches
that salvation is by grace through faith in Christ alone (Eph. 2:8-9). The
notion that every believer, in order to be assured of salvation, must submit to
human authority violates the New Testament teaching of the priesthood of all
believers and the direction of the believer by the indwelling Holy Spirit (John
14:26; 16:7-16; 1 Pet. 2:5,9). The ICOC's claim to exclusive church authority
is presumptuous and arrogant at best, and blasphemous at worst.
Baptism:Necessary for Forgiveness of
The ICOC, in historic agreement with the mainline Churches of
Christ, maintains that the New Testament requires baptism by immersion for the
remission (forgiveness) of sins and to be saved. However, unlike most Church of
Christ congregations, they require baptisms exclusively under the auspices of
one of their congregations.
Kip McKean denied he teaches that one must be baptized into the ICOC to be
saved. Nevertheless, he stated, "However, I do not know of any other church,
group, or movement that teaches and practices what we teach as Jesus taught in
Acts 2:41-42: One must make the decision to be a disciple, then be baptized for
the forgiveness of their sins to be saved and receive the Holy Spirit," (Kip
McKean, "Revolution Through Restoration" on ICOC Web site: www.icoc.org/html/articlesset.html
[cited 6 March 2001].)
In other words, it would seem only those baptisms performed by ICOC
ministers were deemed valid. Baptisms performed by other denominations and
even those performed by other Churches of Christ are not regarded as valid.
Only a true "disciple" is a legitimate candidate for baptism; and since the
only true "disciples" are in the ICOC, then only those baptized in the ICOC are
baptized correctly. Thus, logically, only ICOC members are saved.
Biblical Response: Perhaps no issue has separated Churches
of Christ from other evangelical and Protestant denominations than that of
baptism. Though they deny a sacramental understanding of baptism, the
traditional Churches of Christ's doctrine (and that of the ICOC) is that
baptism by immersion, in addition to faith in Jesus Christ, is necessary for a
person to be saved (for a biblical response to this view of baptism see
Interfaith Evangelism Belief Bulletin: Churches of Christ by Bill
Gordon). (See also: Hershel H. Hobbs, The Baptist Faith and Message.
Nashville: Convention Press, p. 72-75, 1997).
The ICOC contention that only those involved in its congregations are true
disciples is without biblical justification. No one church or organization can
claim exclusive identification as the kingdom of God or the only possessor of
saving grace. All those who have sincerely repented of their sins and received
the forgiveness of their sin by grace through faith in Christ and His atoning
work are His disciples and are justified (saved) (John 1:12; Acts 3:19; Rom.
6:23; 10:9-10; Eph. 2:8-10). Those who have genuinely received Christ are
assured of salvation and will endure to the end (John 10:28-29; Eph. 1:13-14;
Col. 3:4; 2 Tim. 1:12).
Potential Abuses of ICOC Discipling Methods
method of discipling is similar strategically to those employed by many
evangelical churches and parachurch ministries. However, the strict requirement
that each disciple obey his or her assigned personal discipler creates an
environment for potential spiritual, physical, and/or emotional abuse.
Indeed, many former ICOC members have reported that while a part of this
movement, they felt they were under great psychological pressure to conform to
the standards and doctrines of the ICOC. Intimidation, harassment, and even
threats of eternal damnation are used to control members who may either
disagree with ICOC teachings or who fail to measure up to its legalistic moral
standards, time demands, and financial expectations.
Responding to and Evangelizing Those in the
Christians who encounter members of the ICOC are told that
they are not true disciples of Christ, not properly baptized, and not truly
saved. As a result, Christians need to be prepared to respond to ICOC
contentions and be ready to give a clear presentation of the biblical gospel to
ICOC members. Many ICOC members are trusting in their baptism and/or church
association for salvation rather than Jesus Christ alone.
Here are several specific principles for response:
1. Understand your own faith and the Bible
need to have a clear comprehension of the biblical basis of Christian
doctrines. Doctrines that should be studied particularly relative to the ICOC
are salvation by grace, baptism, eternal security, the church, and
2. Reject unbalanced ICOC discipling methods
Discipleship ministries abound, but before committing to the ICOC or any other
such ministry, a Christian should ask several important questions:
A. Does each person have the freedom to make decisions for himself or
herself under the leadership of the Holy Spirit?
B. Are disagreements on doctrinal issues tolerated?
C. Is more than one interpretation of biblical passages tolerated?
D. Is study of a variety of materials encouraged or utilized, or is only one
author's, organization's, or publisher's works utilized or permitted?
E. Do the discipling leaders have servant attitudes or seek to control their
F. Are family relationships enhanced or are those involved expected to place
the movement and its demands above all family concerns?
3. Love and respect those in the ICOC
No doubt, many
people in the ICOC are sincere and dedicated followers of Christ.
Unfortunately, they have been misled to assume that the ICOC is the only valid
expression of the Christian faith.
Christians should respectfully reject the unbiblical teachings of the ICOC
while, as much as possible, maintaining a relationship of Christian love with
those involved in it. Though ICOC members may reject them as their brothers and
sisters in Christ, Christians have no basis to reciprocate. We must reach out
in love regardless of the response.
4. Determine the spiritual condition of one involved in the
Though many involved in the ICOC are true Christians, many
are not. We must seek to determine the basis of each ICOC member's hope of
salvation. We should seek answers to the following questions of our ICOC
A. Is he or she depending entirely on Christ for salvation, or on baptism
and church membership?
B. Can he or she relate a clear testimony on his or her experience of knowing
Christ as personal Lord and Savior?
If the answer to either of these is unclear, the Christian should share his
or her own testimony and explain clearly the gospel of salvation, including the
need for repentance, trusting in Christ as Lord, and receiving salvation by
grace through faith in Him alone (John 1:12; 14:6; Acts 3:19; 26:20; Rom. 3:23;
10:9-10; 1 Cor. 15:1-4; Eph. 2:9-10).
5. Be prepared to minister to those exiting the
Each year hundreds of disillusioned people withdraw from the
ICOC. Christians should be alert to those in their communities either wanting
to leave or who have already done so. Encouragement and biblical teaching on
the assurance of God's love can help former members make the difficult
adjustment to life outside the ICOC movement and to positive faith in Jesus