Several gracEmail readers have inquired about the group known as International Churches of Christ (ICOC or ICC) and its connection, if any, to the Churches of Christ. In response to those questions, this gracEmail is longer than usual.
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(This was written in February 2007, and many ICOCs have experienced major reform since that time. Kip McKean is no longer ICOC leader but has begun a different movement. Following is an earlier history of this group.)
One of the more rapidly-growing religious movements around the world today, the International Churches of Christ promotes itself as God’s true church and the only organized channel of salvation. Its roots sprang from a 1960s college evangelism program related to the Crossroads Church of Christ in Gainesville, Florida (“the Crossroads Movement”). Advocates of that movement started new congregations, or motivated existing ones, with a message of “total commitment” to Christ, which leaders often enforced by rigorous “discipling.”
The movement became even more authoritarian in 1979 when Kip McKean, one of its most gifted evangelists, formed the Boston Church of Christ (“the Boston Movement”) and began centralizing the control of affiliated congregations. (In 1989, McKean founded the Los Angeles ICOC — by 1994, the fastest-growing church in America of any kind, according to ICOC sources.)
Although McKean makes no claim to be a prophet or an apostle, he has become the ICOC’s unquestionable leader. His consolidation of power occurred in several steps. First, McKean announced that cities around the world each would have but one true church (1982). A few years later, he determined that all related congregations should be “reconstructed” — meaning that local church leaders would resign, to be replaced by leaders approved from Boston (1986). A year later, McKean formally rejected the doctrine of congregational autonomy, theoretically held by mainline Churches of Christ, replacing it with what he called “biblical teachings of brotherhood and unity” (1987).
McKean has decreed that persons wishing to join any ICOC must first pledge “total commitment” to Christ — as interpreted by McKean and his second-level associates. The ICOC now regularly rebaptizes converts from all other denominations, including those from mainline Churches of Christ. Internal dissension is stamped out quickly and decisively. Church leaders who cross McKean are pronounced damned, since “those who oppose and grumble against God’s leaders and divide God’s church are, in fact, opposing God.”
The ICOC, like some progressive Churches of Christ, utilizes gifted women in public services, features celebratory worship, considers instrumental music as optional, and exemplifies racial and social diversity in its constituency. Doctrinally, however, the ICOC retains and even exaggerates the worst elements of traditionalist Churches of Christ. It denies original sin and sovereign grace, ignores the substitutionary obedience of Christ for his people, disallows modern miracles or spiritual gifts, sees water baptism as the sole means of salvation by grace, perceives itself exclusively as “the true church” and warns defectors that they are forsaking God’s organization.
With 372 churches in 158 nations (averaging 500 weekly worshippers per church), the ICOC currently claims membership of nearly 200,000. McKean points to the group’s rapid growth (as do Mormons and Jehovah’s Witnesses, of theirs) as proof of divine endorsement. For two points of view, see the denomination’s official site and the site of REVEAL, an organization of former ICOC members.