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The International Churches of Christ:
Disciples of Abuse?

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The International Churches of Christ (ICoC, sometimes known as the Boston Movement)  (1) is one of the fastest growing religious groups in North America. It includes 312 churches in 124 countries, with 155,000 attending services worldwide on any given Sunday. (2)  It is also a very controversial movement. Many colleges and universities have banned the ICoC's recruiting efforts on campus, or have denied it registration as a campus organization. Some of these colleges include American University, the University of Lowell (Mass.), Birmingham University (United Kingdom), the University of Manchester (United Kingdom), Boston College, Marquette University, Boston University, the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, the Georgia Institute of Technology, Harvard University, the University of London (United Kingdom), Vanderbilt University, the University of Miami, Northeastern University, Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute, Smith College, the United States Military Academy, the University of Southern California and York University (Canada). (3)

The ICoC's teachings on baptism and salvation deny the essential biblical doctrine of salvation by grace alone through faith alone. This, coupled with their unbiblical and authoritarian "discipleship" teachings and practices, classifies them as a pseudo-biblical group, which emerged from the "mainline" Churches of Christ. (4)  Many of the critiques of the ICoC have come from mainline Church of Christ members and former ICoC members. Additional criticism has come from evangelical and secular sources. (5)  TruthQuest Institute receives numerous inquiries regarding the ICoC. In response, this article represents a brief look at the history, unbiblical teachings, and authoritarian practices associated with the group from an evangelical perspective.

Background and history

The nineteenth-century saw the rise of the Restoration Movement within Christianity in the United States. Those in the movement expressed concern over "denominationalized" Christianity, and called for a return to a non-creedal (ironically following the creed "no creed but the Bible"), non-institutionalized form of the faith, allegedly representing a return to the primitive, apostolic first-century faith. One of the most influential leaders to come from this movement was Alexander Campbell, whose emphasis on baptism for the remission of sins became the cornerstone of the movement. The Churches of Christ (6)  later emerged from the Restoration Movement, and with an emphasis on evangelism, became one of the fastest growing religious movements in America between 1945 and 1965.

The perception of vitality within the Churches of Christ changed, however, in the first part of the twentieth century. Growth appeared to have slowed and many members, especially young people, called for a more vibrant and meaningful spiritual experience. They found it in the birth of a new campus ministry sponsored by the 14th Street Church of Christ (later renamed the Crossroads Church of Christ) in Gainesville, Florida, under the direction of campus minister Chuck Lucas. Lucas borrowed from sound, successful evangelical ministries, such as The Navigators, InterVarsity Christian Fellowship and Campus Crusade for Christ, and was also influenced by Robert E. Coleman's book The Master Plan of Evangelism, devising his own form of "evangelism" he would later term "discipling" (a form of the authoritarian Shepherding Movement). This was the creation of the "Crossroads Movement." Lucas' form of discipling contained two elements: "prayer partners," the pairing of new converts with mature Christians, and "soul talks," small group Bible studies designed for recruiting others into the movement. His campus ministry became enormously successful. But controversy, denunciation, and charges of "cultism" from the secular media and the Churches of Christ soon followed in the 1970's.

The leadership of the Crossroads Movement eventually passed to Thomas "Kip" McKean. Lucas' ministry had a strong impact on McKean, helping to shape his views of discipleship and church polity. McKean would later write, "The seeds of discipling were placed in my life as I saw personally how one man could affect another's daily lifestyle and eternal destiny for God." (7)  McKean was trained to begin a campus program for Churches of Christ around the nation, and in 1979, he became the pulpit and campus minister for the Lexington Church of Christ, near Boston. This positioned him for a successful outreach to area colleges, and as the church grew it eventually took a new name, the Boston Church of Christ. It was to become the seat of a rapidly-growing movement. Under McKean's leadership, Lucas' discipleship terminology, doctrines and practices were modified. The prayer partners became discipling partners, and the Soul Talks became Bible Talks. While Churches of Christ are normally independent and autonomous, McKean instituted a hierarchical, pyramidal system of control with himself at the top serving as World Missions Evangelist (a position he parallels with the apostleship of Paul).

In 1988, the Crossroads Church of Christ disassociated itself from the Boston Movement citing concerns about increasing loss of congregational autonomy resulting from authoritarianism within the movement. Two years later, the Boston Movement relocated to Los Angeles and, in 1993, took its present name, the International Churches of Christ. The Los Angeles Church now serves as the focus of leadership and training under the strict supervision and control of McKean, with the ambitious goal of reaching the world within one generation.

Problem beliefs and practices

Given the ICoC's rejection of creedalism (much like the mainline Churches of Christ), it is not possible to examine specific creedal and doctrinal statements in a theological analysis. However, the theological position of the ICoC can be determined from an examination of their writings in such sources as UpsideDown magazine and Boston Bulletin, as well as audio tape sermons and messages from leaders within the movement. This doctrinal examination reveals that the ICoC is an extreme and unbiblical offshoot of the mainline Churches of Christ, with many troubling doctrines, including teaching that baptism is a requirement for salvation, an authoritarian form of discipleship (these doctrines are a rejection of salvation by grace alone), exclusivity, a rejection of the doctrine of original sin, and faulty views on the perfection of God the Father and Christ, among others. Due to space limitations, we will focus on two primary doctrines within the ICoC system of theology: baptism and discipleship.

The Churches of Christ, which helped provide the historical and doctrinal birthplace for the ICoC, regard baptism as essential for salvation. Their teaching on baptism for the remission of sins holds that "baptism is a necessary, though not sufficient, evidence of saving faith; it is therefore a necessary, but not sufficient, condition of salvation," as a demonstration of faith in Christ. (8)  The ICoC takes this a step further, plainly teaching that baptism is essential for salvation, and that baptism can only be valid if it is performed by one having authority from the ICoC. In addition, the validity of the baptism is also contingent upon the understanding of the baptismal candidate-that baptism is only for "totally committed disciples." Kip McKean stated: "You must respond to Jesus with the commitment of a disciple [as defined by the ICoC] and then and only then can you be baptized to be saved." (9) 

ICoC authorities cite several biblical passages in an attempt to substantiate this view. The most prominent are Acts 2:38Off-site Link, John 3:5Off-site Link, Matthew 18:18-20Off-site Link, 1 Peter 3:20-21Off-site Link and Mark 16:16Off-site Link. But these verses do not prove this doctrine when taken in context. Baptism as a condition of salvation is clearly not biblical teaching, nor does it reflect the historic, orthodox view. Gregory Boyd summarizes the Bible's teaching on baptism: "In the strongest possible terms, baptism is associated with one's being united with Christ (Rom. 6:4-5Off-site Link), with one's 'putting on' Christ (Gal. 3:27Off-site Link), with the forgiveness of sins (Acts 2:38Off-site Link), and, paralleling the Old Testament practice of circumcision, with one's becoming a member of the New Covenant community (Col. 2:11-12Off-site Link)." (10) 

Certainly baptism is an important part of the Christian experience. But this is a far cry from saying that salvation is dependent upon baptism. A survey of the relevant biblical testimony reveals that baptism is a response to saving faith in Christ as an initial act of obedience (Acts 10:44-48Off-site Link; Titus 3:5Off-site Link; 1 Cor. 1:14-17). As Boyd reminds us, "At least sixty times in the New Testament eternal salvation is explicitly tied to faith and/or repentance with no mention of baptism." (11)  A careful examination of the totality of biblical teaching reveals that those who believe in the Lord Jesus Christ are saved by grace alone through faith alone (Jn. 3:16-18Off-site Link; Rom. 4:5Off-site Link; 10:9Off-site Link, 13Off-site Link; Eph. 2:8-9Off-site Link). Actions and responses to this saving faith will surely follow, including baptism, a transformed life and obedient living. But salvation is not the result of these actions. The ICoC teaching on baptism demonstrates grave errors in biblical exegesis, and twist Scripture to form a system of salvation, at least in part, by human effort.

The heart of the ICoC Movement, and the source of much of the controversy, surrounds discipling. Discipling in the ICoC system refers to their requirement for members to intensively recruit others, to conform to the movement's standards, and to submit to their internal hierarchical system of relationships and accountability.

ICoC missionary, Andrew Giambarba, speaks of the recruitment aspect: "Every single member of every congregation must be committed to making disciples. If any are not, then they are not disciples themselves. And if they are not disciples themselves, then they will not be going to heaven." (12) 

Flavil Yeakley describes the hierarchical system of discipling employed by the ICoC as:

[A] system of intense training and close personal supervision of the Christians being discipled. Disciples are regarded as being superior to mere Christians. Disciples are said to be Christians who have received special training . . . The discipler gives detailed personal guidance to the Christian being discipled. This guidance may include instructions concerning many personal matters of a totally secular nature . . . That discipler is the person who must be imitated and obeyed. (13) 

In this mandatory system, (14)   new converts are assigned "discipleship partners" to whom they are accountable in a relationship of authority and submission. The partners are to have daily contact and to meet weekly, regarding decisions surrounding a number of personal as well as spiritual issues, including the confession of sins. As a result of this process "there is a group dynamic operating in that congregation that influences members to change their personalities to conform to the group norm." (15)  This distinctive discipleship teaching (a form of the Shepherding Movement from the 1970s) is not seen by the ICoC as a novel means of control. Rather, in common with many pseudo-biblical groups, the ICoC claims that it merely rediscovered lost biblical teachings that are part of the divine plan. (16)  ICoC member Scott Green stated in a class taught with Kip McKean:

We see [in John 15:9Off-site Link] that Jesus himself was discipled by His Father. Why was that important? Because discipleship is an eternal spiritual plan. It is not an invention of the Boston Church. It is not an interesting way of looking at the Bible. It is not an interesting way of taking apart the scriptures and finding a neat method. . . . I have never seen anything like what is being done in this movement and it is because we are restoring an eternal plan. Amen! An eternal plan. Jesus himself was discipled by the Father. (17) 

Where should the line be drawn between legitimate and abusive authority within the church? The Scriptures give us a balanced alternative to ICoC teaching. In striking contrast with the ICoC, the Bible clearly puts the emphasis on the believer's submission to God through the Lord Jesus Christ while allowing for a limited, legitimate authority structure within the church (Rom. 12:1Off-site Link; Jn. 15:5Off-site Link; 1 Pet. 5:1-5Off-site Link; 2 Cor. 1:24Off-site Link; Eph. 4:11-13Off-site Link). Biblical teaching is characterized by the model of Jesus Christ as the Good Shepherd, and the freedom of the believer in submission to the Holy Spirit. Harold Bussell reminds us, "Jesus Christ is to be our model and our only Shepherd. Jesus calls Himself the Good Shepherd (John 10:11). A good shepherd leads, rather than controls, his flock." (18) 

This emphasis upon the authority of Christ is crucial for human beings struggling against the results of sin and the temptation to abuse power, even among believers within the Body of Christ:

We are not to be like the world, lording it over one another (Lk. 22:24-27Off-site Link; 1 Pet. 5:3Off-site Link), seeking status for ourselves (Lk. 11:43Off-site Link; 20:46Off-site Link), afraid of losing face before others. Our confidence is in Christ, not in our authority; in Christ, not in the pretense of always being right . . . This is the model for the Christian leader as well as for the congregation. The humility of Christ is the leader's model. (19) 

Numerous testimonies have surfaced from former ICoC members reporting severe spiritual and psychological damage resulting from the ICoC's authoritarian leadership, manipulation and spiritual intimidation. ICoC leadership has acknowledged that there had been some abuses of authority and that some earlier teachings on authority and submission were wrong. The ICoC claims to have relaxed their discipleship requirements since the early 1990s, but former members who have recently left the church claim their teachings have not substantially changed: "There has been talk of the Movement changing, but the sermons and attitudes of the top leadership remain the same. This is confirmed innumerable times as I continue to meet ex-members everywhere with testimonies of authoritarian abuses, etc., even till today." (20) 

Conclusion

The ICoC is aggressive in its outreach, especially among college students. This segment of their membership is their most fruitful recruitment constituency, and sadly, many are Christians who previously held membership in mainline and evangelical denominations. Representing some of the best and brightest of our nation, they are often recruited during a period of life transition and perhaps personal vulnerability. In response to their search and youthful idealism, the ICoC offers them friendship, a sense of belonging and family, a calling to a higher purpose through world evangelization, and a structure for moral living. It is a great spiritual tragedy and challenge to the Body of Christ that in response to a genuine desire for an intense spirituality, the ICOC also provides a nonbiblical, legalistic, authoritarian group experience, rather than the freedom enjoyed by God's children:

"Christ's yoke is easy and his burden is light compared to the heavy burdens of new authoritarian structures that people are tempted to impose within the church. As we obey the Spirit's structures, as we enjoy the Spirit's freedom, every one of us can begin to attain the glorious freedom of the children of God (see Mat. 11:30Off-site Link; Rom. 8:21Off-site Link)." (21) 



Footnotes

  1. Other names for the group include Crossroads Movement, Multiplying Ministries and Discipleship Movement.
  2. International Churches of Christ web page at http://www.intlcc.comOff-site Link
  3. "Cult Expert Undertakes Special Campus Project," AFF web page at http://www.csj.orgOff-site Link
  4. The ICoC should not be confused with the mainline Churches of Christ, the United Churches of Christ, or the Disciples of Christ.
  5. Examples of such critiques include "Success at What Price? The Boston (Churches of Christ) MovementOff-site Link," Christian Research Journal (Winter, 1993) from an evangelical perspective, and The Boston Movement: Critical Perspectives on the International Churches of ChristOff-site Link (Bonita Springs, Fla.: AFF, 1996) from a secular perspective.
  6. The importance of understanding the mainline Churches of Christ in connection with the ICoC cannot be underestimated. As Russell Paden states, "The mainline Churches of Christ, specifically of the 1960s and '70s provided the immediate backdrop and milieu for the development of religious thought that undergirds the Boston Movement. Understanding the doctrines and attitudes that characterized the mainline Churches of Christ of this period is crucial to understanding the character of the Boston Movement." Paden also notes that "the mainline Churches [of Christ] have often criticized the Boston Movement's peculiar and unscriptural teachings on baptism, exclusivity, failure to carefully evaluate Scripture, and faulty proof-texting method of approaching Scripture." Yet ironically many of these charges "can be and have been leveled against the mainline Churches of Christ, often by the larger Christian community" (Russell R. Paden, "From the Churches of Christ to the Boston Movement: A Comparative StudyOff-site Link," master's thesis for the University of Kansas, May 1994), 18, 39. For examples of the type of teaching Pader refers to within the mainline Churches of Christ see Leslie G. Thomas, What the Bible Teaches: The Answers to Your Questions, Vol. 1 (Austin, Tex.: Firm Foundation Publishing House, 1961), 32, and Rubel Shelly, Liberalism's Threat to the Faith (Memphis: Simple Studies Publishing Co., 1972), 64.
  7. Kip McKean, "Revolution Through Restoration," UpsideDown (April, 1992), 6.
  8. Rubel Shelly, "Baptism, Baptismal Regeneration," http://www.faithmatters.com/topics/baptism2.htmlOff-site Link. Shelly, a Churches of Christ theologian, notes that many equate their teaching on baptism with baptismal regeneration, the doctrine that baptismal "immersion is a sacramental action that secures pardon." After stating that he knows of "no theologian within our fellowship who believes or teaches such a view of baptism," he postulates that the reason for the misperception is due to the Churches of Christ's "poor articulation of biblical teaching about baptism," and "the fact that we have taught the false doctrine of baptismal regeneration in some instances." (Thanks to Robert M. Bowman for clarification and insights on this subject in the AR-Talk online apologetics forum.)
  9. Kip McKean, "Perfectly United," 1987 Women's Retreat (Boston), audio cassette as quoted in "From the Churches of Christ to the Boston Movement," cited above.
  10. Gregory Boyd, Oneness Pentecostals and the TrinityOff-site Link (Grand Rapids: Baker, 1992), 135.
  11. Ibid., 136.
  12. Andrew Giambarba, Bent on Conquest (Boston: Boston Church of Christ Printing, 1988), 7.
  13. Flavil R. Yeakley, Jr., "Church Growth Research Concerning the Discipling Movement Among Churches of Christ," The Discipling Dilemma (Nashville: Gospel Advocate, 1988), 1-2.
  14. McKean, "Discipling Partners," 1988 Boston Leadership Conference, audio cassette.
  15. Yeakley, 37.
  16. McKean, "Revolution through Restoration," UpsideDown (April 1992), 14.
  17. Scott Green, "Discipleship Partners," 1988 Boston Leadership Conference, audio cassette (emphasis mine).
  18. Harold L. Bussell, Unholy Devotion (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1983), 71.
  19. Jerram Barrs, Shepherds and Sheep: A Biblical View of Leading and Following (Downers Grove, Ill.: InterVarsity, 1983), 48.
  20. Daniel Eng, "Open Letter from Daniel Eng," in Jerry Jones, What Does the Boston Movement Teach? Vol. 3 (Bridgeton, Mo.: Mid-America Book and Tape Sales, 1990), 75.
  21. Barrs, 92.

This article, by John Morehead, has been reprinted from Truthquest Journal by permission.

© 1997, TruthQuest Institute. All rights reserved


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