The Good, Bad, And The Ugly From the Old ICOC
At one point the International Churches of Christ (ICOC) was the fastest growing movement in the world. They started with 30 people in 1979 (according to Kip McKean) and grew to over 100,000 people by the year 2000. In many ways the ICOC was unique in that they had one church per city (based on the model of Revelation 2-3 according to McKean) and named that church after the city it was in so that you had the Boston Church of Christ, the Chicago Church of Christ, the Charlotte Church of Christ, etc. The largest churches of the ICOC at one point where the LA Church of Christ (10,000), Boston Church of Christ (6,000), New York City Church of Christ (7,000), Chicago Church of Christ (6,000), Dallas Church of Christ (4,000), Houston Church of Christ (3,000), the Atlanta Church of Christ (6,000), and many more. The ICOC prided itself on numbers.
The Columbia (SC) Church of Christ was the only one I was familiar with. The Columbia Church boasted a membership of around 500 or so. I attended a few times and I would say that there were about 300 there. According to one report, the average time a person spent in the ICOC was just under 7 years. Why? Because of the legalism that was often promoted. At one point, the ICOC required all its members to have a disciple and a disciple over them. Each week you had to meet with your discipler who would question your Bible reading, your prayer life, your evangelism, your discipling of other members under you, your use of money, your use of time, and if married, your sex life (I am not joking). The ICOC even kept a “sin list” and required their leaders to report the various sins of the people. The prayer lists for the ICOC were full of people confessing how they had sinned this way or that and many of them were confessions such as “Help me to be more like my discipler and not be full of pride at their rebuke.” The ICOC took the “one another” passages and applied them to discipling relationships. Further, they pointed to passages such as James 5:16 and applied this to one-over-one discipling relationships. The result was nothing less than a works-righteousness system in which Jesus was acknowledged but not the focus and the desire was to imitate your discipler and not Jesus Himself. It also resulted in people seeking to please their discipler and not Jesus Himself as their Lord. Few knew the grace of God and even worse, they often felt nothing but guilt or condemnation from the Lord despite Romans 8:1 simply because they were not doing enough to please their discipler. So many have fallen away now from the old ICOC as a result of their works focus and heavy emphasis on “being part of the kingdom” instead of loving Christ and His work. Furthermore, the ICOC taught that they were the only true church and so to leave the ICOC was to abandon God. This put great pressure on people to “be faithful” to the ICOC but not to Christ. The focus became pleasing people instead of loving God.
Yet despite this ugly side of the ICOC, there was some good. Let me highlight what I felt was good about the old ICOC.
1. Emphasis on Evangelism.
One of the most quoted passages among the ICOC folks was Matthew 28:19-20. The great commission was not a call to a few but all according to Kip McKean. Every disciple was expected to be active in evangelism. Each week the disciple had to report to their discipler how many people they had reached out to (this meant invite to their church). I remember one ICOC man saying that he made a goal to talk to 100 people in one day about the ICOC and he did. The focus for every disciple was to be on making disciples.
Now the ugly side of this was the works-righteousness factor where disciples were not evangelizing out of love for Christ and a desire to honor Him as Lord but a desire to please their discipler. Many reports state that if you didn’t reach out, your discipler would often question your salvation (how can you say you love Jesus but not desire to reach people for Him?) or bash you for your laziness (Jesus went to Calvary for you but you can’t even tell your friends about what He has done?). The guilt factor was what led to many people reaching out to others. I remember a guy named Caesar at my work who was persistent in inviting people to the Columbia Church of Christ. Everyone avoided him because that was all he was going to talk about was his church and how we needed to visit. I don’t know what became of him.
2. Emphasis on Discipleship.
The good side was that the old ICOC did talk lots about discipleship and the importance of having disciples around you to keep you strong (Hebrews 3:13). At times the ICOC folks could seem so happy with one another. I went once to play flag football near the University of South Carolina campus with some members of the ICOC. They seemed so happy with one another and genuine. Of course, it could have been a show.
The ugly was the harsh relationships that began at the top up. Kip McKean was reported to have been tough on his leaders. He would often play board games with his leaders to see who would be aggressive in winning and would commend them while condemning the others. This military style came from Kip’s family background as his father was a high up in the Navy. Kip learned discipline from his father and carried that into the ICOC. The results were that Kip was tough on his people and it went straight down from there in the ICOC pyramid. Everyone ultimately wanted to be like Kip. Many of the leaders (to this day) mimicked his preaching. The focus was said to be on Jesus as our example (Ephesians 5:1-2) but sadly, the focus was typically on being like the person who was discipling you.
3. Leaders Do.
The one thing you could say about Kip McKean, according to one ICOC guy I talked to after Kip resigned from being the world sector leader, was that he lived what he preached. If Kip taught on evangelism, he would demonstrate the teaching by his example. To this day you can hear Kip preaching on the book of Acts on the Internet and he uses real examples from his own life to show how to reach out to others. Kip impressed this upon his leaders, to lead by example. Every disciple in the ICOC was expected to evangelize and this began with the leaders. Whether it was Kip or Randy McKean or Doug Arthur or Gordon Ferguson, each was expected to be lead by example by doing what they preached. This produced men who led ICOC churches by example.
The ugly side was that their example was Kip. I am not here to judge his standing before God but Kip talked more about the ICOC as the “kingdom of God” than about God Himself. I have listened to hundred of Kip’s sermons from his days in Boston, LA, then Portland, and now back in LA and the focus is typically the same: himself. Kip is presented as the ultimate example of what it means to be a disciple of Jesus. One man said while in the ICOC that “Kip is the greatest treasure God has given His Church since the Apostles.” Yet Kip is just a man. I know he would admit this. He is a fallen man (Romans 3:23). He is a man who likewise needs a Savior like we all do. There may be things about Kip that are good but his leadership style doesn’t reflect Matthew 20:20-28 in my opinion. Others have agreed and this is why Kip is no longer the head of the ICOC but has started his own splinter group.
Lastly, the ICOC was unified. Kip often preached from 1 Corinthians 1:10 (NIV of course) and talked about perfect unity. There could be no disagreements. They needed to all be on the same page. They needed to agree on doctrine and practice. The ICOC was held together by the central church which originally was the Boston Church of Christ (and thus why they became known as the Boston Movement) until Kip resigned and moved to LA to plant the LA Church of Christ. The LA Church took prominence at this point over Boston as the LA Church grew larger than the Boston Church. In fact, after Kip left, the Boston Church stopped growing and actually began to lose members. The LA Church became the central church and the one church the other ICOC churches looked to for direction, leadership, money, and support. Unlike the mainline churches of Christ, the ICOC was unified in missions and in helping others (they started HOPE International now headed by former London Church of Christ evangelist Mark Templer).
The ugly side was the controlling aspect of first Boston and then later LA. One church tried to buck against the system. The Indianapolis Church of Christ sought to confront errors they foresaw among the ICOC leaders and especially their own. The ICOC hierarchy came down hard on the Indy Church. The ICOC leadership blasted the evangelist of the Indy Church and required the people to openly repent for their rebellion against the ICOC hierarchy. This was the first of many such tactics. Eventually, leaders within the ICOC began to call for reform especially after Kip resigned from world sector leader. Today the ICOC is a loosely based fellowship united around a cooperative plan and not around one person or even one church.
Last night I watched a video from Way of the Master on the ICOC and whether they are a cult. I do believe the old ICOC was a cult. I have since become friends with ICOC leaders such as Douglas Jacoby and Joey Harris. Both are solid brothers who view me as saved despite being outside of the ICOC. While they still hold to baptism as part of the model in salvation, they also teach that justification is through faith in Christ and not by works. They reject baptismal regeneration. They further reject baptism in the ICOC as required for salvation. They also reject the idea that the ICOC is the only true church or even the church who best gets the gospel right. Dr. Jacoby interacts with men such as Ravi Zacharias and Josh McDowell. He even has written apologetic books for Harvest House Publishers (an evangelical publisher) and has shared platforms with evangelical apologists in defense of Christianity.
The ICOC has undergone major changes in the past 10 years. The entire leadership structure is transformed. The discipling aspect has been abandoned while they still encourage their people to freely meet together and to have Bible talks but not from compulsion or some discipling requirement. The ICOC also helps other people and other churches through HOPE International and has even been recognized by the United Nations for their efforts at helping people in Haiti and many other places.
Kip McKean, however, has not changed. His new church, the International Christian Church, based out of LA is still teaching and practicing the same methods he first learned from Chuck Lucas at Crossroads Church of Christ in the 1970′s. Lucas himself learned them from the charismatic movement and the shepherding movement. Melodyland Christian Center in southern California helped launch the shepherding movement in the charismatic movement that was picked up by Lucas who taught it to McKean and we are now here. While those movements are all gone, McKean continues to beat the horse. He firmly believes that his model is the biblical model and has called all churches to repent and become part of his one true movement. McKean and his followers often call themselves “God’s modern day movement.”
I hope you enjoyed this brief run down of the old ICOC. Pray for the Lord to allow former ICOC people to know Him in truth, to come to see that Jesus is not harsh as they often perceived. Pray for them to know God’s salvation by grace through faith (Ephesians 2:8-9) and to know that there is no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus (Romans 8:1). We serve the Lord out of love and not fear (John 14:15; 1 John 5:1-4). Pray also for Kip McKean to repent. Pray for Kip to openly repent before the people and to acknowledge that he has been wrong in his approach to evangelism and to discipleship.