By Bobby Harrington
I like to think of the historical roots of Christian Churches and the Restoration Movement through the lens of three fellowships that emerged from the time of Thomas and Alexander Campbell and Barton W. Stone in the early 1800s: to our left are the Disciples of Christ and to the right are the a cappella Churches of Christ.
In reality, the picture is not that clean.
The RENEW.org Network was launched five years ago as a renewal movement within the Restoration Movement. At RENEW.org, we seek to provide clarity in our postmodern time by articulating the best of Restoration Movement theology focused on disciple-making. Because of that clarity and our common roots, many from a fourth branch of the Restoration Movement known as the International Churches of Christ are moving to work with those of us within Christian Churches/Churches of Christ.
Here is a quick guide to understanding the International Churches of Christ (ICOC).
Where Did the International Churches of Christ Come From?
The ICOC started in the early 1980s as a group of leaders and churches began to pull away from the a cappella Churches of Christ over evangelism, obedience, racism, and discipleship. By the early 1990s the split was complete, and they had become a separate fellowship. Their original dominant leader was Kip McKean, and through his influence they received widespread criticism for cultic practices, sectarian theology, and abuse.
Many came to know of these churches as the Boston Movement because that was McKean’s home base and their center of leadership until McKean moved to Los Angeles. By 2001 the fellowship of churches rejected McKean’s leadership and started reorganization efforts. Since that time, many of the churches have gravitated toward Christian Churches. But the majority are still isolated within their own distinct fellowship.
Where Are Their Churches?
The ICOC have a bigger impact around the world than in North America, but they also have some strong pockets within North America. They made great strides at establishing churches in every major city in the world until the early 2000s when they lost steam because of concerns over their abusive practices and sectarian theology. They are seeking to address these concerns in many quarters and now have over 700 churches in 155 nations around the world.
What Are Their Strengths?
I have spent a lot of time with ICOC leaders over the years and I have been able to carefully process their strengths and weakness. In 2017 I was invited to a meeting with some leaders from the ICOC to share my observations. Most of the leaders present at that meeting in Florida and at a subsequent meeting in Los Angeles in 2018 valued and agreed with my assessment, so I will share that summary below in the hope of helping more of us move forward together. My summary of the strengths of the ICOC:
1. A commitment to the lordship of Jesus and the necessity of repentance
2. A commitment to the lordship of Jesus through obedience to Scripture
3. A commitment to discipleship as the core mission of the church
4,. A commitment to the ministry of all believers
5. A commitment to racial integration
6. The eternal stakes of fulfilling or not fulfilling the Great Commission
7. The uniform practice of a simple, effective, and reproducible model of studies that ground everyone in the same theology
8. The empowerment of women to use their gifts within the moderate bounds of male leadership
What Have Been Their Weaknesses?
It is tricky to describe the weakness of other people or a fellowship of churches. I acknowledge the logs in my own eyes, personally, and within our fellowship of churches (Matthew 7:1-5). Also, when I made my presentation of the weaknesses described below, I was gentler and more nuanced than I can be in this short article. And I must emphasize that the leadership of the churches within the International Churches of Christ are working to improve and modify what I describe. Here is a summary of the weaknesses of the ICOC:
1. A weak or distorted theology of grace (they taught they were the only true church)
2. An inadequate theology of the indwelling Holy Spirit (they did not acknowledge this as the sign of salvation as in Romans 8:9)
3. Advocating that only disciples could be baptized, based on a faulty exegesis of Matthew 28:18-20
4. Too many control and intimidation tactics previously used
5. A weak theological and scholarly rootedness
6. The tendency for many people who converted within these churches to become lukewarm and passive when they did not have the external pressure of their accountability system
7. A vulnerability to become progressive or turn back to legalism because of the pressures of our postmodern world
8. An inclination to be overly restrictive and to lack fellowship with leaders and churches outside their orbit
Why Should We Embrace Leaders and People from Within International Churches of Christ?
They need us, and we need them. We can help them, and they can help us.
In the last five years I have spent significant time with many leaders in this movement seeking to draw them into the RENEW.org Network and the influence of Christian Churches. Here are seven strategic moves:
1. Build Relationships: Proximity builds trust; distance breeds mistrust. We have the same historical and theological family to build upon in our relationships.
2. Provide Theological Clarity: RENEW.org’s theological clarity can provide the kind of theological foundation that ICOC people need—and help them avoid drifting toward either progressivism or back to legalism. Most leaders from the ICOC find quick affinity with RENEW.org’s leadership faith statement (beliefs representing the best of Christian Churches/Churches of Christ)—and it gives them security to see our strong commitment to Scripture, baptism, repentance, faithfulness, etc.
3. Emphasize Disciple-Making: We share a common commitment to disciple-making as the core mission of the church—it is their core ministry focus.
4. Emphasize Racial Diversity: They can help us with racial diversity, which is one of their unique attributes. We desperately need that within Christian Churches/Churches of Christ.
5. Emphasize Women in Ministry: Those of us who uphold the theological priority of male elders and lead ministers/pastors can benefit from the path of women in ministry in the ICOC.
6. Plant Churches with Them: One thing that has held back the ICOC has been their approach to having one church (only) in each city. That idea is breaking down and there is great promise in planting churches together with Christian Churches.
7. Find Ways to Collaborate: We can help each other through collaboration in ways that will bind us better to each other and help us all to be more resilient as we move into the future.
I am a big believer in the future of Restoration Movement ideals. I believe that the best home of future disciple-making movements can be within the Restoration Movement. Let’s seek to work with whomever shares these ideals with us!
Bobby Harrington serves as lead pastor at Harpeth Christian Church, Franklin, Tennessee, and the point leader for Discipleship.org and RENEW.org.