The International Churches of Christ (ICOC) is a spin-off of the Churches of Christ; both groups are non-denominational, worldwide associations of churches and part of the Restoration Movement. The ICOC, officially formed in 1993, currently has a network of over 700 non-denominational churches in about 150 countries.
The International Churches of Christ goes by other names, as well: the Boston Movement, the Discipling Movement, the Crossroads Movement, and Multiplying Ministries, for example. Often, the city in which a local assembly is located is added to the name, for example, Milwaukee Church of Christ and Sarajevo Church of Christ. The ICOC teaches that there should only be one church per city and that all churches outside of the ICOC are sinful.
The International Churches of Christ has a number of distinctives. One is a strong emphasis on discipleship; however, “discipleship” in the ICOC often looks very different from what most other churches practice. Many who have left the ICOC have reported “heavy shepherding” tactics. That is, they experienced high-pressure, intrusive, and abusive or spiritually manipulative tactics at the hand of the leader they were assigned to.
Another distinctive is that the International Churches of Christ focuses its evangelism almost exclusively on college students through campus groups such as Campus Advance, Christian Students Association, and Disciples on Campus. This fits well with the ICOC’s preferred method of “love-bombing”—suddenly and purposefully surrounding a person with high amounts of friendly contact, various forms of aid, and an overall sense of being immersed in a community—things first-year college students especially crave. While none of these things are unbiblical (indeed, community, service, and friendliness are all excellent aims for Christians), the International Churches of Christ uses these virtues as a façade and manipulative tool to increase membership.
Theologically, the International Church of Christ holds to the basic tenets of Protestant evangelicalism, with two important exceptions. First, the group is exclusivist, claiming that the church is meant to be divided only by geography. Any church outside of their unified system, i.e., not under the ICOC’s leadership, is not a part of the “true church.” Such claims of exclusivity should raise a red flag. Any church or denomination that claims to be the “one true church” and that all others are false churches is itself teaching falsehood.
The International Churches of Christ also departs from sound doctrine in its teaching of baptismal regeneration, the belief that water baptism is required for salvation. The ICOC believes that anyone who is not baptized is not saved and must be “evangelized” and brought into the church. Further, the ICOC teaches that the only “valid” baptism is one performed by the ICOC. No other baptism will do. Further still, the ICOC does not allow anyone to be baptized until he or she is first a “disciple” committed to the organization. The Bible, on the other hand, teaches that salvation is by grace through faith, apart from works (Ephesians 2:8–9)—including the work of baptism.
The International Churches of Christ has a strict and invasive power structure that uses manipulation and indoctrination to control its membership. Many people have been hurt by this group emotionally, psychologically, and spiritually. Because of its manipulative practices and errant view of salvation, we must caution against becoming involved in the International Churches of Christ. In 2006, the ICOC gave rise to another group, the International Christian Church, which teaches the same doctrines and engages in the same practices.
If you have been negatively affected by the International Churches of Christ or another manipulative group claiming to be Christian, we encourage you to seek healing, firm in the knowledge that, even though God’s name may have been used to hurt you, God Himself is loving and able heal those who have been spiritually abused.
The International Churches of Christ has issued an apology for some of its past actions and has made some changes to its leadership structure and discipleship approach: https://christianchronicle.org/revisiting-the-boston-movement-icoc-growing-again-after-crisis/.