Amazing Grace: The ICOC and Baptism, Part 1

I’ve now had two readers independently ask me about a recent posting over at Disciples Today regarding baptism. This website serves the International Churches of Christ, formerly known as the Boston Movement (and the Crossroads Movement, before that) within the Churches of Christ.

Not too long ago, most churches within the ICOC formally rejected their extreme legalism, repenting, and seeking a stronger relationship with the “mainstream” Churches of Christ. Since then, the ICOC churches have gone in different directions, some becoming indistinguishable from a non-ICOC Church of Christ and others reverting back to the very behaviors that led to their repentance. And there are former ICOC Churches all in between.

The posting on baptism appears to be an attempt to find a position on baptism that’s less narrow than the ICOC’s traditional position, without rejecting the necessity of baptism.

One, in our leadership apology letters of 2003, we apologized for being too judgmental toward people in other churches, but we did not define what we meant by being too judgmental. That failure proved to be a serious one, allowing many of our members to assume that almost any sincere believer in Christ was likely acceptable to God, regardless of conversion experience or church affiliation. We went from one extreme to another. The old extreme was to teach or leave the impression that no person outside our ICOC boundaries of fellowship could have been converted correctly. The new extreme is to assume almost the opposite. Both are extremes and both are wrong.

What I think we meant by saying that we had been too judgmental was that we had stepped outside our responsibility to teach exactly what the Bible says about conversion and had stepped into the Judgment Day role that belongs to God alone. In other words, we were teaching in a way that didn’t leave room for God to be God in determining who would ultimately be saved and lost. While we must avoid that posture in the future, we cannot go to the other extreme and pronounce final judgment in favor of sincere religious people whose conversion doesn’t square with what the Bible teaches about entering a saved relationship with Christ. Extremism, however popular, is dangerous territory for all of us.

I think it’s fair to summarize this position as: we aren’t saying those baptized improperly are damned; but neither are we saying they’re saved.

Two, several brothers (not many, and most are not currently in our fellowship) have written papers on the subject, and tended toward the extreme of a broader acceptance of conversion experiences. The impact of such writing has exerted influence on some people, but probably not that many. These papers have led to more discussions among leaders, but the average member is likely unaware of most of these discussions or the source of them.

Someone asked me whether my ebook Born of Water is one of the papers they refer to here. I don’t know. I’ve never been in the ICOC, and so I it.

Three, because of the undefined leadership apologies and the unsettled state of churches, particularly in the few years immediately after 2003, singles started dating or wanting to date outside our fellowship. We as leaders should accept our responsibility of having helped cause this reaction, but we must now also accept our responsibility of clarifying what the issues in this realm are – both biblically and practically.

You know, when I was growing up, we were taught only to marry within the Churches of Christ, that is, “the Lord’s church,” as we used to say. It sounds like the ICOC took the same position, defining the Lord’s church as the ICOC. And it sounds like there is movement back in that direction — “fellowship” meaning faithful ICOC congregations.

Saying that someone has been baptized “for the forgiveness of sins” is not nearly all of the issue in the first place. Did they biblically repent and are they open to biblical discipleship – vertically (with Christ) and horizontally (with fellow Christians)? The lordship issue and the discipling issue are more significant than the baptism issue for those with a Restoration background.

“Discipleship” can be righteous and holy or it can be legalistic and even cultic. As I work carefully through the article, I find myself dissatisfied — dissatisfied with a baptismal doctrine that damns those insufficiently committed to the lordship of Jesus and to the discipleship efforts of other Christians. It’s an awfully subjective standard that is indistinguishable, to me, from the former errors of the ICOC. I can’t find submission to the discipleship of other Christians to be a requirement of salvation.

Of course, we in the “mainstream” Churches of Christ have our own failings to answer for. I’m not saying the ICOC needs to be converted to mainstream Church of Christ-ism. Rather, we all need to be converted to Jesus, the Jesus who fills us with his Spirit and forgives us by his grace. It’s mission and it’s grace; it’s lordship and it’s freedom.

And it’s not about balancing the apparent opposites. It’s letting God open our eyes to see how they are all utterly true all at once. We are freed and forgiven so that we’ll be on mission in honor of our Lord. We don’t do mission to find freedom. We don’t work for grace. Rather, grace works in us. We are freed to do mission.

This understanding takes us toward a better, deeper understanding of baptism — as a gift received, not a condition met. I quote Martin Luther, because he says it so well —

Thus you see plainly that there is here no work done by us, but a treasure which He gives us, and which faith apprehends; just as the Lord Jesus Christ upon the cross is not a work, but a treasure comprehended in the Word, and offered to us and received by faith. Therefore they do us violence by exclaiming against us as though we preach against faith; while we alone insist upon it as being of such necessity that without it nothing can be received nor enjoyed.

The remaining question is whether baptism received for a reason other than “forgiveness of sins” (Acts 2:38) or accomplished by means other than immersion will deny us the gift of God. Does the failure of the preacher to get the elements and instructions exactly right void God’s gift? And here we come to a deeply essential question: just what kind of God do we worship? A God who damns over every mistake or a God who so wants us saved that he’ll even die on a Roman cross so it can happen?

I make the argument in much greater detail in Born of Water, but I lay out an abbreviated argument in the next post.

(It’s rather like asking whether someone born without benefit of an accredited hospital and licensed physician is truly born. I don’t recommend it, and I wouldn’t want my children born that way. But, yes, it’s still a birth.)


19 Responses

  1. Those who are best known for insisting they have a corner on truth, that they alone have salvation to offer (by whatever means) are never the same people who count themselves as nothing for the cause of Christ.

    Not once in the Bible are we told that the way we can know if a person is a Christian or not is by how he was baptized or what he believed when he was baptized. Not once!

    Not once in the Bible are we told that we can know if a believe is the real item or not is by what church he attends. Not once!

    Where the rubber meets the road is how we live out the Christ life. And historically that is the annoying little detail we have largely failed at. Calling one another names, damning each other to hell, buying pages in news papers to condemn others worship is not from heaven but from hell.

    Every person who is depending on how he was baptized, what church he is a member of, and how he does what he does on Sunday morning, rather than depending on Jesus alone is lost.


  2. Since then, the ICOC churches have gone in different directions, some becoming indistinguishable from a non-ICOC Church of Christ and others reverting back to the very behaviors that led to their repentance. And there are former ICOC Churches all in between.

    That’s a key point. In my experience there is a only small fringe of congregations that have reverted to the old behaviors. By far most are somewhere in-between the two extremes. I perceive the author of that article as being closer than average to the old ways, but he’s certainly not on the extreme.

    I think I’m one of the people he mentioned who wrote papers along the lines of your “born of water” paper. But I’m not on the extreme in that direction either. For me the issue is baptismal cognisance – what one must know in order to be saved. I’m pretty much in the same place as Jimmy Allen in his book “Rebaptism? What one must know in order to be saved.” Jesus clearly told us to make disciples of all nations, and to baptize them, and to teach them to obey. The Holy Spirit gave Peter promises associated with baptism, which are recorded for us as examples to follow. Those promises are for everyone whom God will call. So we are fully authorized to offer those promises associated with baptism, and to offer them in God’s name. Those who teach are responsible to teach what was delivered. We shouldn’t be promoting an alternative plan. But the accountability to get this right is on the teacher, not the student.

    On the other hand, God is not constrained to forgiving only those people who correctly understand and follow those specific teachings. He can forgive anyone he wants. My guess is that he will exercise that discretion. But that’s just my guess.

    There are certainly some in the ICOC who teach that Christians should only marry others in the ICOC. There are others who teach that Christians should only marry other Christians, more broadly defined. There’s a similar question regarding an elder’s children being believers. I am an elder (both daughters were baptized as high school students, and both have married men who were baptized in our campus ministry). One daughter and her husband are now members of a mainline church of Christ. That is perfectly ok! In fact I have led singing in that (a cappella) congregation on a couple of occasions. OTOH I have also played my trumpet in services at my own congregation, which wouldn’t have gone over very well at my daughter’s congregation! I point these things out to illustrate what is a broadly held perspective in the ICOC today. The old boundaries were drawn in the wrong places. Some of those wrong boundaries we inherited from the mainline church, and some we invented ourselves. What is pretty remarkable IMO is how broadly, and how quickly, those things have been changed. It’s just not common for so much change to happen so quickly in a large worldwide organization.

    IMO, the range of views in the ICOC is not nearly as wide as the range in mainline churches of Christ. But our salvation is not based on holding the right views on a list of subjects. We’re still brothers and sisters, even when we disagree. What’s so unusual about brothers and sisters disagreeing?

  3. Amen and Amen!

    Thank you Jay and Royce

  4. Thanks for sharing your thoughts! They are illuminating!

  5. A very good point on “a God who damns over every mistake”. If that is the case, we are all in trouble.

    The last part though about not being born in a hosptial by a physician- I wonder how many natural home birth people are going to come after you for that comment!

  6. “Discipleship” can be righteous and holy or it can be legalistic and even cultic. As I work carefully through the article, I find myself dissatisfied — dissatisfied with a baptismal doctrine that damns those insufficiently committed to the lordship of Jesus and to the discipleship efforts of other Christians. It’s an awfully subjective standard that is indistinguishable, to me, from the former errors of the ICOC. I can’t find submission to the discipleship of other Christians to be a requirement of salvation.

    You’ve nailed it Jay. The ICOC’s (and Kip McKean’s “International Christian Churches”) requirements for baptism involve the convert to completely submit and agree to arbitrary standards of repentance, discipleship, and lordship that even people who are leading their conversion studies can’t live up to! If you boil it all down, salvation is by obedience through discipling instead of by Christ through faith. Unfortunately a critical analysis and revision of their standardized, compartmentalized, and ultimately manipulative study series, First Principles, hasn’t been done. Even though some ICOC churches appear to have a remixed take on First Principles, I hold no hope for their core salvation doctrines that contradict grace and present a false Jesus – who is powerless to save – will change. It’s too endemic to their system.

    P.S. The author, Gordon Ferguson, was raised in the “mainline” Churches of Christ and joined the Boston Movement in the 1980’s. He was a high-level leader when Kip McKean was in control and has emerged as a high-level leader in the organization’s new governance.

  7. Xray,

    I’m not really very knowledgeable about the current goings on at the ICOC, but it sure looks like there’s an effort to return to the old cultic “discipleship” model. It’s imperative that legalism be replaced with grace, not a less-strict legalism. We’re learning this lesson in the “mainstream” Churches of Christ. I hope the ICOC can avoid making the same mistake.

    (Mat 12:43-45) “When an evil spirit comes out of a man, it goes through arid places seeking rest and does not find it. 44 Then it says, ‘I will return to the house I left.’ When it arrives, it finds the house unoccupied, swept clean and put in order. 45 Then it goes and takes with it seven other spirits more wicked than itself, and they go in and live there. And the final condition of that man is worse than the first. That is how it will be with this wicked generation.”

  8. I don’t know xray personally but I don’t doubt that he has legitimate complaints against the ICOC as he remembers it. Still, I think he makes the same mistake that disgruntled former members of mainline church of Christ often make. It’s no more legitimate to level general complaints against the ICOC than it is to level generalized complaints against all churches of Christ. The ICOC churches do vary. As much as some of them dislike the term, these churches operate autonomously, and practice vary based on local leadership.

    If you want to see change, you should encourage and support those who do change. You should make a distinction between those who change and those who do not. Of course that takes more work, because you would first have to find out which is which.

  9. Luke 6:39-40 comes to mind as well: “He also told them this parable: ‘Can a blind man lead a blind man? Will they not both fall into a pit? A student is not above his teacher, but everyone who is fully trained will be like his teacher.’

    The major difference between an ICOC church and a “mainline” Church of Christ that practices patternism is that the ICOC holds to discipling as a pattern necessary for salvation. The discipling system that has emerged and evolved over the past four decades truly has made both the current ICOC leadership and membership like their teacher – not Jesus, but Kip McKean. The discipling model used deeply embeds and enmeshes the member’s ideas of God, Christ, and Christianity with “the Kingdom” – the church. I’ve been out for three years and have become more convinced that if someone doesn’t completely step out and get away is there any hope of dissolving this enmeshment and getting on the road to recovery. Or the core leadership of a congregation does this, like Indianapolis did in 1994 and what Rhode Island appears to be doing now.

    On a side note, how does a church that severely goes off the tracks get back to health? How would a healthy “reconstruction” of that church look if there is no healthy leadership there? Would a group of elders and ministers from other healthy churches in town come in and nurse it back to health? This sounds like another future article. 🙂

  10. xray, I think you’re fighting battles from yesteryear.

  11. Dear Jay, What’s it like in the mainstream churches of Christ? Can you give me an idea of what it’s like? The love, faith, hope, power, Spirit, awe, unity, miracles, joy, persecutions, etc… Thanks Lance

  12. Lance I see your in Kip’s new movement. Are you aware of his past? Of how many people left the ICOC? That KIp was forcibly removed from his position as top dog? Have seen any of the ex-member ICOC websites?

  13. Lucas, Yes to everything!

  14. Alan,

    Even though on the surface, ICOC churches may appear to be autonomous and vary in some outward practices, none of them to my or other ex-members’ knowledge have conclusively proved their repentance. Most notably, the key area involves the doctrines of discipling and discipleship. The formation of a new hierarchy over the churches shows to me that repentance isn’t occurring, especially if more and more churches are slowly being pulled in. (

    I want repentance too. However, the problem with being a change agent in a discipling hierarchy is that things can’t change if you don’t have power and things only change if you do. I learned that the hard way by standing up for what was right (specifically the subjection and ignoring the needs of the singles), but ending up having the leadership pull me into a breaking session (in 2006, years after reforms had started). The ball’s in your court since you’re a leader and have the power. However, the only way I’ve seen to escape the grasp of discipling into the arms of the Jesus Christ of grace is to flee!

  15. xray,

    You speak as though you have personal knowledge about all the ICOC congregations. How many of them have you attended personally in the past five years? Do you really have a basis for those comments, or are you making unfounded accusations?

  16. Alan,

    I don’t need to know the status of every ICOC congregation to know that they’re not healthy. I just need to know that just one that has completely crossed back over to health. Henry Kriete’s letter provides a baseline for repentance. ( And congregations that have done this will be demonized or at least marginalized by the core ICOC. There are only a few I can think of that are heading in this direction (Rhode Island, a small group in Detroit, and Riverside, California).

    I guess it’s time to drop a bombshell. I tell you the truth, when I walked out of the ICOC baptistery in 1998, I had placed my faith in a powerless Jesus whose gospel required me to follow the rules of people over me – my disciplers and leaders. My salvation was fundamentally based on obedience through discipling, not grace and faith in the authentic, sovereign, divine Jesus Christ who bore my sins on the cross because He loved me first. The Jesus who saves was displaced by the Crossroads Movement and eventually replaced in the Boston Movement in 1987 by Kip McKean when he introduced his “disciple’s baptism” doctrine. (Did you have to get rebaptized or were you already a disciple before you were baptized in your Crossroads-based campus ministry? Everyone had to be brought on board with Kip’s additional prerequisite of baptism to be part of the church and saved.) This excluded the Church on earth to only ICOC members since no other denomination or fellowship taught their strict path of salvation.

    I maintain that the Jesus of the ICOC is just as much as a false Jesus as the Jehovah’s Witnesses or Mormons. This helps explain why there are 400,000-500,000 former members worldwide to approximately 100,000 current members and why many abandon Christianity after leaving. It also explains why the movement as a whole isn’t repenting. The Holy Spirit can’t guide and empower the individual members. I don’t believe that everyone in an ICOC church is lost, but you have many more lost people in your churches than you think. This is why I take a strong stand against the McKeanist (both the ICOC and Kip’s “sold-out” churches) because people can be deceived into following an antichrist. This is why discipling must be utterly abandoned and have the Holy Spirit take his proper role – once the believer believes in the fully human and fully divine Jesus Christ that doesn’t require them to prove their repentance by by their deeds and submit to discipling before they can be baptized for the forgiveness of sins.

    Six months after I left, enough fog cleared up for me to realize I was following the wrong Jesus and needed the real one. I’ve been an authentic, Spirit-filled Christian for a few years now. (No, I’m not charismatic, but in an Independent Christian Church. 😉 The minister who baptized me didn’t know why I was so full of joy until later.)

  17. xray,
    I don’t question what you describe as your experience. But I strongly disagree with your generalising your experiences in that place and time to all ICOC churches today. I know firsthand that it’s not true. I don’t want to continue going back and forth with you in Jay’s comments on this so this will be my last comment here on the subject.

    It sounds like you’ve found a place where you can grow in Christ. That’s great. I hope you can reach a point where you are fully reconciled with the people in your past.

  18. Alan,

    One thing that would help prove repentance in my view would be for you to publicly not only condemn Kip’s practices, but to condemn the false doctrines in the First Principles study series and remove discipling. In addition you must reteach a much more simplified gospel to your membership and explicitly state that some (if not many) of them put their faith into the wrong Jesus and are still lost and dead in their sins.

    Both true forgiveness and reconciliation come through Christ. Unfortunately the latter can only come if both parties have Jesus and in the majority of the cases the offending party trusts in the weak Jesus of discipling.

  19. Alan, I would say what Xray is saying is more widespread than you think. My dad and I just left a church in the midwest because that was the case. Did you even see the new videos on disciplestoday that talk about virginia and emphasize their numerical growth ( as the key indicator for health (obviously they don’t use those words explicitly…)

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