The story is a familiar one. And often it can be a distressing and even tragic story. In order to illustrate the point, here are two real situations which occurred recently and are known to the writer.
A young lady from Wales recently studied in a Midlands college for three years and enjoyed her course. In the second year of studies, she was approached on campus by a stranger who invited her to a small Bible-study group. She was then pressured to join their Sunday services, got baptized and became a member. The group slowly began to control her beliefs and lifestyle; she became frightened and depressed, then left the group.
Similar stories can be repeated from other UK universities and city areas, especially London. For example, a twenty-one-year-old male student in London, together with his graduate pal working in city finance, were approached on an underground train by an ICC member. The next day they received a phone call and invitation to a meal as well as a Bible study. Slowly they were dragged into the ICC net, baptized and heavily involved themselves in recruiting for the group. It was nearly two years before they both recognized how deceptive and manipulative the ICC had been. To the relief of their families, they have now left the ICC but at a price: they are disillusioned and emotionally wounded.
A more famous contemporary example concerns a Premier League footballer in England. His name is Marcus Gayle and he plays as striker for the Wimbledon soccer team. The club’s manager, Joe Kinnear, and team captain Vinnie Jones were lured into starring in a church promotion video called Radical Discipleship. The cult’s message is promoted in the video by Gayle as he and his fiancée, Andrea George, who introduced him to the group, are baptized. Vinnie Jones remarked: ‘I was asked to do the tape by Marcus’s friend. If anyone asked me what I thought of him, I would tell them he is a great player. I know nothing about cults or religion. I’m only interested in shooting and fishing. Marcus is a workmate. I don’t know what is going on in his mind.’ However, Gayle’s mother, Sonia Downes, is desperately worried. Marcus, she explained to a friend, ‘is totally alien to us… They never leave him alone… Marcus told us they want to recruit more top players. But the cult is not interested in their souls … Marcus is being used to lure other players and fans. He is under their system of mind control. He can’t see he is part of a cult.’ Gayle is certainly an active and important member of the London Church of Christ (ICC) and some Wimbledon fans are being encouraged to join him.
In order to understand more about the ICC, I want now to answer a number of key questions concerning its background, beliefs and activities.
Who are they?
Their new name is ‘International Church of Christ‘. However, this is confusing because they also use other names. A normal practice is to use the name of the city in which they operate, so they have called themselves the ‘London [or Birmingham, or Boston, etc.] Church of Christ’. If the name is already used by another group or denomination, they use similar titles like ‘Church of Christ Jesus’, ‘Christian Church’ or ‘Disciples of Christ’. One suspects that a major reason for using different names is to cause confusion and make people think that they are an ordinary, orthodox church. And there certainly has been confusion both in Edinburgh and London. In the English capital, the group was previously known as the ‘Central London Church of Christ’ whereas it is now known as the ‘International Church of Christ’. To make it more confusing, their branches in London use additional titles like ‘London City Fellowship’. Beware!
How big are they?
This is not an easy question to answer. Since 1981 the movement launched an aggressive, international mission programme and sent out teams of people to form churches. Such churches were established in many major cities including London (1981), Chicago (1982), New York City (1983), Tokyo (1985), Johannesburg, Paris and Stockholm (1986), Mexico City, Hong Kong, Bombay and Cairo (1987-1988). Today there are churches in each continent and total membership is estimated between 50,000 and 85,000 worldwide. Nevertheless, the group is far more influential than the statistics suggest. ICC is now regarded, both in the United States and in the United Kingdom, as being the fastest growing religious cult. In the UK there are branches in cities such as Birmingham, Bristol, Cardiff, Leeds, Liverpool, Oxford, Manchester, Edinburgh and Belfast. An estimated UK membership is between 2,000-2,500 with the largest group located in London. Alongside the Church of Scientology and the Moonies, the ICC is rated as belonging to the three cults which cause the greatest concern in Britain at present.
When did they start?
There is a long complicated history dating back to Christians in the early 1800s who protested against denominations and institutionalized forms of Christianity. People belonging to this movement wanted only the Bible, without creeds, constitutions and organization. These different voices merged later to form what is known as the nineteenth-century Restoration Movement with leaders like Barton Stone, Thomas and Alexander Campbell. This movement later included groups like the ‘Disciples of Christ’ and the ‘Churches of Christ’, the latter being a conservative, Protestant group of churches. From within the Churches of Christ, there emerged in the later 1960s the ‘Crossroads Movement’, which concentrated on campus evangelism and used the same basic methods as are now being used by ICC. 1979 was an important year for the movement and it can be claimed with justification that this was the beginning of the ICC. It was in 1979 that the ICC leader, Kip McKean, with a small group, took over a small Church of Christ in Lexington, Boston. The church grew rapidly but became isolated amongst other churches in the denomination. 1987 marked the formal separation of the Boston Church of Christ and some supporting churches from the official group. It was the Boston Church which established the London Church in 1981 and the Birmingham Church in 1989.
Are they clear about the gospel?
No, not at all. In fact; not only are they unclear but they distort the gospel of Christ. The problem largely relates to baptism: is it essential in order for an individual to be saved? ICC answers loud and clear: yes. One must be baptized in water into Christ in order to receive the forgiveness of sins. That is the teaching of the ICC. They insist that saving faith itself is not enough, for baptism is also essential. But it must be baptism administered by their leaders!
The Bible is clear in its teaching regarding salvation. Christ achieved our salvation. How did he do it? He ‘has once suffered for sins, the Just for the unjust, that He might bring us to God’ (1 Peter 3:18). The same message is emphasized throughout the New Testament. ‘God was in Christ, reconciling the world to Himself’ (2 Corinthians 5:19). This reconciliation was achieved only and entirely ‘through the death of His Son’ (Romans 5:10), when he took our place by suffering the punishment due to us for our sin.
Notice carefully that God’s work of reconciliation must be accepted personally by us in faith. You cannot earn it and all you must do is to trust in Christ. That was the message of the Apostle to the jailer when he asked how he could be saved: ‘Believe on the Lord Jesus Christ and you will be saved’ (Acts 16:31). While the man was baptized later, it was not necessary for obtaining salvation. In fact, nothing that we do can contribute to the obtaining of salvation: ‘To him who works not, but believes on Him that justifies the ungodly, his faith is counted for righteousness’ (Romans 4:5). Does not John 3:5 support ICC teaching? No, for ‘water’ here is a picture of cleansing and forgiveness based on Ezekiel 36:25-27. What about Acts 2:38? Baptism is an external sign that we are already saved by grace through faith. As a seal, baptism ‘is a help to confirm and increase our faith’ (Calvin).