Twelve Tribes: Turning Community into Legalism

on May 30, 2013

twelve tribes 13_5_30Twelve Tribes Community in Nelson, BC (Photo Credit: Fellowship for Intentional Community)

By Aaron Gaglia (@GagliaAC)

Recently, in Christian circles there have been conversations concerning the merits of radical Christianity. Many followers of Jesus have a feeling that pursuing the American dream is not compatible with Christianity and that there must be something more to the Christian life. As one who was greatly impacted by the books Radical by David Platt and Just Courage by Gary Haugen, I sympathize with this movement. I believe that we need to take all of the teachings of Jesus seriously and not ignore certain teachings if they do not jive with our lifestyle or culture. Yet this can also lead to the devaluing of good things such as family and ordinary life. The call to radical living does not necessarily mean Christians cannot live in the suburbs. A life of radical discipleship can and should be lived out in various contexts including the suburban; it may just look different depending on the context. We must be careful to not burden all believers with a certain manifestation of the radical lifestyle.

I recently came in contact with a cult that creates a rigorous and legalistic lifestyle around a specific manifestation of Jesus’ call to discipleship. Through looking at this cult, I hope you will see the danger of dogmatically teaching that which is extra Scriptural, especially in regards to radical living.

Meet the Twelve Tribes. I came into contact with them in General Rodriguez, Argentina (an hour outside of Buenos Aires). My wife and I were interested in learning about organic farming and sustainable living so we decided to stay with them for a period of time. After living with them for a few days, we sadly realized that the Twelve Tribes were not just a group of Christians seeking to live an alternative lifestyle but instead a cult that grossly distorts the teaching of Scripture.

The Twelve Tribes started off as an outgrowth of the Christianity formed in the wake of the Jesus Movement in California.  This sect was formed because of a disconnect that the founder Eugene Spriggs felt between Christian teaching and practice. He felt Christians did not take the teaching of Jesus seriously and eventually created his own counter-cultural community that sought to live out the teachings of Jesus. This movement started small but now has over 2,000 worldwide members in 10 different countries. Many of the communities are farms where everyone lives and works together in an environment separate from the world. The different communities have stores or restaurants in their cities through which they seek to evangelize the community. Though built on what seemed to be good intentions, this group now has morphed into a heretical cult.

This movement seeks to emulate the practices of the early church. They see Acts 2:44 as a central passage of their faith. All members of the community live together and share all of their possessions. They emphasize community to the extent where all remnants of individual identity vanish. They believe all who would truly follow Yashua must live a simple, primitive lifestyle that seeks to be like the church in Acts.

Furthermore, they see themselves not merely as a church but as the nation of Israel.  They think each of their larger communities is a tribe of Israel, and that God is reinstating his tribes in preparation of the fulfillment of prophecy. The farm we stayed at in Argentina thought they were the tribe of Issachar. They eat biblical kosher, keep Shabbat, and the Jewish festivals, only call Jesus by his Jewish name, Yashua, and each receive Jewish names at baptism. Furthermore they also keep other customs such as all men wearing their hair in a pony tail that is one fist long, all men and women wearing plain natural clothing, and eating food with chop sticks.

As one who has a great interest in Judaism and the Jewish roots of the Christian faith, coupled with an interest in taking the words of Jesus seriously, I found them very fascinating at first. They really take the need for community seriously, live an organic and sustainable lifestyle, understand certain Jewish aspects of the faith that many Christians have forgotten, and truly seek to be counter cultural. Yet the uniformity of their appearance and actions, coupled with the fact that they would not call themselves Christians was very worrisome to me.

After talking extensively with them, I realized they mandated that all who would follow God live their same lifestyle. The legalism with which they mandated this lifestyle contradicts Scripture. They take descriptions from Acts, a historical book, and turn them into commands from God. They take a historical expression of the faith and turn it into a trans historical command.  They do not merely say that the early church is an example we can learn from, but rather a paradigm we must emulate.

Furthermore, their understanding of how the early church lived is also flawed. There is no indication from Scripture that all believers lived in the same house or farm, did not have regular jobs, were separate from society, and ate with chopsticks. Rather Acts indicates that these believers had regular jobs, lived in separate houses, yet still lived their counter cultural lifestyle. The early church is a group of people that simultaneously engaged and confronted the culture while also living counter-cultural lives.

In addition to their legalism described above, they also hold unscriptural beliefs such as their belief in the three eternal destinies of man, their belief that they are the tribes of Israel, and their belief that all believers must call Jesus by his Hebrew name. They take obscure beliefs and make them the main thing. Furthermore, they do not think that Christians are truly following Jesus, instead seeing Christians as “the bloody whore of Babylon” in Revelation.

Their explicit beliefs put them on the fringes of orthodox Christianity, but the culture of the communities put them in the frontier of a cult. From just spending two days with them, I could already feel the culture of control that they create. They want everyone to do everything together and they want to know where you are at all times (it was quite a process to get them to let us go to a café so we could use the internet!). From reading testimonies of ex-members, my suspicions were confirmed. They create an environment where you do not think for yourself but the community thinks for you.

Though the website makes the group seem like a harmless religious group, this is not true. This group distorts the teachings of Scripture and enforces it in a controlling environment in which people cannot think for themselves. I would encourage you to stay clear of this group and steer anyone away who is being enticed by their teachings.

If you want to follow Christ on a commune, go for it!  Yet it is imperative that you do not lay that lifestyle on everyone else. The Twelve Tribes are right in saying that many Christians are not “giving up everything” to follow Jesus as they should, but they are gravely wrong in creating a narrow interpretation of how to follow Jesus and rigidly laying it on others while ignoring countless commands and passages from Scripture. As we are seeking to live “radical” lives for Jesus, may we learn from this extreme example and not create a legalism out of one type of “radical” living.

  1. Comment by jeffreywalton on May 30, 2013 at 1:32 pm

    Loved the part about the chopsticks.

  2. Comment by David Pike on January 26, 2014 at 3:04 pm

    They believe the three races came from the 3 sons of Noah. Shem-Caucasion, Cham- Black and Japeth-Asian

    They have always had a hard time with getting Asians to join…(must do more critical thinking then the other two! LOL!) So they all use chopsticks to “Honor” Japeth in hopes of getting them to join…

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  5. Comment by Eric on September 28, 2013 at 11:18 am

    TWELVE TRIBES CHILD PUNISHMENT is frequent and painful for even the slightest attitude or foolishness.
    Corporal punishment may be applied by any adult member with love.
    “The blueness of the wound drives away all evil.”
    (October 1980 Child Training -Notes from Teachers Meeting – Page 5)
    “Unless your son has blue wounds, by this standard, you know what kind of a
    standard is in you — it is the spirit that hates your son. If one is overly concerned about
    his son receiving blue marks you know that he hates his son and hates the word of God.”
    (No date – Execution of Justice – Page 1)

  6. Comment by Cassey on September 29, 2013 at 9:22 pm

    Today, the NSPCC has called for an investigation into the practices of a controversial Christian sect in Britain after an Independent investigation revealed allegations of physical child abuse.
    The children’s charity is calling on Devon County Council and Devon and Cornwall Police to examine the activities of the Twelve Tribes community at Stentwood Farm near Honiton, after the group defended its right to chastise its children with a willow cane in The Independent earlier this month.
    A former member of the sect, a worldwide movement founded 40 years ago in the US, has now come forward with allegations of widespread physical child abuse and use of the willow cane at the Devon farm. It has also emerged that a complaint about the community was made by a woman claiming to be a former member in 2005 and was investigated by local authorities.
    The call from the NSPCC comes after authorities in Germany took 40 children at the Twelve Tribes community in Bavaria away from their parents and placed them in foster homes after a journalist filmed six children being beaten with a total of 83 strokes of the cane.
    “Following the Independent story we have liaised with Devon County Council’s children’s services to… ensure that an appropriate assessment of the concerns are undertaken,” said Phillip Noyes, director of strategy and development at the NSPCC.
    Vicki, who says she is a former member of the community and spent six months at Stentwood Farm and did not want to reveal her full name, told The Independent: “There wasn’t a day that went by while I was there that children weren’t beaten with the rod. I beat my own son because that is what the group taught me to do.”
    Children were left “black and blue” according to Vicki, and parents were told by community elders that children had “to bend over” and be “hit on the bare bottom with the stick”. She added later: “You couldn’t do it without leaving stripes.”
    Vicki says that after leaving the community she made a complaint to Devon County Council in February 2005. Her complaint included allegations of child circumcision and home births carried out without medical supervision. Devon and Cornwall Police confirmed the allegations had been investigated but “no criminal proceedings were started against any individual”.
    Devon County Council refused to comment on whether an investigation would be carried out in light of The Independent’s investigation, but a spokesman for Devon and Cornwall Police said: “We can confirm that Devon and Cornwall Police and Devon County Council are working together to thoroughly review the recent information received about the welfare of children in the Honiton area.”
    The Independent has also seen a document which purports to be a child training manual apparently produced by the sect. It states: “Parents are to chastise by using a rod or balloon stick that can cause stripes… marks like those left by a whip.”
    The 2004 Children’s Act, which came into force in January 2005, clarified the defence of reasonable chastisement for parents who are charged with assault occasioning actual bodily harm, wounding or grievous bodily harm, or cruelty to a child. Any hitting that causes bruising, swelling, cuts, grazes or scratches is punishable with up to five years in jail.
    The Twelve Tribes sect refused to comment for this article but Jonathan Stagg, an elder in the Honiton community, previously said it was the group’s “fundamental right” to use the willow cane and that the community was “still in the realm of English law”.
    It has also emerged that the sect, which believes homosexual behaviour is immoral and has been accused of anti-Semitism, runs Common Ground, a popular meeting point and café which has operated at Glastonbury Festival as recently as 2011. Vicki alleges the café was an important revenue stream for the sect and a source of new members. A Glastonbury Festival spokesman refused to comment and the group is still included on the festival’s website. However, The Independent understands the group, which rents a space from organisers at the Somerset site, is now unlikely to return to the festival in 2014.
    The group’s Common Loaf bakery, which is run from Stentwood Farm, also operates at numerous farmers’ markets in the region and ran a stall at the Devon County Show this year.
    The NSPCC spokesman added: “We’re grateful to The Independent for highlighting this issue and bringing it to our attention. Caning of children or the threat of caning is a completely unacceptable method of disciplinary action to take with any child.”
    Case study: ‘You are taught to hit them on the bare bottom’
    Vicki says she had been in contact with the Twelve Tribes community near Honiton for about a year and a half before she made the decision to move to Stentwood Farm with her seven-year-old son in 2004. Looking back, she regrets the decision.
    “Those kids are beaten for anything and everything; they are taught to be 100 per cent obedient. If that means a child is told to sit still and they move then, by the community’s standard you then have to take that child out and beat it,” she said.
    “I beat my own son as that’s what I was taught to do by the community elders. You don’t know this when you join, but you are taught to hit them on the bare bottom with the stick… it’s their doctrine”. Vicki said a boy with autism “got it worse than anybody else”. She said the group beat their children to “cleanse” their “conscience of the sin of disobedience”.
    Vicki claims she left the group after six months and now considers it a “cult”. When she told them of her reservations, she said, “they flew off the handle at me and told me I was full of demons. I came to realise this isn’t how Jesus would behave if someone came to him saying they were low and that the Twelve Tribes aren’t really Christian at all”.
    Vicki says she left the sect after smuggling a phone into her room and calling for a friend to collect her. She now lives in the north of England and attends a mainstream church.

  7. Comment by Dan on October 29, 2013 at 3:52 pm

    If you make a declarative assertion, such as they are practicing heresy. that assertion should be irrefutably substantiated without hyperbole. So, the women wear long skirts; the men have beards; they eat organic food and use chopsticks? The conflation of conformity with righteousness is pandemic. It’s a separate issue from doctrinal legalism, and is as common as the rain in every community. All of that education, and you can’t do better than this? If they are hurting kids; if they are emotionally isolating vulnerable people; indoctrinating them into an “us and them” world view and siege mentality; then people need to know. You aren’t helping anyone with this pap.

  8. Comment by David Pike on January 26, 2014 at 3:10 pm

    ” If they are hurting kids; if they are emotionally isolating vulnerable people; indoctrinating them into an “us and them” world view and siege mentality; then people need to know.” That’s exactly what they do and MOREI I feel that this article gets that across quite well! Looks as if your the one in need of remedial reading…

  9. Comment by Sebastian on March 25, 2014 at 4:15 pm

    I have stayed with the 12 tribes on a couple of occasions in Nelson and I love them. I can’t say what they do all of the time but they never made me participate in anything. I was free to join them if I wish and free to not. All of the people that I know there leave the farm to visit their family members who are in the world.
    Each one of them has given up everything they own to live together and praise God or YHWH. I find them kind and loving toward each other. I am not in accord with all of their interpretations and having studied the Bible a little and Bible history I have some difference of understanding… but tolerance for all people and all beliefs is a good practice I think…. real child abuse is horrific… but if they were abusing people after 40 years wouldn’t there be children who have grown up leaving long before now? especially here where they are constantly in contact with the town? I will continue to think well of them …. I know them all by name… and some of their histories… I love that they care about me enough to want me to be saved… and pray for me as I leave to live in the world.

  10. Comment by cassey on November 26, 2013 at 11:30 am

    I miss my friends at the Twelve Tribes community, the Peacemaker sailing ship & Yellow Deli, and the daily gatherings, but am hoping the community leaders, Yoneq, Haemeq, and Hakam will change the Child Training Manual and the Teachings to prevent painful baby and child discipline that leaves bruises with “the rod.” The tight “swaddling”, “restraining” and home circumcisions of babies is also a real concern. And please let children have toys to play with, immunizations, and yearly medical exams. You can change The Teachings while there is still time:
    “The blueness of the wound drives away all evil.” [October 1980 Child Training -Notes from Teachers Meeting – Page 5]
    “Unless your son has blue wounds, by this standard, you know what kind of a
    standard is in you — it is the spirit that hates your son. If one is overly concerned about his son receiving blue marks you know that he hates his son and hates the word of God.” [No date – Execution of Justice – Page 1]
    “We must beat respect into our children.” [Unraveling The Races Of Man]

    PLEASE ALSO STOP THE FOLLOWING “TEACHINGS” THAT MAKE NON-TRIBES BLACK PEOPLE (CHAM) SUBSERVIENT TO WHITE FOLKS (SHEM). Many black people’s ancestors were kidnapped, separated from their families, shipped to the Americas like cattle, sold at auctions, and forced to do the work that American white people refused to do. They are human beings, not slaves or animals to be bought and sold and worked for free. Many of the original Jews & Jesus were dark skinned people!

    “What a marvelous opportunity that blacks could be brought over here to be slaves so that they could be found worthy of the nations. A good master would work by the sweat of his brow. If his slaves were lazy and disrespectful he would beat them, which is what he was supposed to do.” [Cham, Island Pond, 3/19/91]
    (Note: “The Nations” is a place outside of The Holy City Heaven where the Tribes say they will live “to rule over the Nations.”)

    “Striving for civil rights is of the world – it is disorder to the established social order. In the social order of the world there is distinction between black and white. We shouldn’t try to change it and mess it up. It is going against something fundamental. Cham (blacks) should have been a slave all through history.” [Unraveling the Races of Man]

    “If the slaves were mistreated, it was the fault of the slave. Even if the master was unreasonable the slave was to bear up under it. This was Cham’s (black people’s) discipline. For 4000 years Israel had slaves….Cham was a servant (slave) to Shem (the white race). This is the Word. You can’t break the Word. The more men try to liberate Cham (black people), the worse he gets. It is more destructive for man to try to redeem himself, changing social order. The three races are to be distinct.” [Unraveling the Races of Man]

    “Niger means black. When people first started saying this word, it wasn’t bad, but it became a curse word, having a bad connotation. Before civil rights black men would say, ‘Yes, boss man’ in the south. Yes man, no man. This was respect. We need respect in people. We must beat respect into our children. Cham must get this respect in them. These blacks during the pre-civil rights time, were really slaves – they had respect for people. They got along well because they were submissive…” [Unraveling the Races of Man]

    “Cham is no longer, to his detriment, slaves or servants to Shem. This is a terrible thing, a great deception. It is of the anti-Christ to think Cham is emancipated when he really is not emancipated.” [Cham, Island Pond 6/26/90]

    “This is what Cham should be like in the world – like black nannies – this is sort of what they were to do. They were to be helper to Shem. It was to be a natural thing. There is nothing wrong with this. Civil Rights, forced equality is anti-Christ, trying to change the heart – it can’t be done.” [Unraveling the Races of Man]

    “The politicians and Martin Luther King have taken the provision away (a place in the “Nations”). There is no equal for the hatred Martin Luther King had for the black people.” [Cham, Island Pond 3/19/91]

    “Martin Luther King was filled with every evil spirit there is to say Cham doesn’t have to serve Shem. All manner of evil filled that man.” [Cham, Island Pond 3/19/91]
    “Abraham Lincoln was an evil man who deserved to die.” [regularly stated]

  11. Comment by David Pike on January 26, 2014 at 3:19 pm

    Bravo Nathaniel! Finally a well rounded article about the TT without the usual exaggerations, faulty info and mud slinging…

    I spent 7 years with them. I have been busy for 10 years now shouting “Beware! Bad Dog!”. I am now the asst executive director for http://factnet.org/ and can be contacted on facebook under my real name David T Pike and am open to discussion of any sort about this group or others similar to them. I am here to help…

  12. Comment by David Pike on January 26, 2014 at 8:21 pm

    I am sorry! All Kudos to you Aaron! I just saw Nathaniel’s photo and assumed… 🙂

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