Twelve Tribes: Turning Community into Legalism

Source: Juicy Ecumenism blog

May 30, 2013

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.


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