“Twelve Tribes” Cult Summary
You might have noticed that Pulpit & Pen has been inactive for (more or less) the last week. This is for two reasons. The first is that after seeing Facebook so severely throttle links to our podcast or anything related to the L*G_B-T (Facebook won’t let me post that acronym in any status or comment, so I write it that way to evade whatever potential algorithms the Facebook borgs created to catch it) or social justice issues, I decided to wait a few weeks and figure out how to circumnavigate the filters. We wrote about that here.
But the other reason for our hiatus was more urgent. I’ve had to deal with a pretty serious issue and it’s tied up in one contorted way or another with a cult (the extent of which I’m not entirely sure, but I’m comfortable saying ‘in one way or another.’) The cult-related issue was significant enough that even though in my absence from the office I can usually point and direct the ministry of P&P and the various hands that feed its content and material, I could barely find the time to tell the team (which is spread out over all creation) that I was okay. I don’t feel the need to divulge specifics, and for security reasons, it’s probably best not to do so, and neither have I sought permission to share specifics, so I’ll spare them. For now, it will have to suffice to say that my family and I are safe. And given that we brushed next to danger with a close encounter of a cult kind, I took the time to study the cult that vexed me so. As a polemicist, studying and researching the cult has been cathartic to me, and is probably just about as good as therapy for warding off Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder. Consider this a form of self-debriefing that will help keep my head from spinning from the adrenaline withdraw.
So who is this cult and what do they want? What do they believe? Why are they a cult? How are they dangerous? You might have never heard of them; until I recently became far too close for comfort, I had not heard of them either. And this is surprising, as someone who specializes in exposing, explaining, and dissecting cults and sub-Christian sects. They simply have not been on my radar. Now, they are. So, let’s filet this cat.
THE CULT OF THE YELLOW DELI
It’s not just a popular sandwich shop. It’s a mind-controlling, Judaizing cult. So that sandwich shop is more like a Jewish deli than Jimmy Johns, different in that there’s no ham on the menu and that you get to go home with the sandwich chef…and never leave his house.
If it sounds, weird, that’s because it is. The sandwich-slinging cult was founded by Elbert Eugene Spriggs (alias Gene Spriggs) in 1972. As par for the course with cults, he got a new name (changing someone’s name is pretty standard; it’s the quickest way to dramatically change someone’s identity), Yoneq. This name – he thought – was Hebrew for “twig,” which he claimed was taken from an obscure reference in Ezekiel 17. In reality, יונקת (yoneket, not “Yonek”) is the word used there, meaning he was off by an entire syllable and named himself nonsense, bless his heart. By the way, John Gill gives the proper interpretation of that verse here and it doesn’t lead to Elbert Eugene Spriggs, but to Christ.
And because heretics are into getting new names, I’m going to just call him “Twiggy” for the rest of this assessment because I’m not sure I want to honor the man by calling him his preferred nonsense name. Twiggy was a high school guidance counselor who started his own cult. Think about that for a minute. Could you imagine going to that high school? Anyway, Twiggy’s education in adolescent psychology came in handy when he claimed to be both an Apostle and prophet. On top of that (as though that’s not enough) he claimed to be the reincarnation of Elijah at least as early as 1982. Twiggy and his wife, Marsha, started a coffee shop out of their home called “The Lighthouse” a decade before that, back in 1972. Not finding acceptance in any churches (I presume) due to them being flaming lunatics, Twiggy and Marsha started their own youth group, called The Light Brigade. Their youth group functioned as a parachurch ministry out of First Presbyterian Church. Within just three years, however, the group splintered the church and taking the youth like a sinister Pied Piper, they started a church for the young hippies (think of it like the Jesus People Movement) and called it, “The Vine.”
Basically, that group went full-cult pretty quickly. They started to ordain just about anybody, and outside any kind of denominational authority or the authority of any established orthodox local church. Soon, the church became fully egalitarian, completely dismantling the clergy-laity divide and considering everybody an ordained minister and completely “equal” with everybody else. The exception to this rule was Twiggy himself, who was busy decreeing himself the right hand of God. The Chattanooga authorities targeted the cult and a Citizens Committee was established to help de-program the poor kids who got sucked into the cult.
As the cult expanded, it would start a sandwich shop in each new town called, “The Yellow Deli.” It offers pretty decent Kosher food (so says the Yelp reviews), except when it’s closed to follow the Jewish calendar. As young people would come in for a bite, they would be “witnessed to” by the cult staff whose free labor provides the profitability for the cafe. Sometimes they would go home with a staff person and never leave the compound again, except to go to work at the Yellow Deli. One witness testified that the Yellow Deli had a “stoner” vibe and developed a reputation for catering to college kids suffering from hangovers or the munchies. In other words, think of it like grabbing converts from a Waffle House at 2 AM, where you might just find the most vulnerable people on the planet who want nothing more than a place to crash. It was known as “The Cult of the Yellow Deli” (their official name was “Messianic Communities”). After some problems in the 1980s, reports indicate that the cult got down to just one deli, but there are conflicting reports today of exactly how many are in existence (it’s more than one, as their numbers have climbed back up). They formed a 501(c)D which is a little-used tax designation of a “for-profit religious organization,” meaning that it’s not non-profit, but it is religious.
Hey, at least they’re more honest with the IRS than Jim Bakker. Am I right? Anyway…
By 1983, the cult had spread to Vermont, where it also faced opposition. More than 110 children were taken by authorities from the cult because of alleged violations of child labor laws. The cult prevailed in court, however, and the case was tossed. The concerns for child welfare have been paramount and commonplace in virtually everyplace the cult has expanded, including England, Brazil, Germany, and a number of other nations. Creeping people out when it comes to the treatment of kids is essentially the third ordinance of the Cult of the Yellow Deli.
By the early 90s, the cult had begun to re-brand itself under the name of the Twelve Tribes. The name change was pragmatic, as cults often change names to go back “under the radar.” However, the name change also illustrated a shift in their ever-evolving theology. The group began to more explicitly teach that they must re-establish the twelve tribes of Israel before Jesus could return. In other words, they became an End Times Cult.
Yippee. Add nutty eschatology to the giant pile of craziness.
Speaking of their theology…
THEOLOGY OF THE TWELVE TRIBES CULT
I listened to numerous videos from Twelve Tribes members explaining their theology, perused their website, and read past issues of their flagship publication. Although there’s not a “systematic theology” of the Twelve Tribes, there are what seems to be cardinal doctrines of the cult.
First, Twelve Tribes is unapologetically under the Galatian Curse. They are Judaizers. There are “Messianic” believers out there that don’t quite cross the line to Judaizing, who celebrate Jewish culture while not tying it to the doctrine of justification. You know, they’re the ones blowing shofars for some strange reason and wearing prayer shawls but do believe in the essential Christian doctrines of Sola Fide, Sola Gratia, and Sola Christus. However, that’s not the Twelve Tribes. These clowns are straight out of Paul’s epistle to the Galatians, and they’re under the curse of the law. They absolutely forbid violations of the Ceremonial law and the Levitical Holiness Code and live as though the Jerusalem Council in Acts 15 never happened. You know, God hates pork, and all that stuff. There is no understanding of the traditional Christian notion of the tripartite division of God’s Old Testament law into Moral, Civil and Ceremonial Law. To not follow the Ceremonial Laws is to not be a part of God’s Twelve Tribes, and that means you split hell open when you die. If their Bibles have Mark 7:19, Acts 15 and the Book of Galatians, they don’t know it.
Second, Twelve Tribes makes law-keeping the ultimate goal of religion (which, laughably, they claim is not a religion). Over and again, they speak of “obedience” as the ultimate objective of the Christian life. And, of course, this is the works-righteousness fruit of the Galatian Curse. There is zero understanding among them that salvation is by grace alone through faith alone in Christ alone. None. Zip. Zilch. Nada. Zero. This salvation-by-obedience motif is what gives the Twelve Tribes their nutty flavor, not being content with God’s laws, but making up lots of their own along the way.
Third, and most oddly (or unique) is that they are Replacement Theologians. I’m not complaining; so am I. Although that term – Replacement Theology – is a pejorative insult, it’s one that’s often used to describe sentiments of Reformed Theology. The term implies the notion that the Church has replaced Israel as God’s Covenant people. Of course, we Reformed theologians might quibble at the term, noting that the church hasn’t technically replaced Israel because the church is Israel. Twiggy’s theology, however, is that the Twelve Tribes cult is replacing Israel (or at least 10 of the 12 numeric tribes). I listened to a podcast with a Jewish host guffawing in his interview with the Twelve Tribes members who told them they aspired to replace the Jews. It made me chuckle, just because I never thought I would hear Gentiles acting like Jews be so disrespectful to actual Jews. Usually the messianic groups treat unconverted Jews with much honor.
Fourth, the Twelve Tribes is an End Times Cult. They believe that their organization must increase and take over the world for Jesus to return. So, like every other cult, they’re aggressive little suckers. I mean, Jesus is waiting. They will know they’ve conquered the world for Jesus enough when there’s 144 thousand of them (if that sounds familiar, it’s because Twiggy stole it from the Jehovah’s Witnesses).
WEIRD CHARACTERISTICS OF THE TWELVE TRIBES CULT
Oddly enough, their eccentricities won’t damn them like their theology, but it’s the eccentricities we all can’t help but notice.
First, they are a part of the Sacred Name Movement. Yashua-this, Yahweh-that, you know the kind. Like the superstitious type, they think if words are in Hebrew they have more power. Nevermind, of course, that the New Testament writers often cited the Septuagint (the Greek translation of the Hebrew Old Testament) and had no problem with using different tongues to describe God or that Jesus’ name was most likely pronounced “ē-ā-sü’s” from the Greek and not “yesh-u-a” from the Hebrew (according to Matthew 1:21). Not even Jesus spoke Hebrew as his primary conversational language, but Aramaic. Essentially, they’re trying to being more Jewish than even Jesus. That’s commitment to Judaizing, right there.
Second, they give each other Hebrew names. However, I might point out, after half-day of studying the movement, their grasp of Hebrew is generally pretty awful (like Twiggy’s). And sometimes, they interchange Aramaic with Hebrew, not knowing the difference. It sounds Jewish, though. That counts, right? Sometimes I’ve noticed their names aren’t Hebrew, but hippy. You know, names like, “RainMyst” and “SkyeFall” and junk like that. Shalom, you hippies.
Third, their child abuse is famous. The Twelve Tribes are known for their unique-looking beating rods that, frankly, sound like the hyssop used at the crucifixion. The number of ex-cult members who have fled the cult of child abuse is multitudinous. While some have given examples of four-year-olds preparing meals and ten-year-olds re-wiring houses (both are actual accounts from survivors) as abuse, those tales just make me wonder if my kids are under-achievers. I’m more concerned about the accounts of moms beating their infants with those atrocious sticks for spitting out oatmeal so hot it’s scorching their tongue and boys getting their pants pulled down in public to get spanked bare-backed in front of their peers. Those videos on YouTube of the cult (there are many) don’t show children; those are bots if I’ve ever seen them. They make Mark Zuckerberg drinking water look natural.
Fourth, they’re commies. They have a “common purse” and everyone has to give up their wealth when they join and surrender their paychecks to the cult or work for the cult for free. They then get the basic necessities in return. Of course, they point to Acts 2 as a defense for their communism. I don’t know how they interpret Acts 2 (“they had all things in common”) through the lens of financial communism and believe in the 8th Commandment at the same time (it presupposes private property rights and undergirds personal wealth accumulation). In this respect, they’re like the Hutterite Colonies, but waaaaay creepier.
Fifth, they dress weird. The men all have Ken Ham beards and straw hats and the women all dress like Half-Pint from Little House on the Prairie. They’re avoiding “worldliness,” so they think. In reality, they just dress like worldlings from the 18th Century.
Sixth, they have a potpourri of weirdness I’ll throw into one paragraph. They do choreographed dancing (a lot of choreographed dancing, like too much…just too much dancing). Their kids get married at 14 and 15. They do that whole “let’s consummate the marriage while the whole town is cheering us on from the bedroom window” tradition that is better off dead (which is easily the weirdest tradition of the 19th century). They also do these weird plays and skits for each other, during weddings and various feast ceremonies. It’s just generalized weirdness.
Seventh, their gender role restrictions are severe. Women do not drive or lift heavy objects. They also do not spend money without men present. When women and men are in a crowd, they remain separate. Women need other women present to speak, and when they speak, they only speak to other women.
Eighth, they’re helicopter parents from Hades. Children aren’t allowed to talk to other children, even their siblings, unless the conversation is overseen by an adult. Little kids cannot run around and play with other little kids. Parents, especially mothers, must be within sight of their children at all times. Oh, and moms need to have at least seven kids or else. How on earth will Jesus come back if we never reach 144 thousand followers because moms selfishly shut off their womb at 6 kids? Pfft, those selfish-sacks.
WHY ARE THEY A CULT?
Well, first off, they’re going to cannonball into hell like those kids being plunged from The Blob in that 90s movie, Heavyweights. They deny the essentials of the Christian religion, chiefly Justification by Faith. But on top of that, they have the tell-tale signs of “cult behavior.” They isolate their members. This is more than teaching Godly Separation, this is Demonic Separation. It is mind-control. What those poor kids are told about “the world” is similar to what North Korean expats were told about the West. They are lied to about what common society is like so they dare not leave the cult. Granted, pagan society is pretty awful, but it’s not as they describe it. They marry them off as soon as is humanly possible (literally, as soon as is biologically possible) to put the old ball-and-chain around their ankle, making leaving the commune next to impossible. In Reformed Baptist circles, like my own, a woman is an “Old Maid” at 25. But at Twelve Tribes, 15 is a little ripe.
Instead of encouraging members to think, they are encouraged to not think. They are told that questions are ungodly. Being inquisitive is the greatest of sins. In the Christian faith, which is a “thinking man’s religion” (as I always say), questions are permissible because answers are available.
Control is exhibited by frequent beatings (real beatings, not “whoopin’s” like we all got in the 80’s), by making members surrender their property upon joining, by utilization of a common purse, by Prophet Twiggy who claimed to be Elijah, and by making their salvation dependent upon being in the tribe or commune. Renaming members is an attempt to give them an identity only to be found in the cult itself. Even the dress requirements are designed to remove all sense of the individual.
In the 80s and 90s, many groups formed to help de-program the poor people caught up in the Twelve Tribes. It has been widely recognized that they are, in every sense of the word, a cult.
I’ve frantically scurried to better understand this cult in recent days. As a polemicist, I was ashamed to have been caught unaware. As it turns out, I’m not omniscient. Here are some resources for you to learn more. And, by the way, I want to thank Question 12 Tribes for providing these three links, which should provide you a start to your research, as it has mine.
Their teachings (click here)
Testimonies from survivors (click here)
Their creepy-as-can-be parenting manuals (click here)