When Shuvael and Matanah Hebert sold their upscale, four-bedroom home in Harrisburg, Pennsylvania, to join a controversial Christian commune called the The Twelve Tribes, friends and family said they were crazy. But seven years later, the middle-aged couple insists that they have no regrets, despite sharing bathrooms, a living room, a kitchen and a washing machine with 40 devoted members in a community home in a working-class area of Brunswick, Georgia.
“It’s about surrendering completely to God’s providence,” insists Matanah, 45, who also left behind a well-paying chemist’s job. Matanah, who doesn’t wear makeup, perfume or jewelry because God didn’t create her with them, but who does wear deodorant as a “kindness to others,” says that when Christ asked the rich man in Matthew 19 to sell all his possessions and follow him, he was challenging his believers to strive for a higher spiritual ideal. “Why should Christ then expect anything less from his believers today?” Matanah asks.
The Twelve Tribes has over 2,500 members in over 40 communities worldwide, and in the last ten years has grown 30 percent, according to Yonadab Hayes, 57, a Twelve Tribes leader in Brunswick. Twelve Tribes members attribute their success to communal living, a pious lifestyle—no TV, secular music, smoking or drinking—but most importantly to revitalizing Christ’s true church.
Losing my Religion
End Times and other Twelve Tribes beliefs
Members believe that humanity is moving toward a single world government that will conspire to weaken moral standards and eventually track down and persecute believers. After their forced exile from this global society, members plan to live in wilderness communities and continue to purify their spiritual practices. When the degradation of the world has peaked, they believe Christ will return and—with the help of his believers—defeat evil on earth. As stated on their website, Twelve Tribes believes that its members will ultimately be part of the select few—The Holy—that “will spend eternity as part of the Holy City, ruling over all the nations of the universe.”
Some other beliefs and practices of the Twelve Tribes:
- Members live communally, giving up possessions.
- Take Hebrew first names.
- Children are home-schooled and not sent to college.
- Don’t smoke or consume alcohol.
- Don’t vote in political elections.
- Observe Jewish Sabbath and restrictions on eating pork and shellfish.
- Don’t celebrate Christmas or Easter, considered pagan holidays.
- Men have beards and wear hair in ponytails.
- Women wear dresses and pantaloons.
- Women don’t wear makeup or jewelry, or use perfume.
- Don’t watch TV, attend movies or listen to secular music.
- Believe homosexuality, abortion and divorce are sinful.
- Communities are self-supporting through various cottage industries.
- Gather twice daily for religious services.
- Call Jesus Yahshua (a transliteration of His Hebrew name)
- Enjoy their own Israeli folk dancing and music
“Christianity lost its way,” says Hayes. “Thousands of years of human history have drifted the Christian faith further from what Yahshua [Christ] intended.” Twelve Tribes—whose name refers to the unifying governing system that God first mandated for the ancient Israelites—insists that they are the restoration of the early church. Members say that their mission is to help usher in the return of Christ by spreading the true gospel to the rest of the world and by being an example of how believers should live in love and community as Christ intended.
Josiah Jones, 28, a Twelve Tribes leader in Savannah, Georgia, says that the first Christian communities in Acts lived their faith in a manner far different from the lives of believers today. Jones quotes Acts 2:44-45: “All the believers were together and had everything in common. Selling their possessions and goods, they gave to anyone as he had need.”
Today, members of Twelve Tribes live in community homes, pool all incomes, and gather every morning and evening for group worship and fellowship. Jones, who like all the Twelve Tribes men sports a beard and a ponytail, says that it’s unfortunate that most Christians don’t live communally because it’s in sharing and living with one another that believers can live out Christ’s commandment to love and cherish each other.
Twelve Tribes’ Beginnings
Inspired by the nonconformist spirit of the Jesus Movement of the early 1970s, Elbert Eugene Spriggs, a former high school teacher from Chattanooga, Tennessee, and his wife, Marsha, began holding informal religious meetings in their home. As their meetings grew in popularity, especially with young people, a commune was started, funded by the profits of a coffee shop they built called the Yellow Deli.
With members attending different churches, the commune had no set theology or religious program, until Spriggs had an epiphany. While walking to church one Sunday, he saw a sign outside that said services were canceled due to the Super Bowl. Angered that a church would place a football game above God, Spriggs organized his own religious services, set up a meeting place and attracted much interest. Soon more communes were formed. By the early 1990s, Twelve Tribes had communities throughout the United States and in several foreign countries, including France, Brazil and Australia.
Jones says living communally is the heart of Twelve Tribes’ culture because it fosters Christian compassion. For example, when someone needs a jacket in the commune and there is no money for one, Jones says, often a member will sacrifice his or her own. This empathy also extends overseas. If a Twelve Tribes community in Europe has a financial setback, then money from other tribes will be sacrificed to meet that tribe’s needs. “It’s all about really loving and caring for one another like Yahshua taught,” he says.