Eddie Wiseman, James Howell and David Jones said they were appointed elders of the Vine Christian Community Church [now known as the "Twelve Tribes"] by the Lord. They have all been members of the church since 1974.
Wiseman, 30, is a native of Chattanooga who said he went to college and had his "bubble burst." He became heavily involved with drugs and was going nowhere when he found Christ and the Vine Church several years ago.
Jones and Howell are both 27 and are both former rock drummers. They were friends entering the Vine Church and were both "into drugs and Zen Buddhism. " "When we met people who had a purpose," said Jones, "we recognized it and joined."
The group they now help to lead has been accused by former members and by other observers of taking susceptible young people, isolating them from the community, Indoctrinating them into the order, making them submit to an abusive authority structure, and making them work up to 80 or 90 hours a week without pay.
Wiseman, Jones and Howell take all of this in a spirit of martyrdom. "Anybody who is seeking to do, the will of God and really starts bringing forth fruit is going to be opposed by the enemy," said Jones. "Anybody who reads Psalms is going to understand that - 'There are people who hate us because they don't love the Lord."
And he said there is just enough truth in each of the accusations to make them seem plausible. "People don't call us green bananas," he said. "They call us 'brain washers.' I guess we do wash brains. " "We must because if we don't there will be no changing in a person's life." "But is the allegation did what we're doing is evil?
"That's what baptism is " explained Howell, "dying with Christ to your whole past life." "You're making a breach with the past and coming into a world where there should be everything new --There should be new life, new economics, new sociology, new psychology .. every field should be new from that point on.
Jones answered likewise to the charge that the church forces its members to work long hours without pay. He said, But is that necessarily bad? "People don't think that Jesus Christ is worth giving up everything we have.
"But then we exalt people like Einstein, Bell, Edison- people that would go for tremendous periods of time without sleep because they had something worthwhile to do." The Holy Spirit makes us very intense people. - "Working at the Yellow Deli isn't really like working at Wheland Foundry."
And when charged with isolating their members from the community, the elders again concede. The world as they see it, is the territory of Satan, while the church is a refuge- a kingdom God on earth. And the only church did they see in Chattanooga that is fulfilling the true role of the church is their own. "Most people who profess to be Christians are not giving themselves totally to the Lord," Jones says. "The church doesn't understand, recognize, Submit to. appreciate the authority of God in any way " "It's because Satan has done such an excellent job of wearing away all of that in the church."
"The true, function of the church," they believe, is to provide the "proper environment" for spiritual growth." "You cannot be obedient to Jesus Christ by just going to church an Sunday and having no involvement with the brothers and sisters in your church," says Wisemen. "And I'm not just talking about calling them up to see how they are doing." "I'm talking about bearing their burdens with them, night and day.
"That's what the church should be now." "A different realm of life than what the world is." 'Without giving up our lives to the Lord, giving up our ambitions and giving up everything we ever wanted to be and understanding that Jesus Christ is everything, we will never find our true identity. " When the elders ask the memberships approval of a newly appointed elder, the membership always responds with a unanimous "amen." "It's not democratic," admitted Howell.
Critics see this as one more sign of the total control exercised by the leaders of the church over the members. But Wiseman, Jones and Howell see it as an expression of the unity of the Holy Spirit. The Vine Church, Jones explained, does not operate on the basis of discussion and debate leading to some sort of democratic resolution. Rather, they depend on "revelation from God.
That revelation, he said, comes to all members. But he adds that "this doesn't mean we all have the credibility within the church or the appointment by God. " The leaders of the church, he admitted, do speak in the name of the Lord for the people. "We believe the government of the church is supposed to be just like that "...It is supposed to govern and make decisions."
Jones also finds some truth in the charge the group exacts great discipline from its members. "Certainly we do things that require discipline, he said. "Without discipline, you are not a disciple." "That's what the word means."
How can the Vine Church be so sure in the face of criticism, that their interpretation of the Scriptures and of God's will is the correct one? "By the fruit of our efforts," said Wiseman. "We know that we have passed out of death into life because we love our brethren." "The life is what gives us credibility, not just the doctrine. "
"Who is living the life?" said Jones. "Everybody has got a bible. But who is really resurrected from the death of selfishness? "We find it very difficult to receive criticism from people who have not opened up their homes to the poor and the needy, which is what we do."
But the criticism continues, and as it does, the members of the Vine Church become more and more convinced of their unique position as members of the Kingdom of God.