California, 1971. The Jesus Movement was in full swing. There was an excitement there such as Gene had never seen in all of his religious childhood. It was easy to get involved -- praising the Lord, witnessing on the streets, and passing out Jesus tracts to the endless stream of hitchhikers traveling up and down the coast of California. He volunteered to work in a rescue mission and developed a special burden for this radical generation of youth. It wasn't long before he realized that most people in the movement did not have a deep conviction in their heart, but were just caught up in the impulsive enthusiasm of the times. He observed that even the sincere ones did not seem to have the power to overcome the sins of their former life. Despite the popular movement's outward zeal, which Gene so admired, he could see that their fire was only a fading ember. Already the seemingly radical changes in people's lives were beginning to wear off, and they began settling back into the status quo of rote1 religion.
In the midst of these circumstances, walking alone on the California beach, Gene came face to face with the truth of John 15:5, "I am the vine, you are the branches; he who abides in Me, and I in him, he bears much fruit; for apart from Me you can do nothing." If his life was to mean anything, if he was going to actually do what he had been created for, it could only come about through obeying and utterly depending on his Savior -- and teaching others to do the same. Eventually Gene left California and headed east to the Rocky Mountains. He had heard there were lots of "flower children" disillusioned with the "Woodstock Nation" and people who had dropped out of traditional lifestyles who were living in the mountains trying to find peace. Perhaps there he would find people who wanted to hear the good news of the salvation he had found in Jesus, the Savior of the world.
In a small, unspoiled mountain village in Wyoming lived a young woman named Marsha. Unlike Gene, she had been raised knowing nothing about the Bible and could count on one hand the times she had even been in a church building. Her college philosophy courses, combined with the religious hypocrisy she had seen all her life in southern California, had convinced her there couldn't be a God. She couldn't believe the Christians who said they had a "personal relationship with God" when their lives were full of the same ambitions, pleasures, pursuits, and mundane daily routines as her own. She knew in her heart that if there really were a God and someone actually knew Him, that person would be radically different!
The emptiness of college and the shallow relationships there had caused her to drop out and move to that small village, looking for love and peace and a life that was closer to nature. There she had found others who seemed to want the same thing -- to really live and be real. But before long her friends traded in their ideals for a subtle conformity. Their passion for justice and love started gradually being replaced by the same old greed and selfishness they had all tried to leave behind.
When Gene showed up in the village, she admired his passion but was offended at his Bible. Yet when he read to her about the love of this man called Jesus and the high standard of justice His words called for, she was intrigued. If people actually did what this man said, it would result in a society that was everything Marsha had always dreamed of. She barraged Gene with challenging questions: Why had she never seen these words lived out? Why did Christians do little more than dress up in fancy clothes and meet in elaborate buildings, even in countries racked with poverty? For these questions Gene had no answers. All he knew was that the Son of God had saved him, had filled his heart with a love for others, and would do the same for anyone who sincerely called out to Him. It wasn't the Savior's fault that people weren't obeying His words.
Marsha couldn't ignore the truth of what she was hearing. Amazingly, this confirmed atheist put her trust in the Son of God, for she had become convinced that He was mankind's only hope. Soon afterwards, she and Gene returned to California and were married -- joined in a covenant that has withstood the test of time for over three decades.
Even though Gene had a new life and was married to a woman who shared his convictions, he knew that many things from his old life in Tennessee were unresolved. And he could not be devoted to the purpose God had called him to until his conscience was completely clear. Facing his past in Chattanooga was painful for Gene, and the south was the last place on earth that Marsha wanted to be, steeped as she was in the stereotypical prejudices of her California upbringing. But their lives no longer belonged to themselves. They were living for their Savior now, so off they went to Gene's hometown.
They both got jobs there, and soon all the debts were paid and (as much as possible) all the wrongs were righted. During this time they attended services at several of the churches in the area where their zeal for the Lord attracted much attention. They also opened their home to anyone who wanted to come and learn about their Savior. Many young people came to meetings in their living room just to sing and talk about Jesus. Because of the things they heard and the love they experienced there, many teenagers quit taking drugs. People hailed their ministry as "a great work." Every Sunday they would bring a truckload of young people to the different churches they attended. Their little group was popular, and everyone was happy.
The little brown house on Ringgold Road where Gene and Marsha lived became known as The Light House , and the little band of believers began sharing their faith through an "underground" paper called The Light Brigade Freepaper . They were excited about experiencing love, a clean conscience, and a new life. Whenever there was a concert or other public gathering, the Light Brigade would be there handing out papers.
The response was amazing. Teenagers showed up at all hours of the day and night. Some had nowhere else to go and needed a place to stay. But how would Gene and Marsha have time to care for these people if they continued working their regular jobs? Unwilling to turn away anyone sincere, they were in need of a bigger house. But how would they make ends meet? Asking for donations was out of the question. The Bible taught them to do honest work with their own hands to have something to share with those in need.2 That's just what they wanted to do -- work together and share everything they had with each other.
Thus was born The Yellow Deli restaurant. They did yard work to get a few dollars together and rented a small building. After a couple of months of renovation and a coat of bright yellow paint, the cozy little sandwich shop was ready to open. It was a place where they could work for a living and still be together, learning all about their Savior and His teachings. Anyone who came in to get a meal could also get a glimpse of the new life they had found -- the result of being forgiven and having the Holy Spirit living inside. On the menu they printed, "We serve the fruit of the Spirit. Why not ask?"
People loved to come in and talk and sit for hours in this restaurant. It was a peaceful place, not full of the usual tense atmosphere of a typical sandwich shop. The local papers did big full-color stories about them, giving glowing reports of their work and their menu.
For a reasonable price they were able to find a big house in need of much repair, which they fixed up and began living in. It just happened to be on Vine Street. The name reminded Gene of the Bible verse he had come to know so well: "I am the vine, you are the branches; apart from Me you can do nothing," so they called their new home The Vine House.
They still attended services at various churches, but problems were beginning to surface. There were murmurings in the congregations about the "hippies" and black people invading their respectable gatherings. The young disciples were starting to ask difficult questions, too. They wondered how the people they went to church with could be so wealthy when there were so many poor people around. And why did they act so cold and distant? Hadn't Gene told them that Christians were called to live a life of selfless love for their neighbor?
One Sunday it all came to a head. The church they were attending cancelled their evening service because the Super Bowl game was going to be on TV. Even though the preacher had many good things to say in his sermons, it didn't seem to make much difference in the lives of the people. Their priorities seemed to be like the ones Gene had given up when he was saved.
From that day on, the little band of disciples stopped attending services. Instead they just went to a nearby park on Sunday mornings to sing and worship. After all, the Bible never said there had to be a preacher in a pulpit and everyone else listening quietly in pews. On the contrary, the Bible taught that everyone should bring something to say, or a song to sing.3
That choice was very significant. When we stopped "going to church" and started being the church something wonderful began to happen. We began discovering who we were, and what God wanted to have happen on the earth. Verses in the Bible that we hadn't really noticed before began to stand out. With excitement we discovered that the disciples in the first century lived just as we were living. Acts 2:44 said, "All who believed were together and had all things in common." And Acts 4:32 was even clearer: "All the believers were one in heart and mind. No one claimed that any of his possessions was his own, but they shared everything they had."
From that time on opponents rose up from the ranks of the religious against our little band of disciples. No longer were we just a nice little ministry to young people that made up for how the churches were failing to reach the youth. Now we had become an independent entity, The Vine Christian Community . We weren't asking the churches for donations, teachings, seminary training, or approval. We were paying our own way and raising up our own leaders. People who hadn't wanted us at their churches in the first place were now offended that we had stopped coming. We didn't really understand what was going on and tried to make peace, but found all our efforts futile. When we tried to explain that according to the Bible we were just doing what was normal for believers, it only made matters worse. "You're saying that you're the only ones!" was the most common response. Lies and slanderous rumors began to surface about us. Suddenly we weren't so popular anymore.
All this time, however, our numbers were growing. We had to buy another house to accommodate all the people who came to live and work with us. And when a disciple from a nearby town wanted a Yellow Del i back where he had come from, we moved people there, got a house, and found a building for the restaurant. Then came more houses and more delis. Within four or five years' time we were running seven delis and occupied a dozen large houses in Chattanooga and the surrounding area. And we still handled all of our assets as we had at first -- voluntarily sharing all that we had.
And so it went. Often because of difficult circumstances, and always at great personal cost, disciples were sent out to establish communities. But that, after all, was the foundation we had been on from the beginning: meeting meeting the pressing need, giving out of what sustained us, doing whatever love demanded. We hadn't sat down and planned out how to spread our beliefs or our lifestyle. We hadn't anticipated becoming more than what we started in Tennessee. Nevertheless, by 1990, communities had been established in four other countries, several were going in the New England area, and one in the Midwest. By the year 2000, communities had begun in several other countries, as well as in many other parts of the United States.4
Just as we had never intended to become a worldwide movement, we had also never imagined ourselves to be a part of the fulfillment of Biblical prophecy. But over the years it gradually became clear that a restoration was taking place in our midst, and that we were living at a very significant time in history.
In the 1970s we knew from our heart and our experience that there was more to following the Savior than going to church. As we tried to pursue our desire to live a life pleasing to our Savior, we began to see things in the Bible that confirmed us. The accounts we read of the first-century church portrayed people who lived a radical life of self-sacrificing love for one another and were distinctly different from the society around them. It was all too obvious that such a life was missing from the Christian Churches of the twentieth century.
The reason was fairly obvious, too. There was no radical difference between churchgoers and non-churchgoers because there was no authoritative message being proclaimed to tell people what God wanted them to do. Jesus' love for His Father caused Him to obey His Father's word. He, in turn called His disciples to the same love. He went before them and was their example. His message called them to abandon their fishing nets and tax booths and to give away their personal possessions. He commanded them to sever their ties with any family members who opposed their devotion to the cause. The apostle Paul had even renounced his training as a Biblical scholar in order to know this Jesus whom his colleagues despised. But Christianity did not preach such "hard sayings." Instead, it has intellectually dissected the words of Messiah and rationalized away the need to obey them.
It wasn't hard for us to see why that authoritative message was missing in modern times. Someone would have to consistently live that life of self-sacrifice and care himself, because of his love for Jesus, before he would have the authority to call others to abandon everything to follow Him. Thus, a major focus for us in the 1970s was learning to be obedient to the message we had received.
During the 1980s we continued to seek in the Bible for the foundation of the early church to find our identity. Gradually it dawned on us what the first Church had been -- not just a religion, but a nation.5 That nation had been known as the Commonwealth of Israel.6It had been made up of priests (each one a representative of God on earth) and had possessed its own culture. Piece by piece, the puzzle began to take shape. There had been a radical separation between the Church and the world in the first century and there had been a very good reason for it. The nations of the world functioned on the basis of Natural Law -- the things that all men knew in their consciences to be true and right7 -- but the priesthood had a higher law and greater accountability.
As we studied the history and prophecies of the Old Testament, passages from the New Testament became much clearer. Living according to Natural Law was not bad, and God had an eternal reward for all who struggled to do right (see What About the Heathen? page 78), but good morals alone could not accomplish the purpose of God on the earth. There had to be a holy nation that proved their love for Messiah before He could return to the earth to establish His kingdom with them. There would have to be a people separate from the nations of the world who would live their lives obeying His commands. Matthew 24:14 and 21:43 were very clear on this point.By the close of the 1980s, though, it became obvious that this holy nation would not even be able to exist on the earth apart from the influence of righteous men in the governments of the nations -- men who would uphold freedom of religion and other basic human rights.
As we entered the 1990s, we began gathering every morning and evening to pray for the rulers of the nations in which we dwelt.8 At the same time, our message became much more sharply focused. We gained more understanding about the ways in which society was violating the Natural Law -- to the point of calling evil good and good evil. It was becoming obvious that the time-honored ideals of the hard-working man, the submissive wife, and respectful children were under attack in the world around us. Men were striving for positions where they could make the most money with the least sweat possible. Women were demanding at least a 50-50 partnership where there was no acknowledged head. Children were increasingly being left to themselves to choose their own course and form their own values. The concept of family was being re-defined to the point that homosexual partnerships were being given the same legal status as marriage in some places.
We felt a growing urgency to let people know about the good, clean life our Savior had given us. In addition to passing out literature at public events and backpacking in pairs across the countryside to share our message, we established a toll-free number and later a website where people with questions could find answers. We continued to print our freepapers, calling our main publication The Twelve Tribes Freepaper .
As the twentieth century drew to a close, various Biblical prophecies stood out to us. Isaiah 49:6 spoke of the "raising up of the tribes of Jacob to be a light to the nations so that salvation could reach to the ends of the earth." It was becoming clear that salvation reaching the ends of the earth (which Matthew 24:14 said must happen in order for Messiah to return and bring about the end of the age) depended on a nation composed of twelve tribes. These tribes, we came to understand, would not be the natural descendants of Jacob, but a spiritual Commonwealth of Israel9 -- twelve self-governing tribes. Each tribe would be composed of the disciples in a geographical area, living a common life together that would be a light to the people around them. It would be restored gradually, like the vision of dry bones in Ezekiel 37, member by member becoming united together and fleshed out into a host of communities -- the resurrection of a spiritual nation whose hope had dried up at the end of the first century.
We realized that this was our future, if we proved worthy of it, but many movements have come and gone in the last nineteen centuries, and none have fully recaptured the fervor of the first-century disciples and spread it to the ends of the earth. Always there have been selfish motives, factions, corruption, and compromise. Never has there been a people such as the prophetic dream Daniel10 describes -- a "stone kingdom" made up of people hewn from the mountain of the world "without human hands." Attempts at restoration have always involved fleshly human effort in forms such as political alliances between church and state, the use of military force, and persuasive propaganda. But the Stone Kingdom of Daniel's prophecy can only be established through love, bonding people together by a deep affection based on the sacrifices they have made for each other.
And so we have reached a critical point. There are communities being raised up in twelve geographical areas by responsible people who have been disciples for decades. Their children, for the most part, are building this nation with their parents. A rich culture is emerging in our midst. We have a clear vision for the future. But we face a supreme test. Will we continue to allow the new wine of the Holy Spirit to fill our hearts and change our lives? We will if we remain true to our Master's words in John 15:5 -- "Apart from Me you can do nothing." The challenge is to rely on the Spirit of Love, and not on our own natural abilities, so that we will not fall prey to the pride, selfish desires, and compromise that have caused every other movement of the last two millennia to fail. Everything, quite literally everything, depends on this. And with this vision we press on, for the love of our Master Yahshua compels us.11