Friends, Foes Give Opinions of Vine Christian Community
Chattanooga Times
Alan Murray

Friends, Foes Give Opinions of Vine Christian Community

When the Vine Christian Community Church was starting out in 1973, the Christian community of Chattanooga welcomed it with open arms. It was known as the Light Brigade at the time, and it was operating only one Yellow Deli, the Brainerd Road restaurant. A few churchgoers objected to its practice of communal living, but they were apparently a minority. After all, the doctrine of the Vine Community was based on the Apostles Creed, the Nicene Creed and the Chalcedonian Creed.
And what is more important, the church was succeeding in an area where the traditional church had failed. It was taking drug addicts and runaways, the refuse of the sixties, and turning them to Christ. "In the two years the Spriggs' have been in Chattanooga," a newspaper said of the group's leaders, Gene and Marsha Spriggs, in a glowing report in the fall of 1974, "hundreds of people have become Christians who would never have come to church."
Members of the Light Brigade attended First Presbyterian Church each Sunday where they accepted the teachings and were accepted by the congregation. Then the group began turning inward. "They felt that the local churches were not really being faithful to the mission of the church," recalls Gene craven, associate pastor of First Presbyterian at the time. "They became sort of an antichurch group, and they were making some critical comments about the church."
Cliff Daniels, who had been with Gene Spriggs from the beginning, describes the change from the inside. "Gene started teaching that churches today are the great whores of Babylon and to stay away from them," Daniels recalls. "First Presbyterian was the last place in Chattanooga that was even closely eligible to being a church."
Eventually, First Presbyterian also fell from grace with the Vine Community, and the group began holding its own Sunday service called "Critical Mass." Daniels contends that the rejection of the traditional church was so complete that Spriggs even declared in a meeting of the elder brothers that Ben Haden, pastor of First Presbyterian Church, was "of Satan." "He was condemning everybody who didn't think his way," Daniels says. "This was so different from what I had heard Gene say when we first started the group." "Then it was the concept of love." "Now it became hate, although Gene called it "righteous indignation."
The process was repeated in Dayton, Tenn., near Bryan College, where the Vine Church opened a deli in the summer of 1976. "We accepted them at first," recalls Ted C. Mercer, president of Bryan College. "The fact that they had an alternative lifestyle was not disturbing to us." "We thought that this group had a sound, basic Christian teaching." But by December 1977, Mercer had issued a statement advising "all members of the college community against participation in the Yellow Deli organization or its activities." He referred to 'brainwashing techniques,' the "exploitation of the individual" leading to the "loss of one's ability to make independent decisions," and the "cult of personality" surrounding Gene Spriggs. Three months later, the college declared the Yellow Deli absolutely off limits to students.
Mercer is now convinced that the Vine Church came to Dayton to woo students away from the college and into the group. "They are antichurch, anti-parent and anti-education," he says.
"When you see that people are drawn into an inner circle of fellowship where other people are excluded, parents are made out to be bad people and all the shots are called from the top, then I would say you have crossed the line from education and persuasion into what really becomes indoctrination and brainwashing."
Tennessee Temple schools apparently took a a similar action. J. R. Faulkner, president of the schools, refuses to talk about the Vine Church. But students say they have been told that the Yellow Deli and the Areopagus are off limits. Such action by Tennessee Temple and Bryan College convinced the administration at Covenant College that the matter deserved attention. After conferences with leaders of the Vine Church and with its critics, a study committee concluded that the church has exceeded its "ministerial" function and was taking on "magisterial" power.
The Vine Community has reacted likewise. At a prayer session in a recent Sunday service, members prayed for the students at all three schools. Elder Eddie Wiseman said he believes "the judgment of God" is upon Bryan College and asked God to lead the students and teachers away from it.