Mark, Helene, Nadine & Joe Brooke-Smith
Written: March-April 2008
As a family we have been part of the Alon community from December 2000 to January 2008. With this letter we would like to communicate the reasons for our leaving Alon. Although during our time at Alon we had many good experiences and learnt much, the general culture became unacceptable to us. We are not motivated by vindictiveness but want to honestly communicate the things we have repeatedly experienced over the years that led to our decision to resign and leave the community.
While visiting Alon in July 2000 we sensed the clear leading of the Lord to join the community. Therefore we decided to leave suburbia and the church we were involved with in Stellenbosch and relocated to Alon. Initially it was wonderful and challenging as life at Alon is not conventional and never lonely. We started to get new insight into our own need for discipleship and the ways of God. Yet, after being part of Alon for seven years we can with clarity say we believe that there are certain core errors in the leadership style and the culture of the community.
Everyone needs cautions and checks and balances as we are all frail human beings. History shows that in the past there have been other groups that started out as genuinely Christian but because of a lack of checks and balances erred over time. Many errors occurred in groups within mainstream Christianity and not necessarily only in cults. Sound doctrine alone will not keep one from error. In the case of Alon the error is not primarily theological or doctrinal but one of culture and style. Such error is not always easy to detect at first glance. Many of the unacceptable things we experienced would go unnoticed by uninformed visitors. The nominal Christian or those who do not know the scriptures are easy pickings for the charm and friendliness that greets one at Alon. However, a warning symptom is the general view at Alon that they exemplify what it means to follow the Lord Jesus Christ and that most other ministries and believers fall short in this regard. Such pride always hides areas of self-deception that dwell within those who would view themselves so highly – nobody can escape the truth of this principle in God’s Word. In fact, the error in culture and style at Alon has led to greater error than that which is manifested in the believers whom they in their pride judge so harshly.
We believe that the first core error is that the leadership states that Alon is a community like the first church in Acts. This statement is often repeated by other members of the community. However, the truth is that Alon is a physical, literal community, whereas the church in Jerusalem was not even for one day a physical, literal community. In not one of his letters does the Apostle Paul ever instruct the 1st century church to be a physical, literal community. After Pentecost the Apostle Peter did not gather the converts into a single or collective property to live and work under his jurisdiction. The gifts to those in need as administered by the apostles consisted of voluntary contributions of church members. The Apostle Peter had spiritual authority over the church community in Jerusalem but this mandate did not give him the authority of a landlord or an employer, i.e. over the believers’ property, work situations, families, finances etc. As will be more clearly illustrated further on the leadership at Alon has such authority over members’ lives. Instead of stating that the Alon community is like the early church in Jerusalem the leadership at Alon should have had the honesty to clarify the inherent differences between the two. This critical point should have been deliberately and repeatedly communicated as a necessary caution and protection in this regard so that the Alon community would not go into any form of error. We do not believe that there is anything wrong with choosing to live as a physical, literal community but checks and balances are needed as the situation very easily lends itself to autocratic leadership and abuses. This first core error of promoting a lie, i.e. that the Alon community is like the early church in Acts, opened the door to many other errors.
The second core error relates to the priorities in a believer’s life. We believe that the first priority for every believer should be his/her relationship with God, the second priority should be his/her own home and family, and thereafter should follow priorities like ministry, church, job etc. This is not the pattern at Alon. The reality at Alon is that service to Alon and participation in the program come before your home and family. In fact, so much time and energy go into one’s service to the community that it is even a struggle to make one’s personal relationship with God the first priority. The corporate gatherings for teaching, worship and prayer are almost all that one feeds on spiritually as there is hardly a moment in time or enough energy to seek God for oneself. As far as the priority of home and family is concerned, we believe that the leadership is guilty of usurping the authority parents have been given by God over their children. God has never given church leadership authority over children above the authority of parents over their own children. God has instituted marriage and out of this union children are born – together they are a new family. The Bible does not teach that the church, as the family of God, should replace the natural family unit. It is significant to note that in many Bible translations the term ‘family of God’ does not occur at all. The NIV does mention it once, and that in the context of ‘judgment beginning with the family of God.’ However, ‘family’ in scripture, in the context of married people and their offspring and relations, is mentioned innumerable times and without judgment. Although Jesus does warn against bondage and idolatry with regard to family and it is very true that one’s family can be the greatest stumbling block in following the Lord, He in no way teaches that the family should be dismantled as a way of dealing with such idolatry.
The third core error we believe lies in the leadership structure of Alon. The New Testament church has a plurality of leadership, the elders, which is not the case at Alon. The Alon community has a leadership structure but in it Davit alone is “powerful” and subject to no one – more an Old Testament dictatorship model than New Testament church model. As a mature man of God Davit should have discerned the danger he himself is to the wellbeing of the community. Realizing that he is a strong charismatic leader, sometimes volatile and highly-strung, and someone nobody would be able to stand up to, he needed to adjust his leadership style and procedures instead of enjoying a Moses-type respect from the members and other leaders. Idolatry of a leader is always a red light and Davit is very much held in awe and idolized. The believers in Jerusalem, including the early apostles, met in many homes and no one man was the prophetic voice of God for all. However, the leaders at Alon see Davit as the sole prophetic voice of God for their lives and nobody in the community would dare to question his discernment.
The fourth core error, which is very much related to the third, is that Davit and other leaders under him have too much authority over the lives of community members. The style of leadership is autocratic and, despite what might be said to the contrary, does not allow disagreement. We are not referring to the legitimate authority which a church leader, a boss at work or a school principal must exercise over those under him, but that which is without New Testament mandate. Contrary to Scripture, at Alon the church leadership’s authority is exercised as absolute and the expected obedience of its members is implicit. We experienced that the slightest dissent was met with severe consequences, e.g. to be told to leave a meeting and go to your house until further notice. The reactions to things that Davit (or Jonathan by proxy) disapproves of are so extreme, volatile and ‘over the top’ – it is as if the intensity and extremism of Davit is fleshed out in the life and flavour of the community.
These four core errors determine the culture and style of leadership at Alon and influence all aspects of life in the community. Here follow examples of such traits in the community.
One example of illegitimate authority and extreme reaction was when Davit heard that our daughter had been invited by her aunt in England to visit her when she had finished school. Davit could have simply cautioned us privately as her parents that this ought not to become a distraction to what God was doing in her life at the time. Instead, the whole community was called together and Davit publicly ranted on until 1.00 am about this and related issues, exposing us as apparently unwise parents who dared to make plans concerning our daughter’s future which he had not sanctioned. The truth is that such matters are not church leadership’s domain of authority. This was meddling to an extreme. Davit spoke in a manner as if he had some kind of ownership or right over the children of the community. Soon thereafter he decided and communicated his decision to the community, without consulting the parents, that all community members’ children who finished grade 12 would remain at Alon for a further year of discipleship. In the week before we left Alon a further decision was made by Davit that the high school children who live in the school hostel on the farm would no longer be returning home over weekends. Furthermore, parents were forbidden to even have a conversation with their children when passing them during the day on the property. Parents were told that Davit had his spies who would report them if they were seen talking to their children and that there would be penalties for such transgression.
We believe that the excessive authority exercised by leadership is in fact a usurping of God’s pattern of authority. A typical example of this kind of authority is that we would communicate to leadership that during a school holiday our daughter would like to visit a friend on a farm nearby for a few days, only to be told she may not. Such authority is illegitimate as God has instituted parental authority for such decisions. A parent should in fact not need the permission of leadership in such a matter. There is a difference between the authority mandating a pastor to teach and exhort versus line (decision making) authority. Alon leaders have enlarged their authority to include line authority, even when that overrules a father’s authority over his own household. This is not only presumptuous but clear evidence of great arrogance and error. No explanation for this decision from the side of Alon justifies such authoritarianism.
There is a general self-importance at Alon whereby the community elevates itself above the local church and other ministries. Such pride is always self-blinding and misguided. This attitude is especially evident in younger members who have been exclusively discipled by Alon. When we disciple we duplicate our own character. It is evident that the self-importance and self-promotion which are in Davit, yet masked by a humble and appealing personality, are duplicated in his disciples. This self-importance is very evident in the way young upcoming leaders relate to other members of the community. One of the ways it manifests itself is that they often speak in a disrespectful way (they think it is authority) to other members who may even be 20 years their senior. These younger leaders (e.g. Gad, Anton, Pieter) have many excellent qualities, nevertheless they have an inflated view of themselves. They are so elevated and favoured, despite obvious arrogance, that other members who have more experience and wisdom will not confront them. In fact, one of the young leader’s own parents who are also living in the community are often severely reprimanded by him and they would be fearful to confront him. Also common amongst cults is the view that men are superior to women – Alon has this flavour too.
The fact that it is not acceptable to disagree with leadership leads to a culture of pretence and dishonesty. One has to be false to keep oneself in the ‘good books’ of the Alon elite. We decided we cannot continue playing this falsehood game as it meant living contrary to the convictions of our hearts. The culture of pretence and ‘politically correct’ loyalty is very evident at Alon. The leadership prides itself that Alon is a place of openness and honesty. However, this is a “perverted openness” as the leadership has great liberty to expose people from the pulpit but there is not liberty for members to speak their minds, especially any unhappiness about the life of the community. This is due to a lack of respect from leadership towards its members and the intimidation the rank and file live under. We experienced for ourselves, and have seen it clearly in the people whom we have lived with closely, that there is a constant underlying fear of rebuke and negative consequences. This fear causes people to toe the line and speak and even pray in an “Alon politically correct” way. People even speak what is contrary to the conviction of their own hearts to gain acceptance, fit in and stay out of trouble. Such behaviour is not uncommon amongst people anywhere but at Alon it is endemic, the norm. If you do not conform, you are branded as independent, selfish, humanistic etc. Even the school children have to lie about what they enjoy and do not enjoy for fear of being called ungrateful or getting punished. This culture of manipulation and control is religious abuse and emotional abuse, indeed nothing less than witchcraft in the church.
On occasion Helene wrote the following: A wonderful life-changing aspect of the Alon community that is not found in many other places is that one is confronted with the ugly truth about oneself. Humanism does not rule at Alon. This has, however, also been one of the most difficult aspects to deal with. I have had life-giving experiences of hearing the truth, humbling myself, repenting and changing. I have, however, also over the years had experiences that in all honesty have made me to be more cautious, like a nervous child on the look out for the next slap which may come from any direction at any time. I have also heard countless comments from community members like “I wonder who is in trouble now?” “I feel so nervous about this meeting – I hope I will not be the one pointed out”. Sometimes I was the one pointed out and it was helpful but other times I was pointed out I could not get over it, especially if I sincerely believed I was misunderstood or misrepresented. Also I felt I could not voice it, or more seriously I was simply the victim of someone’s need to vent his/her frustration and anger. The ministry of the Holy Spirit is prophetic. However, at Alon this is almost invariably limited to rebuke, whereas biblically there should not be such an over-emphasis on admonishment, but also encouragement and comfort.
A point on making disciples: Discipleship is not removing people’s freedom to make choices but rather to equip believers to make godly decisions. Discipleship is teaching people God’s ways and walking a road with such believers empowering them to make righteous choices for themselves. However, at Alon one is kept busy like a hamster on a wheel, almost 24/7, and many decisions are made for the members. This is a false discipleship as it simply removes the opportunity of many choices from people.
We joined Alon as a step forward from a suburban church, desiring something more vibrant and cutting edge. The sacrifice of selling our house, giving up salaries, policies, insurances etc was with the motive to be more effective in ‘making a difference’ with our lives. The intention was also to be more free and flexible to reach out and so to develop in the purposes God had for us. However, over the years we increasingly felt like we were not in a flexible situation but on a forced march as almost all our energy got sucked into Alon in-house work. Over time the community has had less and less emphasis on ministry both within and without. When we arrived on the farm in December 2000 there was no restaurant, music show or private school that generated income, neither was there an orphanage. Since then all these income generating activities came into being and almost everybody in the community has been moved into a position where they help to generate income. Many people work in the businesses in town, which have also expanded much during the last years. Other income generating businesses, like the carpentry and nursery have been expanded. No doubt further sources of income generation will be initiated. We remember when we arrived at the community there was time to have meetings where we could j-ust wait on the Lord without being worried about time. Also there was far more ministry into people’s lives. Since then work dominates even many Saturdays and all Sundays. In those days outreach featured far stronger, but the visits to Zimbabwe and other nations have not established anything of lasting value for the people there. Alon invests richly in itself - very much a building of their own “paneled homes!” We believe that Alon has lost much of its cutting edge nature as income generating activities started dictating more and more how time and energy are spent in the community. The spontaneity and liberty in worship, prayer and hospitality that attracted us in the first place, do not exist in the same way any more. In fact, much of the vibrancy and zeal have over time become contrived and forced – like a group of school kids who have been drilled to respond in a certain way.
We have found that there is not an openness and accountability in the area of finances. The books of Alon are not open for examination. All churches, mission organizations, businesses and NGOs that we have worked with have outside audits and publish an annual financial report. A common trait of cults is that they neglect to keep tax records. Thus their honesty is sometimes suspect – since Alon’s finances are not in the open one only wonders as to where Indigenous Design, the nursery etc stand as regards SARS. Also regarding finances, Alon always charges the highest price they can for their products but continually pushes for favour and discounts, even using the children’s home for leverage when purchasing things or visiting places. The orphanage we believe was birthed out of a real compassion for orphans in the heart of Sylvie but over time it would appear that the leadership started using the name of the Little Oaks Children’s Home to gain sympathy and get financial favours in respect of things that have nothing to do with the orphanage. Is this not using the gospel for profit because of greed? In the light of this the poor payment of the farm labourers working on the farm is scandalous. As mentioned before, many members of the community are involved in income generating activities. However, most of the people working in this way do not benefit financially from it and have no insight into how the income is administered. For example, Helene worked for seven years as a legal secretary for the attorney who is a member of the community and never received a cent of her salary. She was not told beforehand that she would not receive remuneration. After three weeks of working at the legal firm one of the other secretaries working there was simply sent to tell her that her post was a community post and that she would therefore not receive her salary. Her salary, as well as those of many others, were every month paid to the community. It is regarded as outrageous when visitors ask questions about finances in the community but there should not be any reason for secrecy in this area. The Christian church is supposed to be an open book. The fact that Alon is not, causes one to wonder whether funds are being channeled into areas the leadership do not want to be in the light about. Alon is a trust – what is preached is that “the believers had all things in common” [Acts 2 and 4] – but who are the beneficiaries of the trust? Not “all” members, that’s for sure! One wonders where Davit gets the finance for his luxurious lifestyle, as he and his family very often travel overseas, uses many expensive health products etc. About a year ago Alon bought a house in Israel, for which they paid 2 million rand in cash.
Extreme meddling is par for the course at Alon – but just don’t make the mistake of meddling in Davit’s family (as Mark found out when he uncovered a secret in Davit’s family when he sent a friendly email to his daughter). A distortion at Alon is that members are expected to blindly follow the leaders, even when their own convictions are different in a matter. Although there is a place according to Scripture for such blind following, this is not New Testament teaching for every day life, especially concerning the details of your own private life and family. Helene experienced very acutely having to obey contrary to her own conviction – only to realize later that her own conviction was correct. A pet topic of Davit is that one has to “take a stand” against one’s own family (could it be because he has experienced persecution from his siblings?). Whereas it will be the correct way forward to take such a stand in cases where one’s family resists God’s plan for your life, to cause conflict with one’s family certainly should not be one’s aim. Helene’s parents were to bring our children back to the farm from Pretoria after they visited there during a holiday. Davit wanted her parents to bring someone with in their car who had flown in to Johannesburg. It was her father’s view that there was insufficient luggage space and space on the back seat of the two-door BMW. This decision angered Davit and Helene was instructed to phone her parents and tell them that they were selfish and not welcome at Alon because of their negative answer to the request. Helene did not feel that this was the correct thing to do but did it because she experienced great pressure to follow Davit’s instruction. This caused much hurt and led to more hurtful episodes. We now have to restore the relationship between Helene and her family. It has taken years for these wounds to be healed – without us leaving Alon there would probably never be complete healing.
Similar to the above is the extreme unreasonableness where one is required to “take a stand”, usually against a family member outside the community, but where there was no ‘offense’ by the other party. Helene’s sister visited South Africa from America with her husband and children. Helene had not seen her sister for years. Her sister offered to pay the petrol money for us to drive down to meet them at a general gathering of various family members in Pretoria. Once again the meddling started and Helene was forced to create such conflict with her sister that they never saw one another. Such interference leaves a bitter taste in the mouth. At the time you don’t feel that you can disagree with leadership – once again witchcraft in the church.
One’s life at Alon reminds one of that amazing ship, the Titanic. This luxury ship boasted the best of everything – excellent champagne, caviar and the finest cuisine, wonderful décor, beautiful cabins etc but it struck an ice berg and ended at the bottom of the icy ocean. Alon provides for its members panoramic views, organically grown avos and vegetables, pure drinking water, designer furniture, a gourmet restaurant etc but unfortunately the bigger picture and bottom line of Alon is another kind of watery grave - religious and emotional abuse. The result, as with those who sailed the Titanic, was so very different from what we thought joining Alon was going to be all about. Just as anyone (in hindsight) should have declined the privilege of participating in the maiden voyage of the Titanic despite its many attractions and who’s who on board, as its end was destruction, so too the many blessings at Alon, like the beautiful homes, swimming pools and gardens do not make up for having to endure a culture and leadership style that is abusive and destructive to personal and family life. What is the benefit of enjoying all the good things that Alon has to offer if ultimately one ends up without the liberty of being able to obey God and live according to the convictions of your heart? Thus we have declined Alon’s “blessings” as they do not compensate for having to submit to authoritarianism and abusiveness. For any self-respecting person it should never be worth it! To be so controlled causes one not to even know who you really are and even to doubt your own convictions. Indeed, much anger is suppressed amongst the adults and teenagers of the Alon community. Just as the Titanic had a design error that was the cause of many lives lost, so too those who sail with Alon suffer much confusion and the consequences of cult abuse.
Not for one second have we regretted our decision to leave Alon and never have we missed the community or longed to go back – this despite the many benefits the community has to offer. Such, I guess, is the nature of abusive relationships. In the natural I, Mark, feel like putting this article in the Sunday Times with some large colour photos – but ‘vengeance is mine says the Lord’. We have no desire whatsoever to ever meet with anyone in the Alon leadership again. Nevertheless, our stand is to forgive them. Now we are moving on with our lives, leaning on our Lord and Saviour Jesus, believing Him to unfold His good plan for our lives. We submitted ourselves to the leadership of Alon, we trusted them and many times obeyed them in faith even when our own common sense was screaming the contrary. They violated that trust and played the role of bullies and not shepherds. Therefore, may this refrain ring in their ears: “This abusive relationship is over!” We feel compassion for our many friends and especially the school children who are still living under their authority. We are aware that the high school children of Alon parents have many suppressed negative emotions that they are unable to voice. Who knows how this will impact the young adults who will be leaving school in the years to come? Not for any personal vindictiveness but for their sake, we may still approach the media.
We did enjoy the liberty in worship, the spontaneity during Shabbat meetings, the excellence of work done, the standard of hospitality, the sense of togetherness, the friendships with a diverse group of people. At times we did experience enormous warmth and compassion and support from Davit and other leaders as well as wise and insightful instruction from Sara. We walked a road together, shared life, hundreds of meals together, cabaret seasons, long drives down to Cape Town, even the dance floor, and about a dozen outreaches together. However, this has been a moment to speak the truth, where we are now for the first time able to speak free from fear of their wrath. We have no doubt that the wounds and the anger we feel will heal. It will take time to get it all out of our system. However, restoration of any relationship between us and the Alon community as it was before will not be possible. On many occasions Davit helped us with godly wisdom and discernment, so we are not motivated by bitterness towards Davit. However, regarding the errors and abuses so evident at Alon he more than anyone else has to account for.
One senior person we wish to mention who was an exception to the abusiveness mentioned is Joshua Peniel. Sometimes he overstepped the mark trying to decide for us what we were well able to decide for ourselves but his heart we do not doubt – we will miss him and we continue to appreciate his assistance in many areas of our lives.
Alon has enjoyed much ‘light from above’ but following some successes has become blinded by its own light. We believe that it is dangerous not to have openness for input and correction from believers outside the community as it is a true principle that error which goes unchecked will progressively get worse – this too we have experienced over the years at Alon. A board of leaders from within and outside the community would have been a great protection. The community has such incredible potential to be an instrument in God’s hands but unfortunately the unchecked power that leadership exercises could very well derail the purposes of God for the community of Alon. The founder of what started out as a truly remarkable work of God has become, in his own eyes, so ‘anointed, apostolic, authoritative and prophetic’ … indeed more advanced than other leaders and beyond correction, as if he is above all others.
Illegitimate use of authority will always do damage to those submitted under it. In past years this was not always so extreme at Alon but has evolved with time – and so as the illustration goes: the frogs that were once in cool water don’t notice the gradual heat and so get slowly cooked to death without even knowing it.
For more info contact Johan at firstname.lastname@example.org