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|Other name(s)||The Children of God, The Family of Love, The Family|
|Other name(s)||The Children of God, The Family of Love, The Family|
The Family International (formed as the Children of God (COG), renamed Family of Love and later The Family), is a new religious movement often referred to as a cult (by such academics as Benjamin Beit-Hallahmi and John Huxley) started in 1968 in Huntington Beach, California, United States, with many of its early converts drawn from the hippie movement.
TFI initially spread a message of salvation, apocalypticism, and spiritual "revolution" against the outside world, which the members called "the System". In 1976, it began a method of evangelism called Flirty Fishing, using sex to "show God's love" and win converts, resulting in controversy. TFI's founder and prophetic leader, David Berg (who was first called "Moses David" in the Texas press), took the titles of "King", "The Last Endtime Prophet", "Moses", and "David". He communicated with his followers via Mo Letters—letters of instruction and counsel on myriad spiritual and practical subjects—until his death in late 1994. After his death, his widow Karen Zerby became the leader of TFI, taking the title of "Queen" and "prophetess". She married Steve Kelly, an assistant of Berg's whom he had handpicked as her "consort". Kelly took the title of "King Peter" and became the public face of TFI, speaking in a more public capacity than either David Berg or Karen Zerby.
New converts memorized MO letters, took Bible classes, and were expected to emulate the lives of early Christians while rejecting mainstream denominational Christianity. In common with converts to some other religions, most incoming members adopted a new "Bible" name.
The founder of the movement was a former baptist and Christian and Missionary Alliance pastor, David Brandt Berg (1919–1994), also known within the group as Moses David, Mo, Father David, and Dad to adult group members, and eventually as Grandpa to the group's youngest members.
Berg communicated with his followers through more than 3,000 published letters written over 24 years, referred to as "Mo Letters" by members of the group. By January 1972, Berg introduced through his letters that he was God's prophet for this time, further establishing his spiritual authority within the group. Despite this teaching, Berg freely acknowledged his failings and weaknesses.
By the end of 1972, COG members had printed and distributed approximately 42 million Christian tracts, mostly on God's salvation and America's doom. Street distribution of Berg's Letters (called "litnessing") became the COG's predominant method of both outreach and support for the next five years.
The Children of God ended as an organizational entity in February 1978. Berg reorganized the movement amid reports of serious misconduct, financial mismanagement, and established leaders having abused their positions (and others having opposed flirty fishing). He dismissed more than 300 of the movement's leaders, known as The Chain, and declared the general dissolution of the COG structure. This shift was known as the "Reorganization Nationalization Revolution" (RNR). A third of the total membership left the movement, and those who remained became part of the reorganized movement, dubbed the Family of Love, and later the Family. Most of the group's beliefs, however, remained the same.
The Family of Love era was characterized by expansion into more countries. Regular proselytizer methods included door-to-door distributing tracts and other gospel literature, and organized classes on various aspects of Christian life, with heavy use of TFI-created music.
In 1976, David Berg introduced a new proselytizing method called Flirty Fishing (or FFing), encouraging female members to show God's love through sexual activity with potential converts. Flirty Fishing was practiced by members of Berg's inner circle starting in 1973, and was introduced to the general membership in 1976, when it became widely practiced by members of the group. In some areas, Flirty Fishers used escort agencies to meet people. According to TFI, as a result of Flirty Fishing, "over 100,000 received God's gift of salvation through Jesus, and some chose to live the life of a disciple and missionary". According to data provided by TFI to researcher Bill Bainbridge, from 1974 until 1987, members had sexual contact with 223,989 people while practicing Flirty Fishing. Flirty Fishing also resulted in the births of many children, including Karen Zerby's son, Ricky Rodriguez (aka Davidito), who committed suicide after murdering a female member of the cult who had sexually abused him as a toddler. Children born as result of Flirty Fishing were referred to as "Jesus Babies". By the end of 1981, more than 300 "Jesus Babies" had been born.
In an official statement on its origins, TFI partly describes the practice of Flirty Fishing as follows:
In part as a response to the sexual liberality of the early '70s, Father David presented a more intimate and personal, voluntary form of evangelism, which became known as 'Flirty Fishing' or 'FFing.' ...Father David proposed that the boundaries of expressing God's love to others could at times go beyond just showing kindness and doing good deeds. He suggested that for those who were in dire need of physical love and affection, even sex could be used as evidence to them of the Lord's love. ...The motivation, guiding principle, and reasoning behind the FFing ministry was that through this sacrificial proof of love, some would better accept and understand God's great love for them. The goal was that they would come to believe in and receive God's own loving gift of salvation through His Son, Jesus, who gave His life for them. By this unorthodox method David felt many would find the Lord's love and salvation, who never would have otherwise. ...
In his judgment of a child custody court case in England in 1994-95, after extensively researching COG publications and hearing the testimony of numerous witnesses, Lord Justice Sir Alan Ward said the following about Flirty Fishing:
I am quite satisfied that most of the women who engaged in this activity and the subsequent refinement of ESing, (which was finding men through escort agencies), did so in the belief that they were spreading God's word. But I am also totally satisfied that that was not Berg's only purpose. He and his organization had another and more sordid reason. They were procuring women to become common prostitutes. They were knowingly living in part on the earnings of prostitution. That was criminal activity. Their attempts to deny this must be dismissed as cant and hypocrisy. To deny that the girls were acting as prostitutes because 'we are not charging but we expect people to show their thanks and their appreciation and they ought to give more for love than if we charged them' is an unacceptable form of special pleading. The 'FFers handbook' told the girls that fishing could be fun but fun did not pay the bills. 'You've got to catch a few to make the fun pay for itself. So don't do it for nothing'.
A judge in Italy came to a different conclusion in 1991, deciding that Flirty Fishing was not prostitution (see Tribunale Penale di Roma (Criminal Court of Rome), 15 November 1991, re: Berg and others, and in the archives of the Criminal Court of Rome (RG 3841/84)). The judge concluded that it was only in "the last months of 1977 Berg started counseling the members that it was permissible for proselyting reasons to offer sexual contacts and services to perspective [sic] members, the more so when the latter were potentially good financial contributors to the cult". Among the Children of God, the judge argued, Flirty Fishing was not understood as prostitution but "as a personal contribution to the humanitarian aims that the sect always claimed to pursue".
Flirty Fishing was officially abandoned in 1987, though the principles and theory were retained, in favor of other witnessing methods and also to avoid contracting and spreading HIV within the group. In 1987, new rules banned, under penalty of excommunication, sexual contact with non-members. However, the new rules also stated that exceptions would be allowed. For example, one publication stated: "All sex with outsiders is banned!--Unless they are already close and well-known friends!" Many of the Mo Letters also promoted sharing, including the sharing of one's physical body in love. Women and female children were led to believe that it was their duty to share with a man anytime he wanted. After some complaints from people who had been abused as children by adults, a new rule, that sexual interactions should not occur between an adult and a minor, was promoted but not enforced.
By 1982, many Family members had moved to southern and eastern parts of the world. At the end of 1983, TF was reporting 10,000 full-time members living in 1,642 TF Homes. Additionally, TF's Music With Meaning radio club had by this time grown to almost 20,000 members. According to statistics by TF, at this time evangelistic efforts were resulting in an average of 200,000 conversions to Christ and distribution of nearly 30 million pages of literature per month.
In March 1989, TF issued a statement that, in "early 1985" an urgent memorandum had been sent to all members "reminding them that any such activities [adult-child sexual contact] are strictly forbidden within our group". (emphasis in original). In January 2005, Claire Borowik, a spokesperson for TFI, issued a statement stating that "[d]ue to the fact that our current zero-tolerance policy regarding sexual interaction between adults and underage minors was not clearly stated in our literature published before 1986, we came to the realization that during a transitional stage of our movement, from 1978 until 1986, there were cases when some minors were subject to sexually inappropriate advances... This was corrected officially in 1986, when any contact between an adult and minor (any person under 21 years of age) was declared an excommunicable offense".
During the 1990s, numerous allegations of child sexual abuse were brought against TF around the world, in locations including Argentina, Australia, Brazil, France, Italy, Japan, Norway, Peru, Spain, Sweden, the UK, the USA, and Venezuela. TFI leadership has maintained that they did not sanction or condone the sexual abuse of children. The UK's High Court of Justice found that not only did widespread sexual abuse occur but that publications printed by church leaders promoted such activities. Berg published a document in which he said, in par. 69, "[T]here's nothing in the world at all wrong with sex as long as it's practised in love, whatever it is or whoever it's with, no matter who or what age or what relative or what manner! And you don't hardly dare even say these words in private!" (emphasis added) Some court documents can be found in the Court Cases section below.
In the early 1990s, TF members took advantage of the newly opened Eastern Europe (following the fall of Communism) and expanded their evangelism campaigns eastward, alongside many other religious groups. The production and dissemination of millions of pieces of literature earned them the colloquial name "the poster people".
The early 1990s also saw the launch of what TF termed their Consider the Poor (CTP) ministries. Expanding their outreach beyond evangelism, adherents provided material aid to the poor and disadvantaged. TF members became active in disaster relief efforts, providing and distributing humanitarian aid, organizing musical shows to benefit refugees, visiting hospitals, and similar activities.
After Berg's death in October 1994, Karen Zerby (known in the group as Mama Maria, Queen Maria, Maria David, or Maria Fontaine), took over leadership of the group. She married her longtime partner, Steven Douglas Kelly, an American known in the group as Peter Amsterdam or King Peter, who legally changed his name to Christopher Smith. He became her traveling representative due to Zerby's reclusive separation from most of her followers.
In February 1995, the group introduced the Love Charter, which defined the rights and responsibilities of Charter members and Homes. The Charter also includes the "Fundamental Family Rules", a summary of rules and guidelines from past TF publications which were still in effect.
The Charter established a new way of living within the organization, allowing members greater freedom to choose and follow their pursuits. The rights referred to in the Charter were what a member could expect to receive from the group and how members were to be treated by leaders and fellow members. The responsibilities were what members were expected to give to the group if they wished to remain full-time members, including tithing 10% of their income to World Services, giving 3% to the "Family Aid Fund" set up to support needy field situations, and 1% to regional "common pots", used for local projects, activities, and fellowships. The Charter has been amended over the years according to changes within the group. TFI's 2010 policies state that all members must tithe (give 10% of their income) or give a monthly contribution in order to retain membership.
In the 1994-95 British court case, the Rt. Hon. Lord Justice Alan Ward decided that the group, including some of its top leaders, had engaged in abusive sexual practices involving minors and had also used severe corporal punishment and sequestration of minors. However, he found that TF had abandoned these practices and concluded that they were a safe environment for children. Nevertheless, he did require that the group cease all corporal punishment of children in the United Kingdom and denounce any of Berg's writings that were "responsible for children in TF having been subjected to sexually inappropriate behaviour".
In 2004, the movement's name was changed to The Family International. However, TFI members were told that they could retain their former names so long as they do not conceal their affiliation with TFI.
In 2004, there were also major changes in the group. Internal publications spoke of arresting a general trend towards a less dedicated lifestyle, and the need for re-commitment to the group's mission of fervent evangelism. In the second half of 2004, a six-month period was held to help members refocus their priorities (known as The Renewal). The group was reorganized, with new levels of membership defined into the following categories: Family Disciples (FD), Missionary Members (MM), Fellow Members (FM), Active Members (AM), and General Members (GM).
The Love Charter governs FDs, while the Missionary Member Statutes and Fellow Member Statutes were written for the governance of TFI's Missionary member and Fellow Member circles, respectively. FD Homes are reviewed every six months against a published set of criteria.
According to TFI statistics, at the beginning of 2005 there were 1,238 TFI Homes and 10,202 members worldwide. Of those, 266 Homes and 4,884 members were FD, 255 Homes and 1,769 members were MM, and 717 Homes and 3,549 members were FM. Statistics on AM and GM categories were unavailable.
To some extent, TFI identifies itself with fundamentalist Christianity, though their more radical beliefs and practices are generally regarded as non-traditional, even heretical, by many conservative Christians. TFI teaches that the Bible and MO letters are the inspired Word of God and sacred revelation. David Berg is regarded  as the last and most important prophet of the end times, predicted in the Old and New Testaments, specifically in the reference to "a prophet like Moses" (although Peter the Apostle uses this passage to refer to Christ) . Berg is regarded as a prophet who passed on God's message, and his writing are seen as "filling in the gaps" (par.24 ) in the Bible. If they contradict or are irreconcilable with Scripture, they take precedence over it . The group believes Berg's spiritual "mantle" passed to his wife, Karen Zerby, at his death. The couple's officially published writings are regarded as part of the "Word of God," equal in weight and importance to the Bible as divine revelations. These beliefs have been re-addressed in recent publications  issued in 2010, which say they are no longer requirements of membership. However neither Berg's nor Zerby's prophetic status has been retracted.
TFI members believe that the Great Commission to evangelize the world is every Christian' duty, and that their lives should be dedicated to serving God and others. Among their several levels of membership, the most committed -- "Family Disciples" (FD) -- live communally. The group encourages having children. While birth control was at first sharply discouraged as ungodly, the choice is now left to the individual; the practice is not uncommon, though it was officially regarded as indicating lack of trust in God's plan. Birth-control views were among those re-adressed in 2010.
A central tenet of TFI theology is the "Law of Love" which, stated simply, claims that if a person's actions are motivated by unselfish, sacrificial love and are not intentionally hurtful, they are in accordance with Scripture and thus lawful in the eyes of God. Though the romantic and sexual implication of this principle is polyamory, the "Law of Love" emphasizes unselfishness, giving, caring, respect, honesty, and other essential Christian values that should be enacted in every facet of life (the Scriptural basis used for this teaching can be found in Matthew 22:37 - 40 and in Galatians 5:14). The members believe that this law supersedes all other Biblical laws, except those forbidding male homosexuality, which they believe is a sin. Female bisexuality is allowed, though a lesbian life that completely excludes men is not. TFI teaches that God created human sexuality, that it is a natural, emotional, and physical need, and that heterosexual relations between consenting adults constitute a pure and natural wonder of God's creation, and are therefore permissible according to Scripture.
The re-statements issued in 2010 express the need for more tolerance toward varying sexual choices. Since 2010, the age of consent in TFI is determined by local laws and regulations. Since 1986, sex between minors and adults has been forbidden. Adult members may have sex with any other adult member of the opposite sex, and are encouraged to do so, regardless of marital status, as a way to foster unity and combat loneliness of those "in need". This is commonly called "sharing", or "sacrificial sex". While TFI policy states that members should not be pressured into sex against their will, numerous former members have alleged they were coerced to "share" or cast as selfish or unloving if they did not. These issues were also re-addressed in 2010, reflecting a need to change this aspect of TFI culture to respect personal sexual decisions and become more inclusive of differing personal views.
TFI members believe they are living in the period known the Bible calls the "Last Days" or the "Time of the End", the era immediately preceding Christ's return. Before that event, they believe, the Earth will be ruled for seven years by the Antichrist, who will create a world government. Halfway through his rule, he will be possessed by Satan, precipitating a time of troubles known as the Great Tribulation. This will bring intense persecution of Christians, as well as stupendous natural and unnatural disasters. At the end of this period, faithful Christians will be taken to heaven in an event known as the Rapture, shortly followed by a battle between Christ and the Antichrist commonly known as the "Battle of Armageddon", in which the Antichrist will be defeated. Then, they say, Christ will reign on Earth for 1,000 years, a period they call the Millennium.
TFI's recent teachings center around beliefs they term the "new [spiritual] weapons". TFI members believe that they are soldiers in the spiritual war of good versus evil for the souls and hearts of men. Although some of the following beliefs are not new to TFI, they have assumed greater importance in recent years.
TFI continues to stress the imminent Second Coming of Christ, preceded by the rise of a worldwide government led by the "Antichrist". Doctrines of the "end times" influence virtually all long-term decision-making. However, documents issued in 2010 have changed this view to reflect a need for long-term plans and projects.
Since the late 1970s, there have been reports of ex-members' children being abducted to other countries to hide them from their parents, law enforcement authorities and child welfare agencies. In the early 1990s, one investigation -- seeking the four children of Ruth Frouman, who was expelled in July 1987 after being diagnosed with breast cancer and died four years later -- resulted in police raids on 10 TFI homes in Buenos Aires, Argentina. After holding a large number of TFI children in custody and conducting physical and psychological tests, the court returned them to their parents, citing lack of evidence. Two of the Frouman children were returned to their father that year, and the others were brought to him four years later.
Although TFI has rarely made public statements about specific child abduction cases, the group's policies and practices on child custody were re-defined in the February 1995 "Love Charter", TFI's governing document after the death of its founder. Section 60, Permanent Marital Separation Rules, states that couples with children must come to a mutual written agreement about the separation and the custody of their children, but that obtaining a legal divorce and custody order is optional. Amendments published in June 2003 state that if the parties cannot agree and "opt to use the court system", they must "relinquish Charter membership until the matter is settled". This clause was revoked by TFI's 2010 policy re-statement, and members now may retain membership while seeking a court divorce.
One TFI member, Peter Bevan Riddell, is known to have been convicted of crimes relating to child abduction. In 1984, the Australian government canceled Riddell's passport and he was extradited from Japan and convicted of committing forgery and making false statements to facilitate unlawful abduction. He later returned to Japan, where he continued working on behalf of Berg and Zerby in World Services. Another TFI member, Brian Edward Pickus, has been wanted for decades on an Interpol warrant issued by the United States and the state of Hawaii for kidnapping, burglary and unlawful flight to avoid prosecution.
|This section does not cite any references or sources. (September 2010)|
Second-generation adults (known as "SGAs") are adults born or reared in TFI. They have assumed many leadership positions in the organization, including chairmanships of international, regional, and national boards.
However, many second-generation members have left to pursue secular careers or higher education, and to rear their children in an a different environment. There is much anti-TFI sentiment among those who have left (examples include Rose McGowan, as well as sisters Celeste Jones, Kristina Jones, and Julianna Buhring, who wrote a book on their lives in TFI). Several former members have legally pursued alleged physical and sexual abusers, who, they claim, are shielded by the group's leaders.
Many former Missionary Kids have returned to the country of their citizenship, where they are Third Culture Kids (TCKs). Many have kept in communication with each other. A notable example of this is the site MovingOn.org, created by a former second-generation member in 2001 (closed down as of February 2009).
Some SGAs who remained in the group were vocal defenders of TFI's lifestyle. One outlet for their views was MyConclusion.com, a site opened shortly after the 2005 murder-suicide of SGA Rick Rodriguez and Angela Smith. Yet in subsequent years, many of those same second-generation adults left and became just as vocal, or more so, in opposing TFI. This seems to illustrate the effects of mental conditioning and group-think on TFI youth, including the radical rejection of (and by) the group upon their exit.
Members are encouraged to remain friendly with relatives who have left. However, they are discouraged from associating with anyone considered enemies of TFI, including ex-members who appear on television programs or publish books and articles denouncing the group.
Several former SGAs have reported crimes to law enforcement, testified against TFI in court, and publicly criticized the group's members and practices. In the past, TFI used the term apostate for such former members, and argued that their testimony was unreliable. Some TFI members have claimed that SGAs who alleged abuse were mentally unstable, demonically possessed, or paid by anti-cult movements. Former SGAs often resent the "apostate" label, noting they never chose to join the group. Since 2009, TFI documents have discouraged using pejorative terms for former members. They express the need to understand and respect the decisions of former members, and to support them in establishing themselves outside the group. TFI's past literature, however, and its general culture, continue to make life difficult for second- and third-generation members who leave.
TFI members are expected to respect legal and civil authorities where they live. Members have typically cooperated with appointed authorities, even during the police and social-service raids of their communities in the early 1990s. However, a controversial belief taught and practiced by many members holds that it is right to lie to non-members (or "unbelievers") to protect God's work. This belief is commonly referred to as "deceivers yet true".
Extreme secrecy surrounding leadership and finances, and aversion to government oversight, have been consistent throughout TFI's history. World Services (WS), its central administrative wing, operates in seclusion, very few members even knowing its whereabouts. Since 2010, workers' families have been told the location of specific WS centers, but the information is not otherwise available.
It is not uncommon for senior leaders to legally change their names. There have been allegations that members -- including senior leaders -- use forged or fraudulently obtained passports from Australia, Canada, the United States, and other countries. Senior leaders typically try not to publish their legal names; this has become more difficult because of legal action in many countries. In particular, a major court case in England brought to light many formerly guarded names of senior members.
In TFI's older publications, printed photographs of WS members were typically censored by means of a rudimentary pencil drawing over the person's face. In TFI-produced art, Berg's head was often replaced with that of a lion.
After Berg's death in 1994, members and the public were finally allowed to see photographs of him. In 2005, several current photos of Karen Zerby, Steven Kelly, and leading WS members were leaked online. This marked the first time in nearly 30 years that images of Zerby were publicly available. Since the TFI policy changes of 2009-10, the level of secrecy has changed somewhat. Pictures of Zerby and Kelly can now be found at http://karenzerby.org/, and[when?] Kelly carries pictures of Zerby with him to show members. But Zerby's and Kelly's whereabouts are still heavily guarded secrets, and TFI's structure and organization remain closed to any public accounting or government oversight.
TFI finances are based on a system of tithing. All members are required to donate 10% of their income to World Services. A further 3% is required for regional offices of locally administered projects and a community lending program, and a final 1% is demanded for regional literature publishing. Supplementary giving to TFI offices and leadership, beyond the 14% is encouraged and fairly common.
Tithing and other donations are solicited with the understanding that the money will be used to help TFI projects and services, including charities. But the percentage of donations sent to local charities has seldom been tracked or published.
Additional income comes from marketing products such as children's videos and music (under varied names such as Treasure Attic and Kiddy Viddy) and selling posters on the street. In recent years, many TFI members have established associations and foundations subject to the accounting and auditing regulations where they live; since 2008, TFI documents have emphasized the need for members' charity works to be transparent and sustainable.
How TFI channels its funds around the world depends largely on the trust of carefully placed, non-senior members, who typically manage bank accounts that contain organization funds in their own names. Despite this practice, TFI says it has experienced very little graft; the publicized cases have involved insubstantial amounts of money.
In TFI's literature, impending global financial doom is a common theme. Accordingly, the group has gone to considerable lengths to avoid investments it deems unstable in the event of a crash. Typically, its reserves are stored in Japanese yen, Swiss francs, and gold. TFI has consistently avoided investing in real estate, stocks or bonds. Since many members are now creating businesses and charitable enterprises, and the group's end-time beliefs have been modified, long-term planning and investments are more common.
The group has been heavily criticized by the press and the anti-cult movement. In 1971, an organization called FREECOG was founded by concerned family members and followers, including deprogrammer Ted Patrick, to "free" them from their involvement in the group.
Frequently, critics cite Berg's writings, and incidents of alleged criminal behavior by individuals. TFI members, meanwhile, argue that not all of Berg's writings reflect the group's fundamental beliefs (contained in the "Statement of Faith") or policies (contained in the 1995 "Love Charter"). They also reject judging the entire group for the wrongdoing of individuals, even when those individuals are at the highest leadership levels.
Due to the high commitment nature of the group and its controversial beliefs, the movement tends to generate strong feelings in both current and former members.
TFI has numerous programs, local foundations, and projects through which it operates around the world. The largest of these are the "Family Care Foundation" (FCF), "Aurora Production AG", and "Activated Ministries", a California-based nonprofit organization that heavily supports TFI projects.
The leadership of TFI is headed by:
Under them, management is divided into World Services, Creations, and a Family Care Foundation. Each region is managed by a team of Continental Officers (COs), usually having five to seven members. Management structures beneath the CO team are more variable, change members frequently.
In 1972, the Children of God reported 130 communes or "colonies" in 15 countries. In 1993, 7,000 of TFI's 10,000 members were under 18 years of age. Recent changes have resulted in the majority of members leaving.