Family International

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Family International
Abbreviation TFI
Leader Karen Zerby
Founder David Berg
Other name(s) Teens for Christ, The Children of God, The Family of Love, The Family
Official website

The Family International (TFI) is a new religious movement that started in 1968 in Huntington Beach, California, USA. It was initially called Teens for Christ and later gained fame as The Children of God (COG). It was later renamed and reorganized as The Family of Love, which eventually was shortened to The Family. It is currently called The Family International.


TFI initially spread a message of salvation, apocalypticism, spiritual "revolution and happiness" and distrust of the outside world, which the members called "the System". In 1976,[1] it began a method of evangelism called Flirty Fishing, that used sex to "show God's love and mercy" and win converts, resulting in controversy.[2] TFI's founder and prophetic leader, David Berg (who was first called "Moses David" in the Texas press), gave himself 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.[3] After his death, his widow Karen Zerby became the leader of TFI, taking the titles of "Queen" and "prophetess". She married Steve Kelly, an assistant of Berg's whom Berg had handpicked as her "consort". Kelly took the title of "King Peter" and became the face of TFI, speaking in public more often than either David Berg or Karen Zerby.


The Children of God (1968–1977)[edit]

Members of The Children of God (COG) founded communes, first called "colonies" (now referred to as "homes"), in various cities. They would proselytize in the streets and distribute pamphlets. Leaders within COG were referred to as "The Chain".

New converts memorized Bible verses known as the "set card". The "set card" contained over 300 Bible verses as well as 10 chapters from the Bible. New members also took Bible classes, and were expected to emulate the lives of early Christians and reject mainstream denominational Christianity. Most incoming members adopted a new Biblical name.[citation needed]

The founder of the movement, David Brandt Berg (1919–1994), was a former Christian and Missionary Alliance pastor.[4] He was known within the group as Moses David, Mo, Father David, Dad to adult group members, and eventually as Dear Grandpa to the group's youngest members.[citation needed]

Berg communicated with his followers by writing letters. He published nearly 3,000 letters over the space of 24 years, referred to as the "Mo Letters".[5] In a letter written in January 1972, Berg stated that he was God's prophet for the contemporary world, attempting to further solidify his spiritual authority within the group. Berg's letters also contained public acknowledgement of his own failings and weaknesses.[6][verification needed]

By 1972, COG had 130 communities around the world.[7] COG members had printed and distributed approximately 42 million tracts, the majority of them concerning the nature of 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 monetary support for the next five years.[citation needed]

The Children of God was abolished in February 1978. Berg reorganized the movement amid reports of serious misconduct, financial mismanagement, The Chain's abuse of authority, and disagreements within The Chain about the continued use of flirty fishing. Berg dismissed more than 300 members of The Chain, and declared the general dissolution of the COG structure. This shift was known as the "Reorganization Nationalisation Revolution" (RNR).[citation needed] One-eighth of the total membership left the movement in total. Those who remained became part of an reorganized movement called the Family of Love, and later, The Family. The majority of the group's beliefs remained the same.[8]

The Family of Love (1978–1981)[edit]

The Family of Love era was characterized by international expansion. Regular methods of proselytizing included door-to-door distribution of religious tracts and other literature, and organized classes on various aspects of Christian life, with heavy use of group-created music.[citation needed]

In 1976, before the dissolution of The Children of God,[1] David Berg had introduced a new proselytizing method called Flirty Fishing (or FFing), which encouraged female members to "show God's love" through sexual relationships 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 and became common practice within the group. In some areas Flirty Fishers used escort agencies to meet potential converts. According to TFI "over 100,000 received God's gift of salvation through Jesus, and some chose to live the life of a disciple and missionary" as a result of Flirty Fishing.[8] Researcher Bill Bainbridge obtained data from TFI suggesting that, from 1974 until 1987, members had sexual contact with 223,989 people while practicing Flirty Fishing.[9]

The Family (1982–1994)[edit]

At the end of 1983, The Family (TF) reported 10,000 full-time members living in 1,642 TF Homes. By this time TF's "Music With Meaning" radio club had grown to almost 20,000 members. According to statistics published by TFI, evangelistic efforts were resulting in an average of 200,000 conversions to Christ and distribution of nearly 30 million pages of literature per month.[citation needed]

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" and such activities were grounds for immediate excommunication from the group.[10] (emphasis in original). In January 2005, Claire Borowik, a spokesperson for TFI, stated that "[d]ue to the fact that our current zero-tolerance policy regarding sexual interaction between adults and underage minors was not 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".[11]

During the 1990s, allegations of child sexual abuse were brought against TF from members all around the world.[citation needed]

Transformation in the 1990s[edit]

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".[citation needed]

The Family (1995–2003)[edit]

After Berg's death in October 1994, Karen Zerby (known in the group as Mama Maria, Queen Maria, Maria David, or Maria Fontaine), assumed leadership of the group. She later married her longtime coworker, Steven Douglas Kelly, an American known in the group as Peter Amsterdam or King Peter.[citation needed] He legally changed his name to Christopher Smith.[citation needed] He became her traveling representative due to Zerby's reclusive separation from most of her followers.[citation needed]

In February 1995, the group introduced the Love Charter,[12] which defined the rights and responsibilities of Charter Members and Homes. The Charter also included the "Fundamental Family Rules", a summary of rules and guidelines from past TF publications which were still in effect.

The Charter specified greater freedoms for members to choose and follow independent pursuits[citation needed]. The rights defined in the Charter were what a member could expect to receive from the group, as well as how members were to be treated by leaders and fellow group members[citation needed]. The responsibilities specified were what members were expected to give to the group if they wished to remain full-time members, including tithing at least 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[citation needed]. The Charter has been amended over the years in accordance with changes within the group's belief structure[citation needed]. As of 2010, TFI's policies state that members must tithe at least 10% of their income or make a monthly contribution in order to retain membership, in accordance with the traditional biblical practice of tithing.[citation needed]

In the 1994–95 British court case, the Rt. Hon. Lord Justice Alan Ward ruled that the group, including some of its top leaders, had in the past engaged in abusive sexual practices involving minors and had also used severe corporal punishment and sequestration of minors.[13][citation needed] He found that by 1995 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".[citation needed]

The Family International (2004–present)[edit]

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.[citation needed]

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 is the families set governing document that entails each members rights, responsibilities and requirements, 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 were reviewed every six months against a published set of criteria. The Love Charter increased the number of single family homes as well as homes that relied on jobs such as self-employment.[14]

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.

Recent teachings[edit]

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 more importance in recent years.[citation needed]


In TFI jargon, the popular definition of prophecy has been expanded to refer to any message received from the "spirit world" – from Jesus, deceased founder David Berg, or another "spirit helper" (see below). Great emphasis is placed on members using prophecy to guide their daily lives. Although prophecy, also referred to as channeling, has been a part of the movement from the beginning, it has assumed greater significance under Zerby's leadership.[citation needed]

Spirit Helpers[edit]

These include angels, departed humans, other religious and mythical figures, and even celebrities; for example the goddess Aphrodite, the Snowman, Merlin, the Sphinx, Elvis,[15] Marilyn Monroe, Audrey Hepburn,[16] Richard Nixon, and Winston Churchill. Spirit helpers are sent to give instruction and to help fight the spiritual warfare going on alongside the physical world. TFI members believe that beseeching spirit helpers by name, or naming demons when rebuking or cursing them, makes their prayers more powerful. As a result, TFI regularly publishes names of individual helpers and demons, as well groups of them, noting their respective areas of power. TFI members of all ages are encouraged to "channel" their spirit helpers, to be possessed by and communicate with them frequently, and receive spirit stories from them.[citation needed]

The Keys of the Kingdom[edit]

TFI believes that the Biblical passage "I will give you the keys of the kingdom of heaven, and whatsoever you bind on earth will be bound in heaven, and whatsoever you loose on earth will be loosed in heaven" (Matthew 16:19), refers to an increased spiritual authority given to Peter and the early disciples. These keys were hidden and unused in the centuries that followed, but were revealed again through Karen Zerby as additional power for praying and obtaining miracles. TFI members call on the various Keys of the Kingdom for extra effect during prayer. The Keys are also believed to power various spiritual spacecraft[citation needed] (known as Key Craft); and they can transform into spiritual swords for fighting demons. The Keys, like most TFI beliefs, were digested in comic-book magazines to help teach them to children.[17] These beliefs are still generally held and practiced, even after the "reboot" documents of 2010.

Loving Jesus[edit]

This is a term TFI members use to describe their intimate, sexual relationship with Jesus. TFI describes its "Loving Jesus" teaching as a radical form of bridal theology.[18] They believe the church of followers is Christ's bride, called to love and serve him with wifely fervor. But they take bridal theology further, encouraging members to imagine Jesus is joining them during sexual intercourse and masturbation. Male members are cautioned to visualize themselves as women, in order to avoid a homosexual relationship with Jesus. Many TFI publications, and spirit messages claimed to be from Jesus himself, elaborate this intimate, sexual relation they believe Jesus desires and needs. TFI imagines itself as his special "bride" in graphic poetry, guided visualizations, artwork,[19] and songs.[20] Some TFI literature is not brought into conservative countries for fear it may be classified at customs as pornography.[21] The literature outlining this view of Jesus and his desire for a sexual relationship with believers was edited for younger teens,[22] then further edited for children.[23]

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.[citation needed]


The second generation[edit]

Second-generation adults (known as "SGAs") are adults born or reared in TFI.

Anti-TFI sentiment has been publicly expressed by some who have left the group; examples include sisters Celeste Jones, Kristina Jones, and Juliana Buhring, who wrote a book[24] on their lives in TFI.[25]


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.[26]


TFI finances are based on a system of tithing.[citation needed]


The group has been criticized by the press and the anti-cult movement. In 1971, an organization called FREECOG was founded by concerned parents and others, including deprogrammer Ted Patrick, to "free" members of the COG from their involvement in the group. Academics were divided, with some categorizing the TFI as a "new religious movement", and others, such as Benjamin Beit-Hallahmi[27] and John Huxley,[28] labeling the group a "cult."


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 a small number of members leaving.

Notable members (past and present)[edit]

Raised in COG as children[edit]

Media featuring the group[edit]

  • Children of God, a 63-minute Channel 4 documentary by John Smithson; detailing the Padilla family and the abuse of their 3 underage daughters and death of another.
  • Children of God: Lost and Found, a 75-minute documentary by Noah Thomson, featured at the 2007 Slamdance Film Festival[39]
  • Cult Killer: The Rick Rodriguez Story (53-minute UK documentary with transcript)[40]
  • In the first episode of Louis Theroux's Weird Weekends, Born Again Christians, Louis visits a Texas TFI family.
  • Buzzcocks mentions the group (as "Children Of God") in their song, "Orgasm Addict"[original research?].
  • RedLetterMedia featured the Family International video "S.O.S." on an episode of "Best of the Worst."[41]
  • Mentioned in "Tony Robbins: I Am Not Your Guru" documentary at 52 minute of the film as an organization where children are forced to have sex from the age of six [42]

See also[edit]


  1. ^ a b "Archived copy". Archived from the original on 2014-08-09. Retrieved 2014-03-02. 
  2. ^ Niebuhr, Gustav (2 June 1993). "'The Family' and Final Harvest". The Washington Post. p. A01. Retrieved 2008-04-27. Sure, Alexander concedes, plenty of people object that The Family's 'Law of Love' permits sex outside marriage and that the group once used (and still espouses the concept and beliefs about) a practice known as 'flirty fishing' – the use of free sex to win converts 
  3. ^ "pubsDB -". 2012-02-20. Retrieved 2016-07-24. 
  4. ^ "History - Mission -". Retrieved 2016-08-13. 
  5. ^ "The Man - Mission -". Retrieved 2016-08-13. 
  6. ^ Chancellor, James (2000). Life in The Family: An Oral History of the Children of God. Syracuse, NY: University of Syracuse Press. pp. 64–67. 
  7. ^ International, The Family. "Our History | The Family International". Retrieved 2016-08-13. 
  8. ^ a b "About The Family International | The Family International". Retrieved 2016-07-24. 
  9. ^ Bainbridge, William Sims (1996). "The Sociology of Religious Movements". Routledge. ISBN 0-415-91202-4. pg 223
  10. ^ "Child Abuse?! - XFamily - Children of God". XFamily. 2008-01-24. Retrieved 2016-07-24. 
  11. ^ "Archived copy". Archived from the original on 2005-09-14. Retrieved 2005-06-30. 
  12. ^ "Charter of the Family International | Governing Documents". Retrieved 2016-07-24. 
  13. ^ "The Judgement of Lord Justice Ward, 1995". Retrieved 2016-08-13. 
  14. ^ Shepherd, G., & Shepherd, G. (2005). Accommodation and reformation in the Family/Children of god. Nova Religio, 9(1), 67-92.
  15. ^ "pubsDB -". 2012-12-20. Retrieved 2016-07-24. 
  16. ^ "pubsDB -". Retrieved 2016-07-24. 
  17. ^ "Using The Keys Part 1" (PDF). Retrieved 2016-07-24. 
  18. ^ "About The Family International | The Family International". Retrieved 2016-07-24. 
  19. ^ "File:Tamar 558.jpg – XFamily – Children of God". XFamily. Retrieved 2016-07-24. 
  20. ^ "Loving Jesus album – XFamily – Children of God". XFamily. 2008-06-11. Retrieved 2016-07-24. 
  21. ^ "Love words to Jesus – XFamily – Children of God". XFamily. 2008-09-12. Retrieved 2016-07-24. 
  22. ^ "Loving Jesus – XFamily – Children of God". XFamily. 2012-03-16. Retrieved 2016-07-24. 
  23. ^ "Mlk 168" (PDF). Retrieved 2016-07-24. 
  24. ^ Jones, K., Jones, C. & Buhring, J. 2007 "Not Without My Sister", Harper Collins Publishing, London
  25. ^ "Archived copy". Archived from the original on 2010-05-28. Retrieved 2009-03-12. 
  26. ^ Bainbridge, William Sims (2002). "The Endtime Family: Children of God". State University of New York Press, Albany, NY.
  27. ^ Beit-Hallahmi, Benjamin (1993). The Illustrated Encyclopedia of Active New Religions, Sects, and Cults. Rosen Publishing Group. ISBN 978-0-8239-1505-7. 
  28. ^ Huxley J (1992). "Sunday Times: Sex-cult children held – Children of God". The Sunday Times (Sydney) 1992-05-17.
  29. ^ Martin Celmins. "Mac, Myths and Mysteries" (PDF). Retrieved 2016-07-24. 
  30. ^ Ryan Dombal (2011-09-14). "Girls". Pitchfork. Retrieved 2016-07-24. 
  31. ^ "Archived copy". Archived from the original on 2012-10-05. Retrieved 2012-10-13. 
  32. ^ "Archived copy". Archived from the original on 2010-05-29. Retrieved 2009-03-12. 
  33. ^ Moreton, Cole (22 December 2012). "Juliana Buhring becomes first woman to cycle round the world as she pedals into Naples after 152 days on the road". The Daily Telegraph. London. 
  34. ^ "Howard Stern radio broadcast". Archived from the original on August 19, 2000. 
  35. ^ "Rose McGowan: How She Survived and Escaped a Cult". People. Retrieved February 15, 2015. 
  36. ^ Friend, Tad (March 1994). "River, with love and anger". Esquire. 121 (3): 108–117. ISSN 0014-0791. Archived from the original on 16 February 2009. Retrieved 22 March 2009. 
  37. ^ "Young man's suicide blamed on mother's cult". CNN. 5 December 2007. 
  38. ^ Hough, Lauren (2016-11-27). "Work, pray, fear: my life in the Family cult". The Guardian. ISSN 0261-3077. Retrieved 2016-12-06. 
  39. ^ Children of God: Lost and Found at the Internet Movie Database
  40. ^ "Cult Killer: The Rick Rodriguez Story – XFamily – Children of God". XFamily. Retrieved 2016-07-24. 
  41. ^ admin (2014-06-03). "Red Letter Media Best of the Worst: Wheel of the Worst #5 :". Retrieved 2016-07-24. 
  42. ^ Tony Robbins: I Am Not Your Guru at the Internet Movie Database

Further reading[edit]


Journalistic and popular[edit]

"Jesus Freaks: A True Story of Murder and Madness on the Evangelical Edge"]. HarperOne. ISBN 0-06-111804-4.

External links[edit]