The Family International

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The Family International
TypeChristian cult
LeaderKaren Zerby (1994–present)
FounderDavid Berg
Branched fromThe Family
Other name(s)
  • Teens for Christ
  • The Children of God
  • The Family of Love
  • The Family

The Family International (TFI) is a cult[1][2] that was founded in Huntington Beach, California, US in 1968. Originally named Teens for Christ, it has gone under a number of different names. It gained notoriety as The Children of God (COG). It was later renamed and reorganized as The Family of Love (1978–1981), which was eventually shortened to The Family. As of 2004 it goes by 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,[3] 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.[4] 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".

Berg communicated with his followers via "Mo Letters"—letters of instruction and counsel on myriad spiritual and practical subjects—until his death in late 1994.[5] After his death, his widow Karen Zerby became the leader of TFI, taking the titles of "Queen" and "Prophetess". Zerby married Steve Kelly (also known as Peter Amsterdam), 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 Berg or Zerby. There have been multiple allegations of child sexual abuse made by past members.[6][7]


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.

The founder of the movement, David Brandt Berg (1919–1994), was a former Christian and Missionary Alliance pastor.[8]

Berg communicated with his followers by writing letters. He published nearly 3,000 letters over a period of 24 years, referred to as the Mo Letters.[9] 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.[10][verification needed]

By 1972, COG had 130 communities around the world.[11]

The Children of God was abolished in February 1978. Berg reorganized the movement amid reports of serious misconduct and financial mismanagement, The Chain's abuse of authority, and disagreements within it about the continued use of Flirty Fishing. The group was also accused of sexually abusing and raping minors within the organization, with considerable evidence to support this claim. One eighth of the total membership left the movement. Those who remained became part of a reorganized movement called the Family of Love, and later, The Family. The majority of the group's beliefs remained the same.[12]

The Family of Love (1978–1981)[edit]

A form of love bombing, Flirty Fishing encouraged female members to enter sexual relationships with potential converts

The Family of Love era was characterized by international expansion.

In 1976, before the dissolution of The Children of God,[3] 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.[12] 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.[13]

The Family (1982–1994)[edit]

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), and such activities were grounds for immediate excommunication from the group.[14] In January 2005, Claire Borowik, a spokesperson for TFI, stated:

Due 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.[15]

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.

In February 1995, the group introduced the Love Charter,[16] 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.

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.[17] 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".[18]

The Family International (2004–present)[edit]

The Love Charter is The Family's set governing document that entails each member's 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.[19]

Recent teachings[edit]

TFI's recent teachings are based on beliefs which 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.

Spirit Helpers[edit]

"Spirit Helpers" include angels, other religious and mythical figures, and departed humans, including celebrities; for example the goddess Aphrodite, the Snowman, Merlin, the Sphinx, Elvis,[20] Marilyn Monroe, Audrey Hepburn,[21] Richard Nixon, and Winston Churchill.

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 increasing amount of spiritual authority that was given to Peter and the early disciples. According to TFI beliefs, this passage refers to keys that were hidden and unused in the centuries that followed, but were again revealed through Karen Zerby as more power to pray and obtain miracles. TFI members call on the various Keys of the Kingdom for extra effect during prayer. The Keys, like most TFI beliefs, were published in magazines that looked like comic-books in order to make them teachable to children.[22] These beliefs are still generally held and practiced, even after the "reboot" documents of 2010.[citation needed]

Loving Jesus[edit]

"Loving Jesus" 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.[23] They believe the church of followers is Christ's bride, called to love and serve him with wifely fervor; however, this bridal theology is taken 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,[24] and songs.[25] Some TFI literature is not brought into conservative countries for fear it may be classified at customs as pornography.[26] The literature outlining this view of Jesus and his desire for a sexual relationship with believers was edited for younger teens,[27] then further edited for children.[28]


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[29] on their lives in TFI.[30]

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.[31]


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 categorize TFI as a "new religious movement" and a cult.[32][33]

At least one individual growing up in the family (Verity Carter) during the Children of God era, described being sexually abused "from the age of four by members of the ... cult, including her own father". She blames the philosophy of David Berg, who told members that "God was love and love was sex", so that sex should not be limited by age or relationship. Cater also complains of being "repeatedly beaten and whipped for the smallest of transgressions", being denied "music or television or culture," or other "contact with the outside world," so that she had "no idea how the world worked," other than how to manipulate the "systemites" (outsiders), like social workers.[34]

Notable members (past and present)[edit]

Joined in adulthood[edit]

Raised in the COG and later left[edit]

  • Christopher Owens: musician, of San Francisco indie band Girls, was brought up in TFI by his parents.[36][37]
  • Celeste Jones and Kristina Jones: co-authors, along with Juliana Buhring, of Not Without My Sister, an autobiography detailing extensive abuse they suffered in COG.[38] This book is used by the organization RAINN as a reference for child sexual abuse victims.
  • Juliana Buhring: first woman to bicycle around the world[39] and co-author of Not Without My Sister.
  • Rose McGowan: film actress, described her TFI childhood in interviews with Howard Stern,[40] People magazine[41] and later in her book "Brave".
  • River Phoenix, Joaquin Phoenix, Rain Phoenix, and Summer Phoenix: actors, were members of the group (with their sister Liberty Phoenix) from 1972 to 1978. River Phoenix, who died of a drug overdose in 1993, told Details magazine in November 1991 that "they're ruining people's lives."[42]
  • Susan Justice: American pop rock singer-songwriter and guitarist, known best for her debut self-recorded album, The Subway Recordings.
  • Tina Dupuy: American journalist and syndicated columnist.
  • Ricky Rodriguez: subject of the suppressed manual advocating adult-child sexual contact, committed a murder-suicide in 2005, killing one of the women who raised and allegedly sexually abused him, then himself.[6]
  • Lauren Hough: author,[43] brought up in TFI.
  • Flor Edwards, author,[44] who was raised inside the cult before her parents moved out.
  • Dawn Watson: Brazilian, victim of sexual abuse while living in a TFI community.[7]
  • Taylor Stevens, author,[45] brought up in the cult from age 12 until she left in her twenties with her two children.

Media featuring the group[edit]

  • The Jesus Trip (1971), a documentary by Denis Tuohy that has interviews with Children of God members.
  • Children of God (1994), a 63-minute Channel 4 documentary by John Smithson; detailing the Padilla family and the abuse of their three underage daughters and the death of another.
  • Children of God: Lost and Found, a 75-minute documentary by Noah Thomson, featured at the 2007 Slamdance Film Festival.[46]
  • Cult Killer: The Rick Rodriguez Story (53-minute UK documentary with transcript).[47]
  • 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".
  • RedLetterMedia featured the Family International video "S.O.S." on an episode of "Best of the Worst."[48]
  • Mentioned in Tony Robbins: I Am Not Your Guru documentary at 52 minutes of the film as an organization where children are forced to have sex from the age of six.[49]
  • The Parcast Podcast Cults: Episodes 11 and 12.[50]
  • Citizen Rose: A five part documentary series shown on the E! Channel. The first episode premiered on January 30, 2018. The series follows actress Rose McGowan who was born into the cult.
  • The Last Podcast on the Left did a four part series on the cult: Episodes 248-251
  • The Dan Cummins podcast Timesuck covered the cult in episode 104, "The Children of God Sex Cult."
  • A&E's Cults and Extreme Belief, episode 3 (2018) is about the Children of God.[51]

See also[edit]

  • Comet Kohoutek was viewed by David Berg as a prophetic sign of imminent disaster.
  • Jim Palosaari co-formed the Jesus People Army, left it before the group joined the Children of God, and tried to convince Linda Meissner not to join it.
  • Love bombing describes a manipulative style of recruiting.
  • Panton Hill, Victoria, the location of one of the communes, where a large government raid occurred and many children were removed by social services


  1. ^ "The Children of God/The Family". International Cultic Studies Association (ICSA). Retrieved December 23, 2017.
  2. ^ "Group Information Archives". Cult Education Institute. Retrieved December 23, 2017.
  3. ^ a b "Flirty-fishing". Archived from the original on August 9, 2014. Retrieved March 2, 2014.
  4. ^ Niebuhr, Gustav (June 2, 1993). "'The Family' and Final Harvest". The Washington Post. p. A01. Retrieved April 27, 2008. 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.
  5. ^ "Index". The Publications Database. February 20, 2012. Retrieved July 24, 2016.
  6. ^ a b "Young man's suicide blamed on mother's cult". CNN. December 5, 2007.
  7. ^ a b "Sexo, mentiras e videotape". UOL notícias (in Portuguese). Retrieved December 2, 2017.
  8. ^ "History – Mission". Retrieved August 13, 2016.
  9. ^ "The Man – Mission". Retrieved August 13, 2016.
  10. ^ Chancellor, James (2000). Life in The Family: An Oral History of the Children of God. Syracuse, NY: University of Syracuse Press. pp. 64–67.
  11. ^ "Our History". The Family International. Retrieved August 13, 2016.
  12. ^ a b "Origins". The Family International. Archived from the original on April 29, 2009. Retrieved July 24, 2016.
  13. ^ Bainbridge, William Sims (1996). The Sociology of Religious Movements. Routledge. p. 223. ISBN 978-0-415-91202-0.
  14. ^ "Child Abuse?!". XFamily. January 24, 2008. Retrieved July 24, 2016.
  15. ^ Borowik, Claire. "Statement From Family International". Archived from the original on September 14, 2005. Retrieved June 30, 2005.
  16. ^ "Charter of the Family International – Governing Documents". Archived from the original on August 25, 2010. Retrieved July 24, 2016.
  17. ^ "The Judgement of Lord Justice Ward, 1995". Retrieved August 13, 2016.
  18. ^ "Judgement of Lord Justice Ward". Retrieved November 24, 2020.
  19. ^ Shepherd, Gary; Shepherd, Gordon (August 2005). "Accommodation and Reformation in the Family/Children of God". Nova Religio. 9 (1): 67–92. doi:10.1525/nr.2005.9.1.067.
  20. ^ "Pre-Release of "Who Said They're Dead?" Part 1". The Publications Database. April 3, 2003. Retrieved July 24, 2016.
  21. ^ "Pre-Release of "Who Said They're Dead?" Part 2". The Publications Database. April 3, 2003. Retrieved July 24, 2016.
  22. ^ "Using The Keys Part 1" (PDF). Retrieved July 24, 2016.
  23. ^ "About The Family International". The Family International. Archived from the original on April 29, 2009. Retrieved July 24, 2016.
  24. ^ "File:Tamar 558.jpg – XFamily – Children of God". XFamily. Retrieved July 24, 2016.
  25. ^ "Loving Jesus album – XFamily – Children of God". XFamily. June 11, 2008. Retrieved July 24, 2016.
  26. ^ "Love words to Jesus – XFamily – Children of God". XFamily. September 12, 2008. Retrieved July 24, 2016.
  27. ^ "Loving Jesus – XFamily – Children of God". XFamily. March 16, 2012. Retrieved July 24, 2016.
  28. ^ "Mlk 168" (PDF). Retrieved July 24, 2016.
  29. ^ Jones, K.; Jones, C. & Buhring, J. (2007). Not Without My Sister. London: Harper Collins Publishing.
  30. ^ "Bios". Archived from the original on May 28, 2010. Retrieved March 12, 2009.
  31. ^ Bainbridge, William Sims (2002). The Endtime Family: Children of God. Albany, NY: State University of New York Press.
  32. ^ Beit-Hallahmi, Benjamin (1993). The Illustrated Encyclopedia of Active New Religions, Sects, and Cults. Rosen Publishing Group. ISBN 978-0-8239-1505-7.
  33. ^ Huxley, J. (May 17, 1992). "Sex-cult children held – Children of God". The Sunday Times.
  34. ^ Brocklehurst, Steven (June 27, 2018). "Children of God cult was 'hell on earth'". BBC Scotland News. Retrieved September 25, 2021.
  35. ^ Celmins, Martin. "Mac, Myths and Mysteries" (PDF). Retrieved July 24, 2016.
  36. ^ Dombal, Ryan (September 14, 2011). "Girls". Pitchfork. Retrieved July 24, 2016.
  37. ^ Easley, Emily. "Christopher Owens". FAQ magazine. Archived from the original on October 5, 2012. Retrieved October 13, 2012.
  38. ^ "Home". Archived from the original on May 29, 2010. Retrieved March 12, 2009.
  39. ^ Moreton, Cole (December 22, 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.
  40. ^ "Howard Stern radio broadcast". Archived from the original on August 19, 2000.
  41. ^ "Rose McGowan: How She Survived and Escaped a Cult". People. Retrieved February 15, 2015.
  42. ^ Friend, Tad (March 1994). "River, with love and anger". Esquire. 121 (3): 108–117. ISSN 0014-0791. Archived from the original on February 16, 2009. Retrieved March 22, 2009.
  43. ^ Hough, Lauren (November 27, 2016). "Work, pray, fear: my life in the Family cult". The Guardian. ISSN 0261-3077. Retrieved December 6, 2016.
  44. ^ "Apocalypse Child". Retrieved February 17, 2020.
  45. ^ "On Writing 'The Informationist' and Coming from a Cult Background". Huffington Post. May 25, 2011.
  46. ^ Children of God: Lost and Found at IMDb
  47. ^ "Cult Killer: The Rick Rodriguez Story – XFamily – Children of God". XFamily. Retrieved July 24, 2016.
  48. ^ "Red Letter Media Best of the Worst: Wheel of the Worst #5". June 3, 2014. Retrieved July 24, 2016.
  49. ^ Tony Robbins: I Am Not Your Guru at IMDb
  50. ^ "Cults". Parcast. Retrieved December 4, 2017.
  51. ^ Cults and Extreme Belief S1E3, aired June 5, 2018. Retrieved June 13, 2018.

Further reading[edit]

  • Davis, Deborah (Linda Berg) (1984). THE CHILDREN OF GOD: The Inside Story. Zondervan Books, Grand Rapids, Michigan. ISBN 0-310-27840-6. Expose by the founder's eldest daughter who left the cult.


Journalistic and popular[edit]

External links[edit]



  • xFamily – Wiki detailing TFI; includes large collections of multimedia, press coverage, and internal TFI publications.
  • xFamily PubsDB – a near-complete database of all writings by David Berg and Karen Zerby.
  • – information, forums, links, etc. about TFI by former first-generation members.