Family International

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Family International
Abbreviation TFI
Leader Karen Zerby
Founder David Berg
Other name(s) 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 founded as Teens for Christ, later gained fame as The Children of God (COG), was later renamed and reorganized as The Family of Love, which eventually was shortened to The Family, and currently is officially known as The Family International.


TFI initially spread a message of salvation, apocalypticism, and spiritual "revolution and happiness" against the outside world, which the members called "the System". In 1976,[1] it began a method of evangelism called Flirty Fishing, using 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), took the titles of "King", "The Last Endtime Prophet", "Moses", and "David". He communicated with his followers via Mo Letters—vital 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 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.


The Children of God (1968–1977)[edit]

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

New converts memorized Bible verses known as the "set card" which contained over 300 Bible verses and 10 chapters from the Bible, 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, David Brandt Berg (1919–1994), was a former Christian and Missionary Alliance pastor. He was also 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.

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 and widely acknowledged his failings and weaknesses.[4][verification needed]

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, established leaders having abused their positions, and opposition by other leaders to 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 Nationalisation Revolution" (RNR). One eighth 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.[5]

The Family of Love (1978–1981)[edit]

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,[1] 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".[5] 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.[6]

The Family (1982–1994)[edit]

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" and was immediately subject to excommunication from the group.[7] (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 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".[8]

During the 1990s, allegations of child sexual abuse were brought against TF around the world, in locations around the world.

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".

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), 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.[citation needed]

In February 1995, the group introduced the Love Charter,[9] 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, as per Biblical instructions.[citation needed]

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".[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.

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 were 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.


TFI, like other "Christian cults",[10] attempts to identify itself with fundamentalist Christianity, but their beliefs and practices are regarded as heretical by virtually all Christians.[weasel words][citation needed] TFI teaches that the Bible and "Mo letters" from leader David Berg, aka Moses David, are the inspired Word of God and revelation. Berg proclaimed himself to be the last and most anointed prophet of the end times,[11] predicted in the Old and New Testaments, specifically in the reference to "a prophet like Moses" (although most Christians believe that Simon Peter was referring to Christ in this passage, as was Moses in Deuteronomy).[12] Berg is regarded by TFI members as a prophet who passed on God's message, and his writings are seen by them as "filling in the gaps" (par.24)[13] in the Bible. Members claim that Berg's writings never contradict or are irreconcilable with Scripture, and that they only accentuate what is already in the Bible. However, if members think that his teachings contradict the Bible, they are urged to let The Bible take precedence over them. 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," nearly equal in weight and importance to the Bible as divine revelations. These beliefs have been re-addressed in recent publications[14] 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's 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-addressed in 2010.[citation needed]

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 (they use Matthew 22:37–40 and Galatians 5:14 as the ostensible bases for this belief). 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,[15] and are therefore permissible according to Scripture.

The re-statements issued in 2010 express the need for tolerance toward varying sexual choices. Since 2010, the age of consent in TFI is determined by local laws and regulations. Since 1986,[16] 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.[citation needed]

TFI members believe they are living in the period 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. 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.[citation needed]

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,[17] Marilyn Monroe, Audrey Hepburn,[18] 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.[19] 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.[20] Like some fringe Christians, 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,[21] and songs.[22] Some TFI literature is not brought into conservative countries for fear it may be classified at customs as pornography.[23] The literature outlining this view of Jesus and his desire for a sexual relationship with believers was edited for younger teens,[24] then further edited for children.[25]

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 Julianna Buhring, who wrote a book[26] on their lives in TFI.[27]


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.[28]


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[29] and John Huxley,[30] 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]

See also[edit]


  1. ^ a b [1][dead link]
  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. ^ Chancellor, James (2000). Life in The Family: An Oral History of the Children of God. Syracuse, NY: University of Syracuse Press. pp. 64–67. 
  5. ^ a b "About The Family International | The Family International". Retrieved 2016-07-24. 
  6. ^ Bainbridge, William Sims (1996). "The Sociology of Religious Movements". Routledge. ISBN 0-415-91202-4. pg 223
  7. ^ "Child Abuse?! - XFamily - Children of God". XFamily. 2008-01-24. Retrieved 2016-07-24. 
  8. ^ [2][dead link]
  9. ^ "Charter of the Family International | Governing Documents". Retrieved 2016-07-24. 
  10. ^ [3][dead link]
  11. ^ "HomeARC ML 3197 – XFamily – Children of God". XFamily. 2006-07-27. Retrieved 2016-07-24. 
  12. ^ "HomeARC ML 1642 – XFamily – Children of God". XFamily. 2006-07-27. Retrieved 2016-07-24. 
  13. ^ "HomeARC ML 0329 – XFamily – Children of God". XFamily. 2006-07-27. Retrieved 2016-07-24. 
  14. ^ "Reboot-03: Backtracking Through TFI History – XFamily – Children of God". XFamily. Retrieved 2016-07-24. 
  15. ^ "The Devil Hates Sex - XFamily - Children of God". XFamily. Retrieved 2016-07-24. 
  16. ^ "Liberty or Stumbling Block - XFamily - Children of God". XFamily. 2007-12-06. Retrieved 2016-07-24. 
  17. ^ "pubsDB -". 2012-12-20. Retrieved 2016-07-24. 
  18. ^ "pubsDB -". Retrieved 2016-07-24. 
  19. ^ "Using The Keys Part 1" (PDF). Retrieved 2016-07-24. 
  20. ^ "About The Family International | The Family International". Retrieved 2016-07-24. 
  21. ^ "File:Tamar 558.jpg – XFamily – Children of God". XFamily. Retrieved 2016-07-24. 
  22. ^ "Loving Jesus album – XFamily – Children of God". XFamily. 2008-06-11. Retrieved 2016-07-24. 
  23. ^ "Love words to Jesus – XFamily – Children of God". XFamily. 2008-09-12. Retrieved 2016-07-24. 
  24. ^ "Loving Jesus – XFamily – Children of God". XFamily. 2012-03-16. Retrieved 2016-07-24. 
  25. ^ "Mlk 168" (PDF). Retrieved 2016-07-24. 
  26. ^ Jones, K., Jones, C. & Buhring, J. 2007 "Not Without My Sister", Harper Collins Publishing, London
  27. ^ [4][dead link]
  28. ^ Bainbridge, William Sims (2002). "The Endtime Family: Children of God". State University of New York Press, Albany, NY.
  29. ^ Beit-Hallahmi, Benjamin (1993). The Illustrated Encyclopedia of Active New Religions, Sects, and Cults. Rosen Publishing Group. ISBN 978-0-8239-1505-7. 
  30. ^ Huxley J (1992). "Sunday Times: Sex-cult children held – Children of God". The Sunday Times (Sydney) 1992-05-17.
  31. ^ Martin Celmins. "Mac, Myths and Mysteries" (PDF). Retrieved 2016-07-24. 
  32. ^ Ryan Dombal (2011-09-14). "Girls". Pitchfork. Retrieved 2016-07-24. 
  33. ^ [5][dead link]
  34. ^ [6][dead link]
  35. ^ 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). 
  36. ^ "Howard Stern radio broadcast". Archived from the original on August 19, 2000. 
  37. ^ "porn photos and videos on sex dating site Meendo". Retrieved 2016-07-24. 
  38. ^ "Rose McGowan: How She Survived and Escaped a Cult". People. Retrieved February 15, 2015. 
  39. ^ Friend, Tad (March 1994). "River, with love and anger". Esquire 121 (3): 108–117. ISSN 0014-0791. Retrieved 22 March 2009. 
  40. ^ "Young man's suicide blamed on mother's cult". CNN. 5 December 2007. 
  41. ^ Children of God: Lost and Found at the Internet Movie Database
  42. ^ "Cult Killer: The Rick Rodriguez Story – XFamily – Children of God". XFamily. Retrieved 2016-07-24. 
  43. ^ admin (2014-06-03). "Red Letter Media Best of the Worst: Wheel of the Worst #5 :". Retrieved 2016-07-24. 

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]