The Children of God Cult
Overview 1968 to current day
The Children of God (COG) was started in 1968 in Huntington Beach, California, USA. Many early converts were drawn from the hippie era and Jesus Movement of the late 1960s and early 1970s. The group later changed its name to the Family of Love, The Family and recently The Family International. It has also used a significant number pseudonyms and front organizations for its acitvities. After a number of image makeovers, The Family International now refers to itself as a church, and prefers to be known as a wholesome, family-values New Religious Movement (NRM), albeit with alternative views and counter culture. It is however, still widely referred to as a cult in the media, often as the free-love sex cult or The Family Cult.
The Children of God created controversy with its ideas of apocalypticism and revolution against the outside world that they call "the System," along with its central tenet that true disciples must drop out and "forsake all." Forsaking all literally entails abandoning all responsibilities and cutting ties with any and all—job, school, family, friends, and selling all that they have, handing over the entire proceeds to the group. Disciples assume a new biblical name and identity—true legal names are often kept a secret even from each other. Like deep cover role play without any possibility of debriefing, some members who joined as teenagers in the late 60s are still incognito today.
In 1974 the group launched a new form of so-called evangelism called Flirty Fishing—using sex to win converts and support. The practice was supposedly discontinued in 1987 due to fears of the AIDS epidemic.
The group’s liberal sexualityits publication and distribution of writings, photographs and videos advocating and documenting adult-child sexual contact and the sexualization of childrenled to numerous reports of child sexual abuse. A major judicial investigation in 1995 found The Family to have had a highly sexualized environment for children, with abuse at significantly higher levels than the rest of society at large; their home schooling policies inadequately supporting the pursuit of tertiary education, i.e. education past a basic secondary or grade-school level. Major reforms were forced upon the group, and a charter of responsibilities and rights was published as a result.
Family leadership, admitting only that some children were abused from 1978 until 1986, created policies prohibiting excessive discipline and sexual contact between adults and minors. Those found to have abused children after December 1988 are supposedly excommunicated, but their crimes are also allegedly often left unreported to the police. In a now-exposed secret directive, current leader Karen Zerby declared in 1993 that child-adult sex is not inherently wrong. She explained that although they were forced to show outsiders they were complying with the law, members should not lose sight of what they truly believe on the inside. To deny culpability and uphold its image makeover, The Family requires members to leave the group if they wish to report child abuse to a law enforcement agency, or pursue legal action against an alleged abuser within the groupas a result they can technically say that no members have reported any sexual crimes as of late.
Founder David Berg, who initially lived with the first colonies (their early name for Communities or Homes), moved away to live in secret locations known only to top ranking leaders of the group. He communicated with his followers via Mo Letters—directives on a myriad of spiritual and practical subjects—until his death in late 1994, when his mistress Karen Zerby took over leadership of the Family.
The January 2005 murder-suicide of heir apparent Ricky Rodriguez led to considerable renewed media attention on the group and its treatment of children growing up in their environments.
History in Brief
The Children of God (1968-1978)
Founder David Brandt Berg (1919-1994), was a former Christian Missionary Alliance pastor, who later came to be known as Moses David, Mo, Father David, King David, Dad and Daddy to adult group members, and Grandpa to the group's youngest members.
Berg's four children spearheading a "Teens for Christ" group, first attracted followers through their Huntington Beach Light Club ministry to the hippies. As the group's numbers grew, they moved to Texas where they cooperated for a while with TV evangelist Fred Jordan. They acquired the use of several properties, including a ranch property they called the Texas Soul Clinic (TSC), named after Fred Jordan's ministry. From TSC, the group launched sackcloth demonstrations and downtown sit-ins, prophesying doom against America and the Church system, attracting the attention of the media. It was first at TSC that the media began referring to the group as the Children of God.
New converts who joined the movement were subjected to the rote memorization of isolated scripture verses and references, which when recited, gave the impression a disciple's in-depth bible knowledge. They were taught that their new lifestyle rejecting mainstream Christianity emulated the lives of the early Christians. They were taught the urgency of delivering their message before the end of the world, and would proselytize in the streets, distributing literature. Members appeared on Fred Jordan's Church it the Home program for the purposes of soliciting donations.
After a falling out with Fred Jordan over control and finances, the group spread out to different states in the US, and eventually expanded its operations to other countries. Members of the Children of God founded communesfirst called "colonies," now referred to as "homes" in various cities around the world.
Soon after founding and living with the first communes, Berg moved away and lived in secrecy, his whereabouts known only to top leaders. He communicated with his followers through more than 3,000 published Mo Letters, written over a period of 24 years. Berg proclaimed that he was God's prophet for the last age, the "endtime," and predicted that his death would be inseparably intertwined with the last 7 years of the worldhe would die in 1989 and Jesus would return in 1993. (Berg died in 1994, and The Family has had to re-interpret its doomsday prophecies because 2001 came and went without fulfilling his predictions.)
By 1972, the group had supposedly distributed approximately 42 million tracts about God's salvation and America's doom. Street distribution of Berg's Letters which they called "litnessing," became the COG's predominant method of both outreach and support for the next five years.
Findings of the New York Attorney General Investigation (1974)The Attorney General of the State of New York launched an investigation into the movement, and by September 30, 1974, a Final Report on the Activities of the Children of God was submitted by the Charity Frauds Bureau. Although the Children of God organization was subpoenaed, it refused to cooperate and did not submit financial books and records, nor reveal locations of their communes or any demographic data.
The insightful report documented the "metamorphis [sic] of COG from the religious bible oriented group to a cult subservient to the whims or desires of ...Berg." Among other things it detailed:
Flirty Fishing (1974)
In 1974, David Berg introduced a new proselytization method called Flirty Fishing (or FFing), in which members were encouraged to initiate sexual relations with non-members in order to win converts, supporters, and influential friends. FFing was first practiced by members of Berg's inner circle starting in 1973 and later introduced to the general membership. As many members who found these and other practices questionable left, the movement was purged—those who remained were expected to endorse FFing. By 1978, due to Berg's success at using the RNR (see below) to implement FFing, it was widely practiced by female e members of the group.
Many female members began working for escort agencies to meet people and this often led to sex being sold to generate sizable incomes. According to The Family, from 1974 until 1987, members had sexual contact with 223,989 people while practicing Flirty Fishing. Flirty Fishing also resulted in the birth of many children, including Karen Zerby's son, Davidito (a.k.a. Rick Rodriguez). Children born as result of Flirty Fishing were referred to as "Jesus Babies". According to data by The Family, by 1981, over 300 "Jesus Babies" had been born.
The practice of Flirty Fishing was officially abandoned in 1987 in fear of the AIDS epidemic. There is at least one known case of a female member of the group contracting HIV from a blood transfusion and eventually dying of AIDS. New rules were introduced that banned, under penalty of excommunication, sexual contact with non-members. However, the new rules also stated that exceptions to the rule would be allowed in certain cases: "All sex with outsiders is banned!--Unless they are already close and well-known friends!"
The Family of Love (1978-1987)
In the wake of the Jonestown suicides and backlashes against cults, and when Berg and the Children of God were tried in absentia and ordered by a US court to pay $1 million in damages to a plaintiff, the group orchestrated a fake disbanding and changed its name to the Family of Love.
The Family of Love era was characterized by expansion into more countries. Regular proselytization methods included "door to door", distribution of tracts and heavy use of Family music.
Berg restructured the movement's hierarchical system of leadership to that of centralized command hubs, and removed leaders at the top opposed the practice of Flirty Fishing and who, according to him, had abused their authority. This shift was called the "Reorganization Nationalization Revolution" (RNR).
Although Berg supposedly dismissed over 300 of the movement's leaders, declaring the general dissolution of the COG structure, many leaders were later re-absorbed into the movement. Most members of the Children of God were absorbed into the new Family of Love, which amounted to little more than a name change and new local leadership—the group's beliefs remained essentially the same. Those who remained were expected to endorse Flirty Fishing.
The Family (1982-1994)(overlaps with Family of Love era)
In 1982, members moved en masse to countries in the southern and eastern hemisphere, on Berg's advice to seek greener pastures where the group was not saturated with bad publicity; and to escape the impending nuclear war and destruction of the US, predicted to happen within Berg's life time, in the 80s.
By 1983, The Family was reporting 10,000 full-time members living in 1,642 Family homes. Additionally, The Family's Music With Meaning radio club had by this time grown to almost 20,000 members. According to The Family, at this time proselytization efforts were resulting in an average of 200,000 conversions and the distribution of nearly 30 million pages of literature per month. However, The Family's data should be considered unreliable, given that they also released overlapping statistics about the number of people reached with its message, averaging several times the population of the region and/or world.
Pedophilia and Incest
Berg's writings displayed an interest in, and lack of concern regarding sexual contact with children, and contributed to suspicions about the movement's care of their children. Berg claimed to be challenging modern-day taboos about adult/child sexuality, ignoring society's laws and boundaries. At least six women, including both his daughters, his daughter-in-law and two of his granddaughters, have publicly alleged that Berg sexually abused them when they were children.
The only way to get free of (the devil) and his lies and his prohibitions and guilt complexes about sex is to get rid of his lies and his lying propaganda, his anti-sex propaganda, and believe the Lord and his word and his creation and God's love and his freedom! - that there is 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. If the law ever got a hold of this, they would try to string me up! They would probably lynch me before I got to the jail! When Paul said "All things are lawful unto me, but all things are not expedient" (1 COR 6: 12), he was as good as saying, "I can indulge in any kind of sex I want to, but I've got to watch out for the System because it's against the law!" (Maria/Zerby: At least not let'em find out if you do it!)... We are free in privacy, and that's about all, and we mightn't be free if they discovered what we do in private!... There are no relationship restrictions or age limitations in his law of love.... If you hate sex you are one of the devil's crowd! If you think it's evil, then God and love are evil, for he created it! Come on, let's love and enjoy it like God does! He loves it.! - From "The Devil Hates Sex -- But God Loves It!" by founder David BergBerg would later describe his dreams of having sex with pre-pubescent girls (The Little Girl Dream) as well as his fantasies of having sex with his own mother. It should be noted that the Family has removed these publications from circulation in what they claim was an official renouncement of these teachings.
A childcare manual published by the group in January of 1982 described the education, home life and care of the Davidito (Ricky Rodriguez), son of Berg's mistress Karen Zerby. The 762-page book, which was intended to be an example of child rearing, also included at least a dozen photographs depicting the child engaged in sexual play with his governesses, particularly Sara Kelley (also known as Sara Davidito or Prisca Kelley). The group later ordered this book, along with all other publications approving pedophilia and incest, to be heavily sanitized and eventually, destroyed completely. In the late 1990s, it was reprinted in sanitized form. Copies of the original publication still exist, mostly in the hands of ex-members for the purpose of providing evidence, and some pages from the original edition have been posted online: Story Of Davidito.
The group's current policy (as of 1995) forbids, under penalty of full excommunication, sexual contact with minors. However, the group has not accepted any responsibility for abuses that occurred during the more permissive period created by Berg's writings. It maintains rather, that any abuses were the work of individual members.
Although the group has publicly renounced former policies and doctrines that condoned or encouraged sex between adults and minors, in their internal publications there has been no such renunciation. Evidence of this is represented by the following quote from Family leader Karen Zerby:
In January 2005, Claire Borowik, spokesperson for the Family International, issued a statement saying, "Due 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."
The Family (1994-2004)
Court Cases Worldwide
(see also the 1974 Findings of the New York Attorney General Investigation)
By the 1990s numerous allegations of pedophilia and sexual abuse were laid against The Family in different locations worldwide, including Argentina, Australia, Brazil, France, Italy, Japan, Norway, Peru, Spain, Sweden, the United Kingdom(UK), the United States (USA), and Venezuela (see links below). The Family leadership have maintained that they did not sanction or condone the sexual abuse of children. An outline of each court case and excerpts of rulings of the courts can be found at: www.cesnur.org/testi/TheFamily/se_thefamily.htm.
According to Eileen Barker's book ''An Introduction to New Religious Movements'', the group has been acquitted of all charges of sexual abuse of children. The Rt. Hon. Lord Justice Ward ruled in a 1995 court case that the group, including its top leadership had engaged in abusive sexual practices involving minors, that they had also engaged in severe corporal punishment and sequestration of minor children. However, in a last minute turn around, he said that The Family had abandoned these former practices and that they were a safe environment for children, with some reservations: he required that the group cease all corporal punishment of children in the United Kingdom, improve the education of members' children, denounce Berg's writings, and "acknowledge that through his writings Berg was personally responsible for children in The Family having been subjected to sexually inappropriate behavior" (see links below).
The Family claims that government-led investigations and court cases did not convict Family members nor communities, and that no evidence of abuse was found in the 750 plus children examined by state authorities. However, at least one member has been found guilty for contributing to the delinquency of minors. By 2003, several 2nd generation members, now adults who had left the group, admitted to having lied and being instructed to lie to investigators in order to suppress evidence of their abuse, which they were taught was not abuse.
The Family has not always been cleared of all charges in courts of law—very few (if any) of the child abuse cases that were prosecuted against Family adults resulted in an acquittal or complete exoneration of the defendants. Most cases of child abuse were dismissed on legal technicalities or defendants tried in absentia, and several cases were settled out of court—there was never a full hearing of the evidence by an impartial jury. In one case, a judge investigating The Family found them to be overtly responsible for promoting child/adult sex and lying in court, and forced major reforms on the entire movement in order to ensure the safety and basic human rights of its adherents and those born into the group.
In 1979 The Children of God/The Family was ordered to pay the sum of US$1 million in damages to a plaintiff. To date, The Children of God/The Family has not paid up the amount, which would be considerably larger by now with added interest. David Berg who fled the US, made light of the judgment on several occasions, saying that he would never be caught.
The group has been banned from several countries and its members deported and barred from return, on the orders of local magistrates responding to charges of immigration fraud and other undesirable activities.
FCF: the Charitable Organization and NGO push
The early 1990s also saw the launch of "Consider the Poor" (CTP) ministries. In the face of bad publicity, Berg had urged members to create tangible good works to show the world they were doing some good. Family members took advantage of the newly opened Eastern Europe, following the fall of communism (which should not have happened according to Berg's prophecies), and expanded their evangelistic campaigns eastward. The production and dissemination of millions of pieces of literature earned them the colloquial name "the poster people."
In 1996, Family leadership was exploring ways in which The Family could become a tax-exempt legal entity in the US This would enable them to solicit large donations and broaden their base of financial support, as well as mass-market their publications and videos, spreading the message and obtaining income. It would also provide legitimacy and credibility for those Family members who were becoming active in charitable activities but could not attract tax-exempt donations.
By 1997, the Family Care Foundation (FCF) and a system of charitable organizations were registered around the world. Family members joined the FCF by becoming “project managers” of a squeaky-clean foundation, raising funds under a tax-exempt umbrella. Using the FCF to lend to the idea that The Family's numerous charities and front organizations were affiliated with a large, legitimate, credible organization, the group expanded their operations, entering countries as NGOs, and even and re-entering countries they were previously barred from. In some instances of outreach beyond proselytization, members began providing material aid to the poor and disadvantaged.
While soliciting donations for charity work through the FCF, Family members actively promoted their new charity work image: disaster relief efforts, the provision and distribution of humanitarian aid, musical benefit programs for refugees, and visitation to hospitals. While it is clear that some amount of genuine charity work has taken place, whether each of The Family's charitable organizations qualify as a bona fide has been brought under scrutiny. Recently exited ex-members have described the use of photo ops, very little genuine aid work taking place, and most of the donations going to their own living expenses.
The FCF has come under attack for being inextricably linked to The Family, and for being created primarily to launder funds within the group and abusing its tax-exempt status. Although the FCF claims to technically stand as a separate entity from The Family/The Family International, it was founded by top leaders of The Family to advance their goals and interests, and almost exclusively promotes Family products and assists Family members. Members were allowed to send a donation to the FCF in lieu of tithing to World Services (WS), the administrative arm of The Family. Substantial tax-exempt funds could also, with a little creative bookkeeping, be used to finance ventures that Zerby and Smith controlled through WS.
Legal firewalls between the foundation and The Family could blunt potential lawsuits and criminal charges against The Family. Whether or not a legal a connection can be made between the FCF and The Family's controversial practices, its current leaders Zerby, Smith, and other Family leadership continue to operate under the assumption they are free of any third party scrutiny and accountability.
The Post-Berg era
After Berg's death in October of 1994, Karen Zerby, from Tucson, Arizona in the USA, known in the group as Mama, Maria Fontaine, or Queen Maria, took over leadership of the group. She then married her longtime lover, Steven Douglas Kelly, an American also known as Christopher Smith, Peter Amsterdam, or King Peter. He became her traveling representative due to Zerby's hermitic separation from her followers.
The Charter (1995)
In a 1995 court case, the Rt. Hon. Lord Justice Alan Ward decided that the group, including some of its top leadership, had engaged in abusive sexual practices involving minors and that they had also engaged in severe corporal punishment and sequestration of minors. However, in a last minute turn around, he concluded that the Family had abandoned these practices and that they were a safe environment for children. Nevertheless, he required 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 the Family having been subjected to sexually inappropriate behavior."
The group introduced a Charter of Rights and Responsibilities, also known as the Love Charter, setting forth a new way of living within the organization, allowing members more freedom to choose and follow their own pursuits. The rights referred to were what a member could expect to receive from the group and how members were to be treated by leadership and fellow members. The responsibilities referred to were what a member was expected to give to the group if he or she wished to remain a full-time member in the inner circle. However, it also provided that any of the rights could be revoked at any time by Zerby and Kelly, and more responsibilities could be added.
Full-time members are required to tithe up to fourteen percent of their income (ten percent to World Services; three percent to a "Family Aid Fund" supposedly set up to support needy field situations, regional services and projects; and one percent to regional "common pots" supposedly for local projects, activities, and fellowships, and typically to regional literature publishing).
The Family International (2004-present)
In 2004, the movement changed its name to the Family International. Internal changes and upheavals were once again implemented. Internal directives addressed members' trends towards a less dedicated lifestyle, and once again implored recommitment to the group's mission of fervent proselytization. In the second half of 2004, a six-month "renewal period" was held, to help members refocus their priorities. Membership was reorganized and new levels of membership were introduced%#151;members now fall into the following categories: Family Disciples (FD), Missionary Members (MM), Fellow Members (FM), Active Members (AM), and General Members (GM).
The Charter governs Family Disciples, while the Missionary Member Statutes and Fellow Member Statutes were written for the governance of the Family's Missionary member and Fellow Member circles, respectively. Family Disciple homes are reviewed every six months against a set of criteria.
According to Family statistics, at the beginning of 2005 there were 1,238 Family homes and 10,202 members worldwide. Of those, 266 Homes and 4884 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 are currently unavailable.
The Ricky Rodriguez Murder-Suicide (2005)
In 2005, the murder-suicide of The Family's heir apparent Ricky Rodriguez shocked the world and brought considerable renewed media attention on the group, especially regarding their child-rearing policies and child sexual abuse.
Ricky, first known to members as Davidito, was the natural son of Karen Zerby and a Spanish hotel employee whom she "FFed." Davidito's legal name was Richard Peter Rodriguez (also Richard Peter Smith and David Moses Zerby), and he was considered to be the adopted son of David Berg although no official adoption ever took place.
As Davidito grew up he developed a deep seated resentment towards Berg and Zerby because of the sexual abuse he had suffered as a child due to their policies and because of the unnatural way in which he was raised. He would later state that he and his sister were never allowed to be "just children"that they always had to perform and demonstrate their supposed natural superiority to other children in the group.
In 2002, Ricky, now an adult, left the group, married and tried to live a normal life, working as an electrician. In October 2004, he moved to Tucson, Arizona. According to accounts by his friends and relatives, he moved there because he heard his mother had visited and he wanted to find her.
In January 2005, he arranged a meeting with Angela Smith (formerly Susan Joy Kauten), who was a close associate of his mother and one of his former abusers, and stabbed her to death in his apartment. He then drove to Blythe, Arizona where he shot himself in the head.
In a 57 minute suicide video made for friends, family and former members, he talked of his intense pain, and the actions he had decided to embark upon. He explained that saw himself as a vigilante avenging children like him and his sisters, who had been subject to rapes and beatings. "There's this need that I have," he said. "It's not a want. It's a need for revenge. It's a need for justice, because I can't go on like this."
Theologians have placed the Family's basic theology within the historical Christian tradition, along with some very unorthodox beliefs.
As a fundamentalist Christian group, The Family's doctrines tend to be progressive, with a few exceptions.
While they view male homosexuality as sin, they are generally accepting of lesbianism, or at least female bisexuality. This gained even more acceptance throughout the 1990s, influenced in part by Karen Zerby's discussions of her own same-sex encounters.
The Family has also slowly moved away from traditional Protestant doctrines of salvation as a requirement before death to one of Universal Reconciliation. This has partly come about in order to reconcile their belief in hell with other strongly held beliefs in god's absolute love for mankind and forgiveness for human weakness.
The Bible, the Trinity, Jesus and Salvation
The Family International states that they believe the Bible to be the inspired Word of God and sacred revelation. They believe in the triune God ; the biblical account of creation in the book of Genesis; and in the fall of Adam and Eve and thus all humanity, into sin. Although Berg theorized that Jesus was conceived through a sexual encounter between the arch-angel Gabriel and Mary, he nevertheless taught that Jesus Christ is the only begotten Son of God, who came to Earth, that He was subsequently crucified, resurrected, and ascended, and that through His sacrifice people are redeemed. The group holds that a simple prayer to ask "Jesus into your heart" leads to the forgiving of their sins and eternal salvation. They believe that the Holy Spirit is the feminine and maternal element of the Trinity, and in the biblical gifts and fruits of the Spirit.
The Family believes that angels are powerful immortal spiritual beings, and hold that there are also many other good spirits, including departed believers. Berg taught that the archangel Gabriel and Mary had a sexual encounter which led to the conception of Jesus.
They hold that Satan was one of God's mightiest angels, who rebelled against God; other angels followed Satan, and thus became demons; that there is relentless warfare in the spiritual realm between the good forces of God and the evil forces as Satan; that they as believers, play an active role in that warfare, primarily through the agency of prayer.
A special emphasis is placed on prophecy, with the belief that not only God, but good spirits acting as God's agents, communicate with believers in this way, thus making prophecy the Word of God.
The Family continues to stress the imminent Second Coming of Christ, and the rise of a worldwide government and Antichrist figure preceding that. They believe that they are now living in the time period known in Scripture as the "Last Days" or the "Time of the End," which is the era immediately preceding the return of Jesus Christ. They believe they have an eminent role to play in these events. Doctrines regarding the "end time" influence virtually all long-term decision making.
They believe that before the return of Jesus, the world will be ruled for seven years by a government headed by a man referred to as the Antichrist; that at the half-way point in his rule he will be totally possessed by Satan and will precipitate a time or troubles known as the Great Tribulation.
The Family teaches that the tribulation will be a time of intense persecution of believers as well as a time of stupendous natural and unnatural disasters. At the end of this period believers will be taken up to heaven in an event known as the Rapture that is shortly followed by a battle between Jesus and the Antichrist commonly known as the "Battle of Armageddon". The Antichrist is defeated and Jesus Christ reigns on Earth for 1000 years.
Some notable failed end-time interpretations/prophecies: For years, The Family taught that David Berg's life was inextricably linked to the last seven years. However, Berg died in 1994. The Family also taught that heir apparent Davidito (see Ricky Rodriguez above) and Maria (current leader Karen Zerby) would be the two end-time witnesses described in the book of Revelations, and would call down fire from the sky to consume the enemies of God. However, Davidito died in 2005.
The Family believes heaven is shaped like a pyramid, literally inside the moon and ready to land on earth for the coming 1000 year reign of Christ. Berg claimed that the purported dimensions of the pyramidal heavenly city (1500 x 1500 x 1500 miles) are too large to fit in the moon because scientists and mathematicians have miscalculated its actual size.
The Family's art heavily features depictions of Berg's visions of heaven, with nude women surrounding Jesus.
The Family holds that the Great Commission of evangelizing the world is the duty of every Christian and that their lives should be dedicated to the service of God and others. While they claim not to be exclusivist and to accept that any believing Christian is a member of the Body of Christ, they believe that they are among the only Christians truly following in the "center of God's will" and living according to the principals of the early Christians. There are several levels of membership, and to remain in the inner circle, "Family Disciples" are expected to live communally.
Marriage and Children
Although members appear to form monogamous marriages, swinging and sexual promiscuity prevails in the group. Members are taught that they are collectively "one wife," first married to the body of Christ, that they should be free of jealousy, and have the liberty of sharing their partner with others. Many couples in The Family have been required to forsake each other, many broken apart; and some partnerships are put together by leadership who determine it is "God's will."
The Family believes adultery has been abolished by the "law of love" and that they may do anything in the name of love including partaking of promiscuous sexual unions; and that "to the pure all things are pure" so there is no sin involved.
The Family does not believe in birth control. Although in recent years they are allegedly loosening their restriction on this, members who choose to use birth control are said to lack faith in God's planning for their lives.
Abortion is strictly prohibited.
The Law of Love
The Family holds that The Law of Love supersedes all other biblical laws. This central tenet to their theology maintains that if a person's actions are motivated by unselfish, sacrificial love, any actions in accordance with Scripture are lawful in the eyes of God, even if they contravene the laws of society.
The Family believes that God is a "sexy God" who created human sexuality; that sex is a natural emotional and physical need; that heterosexual relations (recently updated to be defined as only between consenting adults of legal age) are a pure sinless creation of God and permissible according to Scripture.
The Family teaches that the followers of Christ are His bride, called to love and serve Him with the fervor of a wife. This is literalized into sexual acts during prayer, and the belief that Jesus wishes to have "spiritual sex" with all his true followers, male and female.
Male-male homosexuality is not allowed but lesbianism is tolerated. Anal sex is prohibited. Oral sex is encouraged if the female swallows the semen.
The Loving Jesus Revolution (LJR)
Of the teachings Zerby has propagated, her encouragement to followers to engage in a spiritual sexual relationship with Jesus stands out as the most unusual. Male members of the group are encouraged to visualize themselves as women "in the spirit" during masturbation or intercourse in order to accommodate this practice. This doctrine is explained in the Family publications Loving Jesus Part 1 and 2 see The Loving Jesus Revelation.
Practiced since 1995 by members of the Children of God/Family International both male and female members as young as 12, but more fully from the age of 14, are taught that Jesus literally desires to have sex with them.
The "Loving Jesus revelation" calls on Family members to do three things:
The Family also believes in channeling spiritual beings through prophecy. Members are encouraged to hear from Christ and other spiritual beings multiple times during each day and to make both large and small decisions in consultation with the spirit world. They do this individually and in prayer groups with all members typically expected to contribute at will. It is not uncommon for members to believe they are channeling well-known people from history who are communicating from the afterlife.
Prior to the 1990s channeling-prophecy was not as common among members and was more typical among leadership and prominent members. While David Berg, usually without any attribution, clearly drew from the teachings of many external secular and religious sources, he also frequently claimed to channel people from the afterlife. It was after his death that the process became more democratized. Current leader Karen Zerby frequently calls on spiritual beings for instructions and advice.
Criticism and Issues
The group has regularly been heavily criticized by the press and the anti-cult movement. In 1971, an organization called FREECOG was founded by concerned family members of followers, including deprogrammer Ted Patrick, to "free" them from their involvement in the group.
Frequently, critics of the movement cite the writings of David Berg, as well as incidents of alleged criminal behavior by individuals. Family International members, meanwhile, argue that the entirety of Berg's writings do not reflect the organization's fundamental beliefs (contained in the "Statement of Faith") or policies (contained in the Love Charter, published in 1995). Likewise, they reject the concept of the entire group being blamed for the wrongdoing of individuals, even when involving members at the highest levels of leadership.
The controversy over the movement has generated strong feelings in both current and former members. An example of the contrasting interpretations of Family life can be seen in the accounts of second generation members: former members at MovingOn.org and current members at MyConclusion.com.
Since the late 1970s, there have been increasing reports of children of former members being abducted and moved to other countries to prevent their parents, law enforcement authorities and child welfare agencies from finding them.
In one case, an investigation was launched regarding the whereabouts of four missing children. Their mother, Ruth Frouman, had been expelled from the group in July 1987, eight months after being diagnosed with breast cancer, and was not allowed to leave with her children. This resulted in police raids on 10 Family Homes in Buenos Aires, Argentina, in September 1993. Two of her children were returned to their father in May 1993. The other two abducted children were not reunited with their father nor other relatives until mid-1997.
Although official Family spokespersons have rarely made any public statements about specific child abduction cases involving its members, members of the Family claim that there is some evidence that the Family's policies and practices regarding child abduction and child custody began to change in the mid-1990s. In "Permanent Marital Separation Rules"Section 60 of the Love Charter created in February 1995it is stated that couples with children must come to a mutual written agreement regarding the separation and the custody of the children, and that obtaining a legal divorce and child custody order is optional. However, it should be noted that The Family's supplemental publications once contained tips on how to use written agreements to obtain de facto full custody and traveling rights. This was in practice, used to move children away from a parent no longer in the group, often to countries with no extradition treaties and well outside the jurisdiction of local courts.
Also notable, the above policy states that it was applicable only to marital separations after February 1995. Offering no retroactive responsibility of earlier policies and practices, nor recourse for those affected by them. In a clause designed to deny culpability and keep the group's name out of the courts, the June 2003 amendments state that if the parties involved cannot reach a mutual agreement and "opt to use the court system to settle the matter," they must "relinquish Charter membership until the matter is settled."
At least one Family 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 deported from Japan to Australia, where he was convicted of committing forgery and making false statements to facilitate unlawful abduction. He later returned to Japan, where he continued working on behalf of David Berg and Karen Zerby in World Services.
Another Family 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.
A New Zealander was wanted in Singapore for kidnapping his daughter and abandoning his Singaporean wife who decided to leave The Family on reading Berg's "Sex with Grandma" in the early 80s.
More information continues to be gathered as thousands of ex-members who have left the group and moved on through the years, find each other through the Internet.
The Second Generation
Second-generation adults, those who did not choose to join but were born into and/or raised in the Family International, are known in the group as "SGAs."
Of the SGAs remaining in the group, many have assumed leadership positions in the organization, including chairmanships of international, regional, and national boards.
As a rule, departing SGAs return to the country of their citizenship to seek help and adjust to life outside the group. Many keep in communication with each other through sites such as MovingOn.org, established by a former second-generation member in 2001. A large percentage choose to pursue secular careers and higher education, and raise their children in environments radically different from the one in which they were raised. Anti-Family sentiments prevail, with many pursuing or preparing to seek legal recourse for alleged physical and sexual abuse, by abusers allegedly shielded from prosecution by the group's leadership.
The Family International has argued that SGAs who alleged they were abused in the group are mentally unstable, demon-possessed, or highly paid by the anti-cult movement to lie about The Family. Its spokespersons claim that the anecdotal evidence suggests most former SGAs are publicly silent about their experiences in the group because they have cordial relations with those still in it. Former members assert however, what many studies support: victims of abuse typically require long recovery periods in dealing with complex traumatic disorders associated with long-term abuse, and are thus not adequately equipped to face the ordeals of pursuing justice until many years later; at which time, matters of jurisdiction and statutes of limitation can severely hamper or nullify legal proceedings.
SGAs remaining in the group have been vocal in their defense of the Family's lifestyle, countering the MovingOn.org site with their MyConclusion.com, established in the wake of negative publicity, after the January 2005 murder-suicide of Rick Rodriguez and Angela Smith.
Curbing Contact with Relatives
Members of the Family International are supposedly encouraged to maintain friendly relations with relatives who have left. However, they are also discouraged from associating with relatives considered enemies of The Family, and many SGAs fall under this category, and are cut off from their families once they leave. Those who do currently maintain friendly contact are hostage to the understanding that they may not participate in anti-Family activities. Antifamily activists are defined as those who have reported crimes to law enforcement agencies, testified against the group in court cases involving its members, and publicly expressed negative opinions about the group's members and practices.
The Family describes these former members as apostates, arguing that their testimony is unreliable and less credible than that of current members. SGAs assert that the term apostate cannot be applied to them, for though they were the children of members, they did not choose to join the group themselves.
In most situations under normal circumstances when there is no perceived threat, Family members generally obey the legal and civil authorities of countries in which they live. However, a controversial doctrine called "deceivers yet true" is still taught and practiced by members of the group, and maintains that it is biblically sanctioned to lie to unbelievers and outsiders in order to protect "God's work."
A consistent trait throughout the history of The Family has been their aversion to government oversight and extreme secrecy surrounding their leadership and finances. World Services (WS), the central administrative wing of The Family, continues to operate in seclusion, with very few members of The Family knowing their whereabouts.
It is not uncommon for senior leaders to legally change their names. At least one member has been charged and imprisoned for forging or fraudulently obtaining passports and other identity documents. Top leaders have allegedly used falsified identity documents from Australia, Canada, the United States and other countries.
The Family's senior leadership typically attempt to keep their legal names from common circulation, although this has became more difficult through the second half of the 1990s, due to legal action in many countries. In particular, a major court case in England in 1995 brought to light many formerly guarded names of senior members.
For some 30 years, up-to-date pictures of the faces of their leaders were kept a secret even from followers. In the Family's publications, printed photographs of WS members were typically censored by means of white-out and a rudimentary pencil drawing over the person's face. It was not uncommon in Family-produced art, for Berg's head to be replaced with that of a lion.
Following the death of David Berg in 1994, members of the Family and the public were finally allowed to see up-to-date photographs of the organization's late founder. For many members, this was the first time they had seen a photograph of his face. This was true even for photographs from a Newsweek article in the 70s, which were censored, replicated and republished internally.
In recent years, 2nd in command leader Steven Kelly began showing pictures of current leader Karen Zerby to members he visited on his travels. In March 2005, after photographs of current leader Karen Zerby and Steve Kelly were leaked and placed online, The Family International had no choice but to appear open, allowing their faces to be seen by members, as a continued policy of secrecy would work against them. This marked the first time that recent photographs of Karen Zerby were made available to the public in nearly 30 years.
Although members are now familiar with the faces of Karen Zerby and Steven Kelly, their current (assumed?) legal identities and location are still a heavily guarded secret, known only to members working closest to them.
Family finances are based on a system of tithing. Ten percent of all members' (pre-tax if according to Berg's requirements) income is paid to World Services. A further three percent is donated to regional offices for locally administered projects and a community lending program, and an additional one percent is given for regional literature publishing. Supplementary giving to Family offices and leadership, beyond the typical 14% of income, is encouraged, and fairly commonplace.
The Family's funds are collected through an honor system, depending largely on the transfers of non-senior members managing bank accounts with the organization's funds in their own names. How much graft has taken place, if any, cannot be reliably measured, as the organization does not exist as a legal entity nor keep transparent books.
How much income is actually generated, and if The Family is entitled to operate as an entity collecting and managing funds without official tax-exempt status, accounting and bookkeeping, is a subject of criticism.
The closest the public may ever see of the The Family's finance operations may be through scrutinizing the Family Care Foundation (FCF). Although it claims to be a separate legal entity from The Family, members were allowed to send donations to the in lieu of tithing. (see above: "FCF & the Charitable Organization and NGO push")
The group's literature includes many warnings of an impending global financial collapse, the downfall of US and the resultant rise of a one-world government, where cash is useless without the mark of the antichrist. As a result, average rank and file members tend to avoid investments and actions that are deemed unstable or pointless in the event of a financial crash. Rank and file members are advised to keep reserves if any, in Japanese yen, Swiss francs, or gold; and to avoid property investments and stocks or bonds because they are contrary to the group's requirements for discipleship and their end-time beliefs.
However, the rules appear to be different for the top leadership:
A member who lived in Berg's household has alleged to having seen a suitcase belonging to Berg, with "flee funds" estimated to be at least US$1 million; In 2006, Thomas Hack, a high-ranking leader in The Family International, was exposed for having purchased prime real estate for almost $900,000.
Notable members, past and present
Susan Cagle, a pop-rock singer-songwriter signed to Columbia Records, left the group as a teen.
Comedian Tina Dupuy was born into the group, and now bases her comedy show around her childhood years.
Fashion designer Shem Watson, who owned the label SHEM with actor Heath Ledger, grew up in the Children of God along with his family.
Mor Lam and Luk Thung Prayuk singers Christy Gibson and Jonas Anderson, famous primarily in Thailand, are current members of The Family International.
According to the Children of God, there were 130 communes or "colonies" in 15 countries in 1972. In 1993, 7,000 of the 10,000 members were under 18 years of age. Recent statistics by The Family International puts full-time and fellow members at just over 11,200 in over 100 countries (around 4,000 adult full-time members and 4,000 children). Some estimates have placed the total number of people that have passed through the group at 35,000.
There are however, no reliable statistics as the group does not open its books and records to third party verification or public scrutiny. It has also published exaggerated figures regarding the number of people reached with their message, using overlapping statistics to show numbers exceeding the population of local of regions and even the entire world.
Programs, projects and productions
The Family International (as the group calls itself today) or The Family International Fellowship has various programs through which it operates. The main ones include Family Care Foundation (FCF), Aurora Productions AG, and Activated Ministries. However, the group has many other local foundations and projects in various countries throughout the worldas a rule these front organizations are never open about their connection to the groupfor example (note: some of the following may no longer be active):
More information can be found at exFamily.org's comprehensive list of front organizations in The Family / The Children of God - Index of Pseudonyms.
Key Front Organizations
The Family Care Foundation (FCF) (EIN 33- 0734917)
Inextricably linked to The Family, the FCF is registered as a separate legal entity, and obtained tax-exempt status in 1997. It works almost exclusively to support a system of charitable organizations set up by members, registered around the world.
Aurora Production AG
Aurora Production AG, based in Zug, is the copyright holder and owner of all of The Family International's revenue-producing productions. These include publications, music, and videos (i.e. ''Countdown to Armageddon'' and ''Treasure Attic''). Although ultimate control over this company is in Steven Kelly's hands, on paper the following people are listed as running this company (www.hrazg.ch):
Family Missions Foundation
Family Missions Foundation, based in Zug, Switzerland, receives and processes the tithes of members. The board has many of the same names as for Aurora Production AG. The two key people are:
Activated Ministries (EIN 33-0857142)
A Family International operated 501(c)3 non-profit organization based in Escondido, California. All the Directors are Family International members. Thomas Hack, a high-ranking Family-International officer and former director of FCF, is the President. Activated Ministries is a licensed distributor of Aurora products worldwide, including the magazines ''Activated'' and ''The Wine Press'', both of which promote Family-International beliefs and practices. It is The Family International's largest outreach operation. Activated Ministries openly acknowledges its support of The Family International and links to The Family International website. Activated Ministries has also made at least one cash donation to FCF.
Other Non-profit organizations related to The Family
Other businesses related to the COG/The Family
Areas where The Family International have remained active for many years and are generally active today include:
The leadership of The Family International is headed by:
Under them, management is divided into ''World Services'', ''Creations'', and ''Family Care Foundation''. The following is a sample of The Family International's current and former leadership or high-profile members (note: Many of them have legally changed their names and have adopted either "Brown" or "Smith" as their surnames):
Management and Regional Offices
World Services (WS)
World Services (WS; location a closely guarded secret; they can be contacted through a Post Office box in Zurich, Switzerland that has been open for over two decades with the mail handled by the European regional office (EURCRO)
The Family International divides regional management into zones that have changed very rarely and typically in very small ways over its history. They are:
Each region is managed by a team of Continental Officers (COs), each team typically having five to seven members. The management structures beneath the CO team are more variable and their members are changed frequently.
Journalistic and popular
Sites of Individual Current Members
Opposing Viewpoints & other sites
Court Cases and Investigations
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