Family International

Family International

The Family International (TFI), formed as as the Children of God (COG) and later named Family of Love and the Family, is a new religious movement,[1][2] started in 1968 in Huntington Beach, California, United States. It began in the late 1960s, with many of its early converts drawn from the hippie movement. The Children of God was among the movements prompting the cult controversy of the 1970s and 1980s in the United States and Europe and triggered the first organized anticult group FREECOG.



As TFI grew and expanded around the world, so did its message of salvation, apocalypticism, and spiritual "revolution" against the outside world, which the members called "the System", which resulted in controversy. In 1974, it began a method of evangelism called Flirty Fishing, sometimes using sex to show God's love and win converts.[3] The practice was discontinued in 1987. TFI's founder and prophetic leader, David Berg, who was first called "Moses David" in the Texas press, communicated with his followers via Mo Letters—letters of instruction and counsel on myriad spiritual and practical subjects—until his death in late 1994.[4] After his death, his widow Karen Zerby became the leader of TFI.

The group's liberal sexuality led to concerns and investigations regarding child abuse. The High Court of Justice, Family Division in the UK found there to be "widespread sexual abuse of young children and teenagers by adult members of The Family".[5] Other judicial and academic investigations of TFI (especially in the 1990s) found TFI to be a safe environment for children. However, information provided by former members casts doubts as to whether these investigations really managed to uncover the truth.[6] TFI leadership have repeatedly apologized for cases where children were abused before 1986, when strict policies were set in place prohibiting excessive discipline or any sexual contact between adults and minors. Those found to have abused children since 1986 have been excommunicated from TFI membership. Again, it is unclear to what extent these policies and excommunications have been implemented in reality.[6]

Media attention was renewed by the January 2005 suicide of David Berg's adopted and abused son/heir apparent Ricky Rodriguez (who had also left the group several years earlier) after he murdered a former member, shocking both current and former members.[7]


The Children of God (1968–1977)

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

New converts memorized scripture, took Bible classes, and were expected to emulate the lives of early Christians while rejecting mainstream denominational Christianity. In common with converts to some other religions, most incoming members adopted a new "Bible" name.

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

Berg communicated with his followers through more than 3,000 published letters written over 24 years, referred to as "Mo Letters" by members of the group. By January 1972, Berg introduced through his letters that he was God's prophet for this time, further establishing his spiritual authority within the group. Nonetheless, Berg freely acknowledged his failings and weaknesses.[8]

By the end of 1972, COG members had distributed approximately 42 million Christian tracts, mostly on God's salvation and America's doom. Street distribution of Berg's Letters (called "litnessing") became the COG's predominant method of both outreach and support for the next five years.

The Children of God ended as an organizational entity in February 1978. Berg reorganized the movement amid reports of serious misconduct, financial mismanagement, and established leaders having abused their positions (and others having opposed flirty fishing). He dismissed more than 300 of the movement's leaders and declared the general dissolution of the COG structure. This shift was known as the "Reorganization Nationalization Revolution" (RNR). A third of the total membership left the movement, and those who remained became part of the reorganized movement, dubbed the Family of Love, and later the Family. Most of the group's beliefs, however, remained the same.[9]

The Family of Love (1978–1981)

The Family of Love era was characterized by expansion into more countries. Regular proselytization 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 music.

In 1974, David Berg introduced a new proselytization method called Flirty Fishing (or FFing), which encouraged female members to show God's love by engaging in sexual activity with potential converts. Flirty Fishing was practiced by members of Berg's inner circle starting in 1973, and was later introduced to the general membership. By 1978, it was 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".[9] 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.[10] Flirty Fishing also resulted in the births of many children, including Karen Zerby's son, Davidito (aka Ricky Rodriguez). Children born as result of Flirty Fishing were referred to as "Jesus Babies". By the end of 1981, more than 300 "Jesus Babies" had been born.

In an official statement on its origins, TFI partly describes the practice of Flirty Fishing as follows:

In part as a response to the sexual liberality of the early '70s, Father David presented a more intimate and personal, voluntary form of evangelism, which became known as 'Flirty Fishing' or 'FFing.' ...Father David proposed that the boundaries of expressing God's love to others could at times go beyond just showing kindness and doing good deeds. He suggested that for those who were in dire need of physical love and affection, even sex could be used as evidence to them of the Lord's love. ...The motivation, guiding principle, and reasoning behind the FFing ministry was that through this sacrificial proof of love, some would better accept and understand God's great love for them. The goal was that they would come to believe in and receive God's own loving gift of salvation through His Son, Jesus, who gave His life for them. By this unorthodox method David felt many would find the Lord's love and salvation, who never would have otherwise. ... Although we no longer practice FFing, we believe the scriptural principles behind the ministry remain sound.[9]

In his judgment of a child custody court case in England in 1994, after extensive research of COG publications and the testimony of numerous witnesses, Lord Justice Sir Alan Ward said the following about Flirty Fishing:

I am quite satisfied that most of the women who engaged in this activity and the subsequent refinement of ESing, (which was finding men through escort agencies), did so in the belief that they were spreading God's word. But I am also totally satisfied that that was not Berg's only purpose. He and his organization had another and more sordid reason. They were procuring women to become common prostitutes. They were knowingly living in part on the earnings of prostitution. That was criminal activity. Their attempts to deny this must be dismissed as cant and hypocrisy. To deny that the girls were acting as prostitutes because 'we are not charging but we expect people to show their thanks and their appreciation and they ought to give more for love than if we charged them' is an unacceptable form of special pleading. The 'FFers handbook' told the girls that fishing could be fun but fun did not pay the bills. 'You've got to catch a few to make the fun pay for itself. So don't do it for nothing'.[11]

A judge in Italy came to a different conclusion in 1991, deciding that Flirty Fishing was not prostitution (see Tribunale Penale di Roma (Criminal Court of Rome), 15 November 1991, re: Berg and others, and in the archives of the Criminal Court of Rome (RG 3841/84)). The judge concluded that it was only in "the last months of 1977 Berg started counseling the members that it was permissible for proselyting reasons to offer sexual contacts and services to perspective [sic] members, the more so when the latter were potentially good financial contributors to the cult". Among the Children of God, the judge argued, Flirty Fishing was not understood as prostitution but "as a personal contribution to the humanitarian aims that the sect always claimed to pursue".

Flirty Fishing was officially abandoned in 1987 in favor of other witnessing methods and also to avoid contracting HIV. In 1987, 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. For example, one publication stated: "All sex with outsiders is banned!--Unless they are already close and well-known friends!" [12]

The Family (1982–1994)

By 1982, more TF members had moved to southern and eastern parts of the world. At the end of 1983, TF was reporting 10,000 fulltime 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 evangelization 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 which stated that, in "early 1985" an urgent memorandum was sent to all of its members "reminding them that any such activities [adult-child sexual contact] are strictly forbidden within our group".[13] (emphasis in original). In January 2005, Claire Borowik, spokesperson for TFI, issued a statement that said, "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".[14]

In December 1988, TF implemented a policy that forbade adult-child sexual contact on penalty of excommunication (expulsion from the movement). This policy was not retroactive. Members who filed charges or pursued other legal action against those excommunicated for child abuse were required to leave TF or move to a different membership status until the matter was resolved, as explained in the June 2003 Charter amendments[15] in the Rights of Children (pg. 22) and the Right of Redress (pg. 51) sections. However this clause is no longer valid under TFI's 2010 policies, and members can presently file charges and pursue legal action while retaining TFI membership.

In the 1990s, numerous allegations of child sexual abuse were brought against TF around the world, in locations including Argentina, Australia, Brazil, France, Italy, Japan, Norway, Peru, Spain, Sweden, the UK, the USA, and Venezuela.

TFI leadership has maintained that they did not sanction or condone the sexual abuse of children. UK's High Court of Justice found that not only did widespread sexual abuse happen but publications printed by church leaders promoted the activities. [16] Some court documents can be found in the Court Cases section below.

Karen Zerby, writing in a 1995 internal publication titled "An Answer to Him That Asketh Us", stated: "Because of the insight Dad [Berg] gave into the Scriptures which granted us a great deal of sexual freedom, without clearly stated explicit restrictions that prohibited all sexual activity between adults and minors, it resulted in actions that caused harm to some children. He must therefore bear responsibility for the harm. ... As the author of the Letters, he accepts the blame, but this doesn't mean that everyone else is completely blameless. Anyone who attempted to use the Law of Love to justify any unloving, selfish or hurtful behavior is responsible before God for it."

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. Other researchers have concurred that there is no evidence of greater sexual activity amongst teenagers in TF than in society at large.[17]

Transformation in the 1990s

In the early 1990s, TF members took advantage of the newly opened Eastern Europe (following the fall of Communism) and expanded their evangelisation campaigns eastward, alongside many other religious groups. The production and dissemination of millions of pieces of Christian literature earned them the colloquial name "the poster people".

The early 1990s also saw the launch of what TF termed their "Consider the Poor" (CTP) ministries. Expanding their outreach beyond evangelization, members began providing material aid to the poor and disadvantaged. TF members became active in disaster relief efforts, the provision and distribution of humanitarian aid, musical benefit programs for refugees, visitation to hospitals, and similar activities.

The Family (1995–2003)

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

In February 1995, the group introduced the Love Charter,[18] 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 with the enactment of the Charter.

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 leadership and fellow members. The responsibilities referred to were what members were expected to give to the group if they wished to remain full-time members, including tithing ten percent of their income to World Services, giving three percent to the "Family Aid Fund", set up to support needy field situations, and one percent to regional "common pots", which are used for local projects, activities, and fellowships. The Charter has been subsequently amended over the years according to changes within the group. TFI's 2010 policies state that all members must tithe (give 10% of their income) or give a monthly contribution in order to retain membership.

In a 1995 British 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, he concluded that TF had abandoned these practices and 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".

The Family International (2004–present)

In 2004, the movement's name was changed to The Family International. However, TFI homes were told that they could retain their former names so long as they do not conceal their affiliation with TFI.

In 2004, there were major internal changes in the group. Internal publications spoke of arresting a general trend towards a less dedicated lifestyle, and the need for recommitment to the group's mission of fervent evangelization. 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. At that time membership was defined into the following categories: Family Disciples (FD), Missionary Members (MM), Fellow Members (FM), Active Members (AM), and General Members (GM).

The Love Charter governs FDs, while the Missionary Member Statutes and Fellow Member Statutes were written for the governance of TFI's Missionary member and Fellow Member circles, respectively. FD homes are reviewed every six months against an annunciated 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 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.

In 2010, TFI underwent major changes in policy and structure with the goal of allowing individuals more freedom in expressing their faith and in their lifestyle choices, and has issued the end of one era and the beginning of a new one. Members have had differing views about the drastic changes that were introduced, but most see the need for the new TFI introduced with the "reboot", the term used for the restructuring process of TFI. Members are now able to make personal decisions on whether or not they choose to live communally, as well as matters such as education, employment options, relationships and marriage with non-members, and other personal and lifestyle choices that were previously regulated or influenced by TFI policies. Present TFI focus is on developing open minded and inclusive views and attitudes, care of elderly members and developing solid mission and charity works.[19]


To some extent, TFI identify with fundamentalist Christianity, though their more radical beliefs and practices are generally regarded as non-traditional, even heretical, by many conservative and liberal Christians. TFI teaches that the Bible is the inspired Word of God and sacred revelation. Group founder David Berg is regarded within the group[citation needed] as the most important prophet of the end times. He is regarded as a prophet in that he passed on the message of God. The group believes Berg's spiritual "mantle" passed to his wife, Karen Zerby, at his death. The officially published writings of both David Berg and Karen Zerby[4] are regarded as part of the "Word of God" which carries the same weight as the Bible since they are considered divine revelations. These views on past writings and "the word of God" have been readressed with documents issued in 2010.

They believe 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. They had several levels of membership, and the most committed, called "Family Disciples", live communally. They also encourage having children. While birth control was initially highly discouraged, the choice is currently left to the individual and is not uncommon in practice, though it was officially regarded as indicative of a lack of trust in God's plan. Birth control views were readressed in 2010, and Family doctrine and policy no longer influences choices regarding birth control.

A central tenet to their 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 to others, such actions are in accordance with Scripture and are, thus, lawful in the eyes of God. The romantic and sexual implication of this principle is also commonly known as polyamory, although the "Law of Love" is believed by TFI to be the Scriptural foundation for every aspect of a Christian's life, not only romantic and sexual, and emphasizes unselfishness, giving, caring, respect, honesty, and other essential Christian values that should be enacted in everyday life (the Scriptural basis for this teaching can be found in Matthew 22:37 - 40 and in Galatians 5:14). They believe that this tenet supersedes all other Biblical laws, except those forbidding male homosexuality, which they believe is sin. Female bisexuality is sanctioned, though female homosexuality at the complete exclusion of men is not permitted. They believe that God created human sexuality, that it is a natural, emotional, and physical need, and that heterosexual relations between consenting adults is a pure and natural wonder of God's creation,[20] and permissible according to Scripture. Documents issued in 2010 expressed the need for more tolerant attitudes toward varying choices regarding sexuality. Since 2010, the age of consent in TFI is determined by local laws and regulations. Since 1986,[21] 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 was commonly called "sharing", or in some cases "sacrificial sex". While TFI policy states that members should not be pressured to have sex against their will, numerous former members have alleged being coerced to "share" and subsequently cast as selfish or unloving when they did not. These views have been readressed in 2010, reflecting on the influence that past documents have had on TFI's culture, and addressing the need to change this aspect of TFI culture to reflect more respect for personal decisions regarding sexuality and more inclusiveness regarding differing personal views on sexuality.

They believe that they are now living in the time period known in the Bible as the "Last Days" or the "Time of the End", which is the era immediately preceding the return of Jesus Christ. Before that event, they believe that the world will be ruled for seven years by the Antichrist, who will create a one-world government. At the half-way point in his rule he will become completely possessed by Satan, precipitating a time of troubles known as the Great Tribulation which will bring intense persecution of Christians as well as stupendous natural and unnatural disasters. At the end of this period, faithful Christians will be taken to heaven in an event known as the Rapture that is shortly followed by a battle between Jesus and the Antichrist commonly known as the "Battle of Armageddon", in which the Antichrist is defeated. Then, they say, Jesus Christ will reign on Earth for 1000 years, a period they call the Millennium.

TFI's official summary statement of their beliefs can be found on their website.

Recent teachings

TFI's recent teachings center around beliefs that they have termed the "new [spiritual] weapons". TFI members believe that they are soldiers in the spiritual war of good versus evil for the souls and hearts of men. Although some of the following beliefs are not new to TFI, they have assumed greater importance in recent years.


In TFI jargon, the popular definition of prophecy—a prediction of the future—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). A great emphasis has been placed on each member regularly 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 Karen Zerby's leadership.

Spirit Helpers

These include angels, departed humans, and even famous mythical characters, for example the goddess Aphrodite. Spirit helpers are sent to give instruction and to fight in the spiritual warfare taking place in the spiritual dimension that TFI members believe is coexistent with the physical world that surrounds them. These helpers are believed to relay divine messages through prophecy and are also engaged in combat with Satan and his demons. TFI members believe that referring by name to spirit helpers when calling on their help, or demons when rebuking or cursing them, affords greater power to their prayers. As a result, TFI regularly publishes names of individual, as well groups of, spirit helpers and demons, linking them with their respective areas of power within the physical world.

The Keys of the Kingdom

TFI believes that the keys referred to in the Biblical passage "and I will give you the keys of the kingdom of heaven, and whatever you bind on earth will be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth will be loosed in heaven" (Matthew 16:19), have assumed greater significance today. As such, TFI members call on the various Keys of the Kingdom for supposed extra effect during prayer. These spiritual keys are also believed to power various spiritual spacecraft[citation needed] (known as Key Craft), and can turn into spiritual swords for the purpose of fighting demons and other negative forces.

Loving Jesus

This is a term that TFI members use to describe their intimate, sexual relationship with Jesus. TFI describes the "Loving Jesus" teachings as a radical form of bridal theology.[22] It is their understanding of the Bible that the followers of Christ are his bride, called to love and serve him with the fervor of a wife. They took bridal theology further than mainstream Christians by encouraging members to imagine that Jesus is having sex with them during sexual intercourse and masturbation. Male members were encouraged to visualize themselves as women, in order to avoid a homosexual relationship with Jesus.

TFI continues to stress the imminent Second Coming of Christ, preceded by the rise of a worldwide government led by the "Antichrist". Doctrines regarding 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.


Child abduction

Since the late 1970s, there have been 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. An investigation into the whereabouts of four missing children, whose mother, Ruth Frouman,[23] was expelled from the group in July 1987, eight months after being diagnosed with breast cancer, and not allowed to leave with her children, resulted in police raids[24] on ten TFI homes in Buenos Aires, Argentina in September 1993. After holding a large number of TFI children in custody and conducting many physical and psychological examinations on the children, the court returned the children to their parents, citing lack of evidence.[25] Two of Ruth Frouman's children were returned to their father in May 1993, and the other two children were reunited with their father and their other relatives in mid-1997.

Although official TFI spokespersons have rarely made any public statements about specific child abduction cases involving its members, TFI's policies and practices regarding child custody were better defined in the mid-1990s with the introduction of the "Love Charter", TFI's governing document which was introduced in February 1995, several months after the death of its founder. In Section 60 of this document, Permanent Marital Separation Rules, states 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.[26] This policy stated that it only applied to marital separations after February 1995. 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".[15] This clause is no longer valid under TFI's 2010 policies, and members may settle the matter in a court of law while retaining membership.

One TFI member, Peter Bevan Riddell, is known to have been convicted of crimes relating to child abduction. In 1984, the Australian government canceled Riddell's passport and he was 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.[27] Another TFI member, Brian Edward Pickus, has been wanted for decades on an Interpol warrant issued by the United States and the state of Hawaii for kidnapping, burglary and unlawful flight to avoid prosecution.[28]

The second generation

Second-generation adults, adults who were born and/or reared in TFI, are known in the group as "SGAs" and have assumed many leadership positions in the organization. This includes chairmanships of international, regional, and national boards.

However, as with other high-commitment religious groups, many second-generation members have left to pursue secular careers or higher education and to rear their children in an environment different from the one they were reared in. There is a great deal of anti-TFI sentiment among a small but outspoken minority of those who have left (some examples are Celeste Jones, Rose McGowan, Kristina Jones, and Julianna Buhring, who wrote a book[6] on their lives in TFI [29]). The anti-TFI sentiment includes threats to legally pursue alleged physical and sexual abusers, who, some allege, have been shielded from prosecution by the group's leadership.

Many of these former Missionary Kids have returned to the country of their citizenship and have, thus, become Third Culture Kids (TCKs). Many have also kept in communication with each other. A notable example of this is their use of the site,[30] established by a former second-generation member in 2001 (closed down as of 1 February 2009).

Many who have remained in the group have been vocal in their defense of TFI's lifestyle; for example, at,[31] a site established by second-generation members of TFI shortly after the January 2005 murder-suicide of Rick Rodriguez and Angela Smith.

Members of TFI are encouraged to maintain friendly relations with relatives who have left. However, they have also been discouraged from associating with relatives who are considered enemies of TFI and who have frequently appeared on television programs around the world to denounce and speak out against the group.

There are some former second-generation members 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. In the past TFI has used the sociological/religious term apostates to describe these former members and has argued that their testimony is unreliable and less credible than that of current members. Some TFI members have argued that second-generation members who alleged they were abused in the group are mentally unstable, demonically possessed, or highly paid by the anti-cult movement to lie about TFI. Some second-generation former members resent the apostate label, as most of them did not make the choice to join the group and thus feel they cannot rightly be called apostates. Negative terms relating to former members have been officially discouraged since documents issued in 2009. These documents addressed the need for understanding and respect for the decisions made by former members, and the need to support them in establishing themselves outside of the group.


TFI members are expected to respect the legal and civil authorities of countries in which they live; and members have typically cooperated with appointed authorities, even during the police and social service raids of their communities in the early 1990s.[32] However, a controversial belief that was taught and practiced by members of the group maintains that it is right to lie to non-members (or "unbelievers") to protect God's work. This belief is commonly referred to as "deceivers yet true".[33]

A consistent trait throughout the history of TFI has been their aversion to government oversight and extreme secrecy surrounding leadership and finances. World Services (WS), the central administrative wing of TFI, continues to operate in seclusion, with very few members of TFI knowing its whereabouts. In 2010, this policy changed, and information about the location of WS centers is available to members of the group.

It is not uncommon for senior leaders to legally change their names. There have been allegations that members of TFI, including senior leaders, have used forged or fraudulently obtained passports and other identity documents from Australia, Canada, the United States, and other countries. Senior leadership typically still attempt to keep their legal names from common circulation, although this has become more difficult through the second half of the 1990s, because of legal action in many countries. In particular, a major court case in England brought to light many formerly guarded names of senior members.

In TFI's publications, printed photographs of WS members were typically censored by means of a rudimentary pencil drawing over the person's face. It was not uncommon in TFI-produced art for Berg's head to be replaced with that of a lion.

Following the death of David Berg in 1994, members of TF 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. In recent years[when?], Steven Kelly has carried pictures of Karen Zerby with him on travels to show members, since most had never seen a picture of their spiritual leader prior to this. Although, by now, most of the group's members have seen photographs or video footage of Karen Zerby and Steven Kelly, their identities and location are still heavily guarded by members working closest to them. Recent[when?] photographs or video footage of Karen Zerby, Steven Kelly, and most WS members were not readily available even to full-time members of TFI until March 2005, when several recent photographs were leaked online.[34] This marked the first time that recent photographs of Karen Zerby were made available to the public in nearly 30 years. Due to developments in TFI policy made in 2009, the issue of secrecy is no longer valid. Pictures of and writings by Karen Zerby and Steve Kelly can be found at


TFI finances are based on a system of tithing. Ten percent of all members' income is required to be donated 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 TFI offices and leadership, beyond the typical 14% of income, is encouraged, and fairly common in practice. Present requirements for TFI membership include tithing 10% (or a monthly contribution), and these funds are reinvested in TFI services and projects benefitting TFI members.

Income to the group's members is primarily through individual donations which are solicited by the group with the understanding that the money will be used to help local charities. The percentage of donations used for local charities has not always been tracked or published by the group. Additional sources of income have come from selling products such as children's videos and music sold under a variety of names such as the Treasure Attic and Kiddy Viddy series. Posters have also been sold on the street for donations. In recent years many TFI members have worked to establish associations and foundations and are subject to the accounting and auditing regulations of the countries in which they are established, and since 2008, TFI documents have focused on and emphasized the need for transparency and sustainability of charity works managed by TFI members.

A study of how TFI channels funds around the world is interesting from a sociological angle since it depends largely on trust of carefully placed, non-senior members who typically manage bank accounts that contain organization funds in their own names. Despite this, very little graft has been experienced, and notable cases have involved insubstantial amounts of money.

Organization literature includes many discussions of impending global financial doom. As a result, TFI has gone to considerable lengths to avoid investments and actions that it deems unstable in the event of a financial crash. Typically, reserves are stored in Japanese yen, Swiss francs, or gold. TFI has consistently avoided property investments and stocks or bonds, believing them to be contrary to the scriptural requirements for Christian discipleship and their end time beliefs. Since many TFI members are now working to establish enterprises and the endtime belief has been addressed to reflect a need for long term planning and preparation, long term investments by TFI members will likely become more common.


The group has been heavily criticized by the press and the anti-cult movement. In 1971, an organization called FREECOG was founded by concerned family members 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. TFI members, meanwhile, state 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.

Due to the high commitment nature of the group, controversy over the movement tends to generate strong feelings in both current and former members. An example of the contrasting interpretations of TFI life can be seen in the accounts of second generation members: former members at and (mostly) current members at[31]

Programs, projects, and productions

TFI has numerous programs, local foundations, and projects through which it operates around the world. The largest of these are the "Family Care Foundation" (FCF), "Aurora Production AG", and "Activated Ministries". The lattermost of these is a California-based nonprofit organization which conducts missionary work.

Leadership and management

The leadership of TFI is headed by:

  • Karen Elva Zerby
    • Spiritual leader of TFI
    • American
    • Legally changed her name to Katherine Rianna Smith, 4 November 1997
    • Aliases:
      • Karen Elva Zerby
      • Katherine Rianna Smith
      • Maria David
      • Maria Berg
      • Maria Fontaine
      • Mama Maria
      • Queen Maria
  • Steven Douglas Kelly
    • Head leader of TFI
    • American
    • Legally changed his name to Christopher Smith
    • Aliases:
      • Steven Douglas Kelly
      • Christopher Smith
      • Peter Amsterdam
      • King Peter

Under them, management is divided into World Services, Creations, and Family Care Foundation. 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.


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 TFI 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.[citation needed]

Notable members (past and present)

  • Jeremy Spencer, renowned blues slide guitarist and a founding member of Fleetwood Mac (of which he was a member until 1971), and a current member of TFI since 1971.[35]
  • Christopher Owens, of San Francisco indie band Girls (band), was brought up by his parents, who were members of the TFI.[36]

Raised in COG as children

  • Celeste Jones — author of Not Without My Sister, an autobiography detailing the extensive abuse she suffered in COG.[37] This book is used by the organization RAINN as a reference for child sexual abuse victims.
  • Rose McGowan — an actress, described her childhood in the group in interviews with Howard Stern[38], Interview magazine.[39] and People magazine. [40]
  • Christopher Owens - lead vocalist of indie-rock band Girls, has stated in interviews that "being part of the Children of God cult informed his childhood and his music. While there, he was not allowed to listen to music from outside the group, but was allowed to watch movies from which he absorbed music like Queen and Guns N' Roses."
  • Actors River Phoenix, Joaquin Phoenix, Rain Phoenix, and Summer Phoenix, as well as sister Liberty Phoenix, were members of the cult from 1972–1978. River Phoenix, who died of a drug overdose in 1993, told Details magazine in November 1991 that "they're ruining people's lives".[41]

Media featuring the group

  • Children of God: Lost and Found, a 75-minute documentary by Noah Thomson, featured at the 2007 Slamdance Film Festival[42]
  • A 15th-season episode of Law & Order, titled "Sects" (originally broadcast March 30, 2005), featured a group that was reminiscent of the Children of God, with an abusive female cult leader ("Mrs. Shelby," based on Children of God leader Karen Zerby and played by Deborah Hedwall). The episode also featured an adult child of hers who commits murder, based on the Ricky Rodriguez incident.[citation needed]
  • Cult Killer: The Rick Rodriguez Story (53-minute UK documentary with transcript)[43]

See also


  1. ^ Beit-Hallahmi, Benjamin (1993). The Illustrated Encyclopedia of Active New Religions, Sects, and Cults. Rosen Publishing Group. ISBN 978-0823915057. 
  2. ^ Huxley J (1992). "Sunday Times: Sex-cult children held – Children of God". The Sunday Times (Sydney) 1992-05-17.
  3. ^ "'The Family' and Final Harvest". Washington Post. 2 June 1993. 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 condoned a practice known as "flirty fishing" – the use of sex to win converts" 
  4. ^ a b Publications Database — contains the entire text of "Mo Letters"
  5. ^
  6. ^ a b c Jones, K., Jones, C. & Buhring, J. 2007 "Not without my sister", Harpercollinspuplishing, London
  7. ^ "Young man's suicide blamed on mother's cult -". CNN. 5 December 2007. Retrieved 2010-05-02. 
  8. ^ Chancellor, James (2000). Life in The Family: An Oral History of the Children of God. Syracuse, NY: University of Syracuse Press. pp. 64–67. 
  9. ^ a b c The Origins of a Movement: From "The Children of God" to "The Family International", found on the official website
  10. ^ Bainbridge, William Sims (1996). "The Sociology of Religious Movements". Routledge. ISBN 0-415-91202-4. pg 223
  11. ^ Judgment of the Rt. Hon. Lord Justice Ward – 1995 judgment resulting from major UK custody case involving TF
  12. ^ The Family: D.O. Is for DOers of the Word! (James 1:22)-Requirements for Receiving DO Mailings!
  13. ^ Child Abuse?! (March 1989) (Hosted by
  14. ^ Claire Borowik
  15. ^ a b Charter Amendments, June 2003 (pdf) (Hosted by
  16. ^
  17. ^ Vogt, Nancy R. "Correlates of Adolescent Sexual Activity in the Family", Graduate School of Psychology, Fuller Theological Seminary.
  18. ^ An Overview of Our Governing Charter
  19. ^ "The Family International--Restructuring for the Future" (Press release). 24-7PressRelease. 2010-06-03. Retrieved 2011-06-16. 
  20. ^ The Devil Hates Sex! But God Loves It!, by David Berg, May 1980
  21. ^ Liberty or Stumblingblock?, by Sara Kelley, November 1986
  22. ^ The "Loving Jesus" Revelation
  23. ^ Ruth Frouman – XFamily – Children of God
  24. ^ Legal Case Argentina, 1993 – XFamily – Children of God
  25. ^ Tribunal de Menores de Mercedes – Cause number 32.202 – XFamily – Children of God
  26. ^
  27. ^ Peter Bevan Riddell – XFamily – Children of God
  28. ^ Brian Edward Pickus – Argentina Extradition Case – XFamily – Children of God
  29. ^
  30. ^ – Community site for former second-generation members of TFI
  31. ^ a b – Opinions and responses by current second-generation members with positive viewpoints about TFI
  32. ^ Bainbridge, William Sims (2002). "The Endtime Family: Children of God". State University of New York Press, Albany, NY.
  33. ^ Deceivers yet true – XFamily – Children of God
  34. ^ Photos of TFI leaders
  35. ^ Classic Rock magazine interview
  36. ^ Pitchfork interview, September 2011
  37. ^
  38. ^ Howard Stern radio broadcast. Transcript
  39. ^ Interview with Interview magazine Rose McGowan
  40. ^ [1]
  41. ^ Friend, Tad (March 1994). "River, with love and anger". Esquire (Hearst Corporation) 121 (3): 108–117. ISSN 0014-0791. Retrieved 22 March 2009. 
  42. ^ Children of God: Lost and Found at the Internet Movie Database
  43. ^

Further reading


Journalistic and popular

Court cases

External links

  • 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.

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