The Family International

The Family International
Abbreviation TFI
Type Christian New religious movement
Leader Karen Zerby (1994-)
Founder David Berg
Other name(s) Teens for Christ, The Children of God, The Family of Love, The Family
Official website

The Family International (TFI) is a cult[1][2] that started in 1968 in Huntington Beach, California, USA. It was originally called Teens for Christ and later gained notoriety as The Children of God (COG). It was later renamed and reorganized as The Family of Love, which was eventually shortened to The Family. It is currently called The Family International.


TFI initially spread a message of salvation, apocalypticism, spiritual "revolution and happiness" and distrust of the outside world, which the members called The System. In 1976,[3] it began a method of evangelism called Flirty Fishing, that used sex to "show God's love and mercy" and win converts, resulting in controversy.[4] TFI's founder and prophetic leader, David Berg (who was first called "Moses David" in the Texas press), gave himself the titles of "King", "The Last Endtime Prophet", "Moses", and "David". He communicated with his followers via "Mo Letters"—letters of instruction and counsel on myriad spiritual and practical subjects—until his death in late 1994.[5] After his death, his widow Karen Zerby became the leader of TFI, taking the titles of "Queen" and "Prophetess". She married Steve Kelly, an assistant of Berg's whom Berg had handpicked as her "consort". Kelly took the title of "King Peter" and became the face of TFI, speaking in public more often than either David Berg or Karen Zerby.


The Children of God (1968–1977)

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

The founder of the movement, David Brandt Berg (1919–1994), was a former Christian and Missionary Alliance pastor.[6]

Berg communicated with his followers by writing letters. He published nearly 3,000 letters over a period of 24 years, referred to as the Mo Letters.[7] In a letter written in January 1972, Berg stated that he was God's prophet for the contemporary world, attempting to further solidify his spiritual authority within the group. Berg's letters also contained public acknowledgement of his own failings and weaknesses.[8]

By 1972, COG had 130 communities around the world.[9]

The Children of God was abolished in February 1978. Berg reorganized the movement amid reports of serious misconduct, financial mismanagement, The Chain's abuse of authority, and disagreements within it about the continued use of Flirty Fishing. One-eighth of the total membership left the movement. Those who remained became part of a reorganized movement called the Family of Love, and later, The Family. The majority of the group's beliefs remained the same.[10]

The Family of Love (1978–1981)

The Family of Love era was characterized by international expansion.

In 1976, before the dissolution of The Children of God,[3] David Berg had introduced a new proselytizing method called Flirty Fishing (or FFing), which encouraged female members to "show God's love" through sexual relationships with potential converts. Flirty Fishing was practiced by members of Berg's inner circle starting in 1973, and was introduced to the general membership in 1976 and became common practice within the group. In some areas flirty fishers used escort agencies to meet potential converts. According to TFI "over 100,000 received God's gift of salvation through Jesus, and some chose to live the life of a disciple and missionary" as a result of Flirty Fishing.[10] Researcher Bill Bainbridge obtained data from TFI suggesting that, from 1974 until 1987, members had sexual contact with 223,989 people while practicing Flirty Fishing.[11]

The Family (1982–1994)

In March 1989, TF issued a statement that, in "early 1985", an urgent memorandum had been sent to all members "reminding them that any such activities [adult–child sexual contact] are strictly forbidden within our group" (emphasis in original), and such activities were grounds for immediate excommunication from the group.[12] In January 2005, Claire Borowik, a spokesperson for TFI, stated that:

[d]ue to the fact that our current zero-tolerance policy regarding sexual interaction between adults and underage minors was not in our literature published before 1986, we came to the realization that during a transitional stage of our movement, from 1978 until 1986, there were cases when some minors were subject to sexually inappropriate advances ... This was corrected officially in 1986, when any contact between an adult and minor (any person under 21 years of age) was declared an excommunicable offense.[13]

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), assumed leadership of the group.

In February 1995, the group introduced the Love Charter,[14] which defined the rights and responsibilities of Charter Members and Homes. The Charter also included the Fundamental Family Rules, a summary of rules and guidelines from past TF publications which were still in effect.

In the 1994–95 British court case, the Rt. Hon. Lord Justice Alan Ward ruled that the group, including some of its top leaders, had in the past engaged in abusive sexual practices involving minors and had also used severe corporal punishment and sequestration of minors.[15] He found that by 1995 TF had abandoned these practices and concluded that they were a safe environment for children. Nevertheless, he did require that the group cease all corporal punishment of children in the United Kingdom and denounce any of Berg's writings that were "responsible for children in TF having been subjected to sexually inappropriate behaviour".

The Family International (2004–present)

The Love Charter is The Family's set governing document that entails each member's rights, responsibilities and requirements, while the Missionary Member Statutes and Fellow Member Statutes were written for the governance of TFI's Missionary member and Fellow Member circles, respectively. FD Homes were reviewed every six months against a published set of criteria. The Love Charter increased the number of single family homes as well as homes that relied on jobs such as self-employment.[16]

Recent teachings

TFI's recent teachings center around beliefs they term the "new [spiritual] weapons". TFI members believe that they are soldiers in the spiritual war of good versus evil for the souls and hearts of men.

Spirit Helpers

These include angels, departed humans, other religious and mythical figures, and even celebrities; for example the goddess Aphrodite, the Snowman, Merlin, the Sphinx, Elvis,[17] Marilyn Monroe, Audrey Hepburn,[18] Richard Nixon, and Winston Churchill.

The Keys of the Kingdom

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

Loving Jesus

This is a term TFI members use to describe their intimate, sexual relationship with Jesus. TFI describes its "Loving Jesus" teaching as a radical form of bridal theology.[20] They believe the church of followers is Christ's bride, called to love and serve him with wifely fervor. But they take bridal theology further, encouraging members to imagine Jesus is joining them during sexual intercourse and masturbation. Male members are cautioned to visualize themselves as women, in order to avoid a homosexual relationship with Jesus. Many TFI publications, and spirit messages claimed to be from Jesus himself, elaborate this intimate, sexual relation they believe Jesus desires and needs. TFI imagines itself as his special "bride" in graphic poetry, guided visualizations, artwork,[21] and songs.[22] Some TFI literature is not brought into conservative countries for fear it may be classified at customs as pornography.[23] The literature outlining this view of Jesus and his desire for a sexual relationship with believers was edited for younger teens,[24] then further edited for children.[25]


The second generation

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

Anti-TFI sentiment has been publicly expressed by some who have left the group; examples include sisters Celeste Jones, Kristina Jones, and Juliana Buhring, who wrote a book[26] on their lives in TFI.[27]

Relationship with the authorities

TFI members are expected to respect legal and civil authorities where they live. Members have typically cooperated with appointed authorities, even during the police and social-service raids of their communities in the early 1990s.[28]


The group has been criticized by the press and the anti-cult movement. In 1971, an organization called FREECOG was founded by concerned parents and others, including deprogrammer Ted Patrick, to "free" members of the COG from their involvement in the group. Academics were divided, with some categorizing TFI as a "new religious movement", and others, such as Benjamin Beit-Hallahmi[29] and John Huxley,[30] labeling the group a "cult".

Notable members (past and present)

Raised in COG as children, left later

Media featuring the group

  • 'The Jesus Trip' (1971), a documentary by Denis Tuohy that has interviews with Children of God members.
  • Children of God, a 63-minute Channel 4 documentary by John Smithson; detailing the Padilla family and the abuse of their three underage daughters and the death of another.
  • Children of God: Lost and Found, a 75-minute documentary by Noah Thomson, featured at the 2007 Slamdance Film Festival[43]
  • Cult Killer: The Rick Rodriguez Story (53-minute UK documentary with transcript)[44]
  • In the first episode of Louis Theroux's Weird Weekends, Born Again Christians, Louis visits a Texas TFI family.
  • Buzzcocks mentions the group (as "Children Of God") in their song, "Orgasm Addict".
  • RedLetterMedia featured the Family International video "S.O.S." on an episode of "Best of the Worst."[45]
  • Mentioned in Tony Robbins: I Am Not Your Guru documentary at 52 minutes of the film as an organization where children are forced to have sex from the age of six.[46]
  • The Parcast Podcast 'Cults': Episodes 11 & 12 .[47]
  • Citizen Rose: A five part documentary series shown on the E! Channel. The first episode premiered on January 30, 2018. The series follows actress Rose McGowan who was born into the cult.
  • The Last Podcast on the Left did a four part series on the Cult: Episodes 248-251
  • A&E's Cults and Extreme Belief, episode 3 (2018) is about the Children of God.[48]

See also


  1. "The Children of God/The Family". International Cultic Studies Association (ICSA). Retrieved December 23, 2017.
  2. "Group Information Archives". Cult Education Institute. Retrieved December 23, 2017.
  3. 1 2 "Flirty-fishing". Archived from the original on 2014-08-09. Retrieved 2014-03-02.
  4. Niebuhr, Gustav (2 June 1993). "'The Family' and Final Harvest". The Washington Post. p. A01. Retrieved 2008-04-27. Sure, Alexander concedes, plenty of people object that The Family's 'Law of Love' permits sex outside marriage and that the group once used (and still espouses the concept and beliefs about) a practice known as 'flirty fishing' – the use of free sex to win converts.
  5. "Index". The Publications Database. 2012-02-20. Retrieved 2016-07-24.
  6. "History - Mission". Retrieved 2016-08-13.
  7. "The Man - Mission". Retrieved 2016-08-13.
  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. "Our History". The Family International. Retrieved 2016-08-13.
  10. 1 2 "Origins". The Family International. Archived from the original on 2009-04-29. Retrieved 2016-07-24.
  11. Bainbridge, William Sims (1996). The Sociology of Religious Movements. Routledge. p. 223. ISBN 0-415-91202-4.
  12. "Child Abuse?!". XFamily. 2008-01-24. Retrieved 2016-07-24.
  13. Borowik, Claire. "Statement From Family International". Archived from the original on 2005-09-14. Retrieved 2005-06-30.
  14. "Charter of the Family International | Governing Documents". Archived from the original on 2010-08-25. Retrieved 2016-07-24.
  15. "The Judgement of Lord Justice Ward, 1995". Retrieved 2016-08-13.
  16. Shepherd, Gary; Shepherd, Gordon (August 2005). "Accommodation and Reformation in the Family/Children of God". Nova Religio. 9 (1): 67–92. doi:10.1525/nr.2005.9.1.067.
  17. "Pre-Release of "Who Said They're Dead?" Part 1". The Publications Database. April 3, 2003. Retrieved 2016-07-24.
  18. "Pre-Release of "Who Said They're Dead?" Part 2". The Publications Database. April 3, 2003. Retrieved 2016-07-24.
  19. "Using The Keys Part 1" (PDF). Retrieved 2016-07-24.
  20. "About The Family International". The Family International. Archived from the original on 2009-04-29. Retrieved 2016-07-24.
  21. "File:Tamar 558.jpg – XFamily – Children of God". XFamily. Retrieved 2016-07-24.
  22. "Loving Jesus album – XFamily – Children of God". XFamily. 2008-06-11. Retrieved 2016-07-24.
  23. "Love words to Jesus – XFamily – Children of God". XFamily. 2008-09-12. Retrieved 2016-07-24.
  24. "Loving Jesus – XFamily – Children of God". XFamily. 2012-03-16. Retrieved 2016-07-24.
  25. "Mlk 168" (PDF). Retrieved 2016-07-24.
  26. Jones, K.; Jones, C. & Buhring, J. (2007). Not Without My Sister. London: Harper Collins Publishing.
  27. "Bios". Archived from the original on 2010-05-28. Retrieved 2009-03-12.
  28. Bainbridge, William Sims (2002). The Endtime Family: Children of God. Albany, NY: State University of New York Press.
  29. Beit-Hallahmi, Benjamin (1993). The Illustrated Encyclopedia of Active New Religions, Sects, and Cults. Rosen Publishing Group. ISBN 978-0-8239-1505-7.
  30. Huxley, J. (May 17, 1992). "Sex-cult children held – Children of God". The Sunday Times.
  31. Celmins, Martin. "Mac, Myths and Mysteries" (PDF). Retrieved 2016-07-24.
  32. Dombal, Ryan (2011-09-14). "Girls". Pitchfork. Retrieved 2016-07-24.
  33. Easley, Emily. "Christopher Owens". FAQ magazine. Archived from the original on 2012-10-05. Retrieved 2012-10-13.
  34. "Home". Archived from the original on 2010-05-29. Retrieved 2009-03-12.
  35. Moreton, Cole (22 December 2012). "Juliana Buhring becomes first woman to cycle round the world as she pedals into Naples after 152 days on the road". The Daily Telegraph. London.
  36. "Howard Stern radio broadcast". Archived from the original on August 19, 2000.
  37. "Rose McGowan: How She Survived and Escaped a Cult". People. Retrieved February 15, 2015.
  38. Friend, Tad (March 1994). "River, with love and anger". Esquire. 121 (3): 108–117. ISSN 0014-0791. Archived from the original on 16 February 2009. Retrieved 22 March 2009.
  39. "Young man's suicide blamed on mother's cult". CNN. 5 December 2007.
  40. Hough, Lauren (2016-11-27). "Work, pray, fear: my life in the Family cult". The Guardian. ISSN 0261-3077. Retrieved 2016-12-06.
  41. "Sexo, mentiras e videotape". UOL notícias (in Portuguese). Retrieved 2 December 2017.
  42. "On Writing 'The Informationist' and Coming from a Cult Background". Huffington Post. 25 May 2011.
  43. Children of God: Lost and Found on IMDb
  44. "Cult Killer: The Rick Rodriguez Story – XFamily – Children of God". XFamily. Retrieved 2016-07-24.
  45. "Red Letter Media Best of the Worst: Wheel of the Worst #5 :". 2014-06-03. Retrieved 2016-07-24.
  46. Tony Robbins: I Am Not Your Guru on IMDb
  47. "Cults". Parcast. Retrieved 2017-12-04.
  48. Cults and Extreme Belief S1E3, aired June 5, 2018. Retrieved June 13, 2018.

Further reading


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