As TFI grew and expanded around the world, so did its message of salvation, apocalypticism, and spiritual "revolution" against the outside world that they called "the System", as well as resultant controversy. In 1974, it began a method of evangelism called Flirty Fishing, using sex to show God's love and win converts. It was also a means of raising financial support as many of the women worked as prostitutes. Flirty fishing has been compared to religious prostitution. The practice was discontinued in 1987. Their founder and prophetic leader, David Berg, communicated with his followers via Mo Letters — letters of instruction and counsel on a myriad of spiritual and practical subjects—until his death in late 1994. After his death, his widow Karen Zerby became the leader of TFI.
The group's liberal sexuality and its publication and distribution of writings, photographs and videos advocating and documenting adult-child sexual contact and the sexualization of children led to numerous reports of child sexual abuse. A number of judicial and academic investigations in the 1990s found TFI to be a safe environment for children, yet such investigations have also highlighted troubles in its past. TFI leadership, admitting only that some children were abused from 1978 until 1986, created policies prohibiting excessive discipline or any sexual contact between adults and minors. Those found to have abused children after December 1988 are excommunicated from TFI membership, but no attempt has been made by TFI members to recognize or reconcile the abuse that took place during the previous twenty years. TFI requires individuals who report child abuse to a law enforcement agency or pursue legal action against an alleged abuser to leave the group's communal homes and move to a lower commitment membership status until the matter is resolved, after which they must reapply for their former membership status if they wish to return.
The January 2005 murder of a former member by the leader's son Ricky Rodriguez (who had also left the group several years earlier) and his subsequent suicide shocked both current and former members, and led to considerable renewed media attention.
TFI teaches that the Bible is the inspired Word of God and sacred revelation. Group founder David Berg is regarded within the group as the most important prophet of the end times. He is regarded as a prophet in that he passed on the message of God, not because he could predict the future. Though he frequently attempted to predict future events, he was for the most part inaccurate. 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 are regarded as part of the "Word of God" which carries the same weight as the Holy Bible since they are considered divine revelations.
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 have 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 is still officially regarded as indicative of a lack of trust in God's plan.
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. 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, and permissible according to Scripture. Teenagers from the age of 16 are allowed to have sex with other members under age 21. Since 1986, sex between minors and adults is forbidden. Adult members may have sex with any other adult member of the opposite sex, and are encouraged to do so, regardless of marital status, as a way to foster unity and combat loneliness of those "in need". This is commonly called "sharing" or "sacrificial sex". While TFI policy states that members should not be pressured 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.
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. Jesus Christ reigns 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
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.
Members of the Children of God founded communes, first called "colonies", but now referred to as "homes," in various cities around the world. They would proselytize in the streets and distribute literature.
New converts who joined the movement memorized scripture, went through a course of Bible knowledge classes, and were expected to emulate the lives of early Christians while rejecting mainstream denominational Christianity. In common with converts to some other religions, and in keeping with Biblical custom, 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 his 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.
At 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. Reports of serious misconduct, financial mismanagement, and abuse of their positions by a number of established leaders, including the opposition of some to flirty fishing, caused Berg to reorganize the movement. He dismissed over 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, simply the Family. Most of the group's beliefs, however, remained the same.
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." 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. Flirty Fishing also resulted in the birth of many children, including Karen Zerby's son, Davidito (aka Rick Rodriguez). Children born as result of Flirty Fishing were referred to as "Jesus Babies". By the end of 1981, over 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.
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 FFing:
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."
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), November 15, 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 AIDS. 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!"
Berg's writings continued to contribute to suspicions about the movement's care of their children. Berg claimed to be challenging modern-day taboos about adult/child sexuality, and many believe that Berg ignored society's 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.
A childcare manual published by the group in January 1982 described the education, home life, and care of Ricky Rodriguez, the son of Karen Zerby, known as Davidito. The 762-page book, which was intended to be an example of child rearing, also included at least a dozen photographs depicting the child's governesses performing sexual acts upon the child, particularly Sara Kelley (also known as Sara Davidito or Prisca Kelley). The group later ordered this book to be heavily sanitized and, eventually, destroyed completely. In the late 1990s, it was reprinted in sanitized form. Some pages from the original edition have been posted online.
According to TFI's account, reports of sexual abuse began to filter to the top of the group's leadership in 1988 . This prompted Berg to renounce his ideas regarding adult/child sex, writing: "We do not approve of sex with minors, and hereby renounce any writings of anyone in our Family which may seem to do so! We absolutely forbid it! — Berg, 12/88"
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." (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.
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 file charges or pursue other legal action against those excommunicated for child abuse are required to leave TF or move to a different membership status until the matter is resolved, explained in the June 2003 Charter amendments in the Rights of Children (pg. 22) and the Right of Redress (pg. 51) sections.
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, and that government-led investigations and court cases did not find evidence of abuse in the 750 children they examined. 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.
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 terms their "Consider the Poor" (CTP) ministries. Expanding their outreach beyond proselytization, 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.
In February 1995, the group introduced the Love Charter, 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 also states that it or any part of it can be revoked at any time by World Services. The Charter, presently in its second edition, has been subsequently amended over the years according to changes within the group.
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, 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."
Also in 1995, Karen Zerby introduced a new doctrine teaching all members as young as 12, but more fully from the age of 14, that Jesus wished to engage in a sexual relationship with them. This doctrine is known as the "Loving Jesus revelation". TF publications describe practicing this doctrine as optional to retaining membership, but stress that greater blessings and spiritual rewards are reserved for those who perform it regularly.
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 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. Members now fall 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.
Although official TFI spokespersons have rarely made any public statements about specific child abduction cases involving its members, members of TFI claim that there is some evidence that the TFI's policies and practices regarding child abduction and child custody began to change in the mid-1990s. In February 1995, several months after the death of its founder, TFI introduced to its members a rule book known as the Love Charter or the Charter of Rights and Responsibilities. Section 60, 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. 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."
At least 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. 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.
However, as with other high-commitment religious groups, many second-generation members have left to pursue secular careers or higher education, and raise their children in a drastically different environment than the one they were raised in. There is a great deal of anti-TFI sentiment amongst some of those who have left like Celeste Jones, Kristina Jones, and Julianna Buhring , including threats to legally pursue alleged physical and sexual abusers, whom, some allege, have been shielded from prosecution by the group's leadership. TFI has claimed that anecdotal evidence suggests most former second-generation members have chosen to remain publicly silent about their experiences in the group, and that this public silence suggests they have cordial relations with those still in it.
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 MovingOn.org, established by a former second-generation member in 2001.
Many who have remained in the group have been vocal in their defense of TFI's lifestyle, for example at MyConclusion.com, 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 are also discouraged from associating with relatives that are considered enemies of TFI, and have in the past frequently appeared on television programs around the world to denounce their children and siblings who spoke against the group.
There are many former second generation members that 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. TFI uses 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. TFI has also 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.
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 their whereabouts.
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 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 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, 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 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. This marked the first time that recent photographs of Karen Zerby were made available to the public in nearly 30 years.
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 is not specifically tracked or published by the group. Additional sources of income are 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.
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.
Frequently, critics of the movement cite the writings of David Berg, as well as incidents of alleged criminal behavior by individuals. TFI 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 TFI life can be seen in the accounts of second generation members: former members at MovingOn.org and (mostly) current members at MyConclusion.com.. This book is used by the organization RAINN as a reference for child sexual abuse victims.