The Children of God today still exist as “The Family International” (TFI) yet to date has not rejected either the aberrant beliefs or practices of their founder, “Moses” David Berg. Below is an article I wrote in 2004 for our briefly active online version of Cornerstone.
The Children Without Their “Father”
After Moses David Berg’s Death, What Has Happened to This Once-Most Controversial Spin-off of the Jesus Movement?
Interview with Jim Chancellor on Family of Love/COG
A preliminary personal note from Jon Trott, which can be skipped over without harm: A few years ago, I met Jim Chancellor at an EMNR counter-cult conference where he’d been invited to speak on his research regarding the Children of God / Family of Love. His talk was scholarly, compassionate, gently inquiring rather than intensely confrontational. Yet he was uncompromising about his belief that the Children were outside the pale of Christian orthodoxy, theologically and morally. Nonetheless, once his talk was over, he was confronted by some attendees who were angry that he’d been far too charitable in his treatment of the group. Meanwhile, a married couple from the COG had attended the meeting, and I struck up a conversation with them. They were encouraged at Chancellor’s presentation, but expressed sorrow that neither he nor most other evangelicals were accepting of the COG as fellow believers.
One of the most awkward yet “real” moments for them and me came when they asked me if I thought the two of them to be Christians. I went into a lengthy explanation regarding the identity of Jesus, the COG idea that the Trinity is overtly sexual vs. mainstream Christianity’s conception of agape, but in the end said that it could very well be that they were, and that at any rate such a judgment lay beyond my knowledge. They asked my opinion on the group’s late founder, “Moses” David Berg, and I paused only a moment before suggesting a little too forthrightly that in my opinion it was very likely “he’d taken the down elevator.” (Jim Chancellor’s own views on Berg are also, unsurprisingly, quite dim.) The couple met with my wife and I a few months later in Chicago, at my invitation, and I told them what is contained in the next few paragraphs.
The whole topic of the Children of God has always been painful for me. I personally am appalled at their theology, especially as it regards sex. A firmly “pro-sex” Christian myself, my concern has always been not that the COG was radical, but rather that they were anything but. Their sexual persona, as exemplified by Berg, seemed boringly bourgeois rather than truly insightful. But the pain, as I later told both the couple and Jim Chancellor, was that the COG had a real role in my conversion to Christ.
Not long after their takeover of a west-coast Jesus movement group led by Linda Meissner, my father and I encountered them in Seattle. I kept the copy we got of the “New, Improved Truth” newspaper for years afterward. More important, a CBS special on the COG was glowingly positive about them, and as a thirteen year old boy I found myself fascinated with a group that would give up everything to follow Jesus. Though terribly disappointed later on with the revelations of their supposed sex revelations, I myself joined a Jesus movement group (Jesus People USA) after meeting Christ in 1973.
Ever since, the COG has seemed like a lost tribe to me, a group that is so close, yet so very far away, from all that I value most. I mourn them, their zeal and their communal life, their confusion regarding sexuality, spiritism, and extra-biblical revelations. And I hope for them. For that reason, I was moved positively by Chancellor’s EMNR presentation just as strongly as some there seemed to be negatively affected. Chancellor’s research has been published in Life in the Family: An Oral History of the Children of God, and we may soon post a chapter on his own reflections regarding the delicate ethics of such research.
Jim kindly agreed to the below interview, mostly done via the all-too-easy method of email. Whether you’ve ever heard of the Children of God or not, the complexities of a tightly knit group rooted in one man’s skewed vision, yet also in swaths of Christianity, will stretch your mind and perhaps your heart.
Could you give us a bit of information about yourself, your theological and biographical background?
I am the W. O. Carver Professor of Christian Missions and World Religions at The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary in Louisville, KY. I have been here since 1992. I also have a joint appointment as professor of religion at The Philippine Baptist Theological Seminary in Baguio City, and teach there on a regular basis. I previously served as professor of history and religion and Dean of the School of Arts and Sciences at Colorado Christian University. I have taught and lectured at institutions in Trinidad, Malaysia, The Philippines, Nigeria, Australia, Korea, Canada, Ecuador, and Singapore. I have an MA from the University of Nebraska in American Social History; an M. Div. from Southern Seminary, and Ph. D. in History of Religion from Duke University.
I became a Christian as a young man serving in the U. S. military in the Philippines. I joined a Baptist Church and studied for some time in the Navigator program. I have been a Baptist ever since, much of that time in the Baptist General Conference. I came to Southern Seminary as part of the first wave of “conservative evangelicals” in the process of redirecting the seminary. I am comfortable with that label.
How did you become interested and/or involved in researching the Children of God? And how did it end up a book?
I encountered the Family by chance. In 1993 a fellow faculty member received a general mail-out to scholars who might be interested in the Family, and he passed it on to me. I was curious, having just taken over teaching a course in Minority Religious Movements. I was to attend the AAR convention that fall in Washington D.C., and contacted the Family there for a meeting. The meeting went very well, and the next night I was taken to a secret location to meet with Peter Amsterdam. He is now co-leader of the Family and was at that time the administrative director. We had a very open, honest, and productive exchange and seemed to “hit if off” personally. He was hopeful of establishing better relationships with the Evangelical community, and I informed him that there was little or no chance of that happening. It was a very interesting evening, and my interest was peaked.
I began to read Family literature as well as popular and scholarly work on the movement. In time I saw a gap – much had been written about the Family as a movement and about the leadership – but the members themselves had not “told their story”. I approached the Family with my idea of an oral history and they were quite positive. I set some guidelines, several of which allowed me unprecedented access as an outsider. I was allowed to visit any home and speak with any disciple, and all interviews were private – to my knowledge this is the first time Family leadership encouraged and facilitated private contact between disciples and an outsider. This was a very big step for a closed community like The Family, and I appreciated the trust they invested in me. I researched the Family for five years and took another year to write the book.
Could you give us a thumbnail sketch of the COG’s history?
The Children of God (COG) begins with David Bradt Berg, a traveling evangelist with roots in the Christian and Missionary Alliance. He began a mobile ministry with his four children and settled into Huntington Beach, California in 1968. There he received a vision to become a prophet and evangelist to the rebellious youth of the day. He called these young people to faith in Jesus, and a rejection of the “system” that was contemporary establishment America.. The youth were required to ‘forsake all’ by rejecting every tie to the evil ‘system’ and commit full time as disciple of Jesus on the model of the early Church. In time his “family” number 50 and he took the group on the road. At some point in 1969, Karen Zerby joined the movement. She became David Berg’s secretary, consort, “New Wife”, and eventually the leader of the Family on Berg’s death.
In 1970 the community settled into a Christian ministry ranch in Texas, and soon grew to 200 strong. A second colony was started in California. The owner of the ranch evicted them in a power struggle, and the group fanned out across North America, forming numerous colonies. FREECOG (the first modern anti-cult organization) formed in 1971. The hostility from parents, conventional society, and the established Church drove the communities further underground. In the early 1970’s Father David (Berg) received two revelations that had considerable impact on the trajectory of the COG. In “I Gotta Split” he broke off physical contact with most disciples and established his authority through a highly structured chain of command, and through his writing, known as MO Letters. In the “Great Escape” he urged the disciples to flee North America before the coming destruction and begin a worldwide evangelistic mission. Soon colonies were spread across the globe, from Australia to Austria to Argentina
Sexual liberty began in the Prophet’s household in the earliest years of the COG. A major shift in that direction developed in 1974 with the introduction of “Flirty Fishing” (Ffing). Ffing involved the use of sexual allure, up to and including intercourse, as a mean of bearing witness to a lost world. It sprang from Father David’s conception of the “Law of Love” whereby all things done in love are permissible. This also included sexual sharing between consenting adults and, in some places, sexual contact with minors. Ffing was an evangelistic and fund raising strategy, but was not a strategy to recruit new disciples to the COG. Only a handful of persons ever joined through Ffing, and hundreds left the movement over this new direction.
The radically shifting sexual ethos, subsequent challenges to lines of authority, and problems of abusive leadership created a crisis within the movement. In 1978 Father David published “Re-Organization, Nationalization, Revolution” which eliminated all leadership structures and virtually disbanded the COG. The individual colonies and disciples were set free to relate directly to the “King”, primarily through the Mo Letters. What was left of the movement was renamed the “Family of Love.” In 1982, Father David reorganized the disciples into a tightly knit worldwide organization under new leadership and renamed it simple “The Family.”
Father David had disallowed any form of birth control from the beginning, and large numbers of children were produced. In the early 1980’s these children started to become teenagers. Many had experienced low levels of education, harsh communal discipline, and in some cases sexual exploitation. As these children matured toward early adulthood, serious problems developed. (The vast majority of the first wave of children eventually left the Family.) Teen Training Camps and Victor Programs were established to respond to this crisis. By this time, Maria had assumed considerable authority, and she became increasingly aware that some teenage girls were the victims of unwanted sexual advances by adults. Efforts were made to halt these acts, and eventually strict age limitations were placed on sexual activity. By the mid 1980s Flirty Fishing had become central to the witness and economic well being of many colonies, but also had become increasingly problematic. Coinciding with the outbreak of AIDS, Ffing was halted and all sexual contact with outsiders was prohibited.
In 1990 Father David issued “Consider the Poor” which authorized the disciples to begin social ministries as a component of their witnessing for Jesus. Prior to this, the strong end time theology had placed almost total emphasis on getting as many people as possible saved before the tribulation began. “Consider the Poor” had a powerful impact of the Family, as disciples all over the world began ministering to refuges, drug addicts, convicts, street gangs, and abused children. These types of social ministries are now a key component of Family life.
In 1994 David Berg died. Consistent with Family theology, he now resides in the Spirit World and continues to communicate directly with the Family. Peter and Maria took command and soon issued the “Love Charter” which again reorganized the movement into a kinder, gentler, and more democratic organization. Prophecy has emerged as the essential form of leadership, and all disciples are encouraged to hear directly from the Lord, Father David, or any number of guiding sprits. Peter and Maria have solidified their roles as King and Queen, but there has been a good bit of defection over the last ten years. The size of the Family has remained stable at about 10,000, even with new disciples and large number of births. The Charter softened the community, and many disciples began living compromising lives, with ever more interaction with the System. In recent years, attempts have been made to stiffen the standards of disciple life. There have been several ongoing purges of the less than fully committed, and the leadership seems determined to recapture the “revolutionary” sprit of the early years.
How did the COG compare to other Jesus movement groups, in doctrine and in practice?
There is little question but that the COG was a key element of the Jesus movement, and that was certainly the self-understanding of Berg and his young followers. While generalizations are risky, I think it is fair to say that the Jesus Movement was in tune with the radical youth revolution of the 1960’s. These young people and the often loosely knit organizations that drew them were idealistic, “counter culture”, centered on experience, generally held a high view of scripture, and were highly evangelistic. There was a widespread and deep sense of alienation from not only the conventional culture, but also from the churches that resided in that culture. Most groups tended toward an apocalyptic vision and most were charismatic, to one degree or another. The COG fits neatly into such a general description.
However, the COG stands apart from the broader Jesus Movement on several fronts, most notably the Prophetic role of Father David and the authoritarian leadership of the Prophet and the organization as a whole. With the evolution of his writings as equal to or surpassing the Bible, the COG makes a clear break with other related movements. Of course, the highly unconventional sexual ethos articulated in the “Law of Love” is another feature that marks out the COG as a distinct entity. I am not an expert on the Jesus Movement as a whole. I am fairly certain that most in the Jesus Movement had a strong view of the reality of evil and the Evil One. But I do believe the COG’s theology and practice of communication and interaction with the “spirit world” has little parallel in other movements.
Since the death of the founder and leader of the Family/COG, David Berg, what changes have occurred?
There have been a good number of changes, though Family leadership would down play these and insist that Father David still guides the group from his seat in the Spirit World. There is no question that the Family has become a kinder and gentler community over the past 10 years. Leadership structures are far less dictatorial, and Family homes do operate in a generally democratic manner. The Love Charter removed many of the burdens of disciple life, and there is far more flexibility and choice for individuals and local communities.
Birth control is now practiced (though not generally among the first generation) and families will surely be smaller. Flirty Fishing had already ceased, and the sexual practices within the homes have calmed down a great deal. Sexual “sharing” is still a central aspect of community life, but is far less prevalent than in the wild years of the 1980s and early 1990s. It is interesting that the second-generation disciples are more conservative about these things, and they are beginning to make a real mark on the movement as a whole. Over the past several years, the top level leadership has come to the conclusion that things have gone too far, that many members are no longer living the sacrificial life of faith. Greater discipline is coming back slowly, and successful attempts have been made to winnow out the uncommitted.
The leadership style of Maria and Peter is far different and there is a much greater emphasis on receiving prophecy as the essential guide to the group as a whole, and to the lives of individual disciples.
Perhaps the most telling and interesting change is the “Activated Program.” Most disciples lived out their lives with the full assurance that the End would come in their lifetime. Now, many are aging, and the community as a whole is beginning to come to terms with the possibility of an extended stay on this earth. The Activated Program is a response to this rather significant shift. One of the most essential features of disciple life through the years has been mobility. Now, the disciples are being very strongly encouraged to settle down in one place, establish a community of faithful believers on the outside who are committed to the overall Family vision, but are unable to make the sacrifices necessary for full disciple life. In short, they are beginning to develop congregations and to function as pastoral leaders of those faith communities. There has been considerable success in this endeavor, particularly in Latin America, Africa, and India. If this trend continues (and there is absolutely now way to predict the trajectory of the Family in the future), it will work profound changes in the movement as a whole.
Is the group growing, or shrinking?
Both. Family leadership has struggled with the clear definition of “disciple life.” Over the past 10 years, a good deal of effort has gone into casting out those who are just hanging on, who enjoy the lifestyle but are not truly committed to the Family vision. As a result, the number of full time disciples has declined slightly over the last number of years, to something slightly less than 10,000, even with the continued birth of numerous children. However, in the outer circles, the number of persons who identify with the Family at some level, and support the movement financially, is growing steadily and may be as high as 75,000. Interestingly, one of the main sources of “new disciples” are young adults who were raised in the Family, left in their youth or teen years with their parents, and are now returning to disciple life.
How long did you live with the Family, and how did that come about?
I first encountered the Family in 1993. After I made my proposal for the study and writing of the lives of disciples, I received assurances that I could visit any home and interview any person there. Over the last 11 years I have visited scores of homes in the USA, Canada, Europe, Asia, and Australia. The only exception was that I was never invited to the home of Father David / Maria – though I did interview Maria extensively. Father David died not long after I began my study, and he had been in very ill health for some time before that.
My visits would last for one day up to two weeks. I have estimated my total time spent living in Family homes at just under 6 months. The Family is spread widely across the globe. Family sources have assured me that I know more disciples personally than almost anyone within the Family.
I realize that no man can say for absolute sure whether or not another person is spiritually regenerate. From your perspective, however, would you feel comfortable calling the Family/COG a Christian group? Why or why not?
Well, everything so far has been a fastball over the middle of the plate, now comes the big curve. And I appreciate your caveat to open the question. But I do believe you have conflated two separate questions into one. Whether or not a certain disciple in the Family is spiritually regenerate, or any of them, is a different question than whether or not the Family is a Christian group. I will try to address both.
Many years ago I taught at Grace Bible College in Omaha. One of our music faculty, Henry Weibe, led the worship for revival services with an Amish community in Iowa. He was sharing his experience with several of us, when one of our more righteous brothers asked, “Now, those Amish, are they really Christians?” Our music guy didn’t blink. He simply said, “Well, the ones who know Jesus are and the ones who don’t aren’t.” I have never forgotten that moment.
Many of the disciples I have encountered came to know Jesus before joining the Family, through the witness of Campus Crusade, Presbyterians, Lutherans, and the Assemblies of God. In Australia, I even encountered a former Southern Baptist pastor. None of those people had even the slightest sense that their saving relationship with God through Jesus Christ had undergone any change at all. The COG/Family has always proclaimed a simple gospel message that is little or no different than the message of most evangelicals I know. I have spoken at length and depth with hundreds of disciples about their spiritual life, and heard the testimonies of God at work in their lives. I have worshiped with them, sang with them, prayed with them. Are there spiritually regenerate disciples in the Family? As much as any human can answer that question – my answer is absolutely yes. The ones who know Jesus are, and the ones who don’t aren’t. My experience leads me to believe that most, though not all, do. Are they sinners? Yes. But the last time I checked, there were a few of those floating around Baptist circles as well. And just to add a little fuel to the fire, there are also a good number of people floating around Baptist and other evangelical circles who were brought to faith in Jesus through the witness of a Child of God.
Now, the second question – is the Family a “Christian” group. And the answer depends entirely on what you mean by “Christian”. If you mean the term in its broadest historical application, then of course they are a Christian group. And so are Methodists, and Roman Catholics, and the Ethiopian Church. On the other hand, if you mean are they an orthodox Christian group – well no, they are not. The Family statement of faith is in the appendix of my book and on the Family web site. It is written to give as much appearance of orthodoxy as possible. But there are several components of Family theology that push the movement well outside the boundaries of orthodoxy: The Law of Love, the Prophethood of Father David, the conceptualization of the Holy Spirit as a female, the current operation of Father David from the spirit world and other “spirit guides”, their quite imaginative understanding of the “virgin” birth, and the scriptural status of the MO Letters are the most obvious. I could expand on these or add further to the list, but the point is made.
In my first encounter with Peter Amsterdam, we discussed the possibility of the Family being more accepted as part of the wider evangelical community. We had just finished eating, so I took a plate and said “this is the evangelical world.” Then I took a cup at some distance away and said “this cup is you.” I then said that if the Family made fundamental changes in theology and practice, it might be possible to draw the cup close to the plate, but “you guys are never getting on that plate.” My general assessment of the connection between the Family and the broader world of evangelical Christianity has not changed.
Okay, sex. This is the topic that makes the COG so controversial, and the subject of so much ink, over the years. Could you briefly sketch out the idea of David Berg’s ideas on sex, open marriage, “flirty fishing” evangelism, and at least accusations of adult/child sexuality?
I will be as brief as I can be. The early years of the COG were quite puritan, and disciples were held to a high standard of sexual ethic. However David Berg began an affair with Maria very early on, and took her as his “New Wife” in 1970. Experimentation with multiple partners expanded to the upper levels of leadership, but was kept from the ordinary disciples until about 1974. At about that time, Father David gave forth his teachings on the Law of Love, and instituted sexual sharing among the disciples and Flirty Fishing as an evangelism strategy.
Both were based on the twin premises that sex is like any other basic human need, such as food or sleep, and that what is done in love is not sin. Sexual sharing and Ffing soon became the norm in COG life, along with openness to nudity within the homes and a general affirmation of the goodness sexuality. It should be noted that Ffing was never intended, nor did it function as a means of recruiting members into the movement, as is often understood by outsiders. In fact, very few persons every joined the Family through Ffing. And hundreds of disciples left the movement in disagreement with it when it was instituted. Ffing cost the COG hundreds of disciples, and “netted” only a handful. Ffing also proved to be a solid source of income to many homes. These funds came through direct solicitation of “fish”, times when COG women worked in escort services around the world for fixed fees, but primarily though the development of supporters who gave to the movement in appreciation of the services rendered. Many of these “Kings” still support the movement, long after Ffing ceased in the late 1980s.
Sexual sharing, between singles and married people, also became a significant component of COG life. This practice not only provided for the “sexual needs” of singles and married people living apart from their spouses, but also was the primary means of establishing and maintain group identity and loyalty. It was a most powerful method of living out the vision of all being part of “one Family.”
Ffing was ended in 1987, but it was never repudiated, quite the contrary. It is still viewed as both appropriate and part of God’s plan for the time. One senior member told me that the Ffing Letters have been removed from the practical “canon” of MO Letters, not because they no longer believe in it, but because the Letters “make such a powerful case for Ffing as God’s will, that we are fearful our younger people will want to do it.”
Sexual sharing continues as an integral aspect of Family life. It is far less open and much less frequently practiced than in previous times, but is still there and still affirmed as an essential component of disciple life. Open displays of sexual affection are no longer permitted in the homes, and children are not exposed to the practice, as they were in years gone by. Interestingly, the second generation – those raised up in this sexually permissive environment – are less positive about it than their parents.
The issue of adult / child sexual contact is a most delicate, and disturbing aspect of the Family saga. Children were encouraged to express their sexuality at as early an age as possible. Father David modeled adult sexual encounters with minors, and his Letters could very easily be interpreted (and were) that sexual contact between adults and minors was permitted. From the time the first wave of children began to mature, up until the mid 1980’s, adulthood in the Family began at age 12. There is no question that children as young as 12, and in a few cases even younger, had sexual contact and sexual intercourse with adults. This practice was not ubiquitous in the Family. I encountered adult disciples who wanted nothing to do with this, for themselves or their children. I encountered some who were not even aware it was going on until it was exposed in the court cases of the 1990s. But, it did occur throughout the world, and in far too many places. I am quite confident that this is one of several reasons why virtually the entire first wave of children left the movement.
In the late 1980s, the Family became increasingly aware of the serious problem this was for the children and the movement as a whole. Strictures were put in place, with very specific guidelines and age limitations on any sexual encounters. Adult sexual contact with a minor became an excommunicable offense, and remains so today. It took awhile for this to work through the Family, but by the time I began my research in 1993 the sexual abuse and exploitation of the children had ceased. As much as a religious community like the Family is capable, they have repented, and certainly have repudiated this part of their past. I am fully confident, and have even staked my professional reputation on the line, in saying that children raised in the Family today are less likely to be sexually abused than those raised in the “general population” of American society, and certainly are safer than those brought up in the Roman Catholic Church.
There has been ongoing criticism of the Family for not cooperating in bringing the perpetrators of this sexual abuse to justice. They have not, for several reasons. They believe that they made an honest mistake, and that God has forgiven them. Beyond that, the Family remains a distinctly countercultural, antiestablishment religious community. The believe fully that all those in the “System” particularly the media and government structures, are under the direct control of Satan and will use any and all opportunities or pretexts to destroy “God’s Endtime Army.” They are not quite ready to surrender God’s disciples to Satan’s agents, for any reason.
Could you explain the COG’s overall understanding of sexuality — “the law of love” — and any more recent developments including their ideas on prayer/masturbation?
I think I have already addressed the first part of your question. Quite simple, sex is a beautiful, God given gift, which has been corrupted by the evil one. To quote Father David directly, “The Devil hates sex, but God loves it.” Sex is pure, clean, wholesome, and a basic aspect of being human. According to Father David, God’s first command to humans was to have sex. It is a basic human need, and any Christian seeing his brother or sister in need ought to help fulfill that need. Anything that is done “in Love” is of God, and is pure and right. You twine these two principles together, and you have the basic Family understanding of sexuality.
Now, as to prayer and masturbation: I have often had Family disciples visit my classroom. In the most recent visitation one of my more aggressive students asked the question, with a rather pointed tone: “Is it true that you masturbate when you pray and worship Jesus?” The disciple smiled at the fellow and said, “Yes.”
I was first informed of the “Loving Jesus Revolution” in a long weekend encounter with Peter Amsterdam. It was before the new measures had been completed and before it had been announced to the Family as a whole. I was sworn to secrecy. He told me that Jesus was very happy with their dedication, service, witnessing, but not as happy with their worship or devotion. That Jesus wanted them to really love him with passion and intimacy. Therefore, Jesus wanted the disciples to begin to truly act as his “bride.” Disciples were to speak words of love and affection to Him, and to engage in sex with either their partners or themselves while envisioning Jesus and conveying their deep love for Jesus through their words and actions of love to their partners. It was at this point that I came to the conclusion that Family leadership had really let me inside. I mean, if they were keeping things from me, what could be more bizarre than this one.
To my knowledge, this is the only aspect of Family life that I have not directly observed, since it is to be done only in private. Children are insulated from this practice, and teenagers are not allowed participation until they reach an age of maturity (I believe the age now is 16).
There you have it, the “Loving Jesus Revolution.” It has spread broadly in the Family, but is by no means practiced by all disciples. And as with most “revolutions” in the movement, a significant number of disciples came to the conclusion that this one was too much, and moved on.
You’ve been accused of being soft on the Family, too non-confrontational regarding their doctrinal aberrations in the areas of sexuality, spiritualism, and so on. For instance, your talk at a recent Evangelical Ministries to New Religions conference became a lightning rod for those who felt some of us had begun compromising too much with the so-called “cults.” How do you respond to that sort of thing?
Well, an interesting and complex question. I will start by saying this is my first opportunity to respond, since none of the people you are referring to have ever had the courage or integrity to make such accusations to my face. But, I will let that slide, and try to answer your question.
I was invited to the EMNR conference you refer to as an outside scholar, asked to make a presentation in the “academic” section of the program. The topic assigned to me was “Changes in the Family since the death of the Prophet.” That is what I did. I received very positive feedback from some other scholars present, and to be honest, I thought I did a pretty good job. Afterwards, someone (I can not recall whom) said to me: “Your presentation is sure to cause trouble.” I responded by asking what I said that was not true or accurate. The persons replied, “No, it is what you didn’t say.” My response was, “What changes in the Family did I not address?” The fellow just looked at me and walked away.
I began this whole endeavor in 1993 with only one goal in front of me – to explore the COG/Family in depth, to discover as best I could what it really meant to be a disciple of Father David. My task was not to expose a cult, but to discover a people, and tell their story. I believe I accomplished that goal with the publication of my book in 2000, and continue to do so through my ongoing relationship/exploration of the Family, and in numerous presentations, articles, encyclopedia entries, and book chapters. And the only way to achieve that goal is by continuing to give respect and empathy to Family disciples, the respect and empathy due every human being.
I have never misrepresented myself, particularly not to the Family. I have never hidden my own convictions, and when asked by them I have always given an honest assessment of their life and their belief system. (They soon quit asking.) Early in my research, a prominent member asked me what I thought of Father David. I said that I did not know him personally, and it might be unfair to make judgments based on hearsay or his writings. But the fellow persisted, so I responded that at the very least he struck me as a man with some very serious emotional problems and a distorted understanding of the Faith. The fellow stared at me for a while, and then smiled and said, “Well at least you are honest about it. And besides, I can see how an outsider might think that, but once you get to know us, you will see the truth.”
My body of work has always dealt forthrightly with all the difficult aspects of Family life, including authoritarian leadership, financial and emotional abuse of disciples, physical, emotional and sexual abuse of children, the extraordinary sexual ethos, Flirty Fishing as prostitution, misrepresentation of their true identity, spirit world communication, and so on. But, I have done so both in sympathy with them as fellow human beings (and to some degree as fellow Christians), and in a way that is far, far more credible than some anti-cult ranting based on second hand accounts and decades old literature, I have done so in their own words.
Well, I guess that is enough on that topic. As to how all this plays out with the tension in the ranks of Christian counter-cult ministries, I think it best to let you folks sort that out for yourselves.
How do you respond to the treatment of the COG by secular “anti-cult” critics such as Stephen Kent?
I do not know Stephen Kent personally, but I am not particularly impressed with his work. I suspect that he has been deeply moved by the tragedies in the lives of a number of young people who were raised in the Family or other NRMs. There are indeed tragedies. But his work has been, as best as I can tell, almost exclusively with those persons, and therefore is at best skewed by their experiences, and the ever growing and expanding memories of those experiences. I had a few “ah – ha” moments along my journey with the Family. One of those concerned the plight of the young people, particularly those who were born early in the movement’s history. Some of their lives were filled with hardship, abuse, and sadness. But as I came to know the disciples, I began to realize that many of the first generation of disciples were people who had been outcasts, abused, dropouts, drug users, and had lived lives of great sadness. And I began to ask myself, “what might the lives of their children been like had they not joined the Family?” I think that is the kind of question, the kind of analysis, that people like Stephen Kent and those in the secular anti-cult movement cannot allow themselves.
I also believe there is a general antipathy to almost any level of religious commitment in the secular anti-cult movement. In their eyes, Jews for Jesus are no different than the COG. That should give Christians pause. A good deal has been written about this phenomenon, and I need not go into detail. Phillip Jenkins, in Mystics and Messiahs gives a fair and balanced rendering; I would suggest those in sympathy with the Stephen Kents of the world take a look at what he has to say.
Many of us feel the so-called “CounterCult” — traditional evangelical ministries targeting groups such as the COG with highly confrontational methods — has failed. What are your thoughts?
Well, I am not sure I am the best one to make any critical judgments along those lines. I understand that a good bit of self-reflection is now occurring within the Christian Counter-cult community. I think in many cases that the efforts have not so much failed. The groups were “targeted” – and I think the thrust of the effort was to attack them, discredit them, and to throw up defensive walls around the church. I know of several instances where Family disciples have suffered hardships as a result of these kinds of attacks and the work of the Family has been disrupted – and to that extent, they were successful. I believe a number of the ministries you are referring have been moderately successful in laying out the nature of these groups to the wider church, though at times in a manner not as well informed as one might hope.
Now, when you say, “failed”, I assume you mean that the ministries have not been very successful in bringing members of these groups into the evangelical Christian fold. That should not be a surprise at all. I believe it is difficult to find many instances where “attack evangelism” has been successful. However, I am aware of some very promising work by some. Ross Clifford and the folks down there at Morling College in Sydney seem to have figured some things out and are having a positive ministry to persons drawn to New Age. I am sure there are others.
Why, if for any reason, is a discussion of the Family important to the Church?
The Family provides insight into a number of areas that should concern the Church. One is the potential for – let us say drift and innovation – when a community has a living prophet. As I tell my students – when a religious community has a living prophet, anything is possible. The Family is a virtual laboratory for the observation of just how that can work out.
I think the commitment of the disciples, the sacrifices they have and are making to share the gospel (as they understand it) is something the broader church needs to see and understand. When I have Family disciples visit my classroom, the reactions of students are mixed, but most are in some ways shamed by the level of dedication they observe.
I think those are two good reasons, beyond the general need to know and understand what is happening at the fringes.
How do you think evangelical Christians should interact with the Family/COG?
That is a tough one. The Family as a whole sees the “system Church” as weak, much talk and little action, and generally lacking the conviction and dedication necessary to face the coming End. On the other hand, the Family is more sensitive than ever to the concerns of what they consider to be fellow believers. I think there is not really much that evangelicals can “do with” the Family. However, there is an area where effective ministry could be done, and should be done. Hundreds of young people have left the Family, often set adrift in a world that is alien to them. Some of them do quite well, and Family life in some ways does prepare a person to “make it” in the world. But others struggle greatly. I believe there is a real potential for ministry here. And if it were done with the right approach and attitude, it might well be possible to get at least tacit assistance from the Family in meeting this need.