CESNUR - center for studies on new religions

capital building
The 2002 CESNUR International Conference

Minority Religions, Social Change, and Freedom of Conscience

Salt Lake City and Provo (Utah), June 20-23, 2002


by Gordon Shepherd, The University of Central Arkansas Department of Sociology; and Gary Shepherd, Oakland University Department of Sociology and Anthropology
A paper Presented at the 2002 CESNUR Conference, Salt Lake City, June 25, 2002 - Preliminary draft: do not reproduce or quote without the consent of the authors.


Groups, like individuals, may be thought of as having careers. A career entails passage through certain typical stages in one’s history. A moral career involves patterned transitions in the way individuals or groups justify themselves and are correspondingly judged by others over time. The typical career pattern for new religious movements that attempt to live among and convert others to an alien faith is to gradually find ways to modify those beliefs and practices that outsiders find most offensive. (One thinks, for example, of late nineteenth century Mormonism officially abandoning the practice of polygamy as a requisite for its acceptance into American society.) This process of shifting patterns of group conduct and corresponding moral justifications is fraught with risk. The group must achieve a compromise that does not mortally wound the integrity of its central tenets, causing permanent disillusionment and disintegration of the faithful. At the same time, it must sufficiently mute the active condemnation of external critics determined to destroy what they have been attacking as a threat to society.

The Family has, by most reasonable definitions, emerged as a very successful new religious movement through adroit adaptation to a number of challenges over the course of its 34-year career. Like other successful religious movements, The Family’s capacity for flexible, innovative change has been due in part to its ability to attract and cultivate the abilities of talented, capable individuals who subsequently have exercised and developed significant leadership skills. But, of course, innovative leadership never develops in a social vacuum, removed from the conflicts of daily life. It emerges as an adaptive response to a group’s collective problems. In responding to the kinds of internal and external problems that commonly confront new religious movements, The Family’s leadership increasingly has become more rational, corporate, and democratic in the way it operates.

This development is not only linked to internal programmatic innovations but, inevitably, also has promoted a certain amount of accommodation between The Family and establishment institutions, both secular and religious, that are part of the worldly "System" which Family doctrine defines as corrupt and contemptible. Consequently, current leaders are fearful of the degenerating influence of increased System involvements, especially on Family youth, and regularly launch retrenchment campaigns aimed at resisting the compromise of core beliefs and practices that are both controversial and essential to The Family’s own self-understanding as a radical, spirit-led, apocalyptical missionary organization. It is this historically familiar, dialectical tension between the accommodating pressures experienced by innovative religious dissent movements and their subsequent resistance to relinquishing distinctive spiritual claims and moral identity that is shaping The Family’s present course of development.

In this paper we will identify (1) core belief categories that constitute The Family’s foundational identity, (2) some of the most important paths of accommodation followed by The Family over the past decade, (3) Family leaders’ corresponding efforts to bolster member commitment while resisting the compromise of core beliefs and practices, and (4) the way that fundamental institutional changes are justified to members since the death of Family founder, David Berg (Father David).




From its inception, The Family has been remarkably flexible in adjusting its policies to circumstances and developing innovative ideas and practices that supersede previous modes of action. The Family’s core beliefs, however, while susceptible to slight modifications in interpretation or emphasis over time, have, for the most part, remained fundamentally quite stable and resistant to significant change. Indeed, in recent years, several of these interrelated core beliefs have been reemphasized and implemented even more forcefully as Family leadership has pursued a deliberate course of retrenchment and purification to heighten commitment and to resist compromising basic standards. They include the following:

  1. Witnessing for Jesus. The Family was founded on a call to witness and save souls for Jesus throughout the world. The organization’s fundamental mission ever since has been to carry out this basic Christian responsibility with urgency and total dedication as God’s elite, "End Time Army."
  • The End Time. The imminent apocalyptic conclusion of human history, including the full but temporary emergence of Satanic earthly control vis-à-vis the Anti-Christ, was and remains the second, intertwined foundational belief in The Family’s history.
  • Father David as the End Time Prophet. As the group’s founder and guiding light for 25 years, David Berg is believed by the Family to have been specifically chosen by God as his prophet to lay the necessary groundwork for the End Time through direct revelations from Jesus and other spiritual entities. These revelations were compiled as "The Word" in thousands of Mo Letters and other Family publications.
  • Revelation that is direct and on going. From its holiness/pentecostal roots, The Family elevated emphasis on personal contact with God’s spirit, especially including prophecy, to specific conversations with Jesus and other supernatural personages that provide concrete guidance for both daily life issues and momentous policy decisions. Maria and Peter’s revelations that are disseminated in current publications are a continuation of The Word and represent official faith and practice directions for the Family as a whole.
  • Rejection of the World. Drawing on fundamentalist Christian notions of worldly wickedness, David Berg’s contempt of established churches springing from personal conflicts in his earlier attempted pastoral career, and the counter cultural attitudes of the group’s initial converts, The Family sees itself as distinctive from and at odds with both secular society ("The System") and "Churchianity"(established Christian churches).
  • Anti-Materialism. Greed for material things, selfishness, seeking competitive advantage to obtain wealth, power, and social acclaim, are condemned as snares that corrupt individual souls, making people ever more susceptible to Satan’s control instead of the saving love of Jesus, and therefore hinder the great End Time work that must now speedily be accomplished.
  • Communalism. Living communally and "sharing all things in common" is taken to be the true mode of Christian living, modeled by the early apostles, and the mechanism by which Family members can stay apart from the world, develop loving qualities, and collectively concentrate their energies and resources to carry out their End Time mission.
  • The Law of Love. Experiencing and sharing God’s love is believed to be the single greatest end of human existence. This law is extended, most controversially, to the arena of sexual relationships among believers and with Jesus himself.




    The past decade has been particularly notable for the amount of change taking place in The Family. Among the various external sources of pressure during these years that have caused accommodating changes, the most significant have stemmed from charges of child abuse made by disgruntled members in collaboration with anti-cult organizations. Such charges subsequently led to police raids on Family Homes internationally, court custody cases, and continued leader anticipation of repressive religious legislation and legal surveillance of Family practices. At the same time, the most pressing internal pressures for accommodative change have included the coming of age of a second generation who were born, not recruited, into Family Homes; issues of leader succession at the time of Father David’s death in 1994; and the current aging of the founding generation. All of these pressures have been greatly magnified within the context of basic Family beliefs regarding an imminent End Time scenario.

    In this section we will identify and discuss three major institutional responses to these problems and their implications for Family accommodation: (1) The writing and implementation of the Family Charter, which defines the basic governance norms for Family Homes; (2) the development of more inclusive definitions of Family membership and the newly instituted Activated Program for accelerated fund raising and recruitment efforts; and (3) the recent institution of an ambitious policy apparatus called "The Board Vision" as a mechanism for recommending and generating solutions to Family concerns and problems worldwide.

    The Family Charter.

    As Father David began to age, he focused more and more on his writing ministry and increasingly delegated administrative responsibilities to trusted advisors (prominently including his wife Maria and Peter Amsterdam, current co-leaders of The Family), who helped to develop an administrative staff organization called World Services (WS). The need to organize, standardize, and codify Father David’s many statements on Family policies, programs, and rules for communal living that appeared piecemeal over 25 years in approximately 3000 "Mo Letter" publications became increasingly apparent to WS staff members. By 1988, Maria and WS had acquired sufficient authority to implement a purge from Family publications of some of Father David’s more explicit statements (with his acquiescence) on child-adult sexuality and the controversial practice of "Flirty Fishing" (FFing) as a witnessing and revenue raising method. FFing had been ended the year before, and more thought and care were now being concentrated on the raising and welfare of The Family’s children. But lack of an unambiguous set of standardized Family policies and rules designed to protect the rights and well-being of Family home members from potential abuse gave credence to accusations that The Family was a malignant cult and made it difficult to counter accusations and charges in courts of law.

    In 1995, shortly after Father David’s death, World Services published and disseminated to all Family Homes The Love Charter as The Family’s basic governing document. Perhaps something like the Charter would eventually have been developed independent of pressure from the legal system. But it’s apparent that the most pressing stimulus for writing and implementing the Charter came from the courts. The Charter is a detailed exposition of Family members’ rights, responsibilities, and membership requirements. It goes to great lengths to specify, among other things, how children’s educational, physical and mental health needs are to be met and protected. It systematically regulates sexual contact between Family members based on age categories and proscribes sexual relations altogether with nonmembers. And it details a system of governance for individual homes organized around the concept of teamwork leadership and democratic participation in decision making. While bolstered throughout with selected statements from Father David’s previously published Mo Letters, the Charter is a legal-rational, statutory document. Father David gave his assent to the Charter but was not actively involved in its production. The Charter was a collaborative project, drafted by WS staff members in consultation with legal counsel and was revised, edited, and voted on at a lengthy "Summit" meeting of The Family’s worldwide Continental Officers. Periodic summit conferences of The Family’s leading officers subsequently have become an established forum for deliberating about organizational problems and advocating or changing Family policies.

    The manifest intent of the Charter was to clarify and codify The Family’s basic rules so that individuals and homes would have greater autonomy and responsibility for making their own decisions. This has brought about some basic changes in Family life, especially for young people, who have assumed more active roles and a variety of leadership positions in their communal homes. At the same time, Charter-sanctioned freedoms also have been associated with increased exposure to worldly influences. While neither approving nor encouraging Family members to pursue secular education or obtain system jobs, the Charter concedes individuals’ right to do so. Since the Charter’s implementation, there has been an increase in the number of single family homes, which do not involve communal living arrangements, and a related increase in the number of families that rely on income from System jobs or self-employment, rather than The Family’s traditional provisioning and fund raising methods through donations. Given greater freedom of choice and opportunity for contact with worldly institutions, Family young people are more susceptible to the lure of secular occupational careers and corresponding attitudes with respect to exclusive romantic commitments, birth control and family planning. Such latent outcomes contravene core Family values concerning full-time missionary work, sexual sharing, and procreation. These accommodation trends have all been accentuated by freedoms allowed in the Charter, and all have become major objects of concern for Family leaders.

    Redefining Family Membership and the Activated Program

    A key indicator of sectarian tension between religious organizations and other groups in society is the degree to which member requirements and related commitment demands are relatively inclusive or exclusive. Religions that demand the greatest levels of commitment are high-tension groups that exclude all member involvement in relationships or activities not sponsored by the religious organization. In contrast, accommodation and easing of sectarian tension are accompanied by a reduction of commitment demands that make membership requirements more inclusive and therefore accepting of individuals’ participation in and obligations to groups other than the religious organization. The Family’s renunciation of worldly possessions and occupations and its unwavering conception of itself as a privileged missionary cadre, whose essential task is to save souls for Jesus in preparation for the tribulations of the end time (not mention its communal living arrangements and sexual sharing norms), have always made it an exclusive, highly sectarian group in persistent tension with society. As time passes, however, accommodation pressures accumulate, especially in religions with imminent millenarian expectations. Family leaders have, in fact, made periodic efforts to refine and broaden definitions of membership and corresponding commitment requirements. Currently, three major categories of Family membership, reflecting a range of different commitment levels include: Charter Members (CM), Fellow Members (FM), and outside members.

    CM Homes consist of Family members who make a contractual commitment to obey all the fundamental rules and responsibilities that are specified in the Charter. These include accepting and complying with the writings of Father David and prophecies published by Maria and Peter as the word of God; living and sharing communally; practicing the Law of Love in all things, including sexual relations; and dedication to witnessing and spreading God’s word and end time message. FM Homes consist of believing members who continue to support The Family’s missionary enterprise but are unwilling or unable to meet all of the Charter’s rules and commitment requirements. Thus, for example, Fellow Members can have sex with outsiders (not permitted to Charter Members); do not have to live communally or share worldly goods in common; and are freer to support themselves through secular employment rather than depending on provisioning or donations. In short, Fellow members are allowed to be more integrated in the outside community while Charter Members are expected to exemplify a distinctive mode of life that maintains The Family’s separation from worldly institutions. The recognition of a more inclusive status category like Fellow Members, which requires less commitment but still confers member status (even though promising fewer spiritual rewards), represents an important accommodation as Family leaders attempt to cultivate good will and marshal group resources in support of their increasingly ambitious evangelizing agenda.

    "Outside members" is a general reference which encompasses several additional categories, including active "live-out disciples" and individuals in the process of meeting the requirements to join a Family Home; mail ministry members who subscribe to various Family publications; and friends and supporters who make financial contributions. It is this constituency that Family leaders hope to dramatically expand in the years to come. In conjunction with enhanced millennial expectations, Family leaders have proclaimed the Twenty-First Century as an "era of action" in which programmatic attention will not merely be focused on witnessing and saving souls. Much greater emphasis will be placed on follow-up efforts aimed at building a broader membership base through recruitment of outside members. Currently, outside members are being proselytized primarily through subscriptions to a new Family publication called Activated, an attractively formatted monthly magazine featuring short articles on theological topics and practical religious applications for daily life. The names and addresses of interested subscribers are passed on to Family Homes for follow-up visits, Bible lessons, fellow-shipping, and additional instruction in Family teachings. The goal of the Activated program is to cultivate outside members to become part-time witnessers (and distributors of Activated referral subscriptions) and financial supporters of the Family Homes that recruit them. The activated program is relatively new and results have been uneven worldwide where there are active CM Homes distributing Family literature. Nonetheless, according to Family membership statistics, there were over 64,000 outside members by the end of the year 2001. By comparison, CM and FM Home membership remained relatively small, with a total population of about 8,900 Charter members and 3,100 Fellow Members.

    In view of father David’s contempt for "Churchianity" and The Family’s repudiation of organized religion, what is most interesting about the current emphasis on growth through recruitment of outside members is the way that it has been conceptualized in prophecies and leaders’ statements. The Family’s outside members are compared to the members of established churches in which paid-clergy minister to their congregations’ spiritual needs. The Activated program is envisioned as a potential vehicle for every CM Home to build a supporting congregation or "church" of outside members who would tithe to the local Family Home. This would create an opportunity for older, first generation Charter Members to begin assuming pastor roles to their congregations of outside members, as age and health concerns eventually limit their ability to actively engage in The Family’s strenuous day to day outreach and witnessing efforts. Adopting conventional Christianity’s model of a salaried ministry also is projected by WS leadership as a way to help alleviate concerns about the future well being of Charter Members who have forsaken occupational careers to devote their lives to a religious cause without accruing any retirement or health care benefits.

    In a way that is reminiscent of the organizational structure of mainstream, centrally administered denominations, local Family churches, once they are formed, are described in recent publications as becoming part of the larger "Family Church." In prophecy, Jesus is quoted as saying "You must build this, My Church . . .You are now leaving behind your days of humble beginnings and you enter the days of power–both of spirit and of finances and of influence." Thus, while the end time is pending, Family leaders optimistically expect to greatly accelerate their special commission of witnessing and evangelizing worldwide through the full-time dedication of its core CM Family missionaries, supported by FM Homes and a much larger, expanding outside membership base. To the extent that their growth-oriented, Activated agenda is successful (Family leaders themselves acknowledge that there are no guarantees that it will be), the formation of Family congregational units will introduce a new organizational dynamic into The Family’s social evolution in the Twenty-First Century that is bound to generate additional internal pressures for accommodation. In the context of delayed apocalyptic expectations, the need for second and third generation Charter members and leaders to adjust institutional priorities in ministering to a much larger body of individuals, who maintain conventional lives and obligations in the outside world, significantly increases the likelihood of a greater degree of Family integration with mainstream institutions.

    The Family Board Vision

    To facilitate the ambitious growth agenda of the Activated ministry, The Family has inaugurated a new planning and policy-making system called "The Board Vision." The Board Vision is an attempt to expand The Family’s leadership and administrative structure to more efficiently carry out its central evangelizing mission by specializing and distributing leadership tasks among a much larger number of individuals than ever before in The Family’s organizational history. Boards (characterized as organizational "pillars") will be staffed by approximately 500 Charter Home Members in new leadership positions and organized around six central areas of concern that are considered essential for The Family’s continued growth and vitality: (1) parenting young children; (2) guiding teen youths; (3) home schooling for both children and teens; (4) church growth and missionary outreach programs; (5) supervision and visitation of Family Homes; (6) and public relations. There will be planning boards for each of these areas organized at national, regional, and international levels, and each board will be given a "portfolio" that defines and limits its duties and areas of concern. National and regional boards will be responsible for offering services and guidance to Homes within their appointed areas of specialization and levels of organization. International boards will make worldwide policy recommendations to Maria and Peter who, in prayer and consultation with WS staff advisors, will make final decisions on what the boards have recommended. In addition to the boards, there will be national, regional, and continental coordinating councils (characterized as organizational "cross-beams") to oversee, coordinate, and adjudicate any policy recommendation disagreements between the various boards under their jurisdiction. The role of top echelon officials is to oversee and approve policy recommendations, not impose their own plans or preferences.

    A newly published Family Board Handbook governs the functioning of the boards in much the same way that The Love Charter governs Family members’ rights and responsibilities and is written in the same careful, legal-rational language that sharply contrasts with the prophetic rhetoric of most WS literature. Family leaders emphasize that the new board structure is intended to supplement, not supersede the Charter. It is apparent, however, that the board structure also functions to attenuate many of the Charter’s individualizing effects by providing World Services with a more effective system of institutional guidance and control of Family proselytizing efforts and basic home standards.

    While significantly increasing the degree of grass-roots participation in the administration of Family programs, The Board Vision represents a corporate model of organizational decision-making and control under the centralized authority and direction of Maria and Peter and their World Service advisors. It is a striking elaboration of bureaucratic administration in a religion whose conviction of being led daily through direct supernatural communication with Jesus Christ and the spirit world is extraordinary. The Board Vision is preeminently a pragmatic organizational adjustment to the increasing complexity of The Family’s programs and growth agenda for the twenty-first century. It is a structural approach to group problem solving that stands in vivid contrast to the kinds of autocratic edicts issued by Father David in the early years of Family history. Councils and boards are expected to be prayerful in making decisions and recommendations but also realistic and practical. The Handbook instructs them to rationally discuss and deliberate problems, vote democratically on their proposed solutions, then seek God’s confirming assent in group prayer and prophecy. Charismatic impulses and individual assertiveness are controlled by a review and approval system that makes board or council members collectively accountable for their decisions and recommendations. Aside from the distinctive practice of channeling explicit expository statements of justification and approval from the spirit world, this is essentially the same corporate mode of group problems solving employed by most denominational organizations that also prayerfully seek God’s guidance in making decisions.

    In less than a decade since Father David’s death, his successors have (1) instituted the Charter for governing Family home life, increasing members’ freedom of choice and responsibility for making their own decisions; (2) broadened the definition of what it means to be a Family member at different levels of sacrifice and commitment; (3) embarked on an ambitious growth project to activate supporting members of an international "church" to more effectively spread The Family’s end time message; and, (4) through the newly implemented Board Vision, have revamped The Family’s leadership apparatus with a complex corporate structure that both democratizes and centrally consolidates the administration of Family programs and its new growth agenda. These fundamental institutional changes mirror the modernizing tendencies of many other religious groups historically and are all pointing The Family in the direction of greater accommodation, rather than increased tension, with the institutions of the outside world.



    Understanding Family resistance to compromise is clarified by recapitulating several important points previously made with regard to accommodation pressures. Most radical, transformational movements encounter varying degrees of social and legal opposition to what is externally perceived as the movement’s deviation from cultural norms and the potential threat such deviation poses for established social institutions. For the Family specifically, such opposition has emanated from a long history of clashes with anti-cult organizations and civil authorities around the world, sensationally reported and commented upon by the news media. Defensive reactions against these attacks have, in many ways, produced significant policy and structural changes within The Family, as summarized above. Additional, more subtle sources of external influence that have impacted Family patterns are systematic contacts with legal advisors and social scientists, who have sensitized leaders to the need and inevitably of certain sorts of changes in policies and practices over the past ten years, and increasing exposure to the corrupting allurements of secular, Western culture, especially for youth and second generation members.

    General sources of internal pressures to compromise in radical movements are directly correlated with the passage of time and typically include growing social disparities among members and conflicts between those who want greater social acceptance versus those who oppose compromises merely for the sake of appeasing outsiders and achieving more comfortable lives. The Family also has particularly been confronted by the classic problems of the need to maintain revolutionary motivation of the second generation, the troubling portents for an aging first generation, and authority and legitimacy issues associated with leadership succession following departure of a charismatic founder. All of these problems are exacerbated in millennial or apocalyptic movements when end time scenarios do not emerge as quickly as expected. Indicators of unrest related to these internal Family problems fall within a typical range for radical movements, i.e., from expressions of hesitant doubts, to specific criticisms, to active dissent, and finally to apostate attacks. Many adjustments to these internal concerns are necessary to maintain group solidarity and organizational functioning.

    However, since the death of Father David, Maria and Peter have also become highly sensitized to the potential diluting consequences of too much accommodation that compromises core values, beliefs, and practices. In recent years (and reflecting a tradition of previous reformations in Family history), they have inaugurated a revitalization campaign that has been spurred by the very same external and internal forces that have created pressure to make the kinds of adaptive changes described above.

    Specifically, Maria and Peter have, over the past four years, issued a series of strongly worded retrenchment publications (buttressed by channeled messages from Jesus and Father David) giving warnings to Charter Family Homes and urging renewed compliance with basic standards. These calls to revive and strengthen commitment culminated in the Shakeup 2000 (S2K) series, immediately followed by the Action series, and finally the 2001 Conviction vs. Compromise series. The S2K series specifically called for a purging of malcontents and required all Charter Members age 16 and older worldwide to either sign a contract pledging their faith and willingness to live up to CM standards or change their status to Fellow Member or even leave The Family altogether. The Action series justified the need for this cleansing, acknowledging that while CM numbers have diminished, the core Family has been strengthened and is now better positioned to implement a new "era of action" in the world. The Conviction vs. Compromise series represented an even greater elaboration of the need for purging and revitalizing current Family membership, with detailed discussions of basic standards that have become eroded but are no longer to be casually compromised. This series concluded with a call to all CM Family Homes to hold a day of fasting, prayer, and prophecy in mid-November of 2001 to bring themselves into alignment with the renewed expectations for orthodox conduct and belief. Check lists of questions to assess personal obedience to these standards while praying for guidance were provided for the use of individual members.

    In relation to internal concerns, focus has been on home life and governance. CM members have particularly been called upon to:

    1. Reaffirm commitments to the sacrificial demands of communal living and sharing all things in common. The relatively recent proliferation of single family CM Homes is repudiated. Members who aspire to CM status are admonished to maintain complete trust in the Lord to supply all present and future material needs. Second generation young adults are especially urged to fully live the Law of Love in regard to appropriate sexual sharing.
    2. Continuously invoke "spiritual weapons," especially "hearing from the Lord" in prophecy as the necessary means for arriving at all decisions small and large, personal and collective.
    3. Maintain Faith in Father David as God’s End Time Prophet and in Maria and Peter as Father David’s anointed successors, Queen and King respectively of God’s End Time Family organization. The essential doctrinal task of Family members is to regularly read (during specifically scheduled "Word Time") the constant flow of received revelatory guidance published by World Services. Belief in and compliance with "The Word" ought to follow, and therefore doubting and divisive murmuring against the legitimacy of Family leadership and policies ought to cease.
    4. Demonstrate greater vigilance by parents, Home Teamworks, and Visiting Shepherds, within their respective domains of responsibility and control, to properly instruct and supervise behaviors that meet required CM standards, and to correct and appropriately discipline infractions.

    In relation to the external world, CM members have particularly been admonished in their outreach efforts and other secular contacts to:

    1. Unashamedly acknowledge and proclaim The Word (the prophetic teachings of Father David and the revelations received through Peter and Maria) with conviction and without compromise. Members are expected to "speak the plain truth from the Lord" to an incredulous world, even on such controversial subjects as the full sexual extension of The Law of Love, rather than shading meanings or presenting only beliefs that are more likely to be popularly received.
    2. Be more vigilant in remaining separate from the world. Taking "System" jobs, excessive engagement in fund raising activities that lack a witnessing component (and thus become ends in themselves), sending children to public schools, and aspiring to higher education for senior teens and young adults in CM Homes are all strongly discouraged except under rare circumstances that are sanctioned by prophecy and concurrence of Home Teamworks. Non-approved secular music, movies and other forms of entertainment, along with intoxicants, drugs, and acquisition of material goods are identified as sources of spiritual evil and must also be more rigorously avoided.

    In short, Charter Member standards have been reaffirmed and tightened. The Charter itself allows for greater autonomy of individual Homes and personal decision making of members within Homes. However, if, in exercising this autonomy, decisions lead to erosion of commitment to core values, then those who compromise to this extent are no longer thought worthy of the high spiritual status that being part of a CM Home confers. The CM status continues to be represented as a revolutionary and spiritual elite, a "Gideon Band" that is appropriate for only the most dedicated among the different categories of Family membership. Promised blessings made to the Family by Jesus are emphasized as being contingent on continued faith and obedience. Not only might these blessings be delayed or lost, but, through prophecy, the Lord warns Family members that he might also find it necessary to raise-up others more righteous and willing to abide his laws; he might even allow the emergence of new persecutions as a necessary purgative to purify and strengthen his Family. The rationale Jesus gives for such hard rebukes to members is that "I must test and try you," but at the same time he will also "bless and reward" those who remain faithful to his word.




    Issues of legitimacy are deeply connected to both accommodation and resistance policies that have been officially announced and implemented since the death of Father David in 1994. The passing of a charismatic founder always represents a crucial turning point moment in the moral career of a new religious movement. How and by whom is a prophetic figure to be succeeded? Will factions and power struggles develop causing so much dissention and disbelief that the movement splinters irretrievably? Or will sufficient numbers of rank and file members preserve their faith and follow the directives of new, legitimately established leadership with a continued sense of being participants in a divinely sanctioned and urgent millennial cause?

    In this section we will briefly highlight how Maria and Peter have legitimated both their succession as co-leaders of The Family and the subsequent shift in revelatory procedures and policies that they have introduced. We will also touch on emerging responses to the apparently delayed fulfillment of end time events. The Family is now almost 35 years removed from its origins as an organization of youthful emissaries (then named "The Children of God") who were called to announce the imminent apocalyptic end of the world. Prolongation of this end poses an overarching legitimacy concern that infuses virtually all aspects of the Family enterprise.

    Validation of Maria and Peter’s Succession

    In the initial years of The Family movement, Maria functioned as Father David’s constant companion and confidant, new wife, and secretary. By 1981, Father David had begun to relinquish control over publications to Maria, and by 1984 she was playing a prominent role in Family decision making generally. Meanwhile, Peter had become a member of World Services in 1979 and was gradually given significant administrative authority by Father David to manage The Family’s finances. While Father David (eventually just "Dad") continued as the ultimate authority and spiritual center of the Family until his death, his specific organizational duties, by the latter 1980s, had dwindled to writing occasional materials for Family publications. Thus Maria was implicitly positioned as Father David’s logical successor (a need not originally anticipated when the end was perceived to be so near) by virtue of her unparalleled closeness to him, by his endorsements of her increasing authority over key Family operations, and by her growing iconic stature among Family membership worldwide as "Mama," loving parental role model and faithful extoller of Dad’s End Time visions.

    Father David’s rapidly declining health during his last few years had relatively little impact on the actual functioning of The Family, since Maria, and increasingly Peter and several other WS top functionaries as well, were already so firmly established within their respective administrative domains of control. Long years of proximity to the center of power and proven ability in the highest echelons of leadership were extremely important but not sufficient claims to succession. Father David’s death required a more legitimate basis for assumption of full spiritual authority than mere taken-for-granted notions that Maria and others within the inner circle would be logical successors. In charismatically guided movements, leaders commune with God; God must anoint or endorse some procedure for selecting a person or persons as leader(s) to whom he will continue revealing his will.

    During the days following Father David’s death, Maria held multiple prophecy sessions with Peter and WS staff members. Direct confirmations of Maria’s rightful role as successor were received from both Jesus and Father David’s ascended spirit, and these were successively reported to the worldwide Family membership in an ongoing flow of letters. At the same time, Peter consolidated his own special relationship with Maria, which had been growing (with some uncertainties but with the apparent approval of Dad) for a number of years. Revelations from Father David, a few months after his passing, sanctioned marriage between Peter and Maria and proclaimed that both were called as prophets, as he had been. These developments were also published in letters to Family Homes, as was an account of Dad, while still alive during the preceding year, formally designating and "anointing" both Maria and Peter as Queen and King, his joint successors. The essential spiritual role of Maria and Peter was to be the same as Father David’s: to hear from the Lord and publish his Word.

    Justification of Shifts in Revelatory Procedures and Policy Consequences

    Maria and Peter’s continued publication of The Word–saturated with verbatim commentaries received in revelation from Jesus, Dad, and other spiritual entities–became a stumbling block for some Family members, who tended to view with skepticism this sudden and "opportunistic" outpouring of prophetic messages that inaugurated and reinforced the program and policy changes discussed above. Expressions of skepticism, especially among a number of second-generation adults, became a significant factor in triggering the revitalization purge of the past several years.

    Maria and Peter’s justification of dramatically increased reliance on direct prophetic guidance is based on two main premises. The first premise is the long-standing Family doctrine of total submission and prayerful dependency on Jesus. This applies to Maria and Peter as much (and even more in their official leadership capacity) as to ordinary members in their everyday lives. The new Family-wide emphasis on "hearing from the Lord" during "praise time" is seen as a clear extension of an old principle and is modeled after Maria and Peter’s own daily prayer and prophecy routine. The second justification premise is related to the first and stems from feelings of personal inadequacy to fill-in the ultimate decision making vacuum created by Father David’s death. First generation Family members, like Maria and Peter, literally grew up from late youth under the quasi-parental supervision of Dad, who provided authoritative direction in all areas of their lives. Lacking Dad’s reassuring presence and instant counsel, Peter and Maria felt especially burdened to turn to Jesus for help. Their prayers for guidance not only resulted in direct responses from Jesus, but also from Dad, who is thus able to continue supervising and approving the efforts of his followers from an expanded vantage point in heaven.

    Several immediate charismatic problems were posed at the outset of Maria and Peter’s ascendancy in the wake of Father David’s death. Although Maria had previously been promised by Dad that she would someday received the gift of prophecy, this has not yet happened–a potentially serious shortcoming for a newly designated leader of a movement institutionalized around the publication and distribution to Homes of prophetically inspired literature. She does, however, claim the complementary gift of discerning and interpreting authentic prophecy along with great faith in the Lord to answer prayer. Peter, among a number of others in The Family, did profess a gift for receiving prophecy. However, as a neophyte member in the early 1970s, Peter self-confessedly "tripped out" on excessive displays of his prophetic prowess. He was criticized for manifestation of pride and flavoring of prophetic statements with his own opinions rather than being a clear channel for authentically derived spiritual messages. Subsequently he abstained from prophecy for a very long time. Eventually he would again exercise his gift, but only occasionally and with great caution. Furthermore, Peter is not, in his personal bearing and public presentation of self, a dynamic, charismatic individual in the popular sense of this term. He is soft-spoken, easy-going, self-effacing, and pragmatically oriented, which makes a sharp contrast to the flamboyant, impetuous, and authoritarian leadership style modeled by Father David.

    Resolution of these personal difficulties was achieved through creation of an unusual, interactive form of prophetic teamwork based on Maria and Peter’s intimate relationship, a combination of their respective spiritual talents, and the input of World Services. The two pray daily together, sometimes for hours. Maria takes the lead, especially in raising a flood of questions on every conceivable topic. Peter’s prayer supplicates the Lord to help him accurately channel responses to Maria’s questions. The answers received through Peter are tape-recorded while he vocalizes them. Before these utterances can be considered officially binding prophecies, they must be judged and validated by Maria, who will not submit for publication anything she does not think is right. These approved, written statements are next passed along to committee review for appropriate editing, occasional modification, and document placement around commentary typically given by Maria. Maria then gives approval of the final document version before it is sent out to CM Homes. It should be noted that Maria also sanctions occasional channeled prophecies from other individuals, especially from World Services personnel and from Peter’s and her own staff. Thus, a continuous flow of revelatory guidance, maintaining the tradition established by Father David, has been assured by this novel teamwork approach. In addition, a set of stabilizing procedures for tempering and controlling individual charismatic impulses, with an eye to anticipating their practical consequences for the contemporary Family, has also emerged.

    Style and format of published prophetic literature sent to guide CM Homes under Maria’s imprimatur (and sometimes also Peter’s) have undergone significant changes. Typically, Maria begins a letter by introducing a set of topics to be covered. Channeled messages from Jesus and/or Dad are then quoted that articulate new policy directions and doctrinal applications (more often Jesus than Dad) or reinforce already proposed policies (more often Dad than Jesus). Maria reviews and summarizes messages related to each particular topic and then again at the end of the document for all of the topics as a whole. Occasionally Dad is quoted from old MO Letters (rather than being channeled) to demonstrated precedence for some current decision (e.g., the "Loving Jesus" doctrine) or, less often, passages from the Bible are cited as scriptural validation.

    Channeled messages are distinguished from Maria (or Peter’s) commentary by insertion of the preliminary statement: " Jesus speaking," or, "Dad speaking," and then the concluding statement: "End of message from Jesus, " etc. Initially, messages received from Jesus were rendered in King James English, but within a year of Father David’s death, Jesus’ language was (and still is) presented in the vernacular, often employing modern Family jargon. Dad’s messages, from the beginning, were and are given in a much more colloquial and colorful fashion than Jesus. However, while speech mannerisms are reminiscent of Father David’s style when he was alive, the tone and substance of his comments, even when addressed to problems of non-compliance with standards, are perceptibly more temperate, flexible, and forgiving than the hard-line bombast that was often typical of his own fleshly writings.

    Recent defectors who occupied positions of considerable status within Family leadership circles claim that Maria and Peter are control freaks who cannot abide opposition to their plans and who cynically exploit the "new weapon" of greatly increased prophecy from Jesus (and now Dad) to coerce The Family into going along with whatever they want to do. These charges are countered, as we have seen, by (1) excoriating, through prophecies from Jesus, dissenters as apostates who "go around sowing division against my anointed and My Words;" (2) linking the revitalization of prophecy per se to fundamental Family doctrine; (3) encouraging universal Family participation in this same prophetic process; and by (4) pointing to the "good fruits" of prophetic leadership under Maria and Peter, particularly in giving both greater autonomy and democratic involvement to members through institution of Continental Officer Summit meetings, the Love Charter, and the new Board Structure, and also in anticipating future temporal needs of an aging membership through implementation of the Activated program. Finally, (5) WS and other staff members who have intimate and regular personal contact with Maria and Peter have also published detailed testimonials of the loving and considerate qualities of Maria and Peter’s characters and of the faithful, exemplary devotion with which the two of them carry out their callings.

    Rationalization of End Time Delay

    Failure of specifically prophesized end time events to materialize as quickly as initially anticipated is not a comfortable topic of conversation among many committed, long-term Family members. Very few, though, are given to serious doubts that the world has entered, in some sense, in the latter period of its existence. "Signs of the times," such as the September 11 terrorist attacks on America as an outgrowth of the worsening crisis in the Middle East, and other calamities everywhere, both natural and manmade, are avidly followed in the news media as precursors to the advent of the Anti-Christ. However, disasters, warfare, political and cultural scandals, technological advancements with sinister social overtones, etc., have been the staple of public news for millennia. It is difficult to reconcile this interminable succession of generically similar end time indicators with a growing perception that the world, especially in the spiritually corrupt West, may in many ways becoming less hostile to the Family’s own existence as a revolutionary salvation movement. Family Homes and members’ lives have become more stable due to a dramatic drop in the threat of serious run-in with authorities. Ironically, this very peace and normalcy stir anxiety. Persecution, flight from arrest, and other hard tests for God’s spiritual elite are supposed to escalate as the forces of the Anti-Christ begin to gather and history winds down. Old time members who have sacrificed the better part of their adult years faithfully proclaiming an imminent end time message must find ways to rationalize the unexpectedly tardy arrival of those apocalyptic events that have been at the heart of The Family’s raison d’etre–events that, with members’ own increasing sense of accommodation to the world, actually seem to be receding in immediacy rather than looming ever closer. People are simply unable to indefinitely sustain a constant sense of 11th hour emergency that is belied, over the years, by the unfolding of their own experience.

    Teenagers and young adults born into The Family are also susceptible to millennial doubts as the years go peacefully by. They have acquired a taken-for-granted theological interpretation of their lives as inculcated by elders and reinforced by peers, but their motives for ultimately choosing to remain Family members are likely to be quite different from the conversion convictions of their parents. The Family has conferred responsibility and significant authority on their young in the operation and governance of homes. But as the constant round of home chores, childcare, and witnessing eats up the days, life becomes routinized. Challenge, even danger–the sorts of tests foretold by numerous end time prophecies with projections of heroic opportunities that always seem thrilling to many youth–are not typically present in their actual experience. Boredom, fascination with the forbidden, rebelliousness–the normal Western teenage maladies–spread easier and more widely when not countered by actual activities and events that approximate the excitement of youthful fantasies.

    Other, earlier groups have weathered similar delays in millennial expectations and continue to flourish. Jews still await a messianic coming, Christians a messianic return. Mormons, Seventh-Day Adventists, and Jehovah’s Witnesses all were founded on the primary assumption of a swift, apocalyptic end, to name but a few historical examples. The typical pattern of resolution includes reassessment and even repudiation of earlier projected specificity of end time events. Human error in understanding or interpreting prophecy is recognized. Or it is revealed that God himself withholds the hour to test the faithful or to maximize necessary conditions that are dependent on the efforts of his chosen people. Watchful waiting and readiness continue to be enjoined, but time is stretched to encompass a greater likely span required for complete prophetic fulfillment.

    It is by no means farfetched to suppose that the Family will be able to work out its own way of resolving this core Christian dilemma. Some transformation of apocalyptic assumptions is, in fact, becoming increasingly visible in the thinking of both ordinary Family members and Family leadership. Father David’s more or less exact calculations of end time dates during the early years of Family development are now understood to have been the products of his own sense of millennial urgency and were not the unalterable revelation of Jesus. Jesus has revealed in subsequent prophecies to Maria and Peter that he is cognizant of concerns because "I haven’t come back as soon as you thought I would." But, while reassuring The Family that the end time is indeed proximate and its efforts are more than ever needed, a specific end time calendar is not mentioned, and the clear implication is that a great deal of preparatory work still needs to be accomplished. Certainly the recently instituted Activated Program projects a potentially long-term future for The Family as, to a lesser extent, does the new Board Structure.

    Peter, when asked about his own take on the end time problem several years ago, responded: "I guess we’ve been a little bit like St. Francis of Assisi. They asked him, if he died tomorrow, what would he do. He said he’d go tend his garden and do other ordinary things. The point is, you have to address today’s problems. You can’t be banking on the fact that ‘we don’t have to worry about anything; what’s the difference if our kids or our homes are a mess, because six months from now we’re going to be raptured.’ Well, it does make a difference. Our belief is that it is the end time, and we will see it relatively soon. But we don’t really know [exactly when], and if you ask ten different people [in the Family] when they think the Lord will come back, you’ll get ten different answers."




    The Family has weathered serious external and internal conflicts in its formative stages of development to emerge in the Twenty-First Century as an unconventional religious community and highly active missionary society with increasingly ambitious aspirations for international growth and influence. While leaders remain vigilant and wary of government usurpation of religious liberty in anticipation of renewed end time persecution, confrontations with legal authorities have, in fact, dramatically diminished since implementation of The Family’s home and member-governing instrument, The Charter of Love. In the meantime, communal child rearing practices and religious education have become institutionalized as central priorities. First generation leaders continue to be deeply concerned with the problems of rebellious youth, but a substantial fraction of the second generation, now trained and tested in the faith, is poised to carry on The Family’ worldwide evangelizing mission in an organization that is simultaneously more democratic and corporate in its administrative structure.

    In spite of periodic internal dissent in reaction to new leadership initiatives, the potential crisis of charismatic succession following the death of Father David seems to have been successfully resolved through the ascension of Maria and Peter as co-leaders, who have consolidated their authority by channeling and publishing verbatim spiritual directions and approbation from Jesus and Father David respectively. This distinctive mode of institutionalized contact with the spirit world and the group’s founder beyond the grave has become the primary mechanism for justifying both accommodative change and renewed commitment to fundamental beliefs and practices.

    The recent organizational and policy innovations discussed in this paper will have both latent and manifest consequences for The Family that guarantee continuation of much change in the years ahead. What these will be, and what the Family will become in this new century, should offer a fascinating case study of the patterns of religious dissent, doctrinal innovation, worldly rejection and stigmatization, and social conflict and accommodation that are common to the moral careers of new religious movements. One very distinct possibility is that The Family will continue to court a fair amount of tension and opposition to the outside world, even as it becomes more stabilized in its domestic life and outreach ministries. Leaders show little inclination to modify core beliefs (some of which are socially radical). They are even prone to introduce controversial new doctrinal ideas, such as the "Loving Jesus" revelation, which function to accentuate the group’s distinctiveness and separation from conventional Christianity. We do not anticipate, therefore, that The Family will become a fully accommodated religious denomination within the foreseeable future. It is more likely for at least several more generations that The Family will instead continue to resist conventional integration into the Christian mainstream. It will continue to maintain morally sharp contrasts between conceptions of its own Godly community and divinely appointed mission and its view of the Satanically devised corruption of modern society during the latter period of human history.




    Family Publications (By Maria, Peter, and the World Services staff)

    The History of the Family, 1968 - 1994.

    Love Charter, Summer 1995.

    The Activated Program, July 1998.

    Living the Lord’s Law of Love series, Parts 1-11, September - October 1998.

    Shakeup 2000 series, Parts 1-2, September - October 1999.

    Understanding Prophecy series, Parts 1-3, January - October 2000.

    Our Side: Defense of our Faith, Family, and Lifestyle, Parts 1-6, September 2000.

    Action series, Parts 1-4, June - November 2000.

    Conviction vs. Compromise series, Parts 1-4, September - October 2001.

    World Currents: The Attack on America, October 2001.

    The Board Vision series, Parts 1-3, August 2001 - February 2002.

    Board Handbook, Winter 2002.

    Family Year End Statistical Reports for 2000 and 2001.

    Heading Into 2002 series, Parts 1-4, February 2002.

    Where to Now, March 2002.

    Peter’s New Board Structure Seminar CDs, Disks 1 - 6.

    (Note: We have read most of the Good News or GN publications, which are letters from Maria and/or Peter to Charter Member Homes, since the death of Father David in the fall of 1994, but focused particularly on the specific GNs and other documents listed above for purposes of this paper.)

    Non-Family Sources

    Authors’ Personal Interview with Peter, Summer 1995.

    Bainbridge, William Sims, The Endtime Family: Children of God. State University of New York Press, 2002.

    Chancellor, James, Life in the Family: An Oral History of the Children of God. Syracuse University Press, 2000.


    Cyberproocedings Index

    [Home Page] [Cos'è il CESNUR] [Biblioteca del CESNUR] [Testi e documenti] [Libri] [Convegni]

    [Home Page] [About CESNUR] [CESNUR Library] [Texts & Documents] [Book Reviews] [Conferences]