excerpt – The Children of God “The Family”
The distinctive guiding principle most known about the Family has been the Law of Love, derived from the Gospel of Matthew (22:36-40). As the Family interprets it, the command to love overrides and frees individuals from the strictures of the Mosaic law. At its most general level, this interpretation has extolled self-sacrifice to bring people the saving truth of the gospel. On a more practical level, it has allowed sexual contact between consenting adults as long as they meet the conditions of love (unselfishness) and do not act out of mere lust.10 Under the Law of Love, the Family went from conventional behavior concerning sex and marriage into a period of broad sexual experimentation. In the mid-1980s, it began a step-by-step retrenchment to return to something near its original stance, approaching a more conventional view regarding sex.
Early Teachings on Sexuality
The early converts to the Family came out of a youthful subculture that prized sexual freedom, and the regulation of sexual behavior was among the first important issues to confront David Berg. It is not surprising that among the group’s earliest surviving pieces of literature is the transcript of a talk he gave in the summer of 1970 to couples who had announced to the larger membership that they had become engaged. Adopting his favorite metaphor of “revolution,” he spoke at length on the typical issues covered in standard marriage counseling.
By 1973, Berg had issued three Moses David (Mo) letters on the proper sexual behavior of a “revolutionary.” While defending traditional family structures, he also attacked what he considered to be the “false doctrine that sex is sin” and stressed the positive aspects of sexuality. He intended to free married couples sexually and invited them to enjoy their life together uninhibited by guilt, false modesty, the unbiblical pronouncements of the larger culture, and birth control.
By this time, the discouragement of birth control had reached a predictable result in that an increasing number of babies was being born to married members. By 1973 the question of the children’s sexual education demanded some attention as well. In a proposed solution to the problem, Berg drew on his own childhood experiences, his reading on sexual development, and his favorable impression of the Jewish Kibbutz.12
Children, he said, should be granted complete sexual freedom. They should be taught to think of their bodies as God’s beautiful creation; their sexual organs were to be enjoyed, even during prepubescent years, without guilt or punishment. Parents should allow the natural curiosity about different body parts to be satisfied as long as such curiosity did not lead to anything harmful. However, as children mature, parents should caution them against unlawful or excessive indulgence in sexual behavior.
At the same time he was writing the early Mo letters on sex and marriage, Berg was cultivating a new form of evangelistic outreach that would figure prominently in his mature statement of the Law of Love. What would be known as flirty fishing or “FFing” originated in London in 1973. That year, seeking recreation and relaxation. Berg and his wife Maria attended ballroom dance classes. There they observed the loneliness of some of their classmates, individuals who were there not because of their desire to learn to dance but due to a need for human contact. Seizing the moment, David and Maria made a point of dancing with such individuals and tried to build friendships that would provide a context for a later witness to their faith.
Things took a new turn when Maria established, with Berg’s encouragement, an intimate relationship with a man named Arthur. Again the results were positive. Arthur converted, joined the Family, and is still a member. Berg decided to conduct a more ambitious experiment.
In March 1974, Maria and David moved to Tenerife, a tourist spot in the Canary Islands. There David convened a group of older, trusted members who were aware of his and Maria’s experiences in London, and with them he quietly launched a more challenging experiment. Accompanied by the men, the women frequented the bars and dance clubs to meet, befriend, and witness to the men they encountered. Subsequently, if the situation suggested it, they would have sex with the men.
Introducing the Law of Love
In a Mo letter, Flirty Little Fishy, written in early 1974, Berg informed the entire movement of the results of the initial flirting experiment. He urged female members to express their abundant love by making contact with lonely men to the point of some minimal physical contact such as kissing and by allowing the men to fall in love with them. Such action would provide a meaningful illustration of God’s love for “the fish,” the code word for potential male converts.13
In 1976 an onslaught of over fifty Mo letters detailed the complete sexual implications of flirty fishing.14 Leading the way were twenty-three missives under the collective title King Arthur’s Nights. The letters told of Arthur, the man whom Maria had wooed to bed and then into the Children of God. With flirty fishing firmly established as an evangelistic tool, Berg continued his reflections on the Law of Love.15
As Berg eventually conceived it, the Law of Love was identical to the theological and ethical position traditionally termed antinomianism, which holds that God’s grace in Jesus supersedes the Old Testament laws, including the moral law as declared in the ten commandments. Berg outlined the more general and positive aspects of this in a widely distributed letter, “Our Declaration of Love,” subtitled “A New Apostle’s Creed—All You Need Is Love!” The letter asserted that Jesus’ first and great commandment was love and that love and compassion should be put into action. The greatest manifestation of love, according to Berg, was the sharing of self and service of others. The letter closed with the declaration, “Love Is God! God Is Love!”
In “Love vs. Law,” Berg most clearly stated his full anti-nomian position: “First of all, we know that all Mosaic laws are null and void as far as we are concerned. Christ was the end of the law.” On occasion Jesus quoted the Mosaic code, as Berg conceded, but only, he continued, to expose the hypocrisy of the law-abiding people he was addressing. The particular issue before the Children of God was adultery, a “law” some members were violating through flirty fishing. In response, Berg asserted, “So far as we’re concerned and as far as the Bible says, for us there is no such thing as adultery! There is no such thing anymore as a Biblical law against adultery, as long as it is done in Love, because the ‘Law of Love‘ supersedes all other laws.”16
The effective operation of this law assumed that those who agreed to live by it shared the same working definition of love—in other words, that it encompassed sex. However, people have used the word in such different ways, from superficial to profound meanings, that the intent of the usage is not at all self-evident. For this reason, Berg defined love explicitly as being a sense of compassion put into action. It is demonstrated, according to Berg, by its visible manifestation; although love may be exhibited by the sharing of material goods, it is the sharing of the self and personal service to others where it is best demonstrated.
Where human relationships are concerned, love is not to be seen within the context of a set of laws to regulate behavior, just as morality is not to be measured by conformity to, or lack of conformity to, various rules. Love begins in personal intent and is manifested in action based on a set of virtues that give content to the intention. Thus, according to Berg, love is kind and is demonstrated in kind actions toward others. In like measure, love is expressed in the negative by the avoidance of an opposite set of vices. For instance, love is shown in a refusal to be dishonest in personal relationships. The Law of Love was to promote unselfishness and sacrifice as positive virtues tied to love while condemning carnal lust, harm to others, and interference with another’s freedom.
Great pains were taken to contrast love and lust: “Lust is merely to gratify your own greedy selfish appetite, like eating a meal. You may need it, but if you’re stealing it from someone else and taking the food out of their mouth to stuff your own, this is selfish lust, not love! But if you are taking the food out of your own mouth and giving your own meal to satisfy and feed another who is hungry and starving for love and needs it desperately and might not survive without it, then this is real love.”17 Unfortunately, as the Family would discover during its period of greater sexual freedom, lust would frequently supersede other motives.
Berg’s rhetorical flourishes aside, it seems clear that he did not intend to create a promiscuous, anything-goes situation. Behavior was no longer to be bound by law but was to be directed by the substance of love. Actions under the Law of Love would be compassionate and unselfish, clearly implying that rape, for instance, was condemned, even if manipulation of potential converts was implied. Love was not intended to hurt people, as the idealistic underpinning of the doctrine went. Strictly applied, the Law of Love required adherents to closely monitor their motives and those of others for every action toward other people. The Law of Love, as stated, was reminiscent of St. Augustine’s famous saying, “Love God, and do what you will.”
Acceptance of this tenet was in place by the summer of 1978 when the practice of flirty fishing spread through the Children’s communities until many, although by no means all, of the women were participating in it.18 Meanwhile, Berg dissolved what had become a dysfunctional hierarchical structure. As a result, for the next three years between 1978 and 1981 at the very time flirty fishing was at its most intense and the Law of Love had been introduced as the movement’s basic ethical perspective, the new Family went through a period of enormous organizational instability.
Further Ethical Development
Concurrent with the disbandment of the Children of God, many other problems quickly arose. Heading the list was child care. Adding to the number of babies born within the movement were the other infants, termed Jesus babies, that were born to females because of flirty fishing. Many children were beginning to reach school age (there were almost no teenagers yet) and their care and education had made their way onto the Family’s agenda. Neither the leadership nor the membership was well equipped for this new responsibility.
To fill the information vacuum occasioned by the removal of the leaders in January 1978, Berg asked each full-time member to fill out a lengthy personal questionnaire, which was to serve several purposes. The questionnaires gave Berg, Maria, and their staff a snapshot of the movement, simultaneously providing the members with a chance to ask questions and to voice complaints about life in the Family because they knew the questionnaires would be personally read by Berg. This form of communication made the founder aware of the concerns that had arisen in the homes, about which he had never really thought, and the process largely dictated the issues he would respond to over the next few years. A permanent line of communication between the members and Berg’s household was established through this process. From the questions Berg received from the members, he began to speak, for example, to the variant practices of flirty fishing in different countries, the appearance of venereal disease, and the needs of the older children.
One new set of letters, Sex Questions and Answers (1979), provided the opportunity to reiterate the positive perspective on sex that had become so integral to the Family. The new dialogue on children and sexuality was initiated in an autobiographical treatment of Berg’s own developing sex life. Using himself as an example in My Childhood Sex! Doing What Comes Naturally (1978), he wrote that pre-pubescent children should be left alone to discover and experience sex naturally so that by the time they hit puberty, they would undergo a smooth transition into their teen years. “If you were already accustomed to it, there wouldn’t be any big deal about it, nothing new! It’s only natural!” He remembered his own traumatic event from his childhood when his mother had threatened to cut off his penis when she caught him masturbating. He also recalled that his Mexican babysitter used to stroke his penis to relax him so that he would take his nap—apparently a widespread Latin practice at one time.19
On childhood sexuality, Berg reiterated what he had said earlier. Children should be taught that their bodies are beautiful creations of God and that sexual functions and feelings are as normal as eating. He added in no uncertain terms that “our bodies in no respect must ever be abused or mis-used or over-used, or exposed or used in such a way as to offend or hurt others.” Behavior that was allowed or even encouraged included mixed nude bathing, mixed nude play, sexual self-examination, and experimentation when playing or sleeping together. If a child happened to see adults engaging in sexual intercourse, this should be no cause for particular concern, he wrote, but that each situation should be handled on its own merits according to the parents’ comfort level and the individual child’s reaction.
Very much in line with the instructions on childhood sexuality were passing references to it in the otherwise lengthy treatment of child-raising issues contained in The Story of Davidito (1982), a book about a Jesus baby—an infant born to Maria as a result of her flirty fishing. This book is discussed more fully below.
Among Berg’s concerns was the question of marriage for the group’s youth. This discussion was largely academic because, at the time, the Family had relatively few young people and even fewer who lived close to each other. The overwhelming majority of the minors in the movement were less than ten years old. Berg suggested, hypothetically, that little reason existed to delay marriage much beyond puberty. He noted that early marriage was a common practice in human society until recent centuries. However, present societal customs were to be considered, for as the Apostle Paul says, while all things (in this case, the marriage of teens in their early years) are lawful, not all things are expedient.
A second theme further developed at this time concerned sexual contact among the adult members of the Family itself. While most of the writing about sex had concerned flirty fishing—sexual contact in the process of witnessing to non-Family members—the residents of the colonies and homes had been allowed a certain amount of freedom to enjoy sexual contacts through sharing. In a 1980 letter, “The Devil Hates Sex! But God Loves It!” Berg stated what was possibly his most radical position regarding life among Family members: “AS FAR AS GOD’S CONCERNED THERE ARE NO MORE SEXUAL PROHIBITIONS HARDLY OF ANY KIND. … God’s only Law Is Love.”20
The Video Ministry
The Fellowship Revolution of 1981 launched other kinds of new ministries and a spirit of experimentation. Two members in Europe, Paul and Marianne, previously had hit upon the idea of making home videos. Beginning in 1980, they visited homes and filmed interviews with the members. In this manner, members separated by continents could communicate their joys and concerns.
Concurrently, a problem arose regarding the flirty-fishing activities in the Philippines. Some of the men who were being fished were fond of pornographic movies, and occasionally Family women watched the movies with the fish. When Berg was informed, he ordered them to discontinue this practice even if it superficially appeared to hamper their evangelistic efforts.
It later occurred to Berg that the new video ministry could speak to the pornography problem. In early 1981 he suggested that videos might be made of female members, including shots of them dancing nude. Several cameramen made videos in which adult female members of the Family danced to their favorite music. The videos followed a stylized format, following Berg’s suggestions, with a view of a single woman dancing behind a gauzy, see-through curtain. In a few cases, mostly at a home in Greece, minors were allowed to participate. The dance videos circulated for a few years before they were discontinued in 1987,21 while the primary video work documenting the Family’s communal, evangelistic, and humanitarian activities went on and developed into a more professional enterprise.
Sexual Behavior During the Fellowship Revolution
A description of life in the Family prior to the Fellowship Revolution must be pieced together somewhat like a jigsaw puzzle. Members took to heart the message of freedom, and as they moved out into nuclear family units, they adapted Berg’s counsel to their personal situations as far as they felt inclined or able to conform. They by-and-large followed the instructions in Berg’s letters, although limited by their (1) understanding of them, (2) agreement with what was written, and (3) financial resources. If they had trouble accepting what they understood Berg was asking them to do, they rationalized that the directions applied to others rather than to their own particular national or individual situation.
Through the reorganizations (RNR, NRS, Fellowship Revolution), the Family entered its freest period with regard to sexual behavior. Prior to 1978, only a small minority of the members were involved in flirty fishing. More became involved in 1979 and into the early years of the Fellowship Revolution. Sharing—sexual contact among adult members, including a few teenagers as young as fifteen years—became more common, although the opportunity for such contacts was countered by the fact that members were moving into nuclear family arrangements.
The gravitation into nuclear families was the result of a conservative interpretation of the group’s sexual teachings. Nuclear living arrangements made it almost impossible for women to flirty fish, and the lack of contact with other family members prevented sexual relations with other family adults.
The amount of sexual contact between adults rose dramatically after the Fellowship Revolution when members resumed life in communal homes and as the homes began gathering regularly for weekend fellowship meetings. Thus, while the Fellowship Revolution brought organizational sanity to the Family, the new fellowship meetings became occasions for sharing with people who lived in other locations.
Without a doubt, 1981 and 1982 were the years in which most of the events for which the Family was publicly criticized occurred. It was the era of the first dance videos, it was a time in which some adult-teen sexual encounters occurred (although never the norm), and it was the period in which the most sensitive issues of sexual conduct were discussed by Berg in the literature. As mentioned previously, Berg discussed the issue of the pleasure he remembered associated with the manipulation of his genitals by the maid when he was a small child. Though no one was told to, the way in which this was discussed encouraged some, though never the majority, to adopt it as a means of quieting infants.
At about the same time, a number of other factors were working against the Family’s free sexual life. The sudden burst of flirty fishing activity beginning in 1978 was countered in the early 1980s by increased parental responsibilities. There were those who, all along, had chosen not to engage in sexual activity. Nonetheless, the free sexuality that others practiced, and which reached its zenith in 1981 and 1982, led to numerous and continuing problems for the movement.
The “Ban the Bomb” Era
The Fellowship Revolution set into place a new national and international leadership that, for the first time in many years, assessed the overall situation of Family life. The leaders found that there was an urgent need to address the education of a growing population of children. They also discovered that there were members who were abusing alcohol and needed help. No less important, a whole set of sexual issues demanded attention.
One of the first problems to assert itself was the spread of venereal disease. Some recent converts to the Family and some of the women who had been FFing had contracted venereal infections, primarily herpes. Through contacts at fellowship meetings, the disease had spread throughout the membership. As early as August 1982, this was recognized as a problem in the Mo letters, and procedures on cleanliness and sex hygiene were instituted.22 When the problem did not go. away, Berg complained that “some people are just too carnal & too selfish & too inconsiderate! Others don’t want to be branded as selfish for not sharing & and some don’t want to admit that they do have a disease.”23
Unable to deal with the problem, with lesser measures, Berg issued what in retrospect was the watershed document concerning Family policy in regard to sexuality in March 1983 under the title “Ban the Bomb!” Simply put, the letter ordered a complete stop to sexual sharing at fellowship meetings. Sharing was to be limited to those within the home in which one resided. More importantly, however, “Ban the Bomb!” set a precedence for Family-wide action. As problems of sexual behavior arose, leaders initially attempted to handle them on an informal, case-by-case basis, but if a problem persisted, and especially if it showed up at geographically separate locations, new Family-wide policies were instituted. In time, these policies replaced the antinomianism with a more mature sexual ethic to which the Family presently adheres.
Teenage sexual behavior proved to be the most significant-new problem. By the time the “Ban the Bomb!” missive was issued, a significant number of children had entered their teens, with a new crop appearing annually. Like their secular counterparts, some of the Family’s teens had become sexually active at the first opportunity,
In the mid-1980s, the Family initiated teen training camps at which teens from around the world were brought together. Among other activities, the attendees and leaders engaged in a frank discussion of sexual issues. About the same time. Berg issued an important policy statement on “Teen Sex.” In light of the possibility that pregnancies might result from teen sex. Berg moved toward a practical solution, given the laws and customs of the many countries in which Family members lived. He decreed that young teens were to avoid intercourse until after their fifteenth birthday. Marriage, a still more serious step, was not to occur until after their sixteenth birthday. In 1989 a new policy was instituted by Berg, who decreed that teens should wait until their sixteenth birthday before engaging in any kind of sexual relationship. These limiting guidelines do not reveal the extent to which the teens were already engaging in sex, and it is now known that a few had begun having sexual relationships as soon as they were able, while the majority, for various reasons, had not.
The emergence of so many older teens in the late 1980s highlighted another problem: sex between minors and adults. In a decade’s worth of writing on child and youth sexuality, Berg had assumed that sexual activity involving children or youth would be between individuals of compatible age. Earlier incidents of adult-child sex had brought strong reprimands and were bluntly condemned.24
By 1989, however, a new situation had presented itself. Women in their late teens approaching adulthood were allowed to have relationships with their peers, but they were being placed into close working relationships with older men. In such situations, some of the older men found themselves attracted to the younger women, while in turn, some younger women found themselves attracted to the older men. Some young women found that their attractiveness could be a means of achieving status within their home. In an October 1989 policy letter, Maria warned that parties involved in such relationships and motives should desist on threat of excommunication of anyone who violated this rule.25
By 1991, the ongoing debate over teen sex was strongly affected by charges of child abuse that were hurled at the Family by former members. The charges gave additional urgency to a discussion that had already taken a considerable amount of the leadership’s time and energy. One result was the issuance in August 1991 of an even stricter policy on teenage sexual activity until one’s eighteenth year. The leadership informed the teenagers that it was time “to enforce a strict ‘no sex‘ policy for all of you Teens who are not yet 18 years old. (Unless you’re in a country that legally permits under-18’s to marry, & you’re married or have been engaged for over three months).”
The End of Flirty Fishing
In addition to the policy changes relating to teen sexual behavior, the Family continued to adjust its policies relative to adult members. New trends were most evident in the protocol and incidence of FFing. Through the “Ban the Bomb!” era, FFing would decline steadily as the number of new children in the group rose. Increasingly, FFing was confined to a relatively small number of unmarried, younger, female adults. Then in the mid-1980s, a pilot project was undertaken in which FFing was reoriented around a less sexualized approach whereby women would continue to allure fish but move quickly to their message of Jesus and salvation before sexual contact occurred. The results were that more men ultimately converted, a smaller number of the women became involved in a sexual relationship with prospective members, and fewer of the men developed entangling emotional ties with the female Family members.
In the wake of the experiment’s success. Berg and Maria announced in 1987 a new policy, outlined in a letter titled “The FFing/DFing Revolution!” While affirming the value of FFing, they emphasized the value of the “word” in witnessing and the need to strengthen converts in the faith through DFing—use of devotional and inspirational booklets entitled Daily Food, produced at that time for new converts. The use of the Daily Food booklets gave the FFers a means to engage people in Christian life as the Family understood it without sexual involvement. The epistle de-emphasized sexual sharing and stressed the communication of nonsexual love and distribution of Daily Food literature.
Thus it was that FFing activity ended in 1987 as sex with non-members was now strictly prohibited.26 After a decade of experimentation, the Family had arrived at a more mature perspective. While most current members, who lived through the formative period of the Family’s development, have few regrets over their experiences, they feel that they have taken to heart the lessons learned from it. Flirty fishing is not a practice that any of them seem to want to revisit.
12. Allowing for the specific differences in religious orientation and communal mission, the Children of God and the Kibbutzim are remarkably similar in sexual mores and child rearing. In each, the collective lifestyle removed the economic imperatives on the family unit. During the first generation of the Kibbutzim, members engaged in a wide variety of experimentation in family organization and sexual relations before settling into more stable monogamous relationships, which may or may not result in legal marriages. In the Kibbutzim, married adults are allowed to engage in sex with any other consenting adult. Children are raised and educated collectively. Sexual education is integrated into school curricula from an early age. The sexes share common rooms from infancy through high school and share a common shower until they reach high school age. In the beginning, the high school youth shared common showers but eventually requested separate showers like the adults had, and it has since become common practice to allow it. High school students are discouraged from sexual relationships, but graduates are free to engage in sex as they feel led. See Melford E. Spiro, Kibbutz: Venture in Utopia (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1956).
13. It may be dwelling on the obvious to note that the Children of God began to move away from what the Christian churches considered important behavioral norms. While the churches have been lenient in forgiving people who deviate from sexual norms, it has been intolerant of those who teach anything other than the limitation of sex to monogamous married relationships in spite of the fact that a number of leading Christian ethicists have argued for some legitimate exceptions to the rule. As the Children of God began to teach and practice Father David’s interpretation of the Law of Love, it separated itself from the larger churches which considered their activity to be scandalous, to say the least.
14. See the various letters issued through 1976 and into 1977, especially “Four Fishing Failures” (#533, April 6, 1976); “FF Tips” (#548, May 4,1976); “The FFers Handbook!” (#559, January 1977); “FFing Behaviour!” (#563, December 1976); and “Afflictions” (#569, November 25, 1976).
15. “Our Declaration of Love” (#607, October 9, 1977); “Law vs. Love” (#647, July 23, 1977); and “Is Love Against the Law?” (#648, January 1978).
16. “Law vs. Love,” 5,010.
17. “The Law of Love,” 2,414.
18. The use of sex in witnessing was a scandal to some COG members as well as to members of mainstream Christian churches. Relatives of Family members felt that their daughters had been forced into prostitution, and mainstream church leaders, as they learned of the practice, condemned it as adultery and immorality in the extreme. A few members left because of the new teaching, but the overwhelming majority seem to have accepted the idea with little criticism. Prior to joining COG, most had been involved in the counterculture’s weak commitment to monogamy in favor of multiple sex partners. However much outsiders disagreed with it, the Family understood and accepted Berg’s logic that sharing sex was a means of sharing love, his followers having existed in a world where the two were intimately associated.
19. This practice can hardly be described as an adult-child sex act as has been hinted at in some anti-Family writings. It offered no sexual satisfaction to the adult and had as its object the speedy drifting to sleep of the child. Alex Comfort, in his 1982 book More Joy of Sex (New York: Crown Publishers), documented this old custom: “Male babies, incidentally, get erections early on and nursemaids used to quieten them by bringing on the nearest thing a baby can contrive to orgasm. Some pediatricians now say this over stimulates the child: at a later stage it would do, so we can’t give an opinion as to whether it’s wise or not, but since many primitives masturbate babies, it’s most likely harmless, and the baby appears to like it” (p. 13.)
20. The Devil Hates Sex was among the literature from the 1970s-80s that was purged from the Family’s homes in 1991.
21. The present Family leadership has admitted their error in ever having made such videos.
22. Herpes would remain an ongoing concern. Steps to keep it from spreading were introduced and periodically updated and revised.
23. “Ban the Bomb!” (#1434, April 1983).
24. In considering Family demographics, it is significant to remember that there is a fifteen- to twenty-year gap between the young adults (the oldest, as of 2001, were in their late twenties) and the majority of the older members, who are in their late forties and early fifties. There are virtually no members in their thirties.
25. In 1988, Berg took the first step toward resolving the problem by renouncing all Family literature, most of which he had written, that in any way indicated approval of sexual activity with minors. A short time later, he made intimacy with minors an excommunicable offense. That remains the clearly stated position in the Family’s current literature.
26. In light of recent accusations to the contrary, it is important to note that FFing was discontinued in the late 1980s and that no evidence of its continued practice has surfaced.