The Family, formerly known as the Children of God, appears to be making the transition from an authoritarian religious movement based around one leader to a more democratic, if centralized, institution more capable of surviving beyond its founding generation, write Gordan Shepherd and Gary Shepherd in the journal Nova Religio (February).
The Family, a quasi-evangelical group, has generated waves of controversy since its founding by David “Moses” Berg in the late 1960s because of its unconventional sexual practices, as well as charges against some of its members of sexual abuse. The authors write that the movement has taken a more collaborative and democratic turn since Berg’s death, while retaining its distinctive teachings and practices. The organization is now divided into three levels, with only the most committed living communally in Family Disciples Homes.
It is at this level that members dedicate themselves to “witnessing” for the church and are required to engage in “sexual sharing” among married couples (the other levels require neither of these practices). The Family’s current co-leaders, known as Maria and Peter Amsterdam, have replaced the prophetic leadership of David Berg with a process of overseeing and giving approval to the work done by others at World Services, the group’s headquarters. The group’s practice of issuing and publishing continuing revelation (collecting as many as 60,000 prophesies in a year) is now delegated to members and other staffers, although Maria Amsterdam has the final say in how prophecies (including messages from “spirits,” including deceased founder Berg) are used.
The researchers find that the way in which these “channeled” spiritual messages become the means for making organizational decisions is unique for prophetic movements, especially as the Family tries to include women and youth in the decision-making process. Although highly centralized, the transnational group’s style of leadership is “more in line with the egalitarian ideologies of contemporary environmental and global movements which explicitly function as non-hierarchical alliances based on consensus decision-making.”
With the Family’s flexible leadership, which has sought to promote young people of the second generation, the article concludes that the “Family International has successfully instituted organizational forms and mechanisms for sustaining a religious way of life that is likely to persist for generations to come.”
(Nova Religio, University of California Press, 200 Center St., Suite 303, Berkeley, CA 94704-1223)