What Is Apostasy?
— By Jules
Webster’s dictionary defines an apostate as: "one who has forsaken the faith, principles, or party to which he before adhered; especially, one who has forsaken his religion for another; renegade."
The term has become popular with NRMs such as the Family and their apologist academic supporters in describing those who have left these movements. In particular the apostate charge is levelled against those who speak out about manipulative and unethical practises witnessed during their time in the organization.
However applying such terminology to the children of group members, when they choose not to follow their parents beliefs, is both untrue and misleading. The hypocrisy the Family in particular has shown regarding religious freedom as it relates to the children of its members is striking.
The Family is a voluntary organization
The Family’s statement titled “Mind Control” and “Brainwashing”: Dispelling the Myths” (1993, 2000) states that:
"Research by social scientists further confirms that entry and membership in a new religion involves decision-making processes, contrary to the images portrayed by proponents of "brainwashing," who attempt to portray these processes as forced and not voluntary. Religious studies professor Irving Hexham and anthropology professor Karla Poewe of the University of Calgary offer a similar conclusion:
We reject the brainwashing thesis not only because it represents an attack upon religious conversion generally but also because there is considerable evidence that people join new religions of their own free will. ... [A]ccounts of the "cult" members themselves often indicate that their decision to become members in new religions followed a long search not only for meaning but also for the resolution of major life crises (Hexham and Poewe 1986: 9–10).
Melton and Moore also contend, “Contrary to popular treatments, existing research by sociological investigators indicates there is no reason to believe that entry into an alternative religion evidences any different decision-making processes than entry into other voluntary associations and activities common to a comparable population” (Melton and Moore 1982: 36–46).
Membership in The Family is voluntary, and as such, members are free to depart from our fellowship when they so desire. Our goal is to teach others about Jesus Christ—not to accumulate members. We recognize that the calling of a full-time missionary is a sacrificial, difficult one, and it typically has been a profession chosen by only a few. We therefore take our commitment seriously, and the decision to become or remain a member of The Family is one made freely and individually without coercion."
These statements are simply untrue when applied to the children of members. Their presence within Family communities is not a result of decision-making, but one of circumstance. There has been no autonomous process of choice or comparison with other lifestyle choices. Within the closed communities of the Family individual and unsupervised interaction with people from other walks of life is not only discouraged, but often expressly forbidden. Interactions that do occur are generally clearly defined as opportunities to share the Family’s beliefs with non-believers and therefore limit exposure to those who disagree with those beliefs.
"The Scriptures specifically admonish dedicated Christian believers that neither they nor their children are to become too closely involved with unbelievers and worldly people, other than to witness to them and to tell them of the benefits and wonderful rewards of receiving the Lord, or to warn them of the consequences of rejecting Him." (The Family’s Policy Statement on Socialisation, 1992)
Minors are not members
The classification of under-aged children as members of a high demand religious organization is both misleading and irresponsible. Even if presented with a choice regarding their participation as members of the Family, children do not have the maturity or experience to make appropriate lifestyle decisions. The Family however, has always considered the children of its’ members members themselves by default, and continues to do so.
For children of Family members, the group was not an organization that they had committed to, but their culture of origin and their home. The differences in perception of the Family between children and their parents is something that the leaders of the Family have been very aware of, (though not much thought seems to be given as to the sociological reasons behind this), as a member responsible for a number of children stated: "It had become apparent that some of the teenagers did not have the same commitment to the way of life of The Family as their parents”. (McNally, quoted by Lord Justice Ward, 1995)
The Family leadership instituted a number of programs during the 80s and 90s with the goal of instilling the same commitment to the group and it’s beliefs that could be seen in their voluntary adult members. The children, most of whom were young teenagers, were told that “God has no grandchildren”, and that they themselves had to make a decision to “join the Lord’s army”.
Religious Persecution by the Family
In regards to camps that were set up in the 80’s specifically for the purpose of persuading young teenagers and children, Lord Justice Ward wrote: “I am in no doubt that these training camps were highly emotionally charged and pressurized environments for children. They existed for the purpose of changing the children and shaping their lives in order to mould them to The Family's image. The cost to the children was to rob them of their personal identity. It was an invasion of personal freedom.” (Ward, 1995)
Those children who did not accept the ideology of the Family and the founder, David Berg, did not have the option of freedom of expression. Questioning the legitimacy of Berg’s claim to the title of “endtime prophet” was viewed as treason. The punishment for exploration of alternative belief systems was immediate and often brutal.
The issues most frequently in question were the thoughts and theological questions of the child. Their actions were irrelevant if the child had not fully accepted the ideology of the Family, or if their attitude or thought processes were found to be questionable. The questioning of any of the writings of David Berg (classified as The Word [of God] by the Family), was considered doubting. Berg taught that “doubts are not just nothing you push away, doubts are monsters that will ultimately destroy you”, and therefore had to be completely eradicated from the minds of his followers.
"Certainly the crisis of faith experienced by David Berg's granddaughter, Merry Berg, had shown Family leadership that teens might need "retraining & rewiring" because they cultivated ideas that challenged the organization's ideological claims. Sara, who was the nanny in the David Berg household, wrote about "how unbelievably good Mene [Merry's Family name] was in her overall behaviour, attitudes, and even spirit. There is no more extreme example we could use as an almost, nearly 'perfect' child" (Sara in [Berg], 1987: 460). Nevertheless, David Berg and his immediate leaders put the fourteen-year-old through at least five exorcisms and frequent beatings because (so they charged) she was filled with pride, making "cruel criticisms of Grandpa & Mama" (i.e., David Berg and his long-time mistress, Maria [Karen Zerby]), having violent dreams about her grandfather (see Kent Interview with Merry Berg, 1992a: 67), and having serious doubts about his behavior and teachings (Kent Interview with Merry Berg, 1992a: 71; [Berg], 1987: 444-446; Ward, 1995: 131)."
- Brainwashing and Re-Indoctrination Programs in the Children of God/The Family, Kent, Hall 2000.
Ricky and Elaine were two of the adult members charged with the indoctrination of children. Some of their success stories as published by the Family were as follows:
"[R, an 11 year old boy] lacked a real connection with the Lord. He seemed to have a fascination for encyclopaedias and any time he could get away with it he would read an encyclopaedia … He went on i.c. [intensive care] status with T. These two boys spent the first 6 weeks together doing extra labour. R has been on the Jett Victor programme now for over a year. Although he is subdued in a way he has by no means graduated or been able to go on to something else."
"[K was aged 11] Her NWO' (needs work on) were being unable to communicate with others (other than her mom), not respecting the Lord in others, not knowing why she was in The Family and not believing in The Family. She basically seemed to lack a connection with the Lord. Those who had shepherded her in her previous home had resorted to giving her quite a lot of discipline for her rebellious stubborn behaviour but were frustrated with the lack of fruit from the correction given. K really fell apart when she realised she wasn't going to be seeing or spending any time with her mom during her stay at the Victors. (She is very close to her mother.) She was a bucket of tears and very emotional for the first few days. In these difficult initial days when she was having such a hard time forsaking her mom, the Lord gave her, for the very first time in her life, some direct word from the Good Thots on forsaking your parents. She was in tears, she was overjoyed. It was very beautiful to see her so overjoyed in knowing she had made a connection with the Lord."
- Quoted by Lord Justice Ward, 1995.
If initial attempts to convert the children and teenagers to the Family’s ideology was unsuccessful then more brutal methods were deployed.
"...What was happening in Macau deeply disturbs me. The truth is that these children were there to have their spirits broken by whatever means it took, and loving kindness was not the primary means deployed. … Freedom of thought was the crime for which [DR, a witness] was banished to Macau. Freedom of thought was beaten out of her in Macau. Though DR lives on, the spirit of a young girl died in Macau. It is time The Family faced that truth." (Ward 1995)
A clear mandate from Karen Zerby (the current leader of the Family) demanded the institution of the same type of indoctrination programs in every community throughout the organization.
"We've got to institute a new kind of intensified Jett training programme not in every major area, but in each individual home throughout The Family. ... They have highlighted the fact that we have a big worldwide emergency with all our Jetts and there is no way one little Victor home in each area is going to be able to cope with that need! We've got to somehow institute a Victor programme in all of our homes if we're going to truly reach and win our Jetts and Teens and turn them into the dedicated disciples the Lord wants them to be. ... If our kids are capable of that level of commitment at 11, 12 and 13 years of age at a TTC, why can't they be capable of that kind of commitment when they get home too? What I'm beginning to realise is that to win our own Jetts and Teens to the Lord's cause, to get them really sold on the family and on fire for the Lord, we've got to go overboard. ... We need to somehow reach our kids and really get through to their heart. ... That's why they've had such success in the Victor's programme: they bring those Jetts and Teens in and they show them what the revolution for Jesus really is.” (Zerby, 1991)
Misleading and Offensive Terminology
The Family and their academic supporters have referred to children of members in terms such as Ex-member, Apostate, Backslider, Former Member, Second Generation. All of these are inaccurate. The Family has clearly stated in it’s own writings that it is an “army” and each member has to make a personal decision to sign up with the movement.
Steve Kelly (aka Peter Amsterdam), one of the current leaders of the Family, (in what he claimed to be a direct missive from Jesus), stated that: “Charter membership [fulltime Family membership] means discipleship. That doesn't just mean “Family member.” Yes, you're a member of the Family, but first and foremost, as a Charter member, you are a disciple. That is your code, your creed. That is your mission statement. As a disciple, you are among the elite troops of the Family. You have pledged and committed to take on any mission, to accept any challenge, to fight any battle, to receive any instructions and orders, to follow and obey, to love and to serve.
As a Charter member, you have said, “This is my chosen profession. This is my calling. This is my career. This is my life. I am a disciple and I'm proud of it.” As a disciple‚ you're in it for the long haul. You're not serving a six-month term, a two-year term, or even a six-year term. You're committed for life‚ because you're convinced that being a disciple is what you want to give your life to.“ (The Professionals. Kelly, 2002)
This publication was written in response to a letter from a teenager, and a demand on teenagers and children to commit to “receiving any instructions and orders” from the Family for life is extremely unethical.
If the Family truly is a voluntary Christian fellowship, the decision to join the movement must be voluntary and made without coercion, when their members are of legal age to do so. Children born to Family members cannot be assumed to be members at all as minors, and therefore cannot be accused of apostasy when they come of age and choose a different lifestyle or belief system than that of their parents.
If children of members choose to become adult members of the high demand religious organization that their parents belong to, one would hope that it is because of an individual and well considered decision on their own part. Although their decision should be respected, given the documented intense indoctrination programs implemented by the Family, and the limited exposure to alternatives, the objectivity of this decision must at least be questioned.
Human Rights and Religious Freedom
In a move of incredible irony the Family has claimed leadership in issues of religious freedom.
"Everyone has the right to freedom of thought, conscience and religion; this right includes freedom to change his religion or belief, and freedom, either alone or in community with others and in public or private, to manifest his religion or belief in teaching, practice, worship and observance"—Article 18, Universal Declaration of Human Rights.
Imposing limits on religious freedom will not put an end to religion, whether mainstream traditionalism or unconventional minority beliefs. … But imposing restrictions will make life more difficult for countless believers of every faith. In place of tolerance, we will experience increased bigotry; and bigotry will turn to persecution.
- An Analysis of Struggles for Religious Freedom in The European Arena. The Family, 1997.
The cries of tolerance and respect for their beliefs from the Family when their actions are questioned is almost incredulous when compared with their own human rights record in regards to the religious freedom of the children of their members.
Religious freedom is a basic right we all share. When individuals are derided, accused, shunned, and tormented for their beliefs, their rights are being violated. To condemn the children of Family members for exercising their right to believe as they choose is reprehensible, especially when those most vocal in their accusations, are themselves demanding freedom and respect for their own beliefs.
We all have the right to choose our own beliefs. Those born to members of an alternative religion have the same right as their parents to their own individual way of life. The Family asks that “whether your personal beliefs are the same as ours or not,…stand up against tyranny today” (The Family’s policy statement on Religious Persecution). It would be wise to do as they say, and not as they do.