The Family International traces its origin to 1968, when a group formed in Huntington Beach to "take the gospel to the hippies of Southern California," according to the Web site www.thefamily.org.
The Children of God dissolved in 1978, and founder David Berg formed a new group, the Family of Love. The name eventually was changed to The Family International, and the group is commonly called "The Family."
Berg, who was called "Moses David," died in 1994. His wife, Maria, has led the group since.
The Family aims to spread Christian-ity. A spokeswoman reached by phone last week acknowledged that the group holds unconventional beliefs — she wouldn't say how — but denied it is a cult.
The group says it has about 10,000 full-time and associate adult volunteers working out of more than 1,100 centers or communities in more than 100 countries. Members estimate they have shared their Christian message with more than 276 million people.
The Family is considered the most controversial group to grow out of the Jesus People Movement in the 1960s, according to the book "Life in the Fam-ily" by James D. Chancellor, who compiled oral histories from Family members.
In 1974, the Children of God began experimenting with a method of evangelism called "flirty fishing," a reference to Jesus saying he would make his apostles "fishers of men."
According to newspaper and book accounts, women would use sex — sometimes for pay — to show God's love, win converts and support the organization. The media dubbed the women "happy hookers for Jesus." The Family says the practice was discontinued in 1987.
The Family's liberal sexuality and materials encouraging and documenting adult-child sexual contact led to allegations of child sexual abuse, according to media accounts in Mexico, the United States and France. France banned the group in 1978 amid charges of sexual abuse.
It is not clear whether anyone in The Family ever has been charged with a crime.
One former member, Miriam Williams, wrote a book on her experiences as a "sacred prostitute" for the group. Williams said in the 1998 book that she and other women in the group used sex "as a lure … to convince the man to ask Jesus into his heart."
Williams' book also cites "victor camps" where teenagers were sent for discipline and schooling, where she said mental and physical abuse took place.
According to internal Family writings, members did admit some child abuse occurred between 1978 and 1986. However, The Family says judicial and academic investigations in the 1990s found it to be a safe environment for children.
Stories of abuse drove some former members in 1999 to set up MovingOn.org, a support and information Web site for ex-members. Current members developed their own site in 2005, MyConclusion.com, sharing their positive experiences with The Family.
Members of The Family include blues slide guitarist Jeremy Spencer, a founding member of Fleetwood Mac. Actors Joaquin Phoenix and Rose McGowan were members during their childhood.