Each Sunday morning, Kent and Regina Smith convert their spacious living room in Norman, Oklahoma, into a gathering spot for a controversial new religious movement, Remnant Fellowship.
In just two years, the movement, which Weigh Down Workshop author Gwen Shamblin founded in Nashville, has spread to about 90 sites nationwide. In 2000, thousands of church leaders canceled Weigh Down classes after Shamblin publicly rejected the doctrine of the Trinity (CT, Oct. 23, 2000, p. 15), but her movement continues to grow.
The Sunday morning service at the Smiths' comfortable brick home on Norman's northwest edge began with singing "Refiner's Fire" and "Rebuild the Wall," which hold special meaning for fellowship members. They see themselves as the fulfillment of Ezra 9:8-9, in which God is said to leave a faithful remnant to rebuild his sanctuary.
They also sing a revised version of a hymn, "Holy, Holy, Holy," more in accord with Shamblin's anti-Trinitarian theology. Rather than "God in three persons, blessed Trinity," fellowship members sang, "God over all and blessed eternally."
'The food idol'
After worship, a fellowship member called a phone number in Nashville. All Remnant branches listen to Shamblin preach over a speakerphone at least once a week. On this summer Sunday, she was traveling on the Rebuilding the Wall tour. At Rebuilding the Wall events, Shamblin has said overeating is idolatrous self-worship. She said the modern Christian church has become the "great prostitute" by bowing to the idols of food, money, sexual lust, and television.
The speakerphone is fuzzy this time, so after a minute, the Smiths hang up. They continue by teaching from Shamblin's books, which they know well.
The Smiths started their Remnant Fellowship branch in September 2000, after Kent lost 45 pounds and Regina dropped 60 pounds using Weigh Down methods. The startup cost was $25. The group has grown to include relatives, friends, and coworkers, and no one is overweight.
Smith, 39, a pharmaceutical salesman, read from the Bible and encouraged everyone to share their thoughts on the passage. The informal service lasted more than two hours. "Remnant people have no passion in their heart except for God," Kent Smith told CT. "We want to be the new Jerusalem."
"We used to worship food and money," Regina Smith said. "People in this room have laid down the food idol and lost 50, 75, and 100 pounds."
Remnant Fellowship members in Norman spend much of their free time together. After the Sunday morning service, they went out for lunch. Sunday evenings they gather for a barbecue. Men and boys attend a Monday evening discipleship meeting and a Wednesday evening Bible study, both involving teleconference calls to Nashville. Women attend a Weigh Down Bible study on Wednesday. On the next Saturday the group traveled en masse to a nearby lake for recreation.
Ted Anger, 33, director of marketing for Remnant Fellowship, told CT that the group has 600 members. "The vast majority in Remnant Fellowship come from churches where sin has been allowed, coddled, and not confronted," he said.
Smith did not call Shamblin a prophet. "We don't exalt a person," Smith said. "But we do believe that Gwen has a definite gift from the Lord for bringing forth the Word so that people will repent of their sins." Shamblin declined to be interviewed.
Shamblin has "lost some of her followers, but a lot of people still love her because of the weight loss messages," says R. Marie Griffith, author of the forthcoming book Born Again Bodies: American Christianity and Disciplines of the Flesh.
"Her critiques of the church being overly therapeutic resonate with a lot of people who want a stricter theology," said Griffith, a religion researcher at Harvard Divinity School. "Gwen seems to have her life together, she's beautiful, and her children are out there with her. Subconsciously, people want to be like her."
There is already a growing group of Remnant Fellowships dropouts. Don Veinot Jr., president of Midwest Christian Outreach in suburban Chicago, has met with Christians who left their churches to join Remnant but who are now alienated from Shamblin's movement.
Veinot told CT, "Most pseudo-Christian movements have this arrogant tendency—the propensity to find themselves or their perceived enemies in every passage of Scripture, while losing the gospel of Christ along the way." Veinot said Shamblin appeals to hurting individuals who have failed at losing weight and are deeply unhappy with their church.
Veinot described Shamblin's teachings as "the Jesus-plus plan," meaning she teaches that Christ died for a person's sins, but "total obedience" after conversion is needed to keep one free of sin and confident of salvation.
Thomas Robinson, senior pastor of the Manhattan Church of Christ, New York City, allowed Weigh Down classes at his church in 2001. Church members Adam and Maria Brooks coordinated the classes after attending a Rebuilding the Wall seminar.
Adam Brooks believed Shamblin gave him an important assignment: Warn his church elders to deal with the sin in their church or face God's wrath. The group met with Robinson and the elders.
Robinson said he had not monitored Shamblin's journey from weight control to extreme discipling. "There is a kind of graceless legalism at the heart," Robinson said.
About a year ago, Robinson canceled all Weigh Down gatherings at the church and dismissed Maria Brooks as his secretary. Three couples, including the Brookses, quit the Manhattan Church of Christ.
In spite of his attraction to Shamblin's teachings, Adam Brooks still had reservations about joining Remnant. Brooks said he began asking questions about her doctrine, and he said leaders later banned him. The other two couples, though, joined Remnant and moved to Nashville.
In the end, Adam and Maria Brooks decided to backtrack. They apologized to Robinson, to their elders, and then to the entire congregation.
'Seeds all over'
J. Gordon Melton, director of the Institute for the Study of American Religion in Santa Barbara, California, believes Shamblin's relentless focus on overweight Christians continues to inspire a powerful following. Melton also said Shamblin's marketing savvy strongly benefits her bottom line. At Rebuilding the Wall events, Remnant leaders sell everything from charm bracelets to T-shirts, with the profits supporting the movement. The movement has also started a publishing arm.
Melton believes Remnant is destined to grow because Shamblin already has a national network set up through her Weigh Down classes. "She has what amounts to seeds all over the country," Melton said. "With so many people scattered across the nation, this is going to grow quickly."
Veinot also thinks Remnant Fellowship could become a sizable movement. Weigh Down still offers all of Shamblin's seminars, but now leaders often teach Weigh Down classes at Remnant sites or in their homes.
In the Seattle area (where Shamblin spoke at a Rebuilding the Wall event on Nov. 9), 27 Weigh Down groups meet regularly, according to Weigh Down's website.
Harvard's Griffith is not yet convinced Remnant Fellowship will grow into a major religious movement. "Many people are uncomfortable about her, even if they like the stricter message," Griffith said. "They find her authoritarianism grating."
Veinot, however, noted that Shamblin has apparently weathered the earlier controversy and now shows potential to expand her influence. "Christians have short-term memories. There was good exposure awhile back on Gwen, but now she's under the radar."
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The Apologetics Index has resources on Shamblin and her Weigh Down workshops.
Previous Christianity Today stories about Shamblin include:
Shamblin Faces Religious Discrimination SuitFormer employee files charges against Weigh Down founder. (Oct. 13, 2000)
Christian History Corner: Weighty MattersGwen Shamblin's teachings sound an awful lot like some in the early church—and not in a good way. (Sept. 22, 2000)
The Weigh Is NarrowAs former employees claim they were pressured to join Shamblin's church, the Weigh Down Workshop leader attempts to clarify her stance on the Trinity. (Sept. 15, 2000)
Gwen in the BalanceThomas Nelson cancels book contract with Weigh Down author over her controversial comments rejecting the Trinity. (Sept. 8, 2000)
The Weigh & the TruthChristian dieting programs—like Gwen Shamblin's Weigh Down Diet—help believers pray off the pounds. But what deeper messages are they sending about faith and fitness? (Aug. 25, 2000)
'Judge Us by Our Fruits'The founder of Weigh Down responds to her critics. (Aug. 25, 2000)
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