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Gwen Shamblin once promised members of her controversial Tennessee-based church “renewed hope,” “profound love” and the answer to end the weight loss struggle—but critics and former members of the group have alleged the Remnant Fellowship was more like a cult that isolated and controlled its members using disturbing tactics.
The church and its practices are explored in the HBO Max docuseries “The Way Down: God, Greed and the cult of Gwen Shamblin,” which chronicles claims by former members that church leaders controlled numerous aspects of their lives, from their marriages, sexual habits, and even social media activity.
But just what is Remnant Fellowship?
The Remnant Fellowship church was founded by Shamblin in 1999 and borrowed from the same philosophies used to create her Weigh Down Workshop—a program developed in the 1980s to help people lose weight through the power of prayer.
Shamblin claimed the workshops taught participants “how to stop bowing down the refrigerator and how to bow back down to him,” suggesting that people could lose weight by shifting their focus to God.
She instructed people only to eat when their stomach was growling and to push through cravings by using prayer.
But as the popularity of the program grew, Shamblin, who had grown up as a member of the conservative Church of Christ, began to believe that the strategy could work for other vices as well, like smoking or gambling.
“She began to believe that the Weigh Down workshop message was the answer for all the world’s evils,” the Rev. Rafael Martinez, a cult interventionist, said in the docuseries. “She had the truth. Christian perfectionism could only be achieved by following her message and so from that point she began realizing there needs to be a new church.”
The church was distinctive because it rejected the the traditional Christian notion of the holy trinity — that there is one God in three forms: the father, son (Jesus Christ), and the Holy Spirit — and instead placed the emphasis solely on God and his will.
“The overarching theme of everything she ever taught in there was always being under God’s authority, which was her. Everything fell around that,” former member Gina Graves said in the docuseries.
Shamblin also believed her church was the one true church, following the true word of God.
“I have found God’s church,” she once told her congregation from her stage.
Yet the focus also remained on weight loss.
Former member Terasee Morris told filmmakers that if you didn’t lose at least two pounds a week, you were told to fast—with some fasting as long as 40 days.
“I was told myself that I needed to just quit eating to lose more weight. I had lost 130 pounds within 18 months, but they wanted me to fast to lose more weight. And it’s the faster you do it, the holier you are,” Morris said.
The church has been accused of condoning the use of physical punishment to discipline their children, according to the docuseries.
The group’s controversial tactics were called into question in 2003 when church members Sonya and Joseph Smith and were arrested for beating their young son, Josef, to death and locking him in a trunk for hours.
Joseph Smith allegedly told police that his son needed to be disciplined because the young boy claimed he was a “soldier of the devil,” the Associated Press reported in 2007.
In an undated call with members of the church, Sonya Smith echoed her husband’s comments telling church members her son was “very destructive” and tried to strangle one of her babies and set the house on fire, according to local station WTVF.
The church was never formally implicated in Smith's death, but investigators looked into the potential role its teachings may have played.
“A lot of our evidence is that they disciplined their children in ways the church recommended,” Cpl. Brody Straud of the Cobb County police told The New York Times in 2004. “It’s possible that these two parents took what they learned to the extreme.”
Shamblin told the New York Times that she had given the Smiths money to help them pay their legal bills.
Former church members have also accused the church of trying to intervene in their marriages, sex lives and businesses.
Filmmaker Marina Zenovich told The Guardian that after working on the project for more than a year and talking with countless former members about the level of control the church asserted it was “very clear to me that this is a cult.”
Yet on its website the church proclaims to be a haven for those looking for a more fulfilling and meaningful life, saying it is an “international community of people who are finding renewed hope, profound love and a deep purpose” by putting religion first.
“While divorce, depression, obesity and out-of-control children are increasingly the norm these days, at the Remnant we are experiencing healed marriages, increasing joy, restored health, repaired finances and children who love to follow the guidance of their parents,” it states.
Although Shamblin is no longer at the helm of the church after dying in May in a small plane crash along with her husband Joe Lara and five other church members, the organization still continues to profess that its roots remain in Shamblin’s “Bible-based teachings” and “Weigh Down Ministries.”
Church leadership declined to be interviewed for HBO’s “The Way Down” but did issue a statement to filmmakers just weeks before the docuseries premiered, calling many of the accusations within the series “absurd” and “defamatory.”
“Remnant Fellowship categorically denies the absurd, defamatory statements and accusations made in this documentary,” they wrote. “Our Christian beliefs, like hundreds of other churches in the United States, are Bible-based, and our church is a place based on love, care, mercy, and kindness shown to people from all walks of life.”
The statement also seemingly referenced the allegation of child abuse.
“Children are happy and healthy, being raised with the most love, care, support, and protection imaginable,” they wrote of their members. “Thousands have said that their lives have benefited from the mere-Christianity message of Remnant Fellowship and the Weigh Down Ministries, but we know that there is no one message that can ever please everyone.”
Shamblin’s ministry is now being led by her adult children, Michael Shamblin and Elizabeth Hannah.
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