RNB Clippings: Praying to Be Thin

“RNB Clippings” is a collection of clippings, snippets, links, commentary and other items that, in one way or another, relate to the topics normally covered in Religion News Blog.

Today, a look at an article that shows how a popular diet program turned into a recruitment tool for what experts consider to be a cult of Christianity.

In an insightful feature article written for the January, 2007 issue of SELF Magazine, Melba Newsome revisits Gwen Shamblin’s popular Weigh Down workshop – and discovers that the diet program’s religious message has taken on ominous overtones:

I consider myself more spiritual than religious, taking the parts of Christianity I like and leaving the rest. So while Weigh Down’s overtly religious message wasn’t for me, its practical approach got results: In 2002, I started an eight-week class through a church near my home in North Carolina and lost 10 pounds in about a month. My hectic schedule caused me to drop out midway through, but I never forgot the basic principles. When Weigh Down began offering a new online class in 2005, I plunked down $125 for the eight-week Exodus Out of Egypt: The Change Series. The name symbolizes the deliverance of God’s chosen people from slavery (the bondage to food and dieting) to the promised land (being permanently thin).

This time, I noticed stark differences in the program. Weight loss advice was overshadowed by rhetoric implying that overeaters are courting eternal damnation. In class videos, Shamblin was self-righteous, her tone dictatorial. Gradually, I realized that Weigh Down had become a recruitment tool for the church Shamblin founded in 1999. My online class leader stressed the need to leave the “counterfeit” church and its false teachers. “You’ve been lied to all your life,” she posted during one session. I stopped short of replying that she didn’t know me and had no idea what I had been taught.

But Shamblin’s new message is resonating: Approximately 1,200 people have heeded her call to join Remnant Fellowship. Close to 650 of them have left their home and relocated to be nearer to Shamblin’s multimillion-dollar estate in Tennessee, some pulling their children out of schools and cutting ties with friends and family. These developments have prompted some religion experts to worry that Remnant has become more cult than church, a place where obedience is measured in the amount of food left on your plate and righteousness in the number of pounds lost.

“They are hierarchical, authoritarian and demand unquestioned submission,” says Raphael Martinez, a minister in Cleveland, Tennessee, who runs Spiritwatch Ministries, which tracks religious and social fringe groups. Members are not pressured to give up their money, nor are they armed or separatist in the manner of the most notorious sects. Nevertheless, Martinez says, “Remnant claims to be the only true church and exercises intrusive, damaging and manipulative control over its members.”

You may recall that Shamblin and 66 other members of Remnant Fellowship recently filed a lawsuit against an anonymous blogger and against Rev. Rafael D Martinez of Spiritwatch Ministries.

In our comments on the lawsuit we note:

In recent years, Shamblin has been in the news for her adamant rejection of the doctrine of the Trinity – one of the central doctrines of the Christian faith.

Shamblin is the founder of Remnant Fellowship, a church movement that – due to its rejection of a key doctrine of the Christian faith – must be considered to be, theologically, a cult of Christianity.

Sociologically, Remnant Fellowship has cultic characteristics as well. … [Note the differences between sociological and theological definitions of the term ‘cult’]

In her article, Melba Newsome refers to the start of the theological conflict between Shamblin’s views and those of Biblical Christianity:

Then, in an e-mail to followers in 2000, Shamblin caused a firestorm. Jesus is not one with God, she wrote, and God holds authority over Jesus and the Holy Spirit. Christians call this view heretical: She had denied the existence of the Trinity, one of the core tenets of the faith. The controversy prompted her publisher to cancel her third book. Christian bookstores returned The Weigh Down Diet, and churches canceled classes. Shamblin says she viewed the rebuff as religious persecution-and confirmation of her calling. “I feel like God has placed me as a go-to person, a kind of a pioneer. There are always going to be attacks on me … they killed Jesus, they killed Peter, they killed Paul. What they’ve tried to do is kill my reputation:” Unless we repent our gluttony and never overeat again, her philosophy seems to say, we are doomed to hell. This graceless message has widened the gap between her and the mainstream Christian community, where salvation is a gift from God-not something you earn by going from a size 14 to a 4.

Newsome also quotes cult expert Steve Hassan:

Steven Alan Hassan, a mental-health counselor in Somerville, Massachusetts, and author of two books on cults, says Remnant fits his definition of a cult because it attempts to control members’ behavior, information, thoughts and emotions.

That is a reference to the BITE model Hassan developed to help people understand the process of mind control.

The full article, in which current and former members of Remnant Fellowship are quoted, can be read in the January, 2007 issue of SELF magazine. It will also be published in international editions of Vogue and Glamour. The author, Melba Newsome, is currently working on her first book, a biography of 1930’s African-American screen and stage star, Fredi Washington.

• Learn more about Remnant Fellowship
• Learn more about the cult’s lawsuit against two of its critics
Gwen Shamblin/Remnant Fellowship news tracker & news archive

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Religion News Blog posted this on Wednesday January 17, 2007.
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