FRANKLIN — The Remnant Fellowship, a church that grew out of a Christian weight-loss program, preaches obedience and tough discipline for unruly children.
Those beliefs have put the religious movement under scrutiny in a case involving two members accused of beating their 8-year-old son to death last year in suburban Atlanta’s Cobb County.
Last month, investigators raided the Franklin headquarters of the church and weight-loss program, seeking evidence of a connection to Josef Smith’s death.
Authorities say the boy was chronically abused and died from a blow to the head. His parents, Joseph and Sonya Smith of Mableton, Ga., are charged with felony murder, child cruelty and deprivation of a minor.
Remnant Fellowship founder Gwen Shamblin, other church leaders and more than two dozen members would not return phone calls or e-mails from The Associated Press.
However, Shamblin has said church leaders believe in discipline but they don’t sanction abuse. Remnant leaders believe the Smiths’ contention that the boy’s death was an accident and are helping pay for their lawyers.
Church leaders say on a Web site that the media ”have already tried and found this couple guilty. These same individuals are now attempting to associate the teachings of Remnant Fellowship with this unfortunate incident.”
But it’s former Remnant members who are saying church leaders sanctioned severe beatings and locking children in a bare room with a Bible until they learned obedience to God and their parents. Audiotapes made by those former members recorded Shamblin praising such ”showdowns” with children, including the Smiths’ son Josef.
Discipline and obedience are underlying themes of the church’s teachings and of the weight-loss program that Shamblin began in 1986.
The Weigh Down Workshop, held in Christian churches throughout the world, attracted thousands. The diet doesn’t ban any foods but requires eating only when the stomach growls and only until the dieter is full.
”Once you are obedient to God’s rules in the areas of eating (hunger and fullness), you not only lose the excess weight, but you will lose the desire to overeat. … He cares very much about — and is displeased with — overindulgence,” Shamblin says on the Weigh Down Web site.
The workshops made millions of dollars, but Shamblin wasn’t satisfied.
As she traveled the country, she began to believe many churches were condoning sins such as gluttony. She found them to be ”counterfeit” churches worshipping false gods, including sex, money, drugs and self.
”The evidence that multiple gods have stepped into our hearts (the temple of God) is the ever-increasing indulgences and sin in the church,” Shamblin writes on the Remnant Web site.
”Divorce and rebellious children and obesity and the use of drugs and anti-authority and pride and arrogance against His exact wishes have increased over the years.”
In 1999, she founded Remnant Fellowship, which she calls the one true church, choosing the name from biblical passages about God calling together a remnant of true believers.
Remnant claims to have about 130 churches scattered throughout the country, but many consist of a few families meeting at one another’s homes. Franklin members now meet at a Weigh Down warehouse, but a large church is under construction south of town.
Many have moved from other states to join Remnant here and are happy with their choice, as evidenced by a recent Saturday night at a restaurant where about 50 adults and children gathered to support the new piano player, a Remnant member.
Church members also told a couple of interested listeners about miracles they had experienced through the church: tremendous weight loss, reunited families and an intense love of God.
For some, that enthusiasm doesn’t last. Rob and Brenda Herbst of Florida were among the first to join Remnant and became leaders of the fledgling movement.
”She offered me something I had wanted all my life — a perfect church,” said Rob Herbst, who had been a lay minister in a Southern Baptist congregation.
However, he and his wife said they weren’t allowed to associate with their daughter and grandchildren, who weren’t Remnant believers. And they weren’t allowed to question church leaders, particularly Shamblin.
Members weren’t allowed to read material unless Shamblin had written it or listen to Christian music unless it was by her son Michael, Herbst said.
”They were filling your mind with nothing but Gwen Shamblin and her twisted Scripture. Leaders would tell you, ‘You are listening to a prophet from God,’ ” Herbst said.
Last fall, they neared a breaking point when church leaders tried to prevent Herbst from starting a job selling real estate. The final straw, they said, was the Smith boy’s death.
Herbst said he read about the investigation and noticed that Shamblin was lying to investigators about whether glue sticks (long thin rods used in glue guns) were used to beat children to avoid leaving a mark.
”She says that never came from her, but there is not one thing done in Remnant Fellowship that Gwen does not approve of,” he said.
Former members Betsy and Steve Miozzi of Ohio say they were told to advocate such discipline for the child of a local member. Church leaders told them the boy didn’t need medication for his attention deficit disorder.
”Just smack the child 10 times across the back of the thigh. If that doesn’t work, do it again and again, and if it still doesn’t work, put him in a room with nothing but a Bible and leave him there till he obeys or turns 18,” Miozzi said he was told.
On visits to the Franklin church, the Miozzis often saw glue sticks protruding from diaper bags. They were used on children as young as 18 months who fidgeted during the long services, Miozzi said.
”They make you believe if you don’t do it, you don’t love God, you don’t love your child and you can’t be part of Remnant. If you’re not a part of Remnant, you’re going to hell,” Miozzi said.
Six months after leaving Remnant, the Miozzis still struggle with that fear. They have recently begun talking with other former members dealing with the same issues.
Several are being counseled by Rafael Martinez of Spiritwatch Ministries in Cleveland, Tenn., who says Remnant Fellowship is clearly a cult. He says Shamblin tapped into the vulnerabilities of Weigh Down participants and took advantage of them.
”They are as abusive a religious group as any I’ve seen. And I’ve never seen a group get so abusive, so damaging in so short a time,” Martinez said.
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