Church Lady of Diet Weighs In On Trinity and Her Flock Flees

The Wall Street Journal/October 30, 2000
By Jeanne Dugan

With a diet based on the Bible, Gwen Shamblin taught people how "God can transform their hearts and minds so that they can rise above the magnetic pull of the refrigerator." The Nashville surgeon's daughter rolled her program into 36,000 churches around the world, espousing a simple philosophy: "God loved brownies." Eat what you want -- just eat less of it.

A 45-year-old dietitian, she published two best-selling books and produced videos on the method that she used to lose 50 pounds after countless diets had failed. "Dieting is the reason this nation is obese," Mrs. Shamblin asserts. "It forces you to focus on food. And you fall in love with what you focus on."

Now, lots of people are focusing on Mrs. Shamblin, but with anger in their hearts.

What has them cross: e-mail to 40,000 people on Aug. 10, in which Mrs. Shamblin disavowed the Trinity, the Christian belief that the Father, Son and Holy Spirit are united in one Godhead. She also invited people to the Remnant Fellowship, an 80-member nondenominational church she and her accountant husband had formed.

Almost overnight, what slimmed down fastest were the ranks of Mrs. Shamblin's Weigh Down Workshop followers. Thousands of churches that embraced Mrs. Shamblin in their battle against gluttony have dropped the program. "Ten or 15 pastors are calling every day telling me they no longer want me," she laments, speaking a mile-a-minute from her headquarters outside Nashville. A religious publishing house, Thomas Nelson, canceled her new book. And workers in her warehouse say they are taking back more of her products than they are sending out.

"She made all this money by deceiving all of us into thinking she was one of us," says Pam Sneed, a volunteer coordinator who three months ago had happily paraded onto the stage at the annual convention of Mrs. Shamblin's adherents, along with dozens of other thankful souls who said they had lost 100 pounds or more through her program.

This month, the spat got messier. Four former employees filed a religious-discrimination lawsuit against her company in county court in Franklin, Tenn., alleging that they were fired for refusing to embrace Mrs. Shamblin's theological views and to attend her church. Mrs. Shamblin acknowledges that 25 of her 90 workers departed recently through attrition over the last two years. She says that in eight years she has dismissed only about six people, for insubordination or dissension. She says claims in the lawsuit are "fabricated."

Her Trinity message was cut-and-pasted around the world in seconds. Now, there are several Web sites devoted to the "Trinity Controversy." While some pastors have supported her, many churches have posted denouncements online.

Ground zero of the detractors' mission is the Midwest Christian Outreach Center, a big Chicago support group that encourages people to leave cults. Says Don Veinot, the group's director: "After speaking with Gwen and finding her theology to be greatly in error, we set about spreading the word via e-mail lists and radio broadcasts." Volunteers sent out thousands of anti-Weigh Down packages.

Mrs. Shamblin cooked up the idea for Weigh Down after failing at diet upon diet in the 1980s, while working, she says, "as a registered dietitian, in a hairnet, on the bottom rung of a hospital." She began observing how skinny people were eating and says she noticed that many of them left half the food on their plates. She tried it and it worked for her.

She didn't exercise, count calories or cut out fats or carbohydrates. She just ate less. She began promoting the program in 1992 in doctors' offices and retail outlets. "Women came to me and said this belongs in the church," she says.

In eight years, Weigh Down became the biggest in a wave of Bible-based diets. It now operates in 70 countries and 60 denominations. Groups of five and more meet weekly, mainly at churches. They pay $103 apiece for a 12-week workshop, including workbooks.

"Diets made God look stupid," Mrs. Shamblin asserts. "He was the chef behind lasagna. He loves sour cream. He was not happy that broccoli became righteous while Haagen Dazs became sin."

Mrs. Shamblin's stature grew rapidly in 1997, when Doubleday published "The Weigh Down Diet," which sold more than a million copies. Then last year, Mrs. Shamblin, her husband, David, and another couple started what she calls an "itty bitty" church at the Shamblins' home in the affluent Nashville suburb of Brentwood.

Soon, she was holding Bible-studies classes at her headquarters. This year she opened a Remnant Fellowship parish there. Some employees said that was when they learned that Mrs. Shamblin didn't share their belief in the Trinity. Mrs. Shamblin says a correct statement of her view is that Jesus is her God and Savior but subordinate to God the Father.

One of the ex-employees who is suing in Tennessee, Tonya Cardente, alleges that she was fired after refusing to convey to callers Mrs. Shamblin's beliefs and after refusing to join the Remnant Fellowship. "Some people have to be sacrificed for the benefit of others," she says Mrs. Shamblin told her. Mrs. Shamblin says that isn't true but refuses to discuss specific departures.

Shortly after her public testimony about losing 100 pounds, Mrs. Sneed, 39, confronted Mrs. Shamblin about her other unorthodox view that salvation isn't achieved through God's grace alone but requires effort and repentance. "I asked her: 'When I was 254 pounds, are you telling me I wasn't a child of God?' She said: 'That's right.' "

Mrs. Shamblin says that, indeed, she believes that people who constantly rebel against God's wishes are not going to be saved. "Grace does not go down into the pigpen," she says.

Of her controversial Trinity e-mail, contained in her weekly missive to followers, Mrs. Shamblin says she simply stated what she had learned as a girl from her father, an elder in the Church of Christ. "I've been saying this for eight years," she says. "They thought I was talking about weight loss -- but it was so much more."

Helen Mildenhall, another Weigh Down success story who was angered by the message, surfed online to find churches sponsoring the program and began e-mailing and calling hundreds of them. When Moody Church in Chicago heard from Ms. Mildenhall, it dropped the program. Lifeway Christian Stores and Christian Book Distributors returned her books to the publishers. The Lutheran Church-Missouri Synod denounced her theology on its Web site. Brethren Church, a denomination based in Ashland, Ohio, revoked its support.

Outside Chicago, Willow Creek Community Church, which bills itself the largest in North America, recently broke the news to 17,000 parishioners that it would cancel the Weigh Down Workshop. "Some people were like, 'whatever' -- I just want to lose weight," says Judson Poling, a church staff member, taking a sip of Slim Fast.

Mr. Poling asked her in a letter to recant. No way, retorts Mrs. Shamblin, who says she has only pure intentions: "I am not a savvy businessperson. I'm just a dumb blonde with a genuine heart for God, who found the golden product that everyone wanted."

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