A weight-loss program that has been criticized for its controversial health practices now is drawing fire for the questionable theological views of its leader, whose publisher has shelved plans for her next book.
Christians had earlier found fault with the Weigh Down Diet because it places no restrictions on what types of foods participants may eat. Apologists and church leaders are now asking whether founder Gwen Shamblin holds heretical views of the Trinity, based on her comments on the Weigh Down Web site.
Since 1992, Shamblin has taken her business from a garage start-up to a multimillion-dollar Nashville corporation. Her 1997 book The Weigh Down Diet has sold more than 1 million copies. There are 30,000 Weigh Down Workshop locations meeting weekly around the world, including in thousands of evangelical churches.
The controversy intensified after Shamblin posted a weekly e-mail communiqué to her followers on Aug. 10. "As a ministry, we believe in God, Jesus, and the Holy Spirit," Shamblin wrote. "However, the Bible does not use the word 'trinity' and our feeling is that the word 'trinity' implies equality in leadership, or shared Lordship. It is clear that the scriptures teach that Jesus is the Son of God and that God sends the Holy Spirit. The Holy Spirit does not send God anywhere. God is clearly the Head."
Since then, Shamblin has been removed from the Women of Faith Web site, several influential evangelical churches have dropped her program, and some key employees have left. In addition, Thomas Nelson canceled publication of Shamblin's new book, Out of Egypt, which was scheduled to be shipped to bookstores in late September.
"Gwen has touched the lives of untold thousands of people," Michael S. Hyatt of Thomas Nelson told Christianity Today. "We had the joy of publishing Rise Above and seeing it appear on the bestseller list. However, because of the recent controversy created by her doctrinal position we do not feel that we can go forward with this project."
L.L. "Don" Veinot Jr., president of the apologetics ministry Midwest Christian Outreach in Lombard, Illinois, received more than two dozen inquiries about Shamblin from Weigh Down workers and coordinators after the Aug.10 e-mail. Veinot phoned Shamblin after reviewing the Web site, but he says the conversation only confirmed Shamblin's stance that the Trinity is unbiblical.
"When I asked about her statement that the Father and Son are two separate beings, her reply was 'absolutely,'" Veinot says. "Her views are closer to that of Jehovah's Witnesses than anything resembling the historic biblical faith."
Veinot believes Shamblin's religious beliefs avoided scrutiny for so long because of the subject matter she teaches. "Weight loss is not one of the high priorities in apologetics or counter-cult work," he says.
"The material on the Web site makes a distinction between the Father and Son that is heretical," Veinot says. "She is clearly anti-Trinitarian."
In the same Aug. 10 e-mail — which has since been deleted from the Web site — Shamblin tells followers that Christians grieve Jesus if they adhere to doctrines not found in Scripture. "If God wanted us to refer to Himself, Jesus Christ, and the Holy Spirit as the 'trinity,' He would not have left this word completely out of the Bible."
"There are a lot of words that contain biblical concepts that are not in the Bible," Veinot notes. "The word Bible is not in the Bible."
Shamblin says she does not see what all the fuss is about, and that many ministers — from Baptists to Episcopalians — have called to support her. Those pastors who have closed the program down are ineffective because there are other congregations down the street where it is being held, she says.
"People don't care about this," Shamblin told Christianity Today. "They don't care about the Trinity. This is going to pass. What the women want is weight loss. They care about their bodies being a temple and their lives turned over to the Lord. That's what my ministry is about."
Shamblin's twelve-week "Exodus Out of Egypt" weight-loss seminar, which costs $103 per participant, is being held in sixty denominations in seventy countries.
Craig Branch, director of Apologetics Resource Center in Birmingham, Alabama, believes the weekly messages that Shamblin has written on the Weigh Down Web site reflect her Church of Christ background, which he says historically has had an ambiguous view of the Trinity. Branch says the writings reflect an extreme view of lordship, a mixing of works and grace, and a "restoration of New Testament Christianity" movement that relegates other beliefs as apostate.
"My background is Church of Christ and that's where all this came from," Shamblin says, noting that hymnals, for instance, change the words of Holy, Holy, Holy from "God in three persons, blessed Trinity" to "God over all and blessed eternally."
Shamblin no longer is in a Church of Christ congregation, however. She says her husband, David, who started a new church in the Nashville area last year with another couple, is now her pastor. She says he is the "leading shepherd" of Remnant Fellowship, which has about eighty members, many of them Weigh Down employees.
In a related development, Weigh Down faces questions about its handling of employees in connection with Shamblin's theological views and membership at Remnant Fellowship.
Carney Hawkins, a resident of the Nashville area, says she worked for Shamblin and the Weigh Down Workshop for four years. Her first three years at Weigh Down were spent coordinating classes. At the time of her dismissal, she was director of counseling and supervisor over outreach.
Carney said she was fired because of theological differences. "Gwen and I had an ongoing discussion for several months trying to nail down what she believed and what she was saying," Carney said. "To the end, I knew that I couldn't keep my job. She told me I couldn't embrace the message of grace and then she fired me.
"The problem I had is that I came to her in love with questions about what she was teaching," Carney said. "It was very difficult for me. We had been close friends. Those people were my family."
Carney said she wanted to talk to the rest of the staff before leaving Weigh Down, but Shamblin gave orders for no one to associate with Carney.
"Anyone who leaves is labeled a devil," Carney said. "She orders them not to speak or fellowship with those who leave the ministry. There is a spirit of fear."
Carney said the atmosphere at Weigh Down is extremely difficult: "It's very exclusive. There is a lot of fear and there is a lot of redefining of scriptural terms."
At least forty employees have been either fired or resigned since Jan. 1, according to an anonymous source inside Weigh Down. Carney said employees are urged to leave their churches and join the Remnant Fellowship. "The office is under a lot of pressure to be a part of that church," she said. "And some people have been fired for not joining."
As for theology, Carney believes Shamblin is not very clear in what she believes. "I do think that Gwen has some wonderful principles for weight loss. But she teaches that we have to love God first and we have to get God to love us. The Bible teaches that God is the pursuer in the love relationship, not us," Carney said.
"Gwen believes that you had better get things right or you are going to hell."
Editor's Note: At press time, efforts were being made within the Christian community to help Gwen Shamblin understand the error of her stance and restore her to a biblically consistent view of God. We should pray that the Lord, in His mercy, would open her eyes to the triune nature of the Godhead.
Shamblin's Doctrine of God and the Gospel of Jesus Christ
by Steven A. McKinion
Gwen Shamblin's recent denial of the Christian understanding of God as three Persons sharing one Essence undermines Christianity's message of salvation. The gospel is the wonderful account of how God Himself, not merely His representative, came to give Himself for us and for our salvation. What Shamblin's position fails to recognize is that a Savior who is not both fully man and fully God cannot save.
Why is the picture of Christ she presents so unacceptable to a genuine Christian faith? The death of her Jesus is merely an example for us to follow. Scripture, on the other hand, describes how the Word, who is God (John 1:1), became a human being (John 1:14). Christ's death was not simply an example for us, but was the propitiation for our sin (1 John 2:2). To be the mediator between God and man, he must be both God and man. Only God was able to provide the sacrificial death for our redemption, and this was accomplished through God's — not someone else's — incarnation.
In addition, her picture does not allow God to be our Savior. For her, the savior is a lesser divine figure, not God Himself, who came to show us how to live. We owe our gratitude, allegiance, and worship to someone other than God. What has God done for us, in her understanding? Nothing. Her conception of God leads inevitably to a gospel that is works-oriented. In other words, Jesus showed us how to live and we are to follow His example.
The biblical view of God, as He is revealed to us as three distinct Persons sharing one essence, leads to a gospel in which the one true God lived a genuine human life, died a genuine human death, and rose from the dead to offer us salvation. If the Son is not co-equal and co-eternal with the Father, there is no Good News for us to preach.
Steven A. McKinion is Assistant Professor of Church History at Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary, Wake Forest, NC.
Fit 4 Life and Service
Fit 4 is a health and wellness program from LifeWay Christian Resources. In light of the recent events involving the Weigh Down Workshop and it's leader, Gwen Shamblin, Fit 4 Director Branda Polk has responded to inquiries with the following statement:
Fit 4 is a biblically-based and scripturally-sound wellness plan that balances all areas of our lives.
Fit 4 addresses our natural indicators of hunger and fullness and the need to properly fuel our bodies with wise food choices to accomplish the activities that God has designed us to do.
Fit 4 offers proven methods of developing an exercise and active lifestyle routine that keep our bodies strong.
Fit 4 focuses us on loving God with every part of our being as well as loving others as we properly care for our own bodies.
Fit 4 recognizes our uniqueness in Christ in every aspect of life.
Fit 4 has an advisory panel of wellness and theological professionals that have reviewed the resource for sound teaching and accuracy.
Fit 4 teaches a balanced approach between proper nutrition and proper exercise and a method of achieving physical health and does not merely focus on weight loss.
This story first appeared in Christianity Today Online with additional reporting by Baptist Press reporter Todd Starnes.