NASHVILLE, Tenn. (BP)–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. Shamblin is scheduled to lead a one-day workshop Saturday on the campus of Wheaton College in Illinois.
The controversy intensified after Shamblin posted a weekly e-mail communique 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. On Wednesday, Thomas Nelson canceled publication of Shamblin’s new book, Out of Egypt, scheduled to ship 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.”
Thomas C. Oden, professor of theology and ethics at Drew University and former senior editor of Christianity Today, agrees that such a literal argument is ridiculous. He notes that the word evangelism is not in the Bible, yet no serious Christian would deny its validity.
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.
“A few people have been on a witch hunt in the last month,” Shamblin told CT. She likens the controversy to Christian authors holding differing views on “once saved, always saved” teachings.
“People don’t care about this,” Shamblin told CT. “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.”
Yet Oden says Shamblin’s views mirror teachings on modalism and subordinationism rejected as heretical by the early church. As leaders in the early church debated their doctrine of God, some were drawn into the different extremes of modalism or subordinationism. Oden says there are a dozen key passages in Scripture on which the Trinitarian doctrine is based. Modalism overemphasizes the oneness of the Godhead at the expense of the three persons, while subordinationism overemphasizes the distinctiveness of Father, Son, and Holy Spirit at the expense of the oneness of their being.
“In the very early Trinitarian controversies, some people said that God reveals himself first in the form of the Father, second in the form of the Son, and third in the form of the Spirit, so that there are three consecutive modes of God’s disclosure. It’s a denial of the eternity of the Trinity,” Oden says.
“Subordination was judged to be in error in ancient Christian tradition because it neglected the fact that the eternal God who becomes incarnate in the Son is nothing less than God,” Oden says. “In the Incarnation, God submits to our human form without ceasing to be the eternal God.”
Oden says Shamblin fails to comprehend the basic elements of Trinitarian reasoning: “She just doesn’t understand the triune teaching and this puts her in opposition to the ancient teachings shared by Protestants, Catholics, and Orthodox.”
Longtime observers of Shamblin’s writings say they are skimpy on theological specifics. “I was concerned that Gwen doesn’t talk about Jesus much for a Christian,” says Helen Mildenhall, a former Weigh Down Workshop participant in Oak Park, Illinois. “She never talks about Jesus in terms of One with whom she has an ongoing relationship.”
Marriage and family counselor Lynette Hoy, who is director of LifeCare Ministries at Calvary Memorial Church in Oak Park, kept the Weigh Down Diet from being reintroduced at the church after a four-year run. Some participants complained that the program is legalistic, overemphasizes obedience and does not present the gospel clearly, she says. Hoy examined Weigh Down materials and further found an abundance on experiential feelings and a lack of understanding about Jesus’ mission.
Shamblin’s 12-week “Exodus Out of Egypt” weight-loss seminar, which costs $103 per participant, is being held in 60 denominations in 70 countries. In an earlier interview, Shamblin told CT that Weigh Down is successful because it is being judged by its fruits.
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 80 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.”
Carney and another two former Weigh Down employees interviewed by CT express a spirit of love and concern for Shamblin. They are apprehensive about how going public will affect the ministry. “I never wanted to see Gwen or the company destroyed,” Carney said. “I wanted her to get back on track. Now, instead of that happening, it looks like God is moving people away from her ministry.”
At least 40 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.”
It wasn’t until 1998 that Carney felt Shamblin’s message had begun to change from weight loss to condemnation.
“She started referring to grace as a license to sin,” Carney said.
Shamblin was traveling on Friday and unavailable for further comment on recent employee terminations and resignations at Weigh Down.
This story first appeared in Christianity Today Online with additional reporting by Todd Starnes and is used with permission.