A biblically based diet swept the country almost ten years ago, boasting a high success rate. But, some are saying the program and its affiliated church are the beginnings of a cult...
According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, more than half of all Americans are considered overweight or obese, making the battle of the bulge a billion dollar business. Millions are dropping big bucks, hoping to drop the pounds.
One diet on the market is based on the bible. It's called Weigh Down Workshop. More than a million men and women have tried the diet seminar. But, for some, it's more than just losing weight. They'll leave the program, with a new lifestyle and new religion. Some are saying the weight loss can come at a price.
The success stories are staggering. Jayne Fiedler weighed more than 200 pounds before Weigh Down.
"I lost 75 pounds in about 2 and a half years," Fiedler boasts. She's kept it off for five years.
Charlie Crosslin has had much success as well. He's lost 300 pounds.
"Nothing is beyong god's power. It's all glory to him," Crosslin explains.
They both say it's thanks to Weigh Down creator Gwen Shamblin.
"Needs were being met. People were losing weight permanantly and you couldn't keep it quiet," Shamblin told NewsChannel 9.
The Weigh Down Workshop spread quickly in the 1990s to more than 30,000 churches. It's now taught in Chattanooga, Dalton & Trenton, Georgia, and Cleveland, Tennessee.
The diet doesn't emphasize exercise- just total devotion to God and the elimination of greed. "So I must be saying something right, because I go in there and say stop lusting after the food and you won't binge. Guess what? It works," an animated Shamblin says.
But this class isn't your ordinary bible study. The program feeds on guilt. In an e-mail sent to followers, Shamblin equates overeating with sin, writing 'people are lusting after it and longing for it and are basically in bed with it.'
"It seems pretty radical to equate eating-- and food in your refrigerator with lusting after sex," Dello Stritto said to Shamblin.
"Is it? Is it," she questioned. "If you were with some of these people they think about it all day. They have a rendezvous with it."
She says that lust will keep you from losing weight and keep you from eternal salvation.
"God almighty the God of the universe says I can't go to heaven unless I lay down greed, that's when I knew I was on to something. And also, that's when, it took fear, the fear of God," Shamblin remembers.
The fear of God is the basis for her start up church called Remnant Fellowship. Weigh Down members formed the core of the congregation. The church-- and Gwen Shamblin-- were thrust into the Christian media spotlight when Shamblin defied the orthodox Christian belief of the Trinity, saying God is above all.
The backlash came from thousands of churches, pulling Weigh Down out of their congregations. Then came the charge from critics: Weigh Down and Remnant Fellowship were the beginnings of a cult.
"The parallels between Remnant Fellowship and Gwen Shamblin's teaching to classical non-christian cults are just chilling," says Christian researcher Rafael Martinez.
Martinez has studied cults for years. Now its Remnant Fellowship catching his attention.
"There's no honorable way to differ with them. You're either with them or your not. You're either black or you're white."
Martinez says cults often see themselves as the only way to get into heaven. The Remnant website warns visitors: beware of so-called 'counterfeit churches.' To Gwen, that means just about any church- your church.
"People who are in these counterfeit churches, the mainstream churches- we're talking about the majority of the people in this country- if they don't see the light so to speak are they going to hell?'" Dello Stritto asked.
"According to Jesus they would," Shamblin said.
Martinez is concerned it's that the remaining mainstream churches help Shamblin's cause, thanks to the Weigh Down Workshops.
Do you look at that program as a way to funnel people into Remnant Fellowship?" Dello Stritto asked Martinez?
"Yes. Absolutely. She's using it as a means to get into churches to find a market."
111 satellite Remnant churches have opened across the country and abroad in just 2 years. "They are using the tactics of deliberate fear, deliberate pressure, deliberate and I think insincere recruiting to get people into the group," Martinez claims.
One man who says he's a former member described the experience in Remnant.
He said, "in a lot of ways, enduring spiritual abuse is somewhat similar to being raped. People don't understand it, they ask you why you endured it, and it is an amazingly intimate invasion of your personhood."
Today, Remnant is still expanding. They're opening a new headquarters in Franklin, Tennessee next year. Shamblin expects plenty of people to help fill it.
"So yeah, this is an uphill battle. And I think you'll see me again. Because, what this does is it stirs up people because I'm questioning the most thing that matters- their church and their salvation. And I'm saying, 'guys, why not take another look at it?' what's wrong with taking a little look?"
Shamblin admits there are some who have left her church, but she said those numbers don't even reach double digits. Shamblin thinks it's a vocal few who are spreading lies about her and Remnant. She points out the Weigh Down program helps people every day and the success stories still pour in.