“I had the big shoulders; I had the big hair. I loved the ’80s. It was all about power women.” Jeannette Walls
I am anticipating publishing at least three posts on this subject. Today I will barely scratch the surface.
Today, I want to give an overview of Gwen Shamblin Lara’s Weigh Down Workshop and her “only perfect church” known as The Remnant. I will be drawing on several resources, not the least of which is a couple who were members of The Remnant for 20 years and recently left the church two years ago, around the time of Lara’s death in an airplane crash. The documentary The Way Down: God, Greed, and the Cult of Gwen Shamblin and this made-for-TV movie Gwen Shamblin: Starving for Salvation provided much information. However, as I am learning, they merely scratch the surface of a complicated story.
Here is an overview from Wikipedia on the start of Shamblin’s “ministry.’
Lara started with a good education in the area of diet and nutrition.
Lara earned an undergraduate degree in dietetics and a master’s degree in food and nutrition with an emphasis in biochemistry from University of Tennessee, in Knoxville. She was a registered dietitian, consultant and a faculty member at Memphis State University for five years. She also worked in the city’s Tennessee Department of Health for five years.
Her religious upbringing was in the church of Christ. These churches are known for believing that baptism is necessary for salvation and for not allowing any instruments during their services. Max Lucado is one well-known member of that denomination.
In her personal life:
She had two children. Her daughter would go on to lead the current Remnant Church after the death of her mother.
Lara struggled with weight in college and came up with a weight loss plan which, in itself, was not unique,
Lara began a weight control consulting practice in 1980. She had struggled with her weight in college.She counseled that genetics, metabolism, and behavior modification did not explain why some people were thin while others were overweight. Lara founded the Weigh Down Workshop, a weight-loss program with no food restrictions, exercise regimens, weigh-ins, or calorie-counting in 1986.
In discussions with the couple I will introduce on Wednesday, I learned she was also responding to the well-known epidemic of obesity in the US. Her obsession with weight control would eventually morph into a critical component of her supposedly perfect church, The Remnant. It would become the raison d’être or the nidus of sin, of her church, something that surprised me.
Her weight loss plan was simple: portion control. Cut food intake in half and only eat when truly hungry.
Gwen was charismatic, speaking convincingly of her growing Weigh Down Workshop, which incorporated the Christian faith into the program. Lara was soon making bank with her scheme.
This thing took off as Lara incorporated video and audio tapes.
Lara developed Weigh Down Workshop while working on her master’s degree at Memphis State University.
…The program was offered as small classes in retail and non-religious settings. She began hosting the program at Bellevue Baptist Church near Memphis in the 1990s. The program consisted of 12-week seminars guided by video and audio tapes featuring Lara.
The program was offered in about 600 churches in 35 U.S. states by 1994. The program was in more than 1,000 churches in 49 states, Great Britain and Canada by January 1995. The program had grown to about 5,000 churches, with about 10 percent located in Lara’s home state of Tennessee, by July 1996.Approximately eight churches in Britain were hosting workshops in December 1996.
Shamblin/Lara used the Dave Ramsey approach: push it to churches.
Lara spoke of transferring one’s love of food to God. Bible studies were part of the program. I knew of several churches in Dallas that offered her program. One friend in Raleigh told me she had lost 100 pounds in the program. It was the perfect marketing tool: Get thin by leaning on Jesus. What could go wrong?
In 2001, local (Tennessee)media began to ask questions about her finances.
Lara made some claims that the media found questionable.
Lara was criticized for using the Christianity label while building her business. In 2001, Nashville CBS affiliate WTVF investigated how Weigh Down Workshop leaders spent money. Lara said half the proceeds from Weigh Down Workshop were paid as taxes and the other half were put back into the program.
In 1996, Lara pivoted and started her own church.
Here’s where it starts to get interesting. Lara had a huge following of people who had lost weight with her plan and couldn’t get enough of her teaching.
In the meantime, it appears that Lara began to think of herself as a prophet or Christian leader. It seems she decided that people were backsliding on their diets because they were not perfectly sold out to God.
She bought land in the Tony, exclusive town of Brentwood, TN.
Shamblin had preached that members should give their money to the Remnant Fellowship church, the only true church, and that all other churches were fraudulent. Upon her death in 2021, it was found that Shamblin’s will left none of her multimillion-dollar fortune to the church.
In the meantime, the money from Weigh Down kept rolling in until…
Lara denied the doctrine of the Trinity in 200O.
This should have been a warning to the embers of her church. Hank Hannegraff once said something to the effect of:
Every heresy begins with a misunderstanding of the nature of God.
The Baptist Press describes her newly found belief as this:
“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.”
At this point, it is clear that although she had some training in dietetics, she had not been trained in understanding the Trinity. I know a group of Lutheran 6th graders who could have pointed out her error.
Shamblin/Lara set herself up as the leader of this church. She now had money and power.
Although she espoused several complementarian beliefs, her elders were the typical “yes” men we have seen in many of our stories.
At this point, we will get a personal view of the practices inflicted upon the faithful. Let’s take a look at one example.
For years, Shamblin preached against divorce. As we will see, abused spouses were told to stay with their abuser. That changed in 2018 when Shamblin met Joe Lara and ditched her marriage of 40 years to marry this would-be actor who once played Tarzan in Tarzan in Manhattan. Totally grade B, but Shamblin was smitten. Suddenly, the doctrine changed, and divorce was allowed.
My husband walked by and asked, “What’s up with the hair?” I replied, “The higher the hair, the closer to God.” Joking aside, the evolution of Shamblin from a good-looking, normal-appearing woman into a woman who appears to be denying her age is notable. Perhaps it was her way of standing out from the crowd. Her hair stayed the same until her death.
Joe Lara fancied himself a good pilot. According to Wikipedia:
According to the documentary, some questions arose regarding Lara’s capabilities when the day became cloudy. However, Todd is an expert on this stuff, and I shall turf it to him.
Her will left nothing to the church.
The Remanat still exists. It is supposedly run by Lara’s daughter, who, according to some, rarely attends the church. People are still getting hurt, and families are being torn apart. They have videos and audio of Lara, which can last a lifetime. Join us on Wednesday when I introduce a couple who were devoted to The Remnant until about two years ago.
I have barely touched on the unique features of this cult. Get ready for much, much more. I knew Lara had died, but I had no idea this group was still functioning. They apparently have devoted followers all over the world. It’s time to open the windows and let the light shine in.