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The rise and fall of Gwen Shamblin, who preached "weight-loss" gospel.

This post deals with eating disorders, suicide and coercive control, and may be triggering for some readers.

With an outrageously coiffed hair-do, more charisma than should be legally allowed and an extremely toxic outlook on thinness and virtue, Gwen Shamblin Lara was the epitome of a cult leader.

Someone who was charming, dogged in her views and determined to preach to anyone who would listen. 

Via her own book, workshop, and church, Gwen was determined to preach that one of the Bible's 'seven sins', gluttony, was gospel truth, allegedly encouraging her church members to fast and starve themselves in the name of religion. 

Watch: The Way Down: God, greed and the cult of Gwen Shamblin official trailer. Post continues below.

Video via BINGE.

Gwen once said: "God has always loved me. What I do in this program is teach people to stop bowing down to the refrigerator and how to bow back down to Him."

Despite Gwen's unshakeable devotion, everything she built soon came crashing down in unexpected circumstances.

Here's everything we know about Gwen, courtesy of BINGE's latest docuseries The Way Down: God, greed, and the cult of Gwen Shamblin.

Gwen Shamblin Lara

Image: Creative Commons.

In college a young Gwen was studying to be a nutritionist. The experience, along with her prior views on eating and body image, prompted her to share a pretty harmful perspective on dieting with the world. 

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Soon came her book The Weigh Down Diet, which suggested that "every time you reach for food, 15 to 20 times a day, run to God instead".

Gwen wasn't the first person to promote these dangerous ideologies. Other books from the 1980s included The Divine Diet, Body by God and What Would Jesus Eat?

But Gwen took it one step further, turning her book into a workshop embedded with Bible studies and lots and lots of shame and starvation tactics in the early to late '90s. It was 'intuitive' eating on the next level. 

In 1999, Gwen's influence grew to an astronomical height. She was doing numerous media appearances, and she wished to create something bigger.

Image: BINGE.  Gwen said in one of her Weigh Down Workshop videos, "Do you not know that your body is the temple of the Holy Spirit? Honour God, with your body. God's church is supposed to be a place where it's pure. But selfish, self-loving and self-centred people have got inside the church and this is the abomination."

And with that sentiment came the birth of Remnant Fellowship Church. 

The origins of the Remnant Fellowship Church.

It is extremely unusual for a religious group of the Christian faith to be led by a woman or to have a matriarchal figure.

That's what makes Remnant Fellowship Church particularly interesting: it was founded by Gwen Shamblin Lara.

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Located in idyllic Brentwood, the wealthiest county in Tennessee, is Remnant Fellowship Church. It still has approximately 2000 church members, and the behaviour expected of these members is "reminiscent of The Handmaid's Tale or The Stepford Wives," says the docuseries.

Former members of the church say it was marketed to them as a way to grow their connection with God. But behind the scenes was a darker motive.

"The faster you lost weight, the holier you are: that was the premise. Also, the fact you must live under God's authority, which for this church, meant follow Gwen. She was the voice from God, the prophet," one former member said on The Way Down

Ultimately, the church continues to be a place where the "leaders are pure, husbands are kind like Christ, women are submissive, and children obey their parents," the website reads.

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Gwen Shamblin Lara's husband.

Gwen's first husband David Shamblin was also one of the founding members of the Remnant Fellowship Church. 

The pair were together from 1978 to 2018.

It was also in 2018 that Gwen decided to divorce David and marry someone new: an actor and country singer called Joe Lara.

Just like Gwen, Joe was charismatic, attractive and thin, which to Gwen, was arguably the most important factor. Her ex-husband on the other hand, was in a bigger body, which of course to Gwen was a contradiction to her brand that she did not want to be associated with.

As noted on The Way Down, the new couple both appeared to have been using one another. Gwen using the image and idea of Joe purely for the show of it, Joe using Gwen to get a leg-up in his music career and become a 'prophet' himself.

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The victims of Remnant Fellowship Church and Gwen Shamblin Lara.

By definition, a cult is a group of people brought together by a common bond or belief that is not mainstream. But it's the definition of an abusive or destructive cult that matches up with Remnant Fellowship and Gwen Shamblin Lara. 

According to the docuseries, members were not allowed to be overweight or depressed. 

They allegedly couldn't be alone or have autonomy. Rather, they must be subservient, worryingly thin and constantly positive. What they must also allegedly do was give their money to the church, in turn, funding Gwen's ego, greed and lust for power. 

Listen to No Filter: When your child has anorexia. A mother's survival story. Post continues after audio.


Something also expected from the church leaders was the obedience of children inside the church.

During the docuseries, former members also alleged they were encouraged to hit misbehaving children. 

And it's evident this advice was implemented. Josef Smith was beaten to death in 2003 by his parents, who were members of Remnant Fellowship Church. Josef was only eight years old.

"One time when I was at the church, Josef's father took his son into the room next door and we could hear the father hitting his child severely. Josef was wailing. All the parents acted as though everything was normal. That was the last time I saw Josef," says a former babysitter on The Way Down

The parents received life sentences for the murder of their child. Although police raided Remnant in 2004 during the investigation, a solid link to the church was never established in the case.

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Many former members have succumbed to suicide as well, others allegedly suffering from the effects of eating disorders, body dysmorphia and anorexia. 

"I was in a very deep depression while at Remnant. Who am I going to talk to?" one former member said in the docuseries. 

Glen and Cary Wingerd also shared the story of losing their daughter Delaney to the church on The Way Down.

"You know to talk to your kids about drink driving, the dangers of drug-taking, how to have safe sex: but you never expect to have to teach them not to join a cult," Glen said.

The death of Gwen Shamblin Lara.

Image: BINGE

On May 29, 2021, there was a small plane crash incident, killing all on board when the plane nosedived into a nearby lake in Tennessee. On board was Gwen Shamblin Lara, her husband Joe, their son-in-law Brandon Hannah and four other church leaders. 

Gwen was 66 years old.

In the wake of Gwen's death, the church is now being run by Gwen's daughter, Elizabeth Shamblin Hannah. 

Interestingly, it has recently been revealed that Gwen left none of her money to Remnant Fellowship Church. Rather her entire estate, now apparently worth approximately $20 million, will be left to her children. 

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The Way Down is currently filming an additional episode to add to its docuseries in the wake of the leader's death, with hopes that more people will now come forward to share their stories of what lurks beneath the surface of Remnant Fellowship Church.

"There is a fuller story to be told," said Lizzie Fox, senior vice president of nonfiction at HBO Max. "We just want to make sure that we can allow enough time for the story to progress and the investigation to pursue some answers and give us time to interview all the subjects."

You can now watch The Way Down: God, greed and the cult of Gwen Shamblin on BINGE. 

For support, information, access to resources or referrals, contact Butterfly’s National Helpline on 1800 33 4673 (8am-midnight, AEST, 7 days a week), email [email protected], or webchat.

If this post brings up any issues for you, or if you just feel like you need to speak to someone, please call 1800 RESPECT (1800 737 732) – the national sexual assault, domestic and family violence counselling service. It doesn’t matter where you live, they will take your call and, if need be, refer you to a service closer to home.

If you or someone you know requires assistance or support contact, Lifeline: 13 11 14, Suicide Call Back Service: 1300 659 467, Beyond Blue: 1300 22 4636, or talk to your GP or health professional. In an emergency call 000.

Feature Image: Creative Commons/BINGE/Mamamia.

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