Lately I’ve been thinking about Paul’s warnings against Christians checking their brains at the door of the church. I’ve been meditating particularly on 2 Corinthians 10. The context is that Paul is defending his ministry and in particular his harsh words for false teachers. He says in v. 4:
… weapons of our warfare are not of the flesh, but divinely powerful for the destruction of fortresses
Cult involvement is dangerous for children. On November 18, 1978, 913 followers of Jim Jones drank poisoned drink mix and died in Jonestown, Guyana (Jones himself died of a fatal bullet to the head). Included in this number were 276 children! On April 19, 1993, 76 Branch Davidians, including 27 children, perished in the flames in Waco, Texas. In June of 2001, Andrea Yates, a follower of Michael Woroniecki, drowned all five of her children, ranging in age from 6 months to seven years old. On March 15 of 2002, Robert Bryant, a Jehovah’s Witness, killed his wife and four children before committing suicide himself. In October of 2003, eight year old Joseph Smith died of what authorities said was a blow to the head. His parents, Joseph and Sonya Smith, members of Remnant Fellowship, were charged with murder. The trial is scheduled to begin next month. Each of these situations were different. However, all of them were tied to religious groups which claimed to be Christian but had departed from, or overtly denied, essential Orthodox Christian teachings. Can we point to any written statements by these groups which explicitly advocates child abuse or even murder? No. Were these acts committed by individuals who didn’t love their children? Again, the answer is no. Was there anything within the group or teachings of the groups to which they belonged that could have contributed to all of these deaths? Put another way, is it possible that these deaths occurred because they loved their children? I believe the answer is, yes. If this sounds like an oxymoron or double talk, that is because we have a difficult time thinking of the death or abuse of a child as something being done for a higher purpose.
I recently watched “Jonestown: Paradise Lost,” a newly made documentary of Jonestown, Guyana, and the events leading up to the November 18, 1978 mass suicide. Although there have been a number of documentaries done about these events, this one introduced an element which I have not seen previously included. It incorporated interviews with Jim Jones son, another survivor and a news reporter who had been there. This provided a unique insider’s perspective. Jim Jones didn’t openly advocate child abuse or murder. While the People’s Temple was a highly abusive cult, where harsh beatings of alleged “miscreants” were publicly administered, it appears from all reports that children were highly valued in Jonestown. One of the big attractions of that cult was their supposed adherence to the ideal that all people were equally valuable, regardless of race, age, sex, national origin or financial station in life. Jim Jones was promoting what he called a “Pentecostal Socialism.” He emphasized the “impending judgment of God upon the world” in order to coerce his hapless followers to stay in line and keep the rules he imposed. The foremost rule was unquestioning obedience to Jim Jones as God’s direct spokesman – to rebel against or even to question Jim Jones was equal to rebelling against God. The second hammer he used against the people was extreme peer pressure. For example, one always had to appear to be happy and contented. To do less betrayed doubts, which led to distrust from the others and pointed reminders of how “protected” they were under the leadership of God’s man.
Jim Jones persuaded his 900 plus followers that the United States was in a state civil war, and that racism was at an all time high. On the fateful day of the mass suicide, he led them to believe that the United States Government had federal troops on the way to capture and abuse them and their children. In their minds, by killing themselves and their children, they were protecting themselves and their 300 children from torture by an evil and satanically possessed government. In their desire to protect their children from the descending evil hordes, they gave them poison laced fruit drink. A few adults had moments of independent thinking, and weakly protested the commanded slaughter, but these few were forced by others to drink the poison or were given deadly injections. However, for the most part, the pressure to conform, and the belief in impending doom persuaded them to doom themselves and their helpless children, who were the first to die in the holocaust.
Similarly, David Koresh had convinced the Branch Davidians that Armageddon was immanent, so although they might perish in the flames they themselves set, they would immediately be resurrected to rule the earth, IF they remained faithful. Unfaithfulness would be eternal loss. In other words, did they want to die voluntarily with Koresh and be raised immediately in great glory, or die immanently anyway and go straight to Hell? The choice was theirs. These parents, who loved their children, kept them to die in order to protect them from what in their minds was an even greater loss.
Jehovah’s Witnesses regularly consign their children to death, due to the organization’s egregious teaching on blood transfusions. The May 22, 1994 issue of their Awake! Magazine has its cover filled with pictures of JW children who have tragically perished because of this teaching. The lead article is titled, “Youths Who Put God First.” The page 2 synopsis proudly states:
In former times thousands of youths died for putting God first. They are still doing it, only today the drama is played out in hospitals and courtroom, with blood transfusions the issue.
As the article progresses we are introduced you a 14 year old named Adrian who has a tumor on his stomach. This will require surgery and the attendant loss of blood which goes with this type of surgery. The surgeon, Dr. Jardine, was fully aware that performing this type of surgery without replenishing the blood supply was potentially deadly. He spent time trying to persuade Adrian but a thoroughly indoctrinated Adrian held the line on the JW teaching and responded:
To disobey God and extend my life for a few years now and then because of my disobedience to God lose out on a resurrection and living forever in his paradise earth – that’s just not smart.
Do JW parents refuse the very thing that will preserve the life of their children because they don’t love them? No, far from it. They choose to endure the pain of losing the child because they have been persuaded that to give the child blood consigns their beloved offspring to be cut off from God forever. The peer pressure from those around them is so great that even a Jehovah’s Witness who has been weak in the past will conform. In essence they allow the child to die because they love them.
And what of Gwen Shamblin and Remnant Fellowship? How does all of this relate to them? Again, I do not think (my opinion) nor do I have any evidence to indicate that Gwen Shamblin and Remnant Fellowship “advocate child abuse or starvation.” That does not mean it may not happen through the law of unintended consequences as the result of her teachings. Some of her followers may do one or both out of fear, fear that their child will be rejected by God for a misstep or for weighing a few pounds more than Gwen claims that God finds acceptable. It may result through fear of peer pressure as others hold up their children as idyllic and they know theirs are less than perfect. The combination of pressures and expectations of the group can lead parents who love their children deeply to harm them greatly. It is a tragedy which only can be averted by the wide dissemination and dedicated teaching of true doctrine in order to counteract the false teachings and the unintended consequences of dangerous religious groups.
“Beware of false prophets who come to you in sheep’s clothing, but inwardly are ravenous wolves.” (Matthew 7:15).
The text of Matthew 7:15-27 was spoken by Jesus. He was a Jewish teacher speaking to a Jewish audience and warning all the listeners to be on guard for false prophets. Being Jewish they all, teacher and listener, had commonly understood definitions for the term “false prophet.” In Deuteronomy 13:1-5 a false prophet was one who made true predictions but led their followers to false gods. In Deuteronomy 18:20-22 the definition was one who made 1 false prophecy. In the Old Testament, living in a Theocracy, false prophets were to be stoned to death. In the New Testament (no longer a Theocracy) they were to be publicly exposed and avoided.
False prophets would look like true believers (come to you in sheep’s clothing). However, what they taught on the nature of God is false. Their fruit in Matthew 7:16-20 is the prophetic utterances and core teachings on the nature of God. In 21-23 He goes on to point out that simply because they use His name and even do seemingly miraculous stuff, they are still false prophets. He might even be regarded as an Anti–fill in the blank as He tells them:
“And then I will declare to them, ‘I never knew you; depart from Me, You who practice lawlessness.’”
Jesus goes on to state that those who hears and acts on His words are wise and on a solid foundation and those who don’t are foolish and have a foundation of sand.
I am reminded of this passage from time to time as I talk with or write about groups that claim to be Christian but deny essential biblical teachings. Invariably they fall back to an emotional plea that I am a “hater,” “religious bigot,” “Anti-” something or other. I, like others who are missionaries to false religious groups hear this quite often and cannot really take it personally. In fact, to some degree we must find the humor in it. For example, I point out that my wife Joy has been called “The Whore of Babylon” so often we call her floozy for short. Most of the groups who make these claims seem to be of the opinion that we are on a personal mission aimed exclusively at them.
This issue was recently raised again by Gwen Shamblin’s attorney, Samuel J. Harris. The unfortunate part is that if I met Samuel Harris under other circumstances we would probably like each other. Like followers of Bill Gothard, Mormons, Jehovah’s Witnesses and so many others, he has resorted to name calling with accusations of “religious bigotry,” “Anti-Remnant crowd,” “blinded by his hatred,” “vitriolic accusations ,” among others. He provides us with his definition of “religious bigotry” in Comment 8 of Gwen Shamblin “Suits” Up:
3. You asked me to define “religious bigotry” and I do so as follows:
Religious Bigotry is the obstinate devotion to one’s prejudices against others who have different religious doctrine and practices.
The dilemma here is that our devotion is to be to Jesus Christ and His teachings. He is the one Who in Matthew 7:15-27 held His doctrines to be the standard by which all others were to be tested. This theme continues after He resurrected Himself ascended in to heaven and then communicated communicated further to and through the Apostle Paul. We find this in the Romans, 1 and 2 Corinthians, Galatians, Colossians, 1 & 2 Timothy, Titus. We also find it in Peter’s & John’s writings as well as Jude. Evaluation, contrasting and comparing the teachings of anyone who rises up and proclaims that what they are saying is from God are to be scrutinized in this way. Samuel also draws on the ever popular “…self-appointed groups who devote themselves to labeling other groups…” in Comment 8 of Gwen Shamblin “Suits” Up.
This is at the very least a mischaracterization. I say this because we are not self appointed. Rather, all believers are “appointed” to “Beware of false prophets.” Jesus Himself said that those who do are “wise” and those who don’t are “foolish.” There is more written in the New Testament on the issue of false teachers and false teachings than nearly any other subject.
In Acts 20:28-31 the Apostle Paul during his meeting with the Ephesian Elders states to them:
Be on guard for yourselves and for all the flock, among which the Holy Spirit has made you overseers, to shepherd the church of God which He purchased with His own blood. I know that after my departure savage wolves will come in among you, not sparing the flock; and from among your own selves men will arise, speaking perverse things, to draw away the disciples after them. Therefore be on the alert, remembering that night and day for a period of three years I did not cease to admonish each one with tears.
In 1 Timothy 1:3 Paul writes to the young pastor:
As I urged you upon my departure for Macedonia, remain on at Ephesus so that you may instruct certain men not to teach strange doctrines,
As he moves through his letter to the young pastor he comes to chapter 4 where he gives the reasons for all that precedes:
But the Spirit explicitly says that in later times some will fall away from the faith, paying attention to deceitful spirits and doctrines of demons, by means of the hypocrisy of liars seared in their own conscience as with a branding iron, men who forbid marriage and advocate abstaining from foods which God has created to be gratefully shared in by those who believe and know the truth. For everything created by God is good, and nothing is to be rejected if it is received with gratitude; for it is sanctified by means of the word of God and prayer.
Jude writes on false teachers in verse 12 & 13:
These are the men who are hidden reefs in your love feasts when they feast with you without fear, caring for themselves; clouds without water, carried along by winds; autumn trees without fruit, doubly dead, uprooted; wild waves of the sea, casting up their own shame like foam; wandering stars, for whom the black darkness has been reserved forever.
Listen to the descriptions, “false prophets”, “savage wolves,” “speaking perverse things,” ” hypocrisy of liars,” ” seared in their own conscience,” “hidden reefs.” Would Jesus, Paul, the Ephesian Elders, Timothy or Jude be considered “Anti-_____” or practicing “religious bigotry”? Of course they would, but only by false teachers and their followers.
The tradition of false teachers and abusive leaders trying to use the government as a club to threaten or crush leaders God has called goes back millennia. We see Sanballat employ the threat of reporting Nehemiah as treasonous and seditious in an attempt to stop Nehemiah (Nehemiah 6:5-7). Haman is another example we read about in Esther 3:7-10. Haman ended up being hung by his own noose. We find in the book of Daniel a similar attempted use of governmental power in Daniel 6:4-9 which ended up landing Daniel in the lion’s den. He emerged unharmed and then the plotters and their families were given their turn as dinner guests in the lion’s den. They didn’t fare as well. Today, particularly in Western nations, it is easier for false teachers to employ the weapon of government than in times past. They don’t need the ear of the king but can simply file a lawsuit against detractors. The Local Church of Witness Lee with the support of CRI attempted this tactic against Harvest House Publishers and authors John Ankerberg and John Weldon. Scientology has used this vehicle for years. Recently a new player has ventured into the arena of trying to silence critics via the courts. In November of 2006 Gwen Shamblin and a number of her followers in Remnant Fellowship filed suit against Anonymous Blogger and Rafael Martinez. No one seems to know who “Anonymous Blogger” is but Rafael Martinez is the Co-Director of Spirit Watch Ministries.
For those who have not heard of Gwen Shamblin, Weigh Down Workshop or Remnant Fellowship a brief overview may be helpful. Gwen was a nutritionist who developed a weight loss plan that she claimed was biblically based. In 1992 she began marketing video tapes of the program and over the next eight years she made her mark in Evangelical churches around the world and across all denominations as well as being a regular in the secular media due to her meteoric rise and accumulation of personal wealth. She had over a million participants at $103.00 per person go through her program in addition to her book sales (Weigh Down Workshop and Rise Above) as well as other WDW trinkets and paraphernalia.
In August of 2000 we at MCOI received a number of phone calls and emails from folks attempting to verify Gwen Shamblin’s view of the Trinity. Since we don’t really track diet programs we hadn’t heard of Gwen Shamblin or Weigh Down Workshop. After looking at her website I called and spoke with Gwen. She was very firm that the doctrine of the Trinity was of pagan origin and taught by false teachers in the apostate church. MCOI issued a press release which within days brought this to the attention of the church. We also pointed out that she had started her own church, Remnant Fellowship. In researching how she was able to infiltrate the church virtually unchecked we began looking at her material. In her “Remnant Fellowship Introductory Video, 2000” Gwen tells the viewer that for 20 years her plan was to sneak in to the back door of the churches:
For the last twenty years I’ve had concerns about the state of the church and my first response was Weigh Down which was a message that sent lordship, total lordship, into the back door really of churches.
We have looked at Gwen’s teachings and claims at some length in our articles, “Weighed Down with False Doctrine” in the Fall 2000 MCOI Journal, “Gwen Shamblin: Weighed and Found Wanting,” in the CRI Journal, “Weigh Down Workshop – A Cult?,” in the Winter 2001 MCOI Journal and “Camping with Gwen: Or Will the True Remnant Please Stand Up?” in the Spring/Summer 2002 MCOI Journal. In addition Rafael Martinez and Spirit Watch have continued monitoring and commenting on Gwen and her movement. He has compiled a great deal of information on his website, Spiritwatch.org in the section titled “About Gwen Shamblin and Remnant Fellowship.” Gwen’s teachings are a matter of public record and in the spirit of 1 Timothy 5:19-20 Gwen and the Remnant Fellowship leadership have been publicly exposed and rebuked. As pointed out, by her own admission she had to sneak in under the doctrinal radar through the back door of the churches and she did so under the guise of a weight loss program. She is very clear that she views all churches except hers as Babylon and the pastors as well as discernment ministries are regarded as false prophets and false teachers.
With her core teachings and beliefs being fairly well known and accessible through the Internet, Gwen is experiencing a more difficult time in growing her church than she did in garnering a following in her weight loss business. Even though she has managed to get a few television appearances recently, interviewers such at Matt Lauer, raise the question of her being a cult leader. Although she laughs it off it would cause concern in the minds of the television audience. Add to that the adverse press which was generated after her followers, Joseph and Sonya Smith who live in Georgia, were arrested and accused of beating their son to death. The results of the trial may prove interesting to the future of Remnant Fellowship.
Along Comes the Lawsuit
Reading the lawsuit is a little intriguing. Most material is about “an anonymous writer/publisher of a website…” The anonymous blogger began blogging in August of 2006. At first they were copying and pasting the writings of an individual from a private online discussion group. They interspersed their own thoughts with this material and used a few cut and paste pieces from Rafael’s writings. The lawsuit was filed on November 6 and by November 28 all of the entries had been removed and instead two links to Remnant Fellowship websites were in place. Anonymous Blogger also posted a long apology to Remnant Fellowship and Gwen Shamblin amidst claims that the devil made her/him do it (visions of comedian Flip Wilson).
As I read through the complaint, it appears that what Rafael is guilty of is living in Tennessee and having an anonymous person quoting portions of his material without his permission or consultation. On page 2 of the “First Amended Complaint” the last sentence of point 1 reads:
Additionally, Plaintiff’s bring an action for defamation by the Defendant Rafael Martinez who writings are related to the postings on the aforementioned website.
Point 4 of the same page declares:
The Defendant, Rafael Martinez, is a resident of the State of Tennessee.
The next several pages cite sample statements from the website and make accusations about “Anonymous Blogger” but it isn’t until we get to point 7 of page 5 that Rafael is brought in to play again with the one sentence:
The Defendant, Rafael Martinez, has written numerous false and hateful statements regarding the Plaintiff’s and their religious beliefs that are related to the postings by Anonymous Blogger.
So far, no examples of his supposed misdeeds are given with the exception of the crime of living in Tennessee. Finally, on page 6 point 16 the document supposedly gives examples of Rafael’s objectionable statements. Point 16 reads:
Defendant, Rafael Martinez, published one or more written false statements that were intended to impeach Plaintiff’s honesty, integrity, virtue, and/or reputation. The false statements expose the Plaintiff’s to hatred, contempt, and ridicule. The defamatory statements include, but are not limited to the following and have the same objective as the aforemention website of the Anonymous Blogger:
The three quotes which follow were not taken from Rafael’s site but from the Anonymous Blogger’s site. Shamblin’s attorney, Samuel J. Harris, is not actually dealing with the truth and/or validity of the statements in context but is charging Rafael on the basis of how someone else may have used or misused them. Even though that is the case looking at them can be helpful:
a. “She won’t tell you about the marriages that have ended, the children who have been starved and the family relationships dissolved directly due to her application of “God’s Rules.”
Even though this is a cut and paste statement it should be demonstratably true in a court of law. There are a fair amount of phone calls and emails that MCOI and Spirit Watch as well as other ministries receive on a fairly regular basis from parents whose adult children have cut off all communication. In other cases they are threatened to have all communication cut off if anything questionable is said about Gwen Shamblin and Remnant Fellowship. In some cases the followers move to Brentwood, TN to be in the “New Jerusalem” as Gwen calls it. In other cases a distraught spouse whose husband or wife has been told to join the group or face divorce calls in desperation. I suspect this is one case that the witnesses who desire to testify will be so numerous that they will have to draw straws in order to determine who will get the opportunity in order to keep it down to a reasonable number. Having this sort of testimony in court documents will also be helpful in demonstrating the truthfulness of these claims from a neutral source.
b. “Furthermore, Remnant Fellowship teachings are dangerous and destructive. Over the past five years, Remnant members have lost dangerous amount of weight, with extreme fasting often advocated (even 14-21 day fasts). Family relationships are often damaged because any family member who tries to convince a Remnant Fellowship member to leave the group is cut off.”
The second part of this has already been commented on but the first part is again a matter of public record. She has stated on a number of occasions that she based her diet theory on the Holocaust. I am fairly confident that Gwen would stop short of saying that Hitler was just running a very successful diet program but she has been fairly clear that at least parts of her ideas are based on the examples of those who lost weight while in the prison camps.
The third is also a matter of public record:
c. “The most disturbing development of Remnant Fellowship’s teachings include its advocacy over the past couple of years of extreme discipline for children raised in the movement, included repetitive and harsh spankings and whippings for children who disobey and do not maintain emotional control.”
Phil Williams of News Channel 5 in Nashville has done some very good work on this as well as other questions on Gwen Shamblin’s teachings. In his stories on the death of Joseph and Sonya Smith’s son Josef, he was able to show that one of the teachings of Remnant Fellowship leadership at that time was the showdown spanking which could last for hours and may include repeated spankings until the child stopped crying. He also points out that Remnant Fellowship members use glue sticks (rods used in glue guns) to punish their children because they inflict a great deal of pain but do not leave marks. The description and confirming sources are cited in Phil Williams report and I won’t repeat them here.
The fourteen count indictment filed against Joseph and Sonya Smith on June 15, 2006 includes beating their son Josef with a glue sticks and locking him in a box among other charges.
Gwen Shamblin and Remnant Fellowship may have gotten themselves in between a rock and a hard place on this one. If they back down it will serve to embarrass her before her followers. On the other hand, if they proceed with the suit against Rafael they will be embarrassed before the court and have the evidence enshrined in the court documents. Rafael’s response makes me smile and I am glad to call him friend. He ends with these words:
So who says Gwen doesn’t believe in Christmas? She sent me an early gift, one I took with humility and rejoicing (Matthew 5:11-12). The unvarnished truth is my defense, as well as the fortress of my One True God in Christ by the Spirit and it will be all established in a way beyond refutation .. thanks to this frivolous opportunism by a cultic movement finding itself increasingly under scrutiny.