Thursday, February 2, 2012

Remnant Fellowship and Their History of Advocating Abusive Child Discipline Practices: In Loving Memory of Young Josef (yet another casualty)

Gwen Shamblin and Remnant Fellowship

Many may be familiar with the WeighDown Workshop books and seminars by dietician Gwen Shamblin, but some may be unfamiliar with the cultic church system she founded in Tennessee in 1999 called Remnant Fellowship. 

The primary focus of her weight loss message involved praying and seeking consolation from God rather than turning to food for comfort and physical satisfaction. For the Christian, this basic principle seems quite reasonable on the surface, but Gwen eventually took things much further. Within Shamblin's developing system and philosophy, she subtly establishes her principles of weight management as perfectly synonymous with following God in the same way that Bill Gothard insists that his extrabiblical teachings are also non-optional mandates which the faithful Christian must follow in order to be acceptable to God. She also developed an excessive focus on her preferred version of an authority structure with harsh consequences for those who fail to comply, also in the same ways that Gothard focuses on authority and consequences.


Why are there so many striking similarities between the dynamics of Gwen Shamblin's religious system and those taught by Bill Gothard and other aberrant groups? When you try to manage life through what the Apostle Paul described as the “works of the flesh,” because those tendencies and pitfalls of human control are common to all people, we see common outcomes when people use the flesh to manipulate others. When those common means are carried into the human effort of dominating, maintaining, and controlling a group of people, those pitfalls of fallen human nature described by the Apostle Paul shine through in predictable ways, too. David Henke describes them through the dynamics of Spiritual Abuse. Robert Lifton observed them and and described them as thought reform. The traits of humanity are common, and those common features result in common and predictable dynamics. But, sadly, Gwen Shamblin's system doesn't just share common features with only Gothardism.

In 1999, Shamblin and her husband founded their own church called Remnant Fellowship which they first held in one of the Weigh Down's (WD) warehouse facilities, and she recruited WD employees to attend. She then began to recruit through the WD conferences and speaking engagements, eventually developing a group of small home churches. By 2002, she'd fostered between 70-100 small cell group type churches (mostly in the US), with a formal total number of 450 attendees. 

Like other aberrant, elitist, and fear-driven Christian groups, Gwen developed non-orthodox doctrine of the Trinity which cast the Divine Persons in an authoritarian hierarchy structure, but unlike the Eternal Subordination of the Son Doctrine of Complementarianism, her concept did not concern gender. And like so many aberrant evangelical Christian systems of this type, Gwen's Remnant Fellowship also soon manifested the legalistic dynamics as members felt the effects of spiritual abuse. And what unfortunate practice tends to follow from these evangelical groups that are obsessed with hierarchy-dependent authority, discipline, and piety? We tend to see prescriptive child discipline methods.

On Spiritwatch.org, Adam and Maria Brooks write in A Brief History and Dire Warning:
More recently, some disturbing trends are beginning to manifest in the rearing of children within the group. The same standards of total obedience to authorities are applied to the youngest of children as well as adults. [Blog host note: The group required children to follow an hierarchy based on age, so that younger children were required to obey any child who was older than they were.]

Children may be disciplined for the slightest of infractions, and are expected to demonstrate complete control over their emotions and their diets. Children are expected to sit through hours long worship services without any fidgeting or demonstrating inattentiveness. Needless to say, this could have long-term deleterious effects on a child’s well being. Over the past year, Remnant Fellowship Nashville has begun hosting children’s camps to which the parents of all Remnant Fellowship branches are encouraged to send their children. The goal of this camp is, among other things, to raise the level of discipline to which the children are accustomed and shape their behavior to be more in line with group norms.

The Death of Josef

The aggressive discipline practices taught and followed at Remnant Fellowship contributed to the death of eight year old Josef Smith according to the oral traditions and the unwritten rules followed within the community of churches. The mother of the child contends that she diligently or “exactly” followed the plan of discipline recommended to her by the leadership at the church when she approached them for advice. Young Josef died as a consequence of asphyxia and blunt force trauma to the head in his Atlanta, GA home in October 2003. He was severely and chronically beaten, confined in a closet, and restrained in a 2ft x 3ft wooden box which was tied shut with extension cords. Much like the Pearl Method and some of the discipline practices within some of the Independent Fundamentalist Baptist churches, former members and even the sitter for the child witnessed that members were taught to continue punishment until children became passive. The parents, Joseph and Sonya Smith, were both sentenced to life plus thirty years for beating their son to death.

From the web  archive
Members in the group of churches commonly used hot glue gun glue sticks (which come in ten inch lengths) as instruments of punishment because they left no notable bruises on children, much like the plumbing line recommended by Michael Pearl which both groups boast for their lack of propensity to leave lasting marks and bruising on the skin. (Pearl contends in the media that because the implement does not leave a lasting, notable mark, the use of the implement does not constitute an abusive or harmful practice.) And not unlike Michael Pearl's denials to Anderson Cooper following the deaths of Lydia Schatz and Hana-Grace Williams, Gwen Shamblin denies the extent and nature of the corporal punishment practiced in their churches, alleging that it is only used as a last resort.

In the February 2004 update section of the testimony of former member Teri Phillips of Nashville, she states:
We especially worry about the impact the Remnant teachings are having on the kids. Yes, on the surface it may look like the kids are obedient, happy, and have high self-esteem, but if you are around them for very long, you detect fear and anxiety in them. They are not encouraged to think and speak for themselves. They are pushed aside while the adults do their thing. I foresee that when they are grown, they will either have lots of anger and rebellion or very, very low self-esteem, and some will turn against religion altogether. Adult ex-cult members who were children raised in these types of abusive situations experience the above reactions to growing up in a cult. You can read this on any apologetic site. I do know that the older Smith boy has been withdrawn from a foster home because he was aggressively hurting the foster siblings. Maybe the effects of being in Remnant fellowship are beginning for him.

Janet Heimlich briefly reviews the case of Josef Smith on pages 118-119 in her 2011 book, Breaking Their Will: Shedding Light on Religious Child Maltreatment but a more comprehensive of the group, personal testimony, doctrinal issues, and media reports of the murder trial, and many other links to additional information about Remnant Fellowship can be found at Spiritwatch.org. Of special note, the Apologetics Index and Midwest Christian Outreach (find embedded links to several of their journal articles in this blog post) also feature information about the nature of the aberrant Christian teachings propagated by Shamblin and her organizations.

In the first part of the closing statement in Chapter Eight  entitled The Perils of Mixing Faith and Corporal Punishment, Heimlich states in Breaking their Will:
Some theological ideas are dangerous. While those that justify authoritarian parenting and using corporal punishment might appeal to adults who relish the idea of gaining control over children, there are more compassionate, healthy ways to raise boys and girls so that they grow up to be happy, strong, and responsible grown-ups (pg 120).

For the balanced Christian, the more “compassionate and healthy way to raise boys and girls” involves a respect for and trust in the work of the Holy Spirit in the life and heart of the child, allowing God's work to be His and only His. It is sad that we must hear this message preached to us by someone in the secular media. As I have repeated when discussing this topic, parents in these systems demand of children what God does not even require of adults. God allows people to follow the leading and guiding of the Spirit, and once a person places their faith in Christ, God still gives that person liberty to choose to follow Him and to make many mistakes as they learn and grow. God never dominates and controls us but lets adults face the consequences of bad choices. Rather than using consequences to teach a child responsible behavior, parents make automatons of their children, and some use violence to ensure that control.

On the day that I prepared this post, I found it amusing to have also received an email from the Love and Logic Institute which offers some healthy and compassionate alternatives to abusive child training methods practiced by groups like the Remnant Fellowship. In this online version of the email, the summary of the basics of their Love and Logic approach listed their alternative: 1.) showing a truly loving attitude towards children, 2.) shared thinking and control which helps to develop the child's discernment ability, 3.) empathy preceding bad consequences instead of the parent's own display of anger/frustration, and 4.) a focus on building nurturing relationships. And I am also reminded of Jeri Massi's recent discussion of paideia, the loving nurture yet robust process of training of noble born sons that the Apostle Paul advocates in Ephesians 6:4.

As the common features of the works of the flesh cause all authoritarian and abusive groups to spiral into the dynamics of thought reform through the works of the flesh, we should endeavor to walk in the Spirit and the fruit of the Spirit, realizing that children are not well-trained pets but are human souls with choices, just like us. Should we require more of them then even God requires of us? Or should we offer children lots of room to learn from their mistakes using empathy and consequences to teach instead of violence to control?