One of the characteristics of a destructive religion is an enforced policy that requires the members to shun anyone who leaves or gets expelled from the religion. It is a common trait among esoteric movements that claim to be “the Truth.” Members are required to sever association with even their own family members and relatives who leave. The consequences of this harsh doctrinal policy are extreme, shattering family relationships and leaving the victims emotionally and spiritually devastated. Suicides or attempted suicides are not uncommon.
Jehovah’s Witnesses are among the religious groups that practice extreme shunning of former members. Of all the Watchtower Society’s legalistic doctrines, this one is perhaps the most responsible for uprising among former members against the Organization that has resulted in exhaustive examination and exposés of their flawed teachings and history.
Former members who disavow faith in the Watchtower organization’s doctrines are branded “apostates.” Jehovah’s Witnesses are taught that they must hate such ones. An article titled “Search Through Me, O God” appeared in the October 1, 1993 Watchtower. Speaking about “apostates” on page 19, beginning with paragraph 15, we read:15 Regarding them, the psalmist said: “Do I not hate
those who are intensely hating you, O Jehovah, and do I
not feel a loathing for those revolting against you? With a
complete hatred I do hate them. They have become to
me real enemies.” (Psalm 139:21, 22) It was because
they intensely hated Jehovah that David looked on them
with abhorrence. Apostates are included among those
who show their hatred of Jehovah by revolting against him.
Apostasy is, in reality, a rebellion against Jehovah. Some
apostates profess to know and serve God, but they reject
teachings or requirements set out in his Word. Others
claim to believe the Bible, but they reject Jehovah’s
organization and actively try to hinder its work. When they
deliberately choose such badness after knowing what is
right, when the bad becomes so ingrained that it is an
inseparable part of their makeup, then a Christian must
hate (in the Biblical sense of the word) those who have
inseparably attached themselves to the badness. True
Christians share Jehovah’s feelings toward such
apostates; they are not curious about apostate ideas. On
the contrary, they “feel a loathing” toward those who have
made themselves God’s enemies, but they leave it to
Jehovah to execute vengeance.–Job 13:16; Romans
12:19; 2 John 9, 10.
An article in The Watchtower, September 15, 1981, on page 29 under the heading “DISFELLOWSHIPED RELATIVES NOT LIVING AT HOME” has this to say (beginning at paragraph 18):18 The second situation that we need to consider is that
involving a disfellowshiped or disassociated relative who is
not in the immediate family circle or living at one’s home.
Such a person is still related by blood or marriage, and so
there may be some limited need to care for necessary
family matters. Nonetheless, it is not as if he were living
in the same home where contact and conversation could
not be avoided. We should keep clearly in mind the
Bible’s inspired direction: “Quit mixing in company with
anyone called a brother that is a fornicator or a greedy
person . . . , not even eating with such a man.”–1 Cor.
5:11.See also the reference to this article on page 20 of The Watchtower, November 15, 1988.
Disfellowshipping versus SHUNNING
The point of this commentary will be to show that the Watchtower Society’s shunning doctrine does not adhere to the Bible. Further, an understanding of congregational practices of first-century Christians in the Jewish culture is necessary for a proper understanding of the scriptures on this matter.
The primary scripture for consideration is:
But now I am writing you to quit mixing in company with anyone called a brother that is a fornicator or a greedy person or an idolater or a reviler or a drunkard or an extortioner, not even eating with such a man.–1.Cor. 5:11 (NWT)
The text is clear that a person with whom the congregation should not mix company is one who is:
1) “called a brother” (that is, one who professes to be a member of the congregation); and
2) practicing fornication, greed, idolotry, reviling (insulting), habitual drunkeness, and/or extortion (theft).
- Jehovah’s Witnesses do not disfellowship greedy persons.
- They often do not disfellowship people who regularly get drunk unless their conduct becomes so outrageous and publicly-known as to bring reproach upon Jehovah’s Witnesses.
- They do not disfellowship people for many of the things which they themselves class as “idolatry” (for example: materialism, worshipping an organization, etc.).
- On the other hand, Jehovah’s Witnesses do disfellowship and shun people for:
- no longer claiming to be called a brother/sister.
- independent study and discussion of the Bible that brings Watchtower doctrine into question.
- possession of literature written by former members.
- having lunch with a former member, even if the former member professes to be a Christian and was not disfellowshipped for fornication, greed, idolotry, reviling, drunkeness, or extortion.
- attending a service of any other church or religious organization.
- authorizing a blood transfusion, even to save the life of a child.
- numerous other actions not mentioned in scripture, but deemed by the congregation elders to be “unclean conduct,” or “conduct unbecoming” of a Jehovah’s Witness. “Conduct” in this case covers a broad range of actions not clearly defined by the Society, leaving discernment about what is not acceptable to the discretion of the congregation’s elders. As a result, standards by which people may be disfellowshiped are inconsistent throughout this religion which claims “unity” to be one of their identifying characteristics.
“Not to be mixing in company with” . . . “not even eating with . . .”
Here it is important to learn the customs of association for worship practiced by first-century Jews and Christians, bearing in mind that Jesus and the apostles were Jews. They lived according to the Jewish lifestyle and customs of their day. Jesus taught in the synogogues; hence, he was called “Rabbi.” Matt.26:25; 26:49; Mark 9:5; 11:21; 14:25; John 1:38, 49; 3:2, 26; 4:31; 6:25; 9:2; 11:8
There were two kinds of association for religious worship:
1) public meetings, such as at the temple and in synogogues, which anyone was allowed to attend; and
2) private gatherings of the different sects.
Christians and Jews participated in both. Christians, met in private homes, usually over a special meal with prayer. A presiding minister hosted the meal using either fellowship funds or personal funds. (Acts 20:20; see the footnote in older editions of the NWT)
Christians were instructed to “greet” one another with a kiss. (Rom.16:16; 1.Cor.16:20; 2Cor.13:12; Ti.3:15; 1Pet.5:14) When Paul sent his “greetings” in a letter to the Christians in Thessalonica, he requested that the “brothers” be greeted by a “holy kiss” on his behalf. (1Thess.5:26)
It was by this sign that Judas betrayed Jesus. (Luke 22:47,48)
Clearly, Paul did instruct Christians to expel from the congregation’s fellowship any person who was purposely practicing willful sin. The disassociation would quite naturally exclude them from being greeted by the identifying “holy kiss,” as well as not being allowed to share in meetings and the meals for Christian worship and prayer. However, Paul’s instruction did not prohibit normal conversation or witnessing to former members. Nor were they barred from attending worship in the temple or the synagogues. Jesus, the apostles and Paul, along with the rest of the Jews, worshipped God both publicly in the temple and synagogues, and privately with small groups in various homes. (Acts 5:42) It was from the private Christian fellowship for worship that sinners were excluded.
What of 2 John 10,11?
If anyone comes to you and does not bring this teaching, never receive him into your homes or say a greeting to him. For he that says a greeting to him is a sharer in his wicked works.–2 John 11 (NWT)
The above scripture is not about people who have been expelled from the Christian congregation. When read in context, it is about anyone who “does not bring this teaching” [of the Christ]. Because they held congregation meetings in their homes (which might be little more than a dug-out or tent outside the city walls of Jerusalem), in their culture their neighbors might view inviting a non-Christian into the home as the Christian sharing worship with non-Christians.
- Jehovah’s Witnesses, while shunning disfellowshipped or disassociated persons, do not prohibit them from attending the congregation meetings at their Kingdom Halls. Yet the congregation was specifically where Paul instructed Christians not be be “mixing in company with” disfellowshipped sinners.
- If the scripture at 2 John 10 were observed literally by Jehovah’s Witnesses, they would be obliged to never invite anyone other than a Jehovah’s Witness in good standing into their home, or ever speak a greeting to anyone other than a Jehovah’s Witness.
How did Jesus say one expelled from congregation should be treated?
Moreover, if your brother commits a sin, go lay bare his fault between you and him alone. If he listens to you, you have gained your brother. But if he does not listen, take along with you one or two more, in order that at the mouth of two or three witnesses every matter may be established. If he does not listen to them, speak to the congregation. If he does not listen even to the congregation, let him be to you just as a man of the nations [‘Gentile’ in some translations] and as a tax collector.–Matt.18:15-17 (NWT)
- The instruction was to bring up the matter of sin first between the two individuals alone. Then, if the sinner would repent, there was no need to carry the matter further. If the sinner was not repentant, then one or two others should be sought for witnesses. If the sinner remained unrepentant, only then, as a last resort, should it be brought before the entire congregation (not privately with the “elders”).
- If, after all that, the person was still would not listen, he should then be treated the same as Gentiles and tax collectors. In other words, Christians were to treat former members just like anyone else who was not a member of the congregation. To be treated like a “man of the nations” (which is to say, a Gentile or foreigner) was far from being shunned. Jewish people worked with, associated with, transacted business with, and preached to Gentiles. As for “tax collectors,” Jesus ate and associated with them. Matthew was a tax collector. Tax collectors were not popular, but they were not shunned.Next, while passing along from there, Jesus caught sight of a man named Matthew seated at the tax office, and he said to him: “Be my follower.” Thereupon he did rise up and follow him. Later, while he was reclining at the table in the house, look! many tax collectors and sinners came and began reclining with Jesus and his disciples. But on seeing this the Pharisees began to say to his disciples: “Why is it that your teacher eats with tax collectors and sinners?” Hearing [them], he said: “Persons in health do not need a physician, but the ailing do. Go, then, and learn what this means, ‘I want mercy, and not sacrifice.’ For I came to call, not righteous people, but sinners.”
There is no scripture basis for mandating that Christians must totally shun former members (that is, have no communication or conversation with them). The instruction is to expel them from the congregation and treat them like anyone else who is not a member. Especially, there is no scripture to support shunning of one’s own relatives–parents, children and siblings.
If anyone does not provide for his relatives, and especially for his immediate family, he has denied the faith and is worse than an unbeliever.”–1 Tim.5:8 (NIV)
Even for the rest, Paul counseled against abandoning those separated from the congregation:
For your part, brothers, do not give up in doing right. But if anyone is not obedient to our word through this letter, keep this one marked, stop associating with him, that he may become ashamed. And yet do not be considering him as an enemy, but continue admonishing him as a brother.
Instruction in the undistributed elders’ guide
When a Jehovah’s Witness male qualifies to be an elder in the congregation, he is assigned an uncirculated proprietary book that gives instruction for counseling and disciplinary actions according to the Society’s rules. The title of this book is Pay Attention To Yourselves and to All the Flock. Interestingly, on the bottom of page 103 in that book, it is stated that Jehovah’s Witnesses need not be disfellowshipped for associating with disfellowshipped relatives except if the association involves “spiritual association” or if there is an attempt to excuse the former member’s objectional behavior. It says:”Normally, a close relative would not be disfellowshipped for associating with a disfellowshipped person unless there is spiritual association or an effort made to excuse the wrongful course.”–“Flock book”, page 103, last paragraph.Despite this documented exclusion, Jehovah’s Witnesses the world over are taught that to please Jehovah God they must shun their siblings, their children, and even their parents who either choose to leave or are disfellowshipped–especially if the crime is variance with Watchtower doctrine for which they are branded “apostates.” And it is a fact that many Witnesses have been disfellowshipped for refusing to shun their disfellowshipped relatives.
The law of love
If the law of Christianity can be summed up in one word, it is “LOVE.” Does not love rescue and recover the sinner? Would Jesus shun the sheep who strayed from the flock?
Now all the tax collectors and the sinners kept drawing near to him to hear him. Consequently both the Pharisees and the scribes kept muttering saying: “This man welcomes sinners and eats with them.” Then he spoke this illustration to them, saying: “What man of you with a hundred sheep, on losing one of them, will not leave the ninety-nine behind in the wilderness and go for the lost one until he finds it? And when he has found it he puts it upon his shoulders and rejoices. And when he gets home he calls his friends and his neighbors together, saying to them, ‘Rejoice with me, because I have found my sheep that was lost.’ I tell you that thus there will be more joy in heaven over one sinner that repents than over ninety-nine righteous ones who have no need of repentance.–Luke 15:1-7 (NWT)
Note that the sheep did not have to come back and find the shepherd, the shepherd went after the lost sheep.
Let us pray that the Watchtower Society will soon be blessed with “new light” on their policy of extremist shunning of former members, thereby liberating thousands–both within and out of the organization–from the heart-strickening anguish imposed by this cruel, unjust, and unscriptural dogma.