Articles

Disfellowshipping and Shunning

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One of the most controversial aspects of Jehovah’s Witnesses is their policy of shunning everyone, even close family members, who are expelled from the religion or who voluntarily resign, regardless of the circumstances. Just saying “hello” to a disfellowshipped person you walk past in the street is viewed as being disloyal to Jehovah God. The disfellowshipped person is regarded as an unrepentant “wicked” person as long as they are not readmitted to the organisation, even if they are no longer practising the sin that led to their shunning.

The consequences of this harsh doctrinal policy can be extreme, leaving shattered family relationships and expelled ones (including children and parents of an expelled one), emotionally and spiritually devastated. There are accounts of disfellowshipped persons attempting and committing suicide as a result of isolation and emotional trauma from losing all contact with loved ones and friends.

The current policy was not adopted until 1952.  Prior to that, the first two Watchtower Presidents, Charles Taze Russell and Joseph Rutherford, had a more moderate view:

“We are not of those who disfellowship Christian brethren on account of some differences of opinion; but when it comes to the point of denying the very foundation of all christianity we must speak out and withstand all such to the face, for they become the enemies of the cross of Christ.” Watchtower 1882 Dec p.423

“The Scriptural basis of fellowship and disfellowship is both a much broader and a much more simple one. It is simply of two parts: (1) An acceptance of Christ as the Redeemer, and (2) A full consecration to him. Whoever complies with this scriptural formula is entitled to the love, respect, sympathy and care of every other such one; for such, and such only, constitute the church which God recognizes – the church whose names are written in heaven.” Watchtower1905 p.3673

“According to this Scripture the very most that the church could do would be that, after having vainly endeavored to get the brother to repent and reform, it should withdraw special brotherly fellowship from him until such time as he would express willingness thereafter to do right. Then he should be received again into full fellowship….In the meantime the brother may merely be treated in the kindly, courteous way in which it would be proper for us to treat any publican or Gentile, withholding the special rights or privileges or greetings or voting opportunities that belong to the church as a class separate from the world” Watchtower 1919 Mar 1 p.69

As late as 1947, the Awake magazine described the practice of excommunication as an unscriptural, pagan practice, that was used by the clergy as a weapon to maintain ecclesiastical power and tyranny over the flock.

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However in 1952, under the Presidency of Nathan Knorr, the Society instituted a new, harsher policy of disfellowshipping and total shunning. The policy is primarily based on four passages of scripture, 1 Corinthians 5:11, 2 Thessalonains 3:14, 2 John 9-10, and Matthew 18:17, which we will examine in turn:

1 Corinthians 5:9-11

“In my letter I wrote ​YOU​ to quit mixing in company with fornicators, not [meaning] entirely with the fornicators of this world or the greedy persons and extortioners or idolaters. Otherwise, ​YOU​ would actually have to get out of the world. 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. For what do I have to do with judging those outside? Do ​YOU​ not judge those inside, while God judges those outside? “Remove the wicked [man] from among yourselves.”–1.Corinthians 5:9-11 (New World Translation.)

This scripture is clear that a person with whom the congregation should not mix company with 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, idolatry, reviling, a drunkard, or an extortioner (thief).

Clearly, Paul did instruct Christians to expel from congregation fellowship any person who was purposely practicing these sins wilfully. The disassociation would naturally exclude sharing in Christian fellowship and social gatherings in private homes such as for a meal. 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 private Christian fellowship for worship and social intimacy that sinners were to be excluded.

The specific case 1 Cor 5 was a scandalous sin occurring within the congregation that even by the standards of the world was offensive, that of a man who was engaged in an immoral affair with his stepmother. There are a few points that stand out immediately about Paul’s command. First, the person to whom this procedure is applied was one who “calls himself a brother.” In the immediately preceding verse, Paul had specifically said that he was not talking about non-Christians who were sinners, since to avoid those one would actually have to “leave this world.” It is reasonable to conclude from this that if the person leaves the church completely for the types of sins described by Paul and begins to live as a non-Christian, there is no point in perpetuating punishment indefinitely and eventually they should be viewed as a worldly person who can be witnessed to in the usual way.

What should be lost through disfellowshipPing is, not the simple courtesy of normal human interaction, but spiritual fellowship and intentional social interaction. True Christian fellowship involves more than saying a courteous “hello, how are you?” in the street; it is a spiritual relationship that involves believers in each other’s lives and in the life of God as a community. It is that relationship which has been broken by sin in the case of a disfellowshipped person. That is the level at which the congregation must “not associate” with a disfellowshipped member who persists in sin. Incidentally encountering the person (such as in a shop or on the street) and offering them a simple greeting or kind word of encouragement does not fall under this classification.

Another point to note in Paul’s command is the use of the present tense. Paul says not to associate with “anyone who calls himself a brother but is sexually immoral or greedy,” etc. This would seem to rule out shunning such an individual forevermore. If the disfellowshipped person abandons his or her course, for example, if someone is disfellowshipped for fornication but then gets married, there is no reason why he or she should not be welcomed back into fellowship. The congregation should be eager to welcome back into their midst a sinner who is no longer sinning; instead the attitude of Jehovah’s Witnesses tends to be that even if the person has stopped the sin, they must continue to be shunned as some sort of disloyal traitor to the organisation itself. This is completely contrary to Paul’s advice not to excessively prolong the shunning for fear of the sinner being overcome with sorrow and his spiritual future being in jeopardy as a result.

This appears to have been the case with the man who had the affair with his stepmother. In his later letter to the same church, apparently in reference to that same individual, Paul writes, “The punishment inflicted on him by the majority is sufficient for him. Now instead, you ought to forgive and comfort him, so that he will not be overwhelmed by excessive sorrow. I urge you, therefore, to reaffirm your love for him” (2 Cor. 2:6-8). Paul is counselling the Corinthians not to prolong the disassociation but to readily forgive and welcome the person back once they have desisted from the course of sin.

Here the issue of “greeting” is not mentioned, instead “(not) eating with”. It would be tempting to reduce the scope of this proscription to religious communal meals such as full meals shared by all members of the church, as in Galatians 2:12, thus limiting it to ecclesiastical cutting off, rather than ordinary, social relationships involving sharing a meal. However, the words “not evening eating with” suggests that Paul meant to have no intimate social fellowship with the sinner at all.

It is also noteworthy that Paul only refers to the “majority” inflicting the punishment. This suggests that, at the least, the person’s relatives can continue maintaining normal family ties while being careful to safeguard their own spirituality. Close family members should continue providing their disfellowshipped family member’s basic physical and emotional needs, in line with the law of love. This is in fact the Watchtower’s policy for children still living at home with their parents, but there is no reason why this should not also be the case for all family members.  For the family of the sinner to not provide for their basic emotional needs (not just physical needs) is cruel and contrary to Paul’s counsel at 1 Timothy 5: 8:

“Certainly if anyone does not provide for those who are his own, and especially for those who are members of his household, he has disowned the faith and is worse than a person without faith.” -1 Tim.5:8

2 Thessalonians 3:14

Comparison of this passage of scripture with 2 Thess. 3:14, 15 makes it clear that Paul did not intend that the sinning brother be cut off from absolutely all contact.  There, Paul writes: “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”

The Greek word for “stop associating” here is sunanamignumi, which is the same Greek word rendered “quit mixing in company with” at 1 Cor. 5:11, indicating that the discipline action to be taken is the same. Yet in 2 Thessalonians 3:15 Paul says to not  “…regard him as an enemy, but warn him as a brother.”  This clearly shows that members of the congregation should continue to offer encouragement and counsel to the wrongdoer whenever they encounter them, in contrast to the organisation’s policy of not even saying “hello”. Love and compassion are the watchwords; the objective is reconciliation after a period of admonishment to encourage the disfellowshiped person to repent, not absolute rejection and indefinite shunning.

The Watchtower Society tries to get around this by setting up a separate category from disfellowshiping, called “marking”, which allows for less drastic treatment toward those “marked” than absolute shunning. The context of 2 Thessalonians 3: 14, 15 shows that the offence is disobedience to the written word of an apostle sent by Christ, which is no minor matter. The Watchtower Society would certainly not view it as a minor matter if a Witness disregarded its own policies or teachings. Paul was not creating a separate category of sins and treatment policy in 2 Thessalonians 3 from 1 Corinthians 5; he is outlining the same policy in separate letters to different congregations.

In discussing this “marking” policy at 2 Thess 3: 14,15, the Watchtower of April 15, 1985, p.31, quotes Paul’s words “Stop associating with him,” and then says: “Brothers would not completely shun him, for Paul advised them to “continue admonishing him as a brother.” Yet by their limiting [note, not terminating] social fellowship with him, they might lead him to become ashamed…”

Although this statement is a lot closer to what the organisation’s disfellowshiping policy should actually be, there is no reason to believe that at 2 Thess 3:14,15 Paul is allowing for some limited social fellowship with the wrongdoer. The correct approach is to read 1 Corinthians 5:11 together with 2 Thess 3:14,15, and in 1 Corinthians 5 Paul said to “not even eat” with such a person, indicating that all social fellowship should be denied to the person until they repent. Yet at 2 Thess 3:14,15, Paul is not restricting absolutely all communication with the person, and certainly not to the extreme extent of not even saying a courteous “hello” to the person; rather, he is instructing the congregation (all of the congregation) to keep admonishing the person, encouraging them to change, as they would admonish any brother in the congregation.

In the late 1970’s, some members of the Governing Body and other senior members of The  Watchtower Society recognised some of these problems and recommended that the policy to be brought more into line with the correct scriptural position. Former overseer of the Writing Department of the Watchtower Society, Karl Adams, was one of these. Adams wrote the following in a memorandum to then President Nathan Knorr:

“We have viewed Matthew 18:17 as meaning disfellowshiping. Jesus said that when the man involved refused to “listen to the congregation,” we should let him be “just as a man of the nations and as a tax collector.” Exactly what does this mean as to the action we should take towards such disfellowshiped person? The Jews did not refuse to have any dealings at all with such persons, or refuse to speak to them. In connection with Matthew 18:17, it would be helpful to consider 2 Thessalonians 3:6,14,14, and, along with this, 2 Timohy 2:25, 26 and James 5: 19,20. In those texts, particularly the last two, strong expressions are used. Persons are said to have been in “the snare of the Devil,” having been “caught alive by him for the will of that one,” “misled from the truth,” perhaps having “a multitude of sins,” yet it seems implied that there was freedom to do what could be done to admonish and restore these persons. Shouldn’t we be doing that today? No friendly or intimate association such as would imply approval of their wrongdoing need exist. The Greek verb used at 2 Thessalonians 3:14 in the expression “stop associating” is the very same word used at 1 Corinthians 5:11 (“quit mixing in with company”). This latter text we have used to apply to persons whom we disfellowship or ‘quit mixing in company with.’ But 2 Thessalonians shows that to quit mixing in company with someone does not rule out admonishing him, hence speaking to him. If we say that by giving Scriptural admonition or reproof to them we are guilty of spiritual fellowship with them, would this not also mean that when we witness to persons of different faiths (even clergymen) we have spiritual fellowship with them? Is our view of disfellowshiping really governing by these texts, or have we been reading into them more rigidity than is there?” – ‘In Search of Christian Freedom’, R Franz.

2 John 7-11

The Watchtower’s extreme treatment of not even saying “hello” to a disfellowshipped Witness is based on a single statement at 2 John 7-11:

“For many deceivers have gone forth into the world, persons not confessing Jesus Christ as coming in the flesh. This is the deceiver and the antichrist. Look out for yourselves, that YOU do not lose the things we have worked to produce, but that YOU may obtain a full reward. Everyone that pushes ahead and does not remain in the teaching of the Christ does not have God. He that does remain in this teaching is the one that has both the Father and the Son. 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.”

The Watchtower Society claims that John may have used the term ‘greeting’ to indicate a simple hello, but it is not dogmatic on the point:

“John here used khairo, which was a greeting like good day or hello. (Acts 15:23; Matthew 28:9) He did not use aspazomai (as in verse 13), which means to enfold in the arms, thus to greet, to welcome and may have implied a very warm greeting, even with an embrace. (Luke 10:4; 11:43; Acts 20:1, 37; 1 Thessalonians 5:26) So the direction at 2 John 11 could well mean not to say even hello to such ones.” – Watchtower 1988 April 15 p.27

Khairo in fact has multiple meanings; it does not just mean a greeting such as ‘good day’ or ‘hello’ (a salutation) as this Watchtower article suggests.  Aspazomai (or aspasmos) can likewise mean a friendly salutation. Here are the definitions according to Strong’s Greek Lexicon:

  • 5463 chairo {khah’-ee-ro} a primary verb; to be “cheer”ful, i.e. calmly happy or well-off; impersonally, especially as salutation (on meeting or parting), be well:–farewell, be glad, God speed, greeting, hall, joy(- fully), rejoice.
  • 783 aspasmos {as-pas-mos} 1) a salutation, either oral or written.

So the contrast the quoted Watchtower article is trying to create between the words khairo and aspazomai is misleading. It seeks to attribute to the term aspazomai a special warmth of greeting distinctively surpassing that of the word used in John’s second letter, khairo. That would enable it to say that khairo, being so much less “warm” than aspazomai, would relate to more commonplace, perfunctory greetings, including a simple “hello.” On this basis they could rule out any verbal communication whatsoever with anyone disfellowshipped. Whoever wrote this Watchtower article evidently overlooked the account at Luke 1:28,29:

“And he came to her and said, “Greetings [Greek, khaire], favored one! The Lord is with you.” But she was much perplexed by his words and pondered what sort of greeting [Greek, aspasmos] this might be.”

The two words here are obviously used interchangeably. Mary applies the term aspasmos to the word khaire pronounced by the angels. She did not do this because the angel had, in the Watchtower definition, “enfolded” her in his arms or kissed her, nor had he at this point engaged in a “long conversation” with her. She refers, not to an embrace or kiss, but to his “words.”

Not only does it commit this error, but the watchtower also fails to recognize that the Greek verb khairo used by John does not relate to some simple greeting such as “Hello.” It is not the least bit less “warm” than the other Greek term discussed. To the contrary, the term khairo literally means “to be rejoicing” and corresponds to the Hebrew term shalom, meaning “peace be with you.” It was used to express, not a mere commonplace greeting, but to express personal or social favour and acceptance, even to express recognition of authority. Recognizing this, some translations, rather than rendering it simply as “greeting,” render it as to “welcome.” Capturing well the sense of John’s words, one translation reads: “Do not welcome him into your home; do not even say, “peace be with you” [Don’t encourage him in any way, Living Bible]. For anyone who wishes him peace becomes his partner in the evil things he does.”

Clearly then, what a Christian denies to an antichrist is not some simple salutation such as “hello” or “how do you do,” but denies him the address which implies acceptance and agreement with this person or cause, wishing him favour and success. To “welcome” him in this manner would indeed make one “a sharer in his wicked works.” It is what one says that determines this. Certainly, one does not become his partner in the evil things he does if one endeavours to refute him or talk him out of his wrong views, convincing him of the error of his ways. Quite the opposite, the scriptures show this can be a Christian duty.

The fact is we cannot be exactly sure what meaning John intended, we can only make a calculated guess from the immediate context and from comparable scriptural usages. Rather than being a general salutation, the context indicates it is more likely that John meant a special brotherly form of greeting, such as the ‘holy kiss’ that Christians were instructed to “greet” one another with (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). Certainly, a travelling preacher,  such as a circuit overseer, would be greeted in such an especially warm, welcoming manner, not in the rather perfunctory, formal way we say “hello” or “goodbye” to any ordinary person we encounter in our day to day life.

Even if John meant khairo in the sense of an ordinary Greek salutation, it remains the case that the injunction is only spoken of in relation to visiting heretical preachers, not in relation to congregation members expelled for immorality such as described in 1 Corinthians 5.

It is important to also keep in mind the historical context leading to John’s instructions at 2 John. Most Christian groups in the first century met in private homes. Itinerant teachers would travel from group to group, offering instruction in the faith and receiving material support from the household. Unfortunately, not all of these teachers were absolutely orthodox in their teaching; in particular, some had succumbed to the heresies of Gnosticism. These are the antichrist teachers whom John describes in verse 7: “For many deceivers have gone out into the world, those who do not acknowledge Jesus Christ as coming in the flesh. This is the deceiver and the antichrist.” John was thus instructing Christians who were meeting in house churches to reject such visiting apostate preachers. They were not to be received as teachers into the homes of believers where church meetings were being held.  The following is quoted from a researcher on the subject:

“The Society takes the passage out of context by applying it to a very different social circumstance than the one the Bible writer addresses.   The author [of 2 John] is concerned with a specific problem in early Christianity involving itinerant apostles, teachers, and charismatics.  These people lived in poverty and wandered from town to town, staying at each location at the hospitality of resident Christians — a lifestyle representing a higher call to discipleship promoted or referred to in Matthew 6:25-24, 8:19-2210:5-4223:34Mark 10:17-31, Luke 10:5-15,12:22-341 Corinthians 9:14, etc.  Early Christian society was composed both of resident communities where Christians shared property and were subject to the rules of the community whereas the wandering itinerants were dependent on host communities for supplying their needs.  The author of James showed that these itinerants chosen to be “rich in faith” and “poor in the eyes of the world” (2:5, cf. 4:13-15 where the author criticizes commercial itinerism) were sometimes discriminated against on account of their clothing and personal appearance by resident Christians (2:1-4), who would send them on their way without caring for their needs (2:15-17).  He thus directed his readers to imitate the example of Rahab who “received the messengers and then sent them out another way” (2:25).

The problem was that there were visiting itinerants who did not seem worthy of receiving such support, for hosting such people would make one complicit in their works.  The Didache has a large section (ch. 11-12) devoted to identifying false prophets and false apostles.  They are to be regarded as such if they misuse such hospitality for material gain: “Let every apostle who comes to you be welcomed as if he were the Lord. But he is not to stay for more than one day, unless there is need, in which case he may stay another. But if he stays three days, he is a false prophet. And when the apostle leaves, he is to take nothing except bread until he finds his next night’s lodging. But if he asks for money, he is a false prophet” (11:5-9).  It is important to recognize that the “deceivers” in 2 John 7-11 are not resident members of the church but outsiders who would be “coming to you” (erkhetai pros humas) from abroad who seek to be “received into your house” (lambanete eis oikian), i.e. itinerants like those in Matthew 10:12 who seek to be received “into homes” (eis tén oikian) and receive support. This has little to do with shunning members of the church itself; it has to do with taking in outsiders who are already known to be teachers of different doctrines, for this would require the church to give lodging, food, and support to the person — thereby “sharing in his wicked work”. In other words, the author here regards “deceivers” as illegitimate itinerants not worthy of the support that wandering teachers and missionaries would receive.”

The study edition of the Watchtower of July 15, 2011, p.16, in fact notes that 2 John 9-11 is about false teachers:

“How can we protect ourselves against false teachers? The bible’s counsel regarding how to deal with them is clear. (Read Romans 16:17; 2 John 9-11.) “Avoid them,” says God’s Word. Other translations render the phrase “turn away from them,” “keep  away from them,” and “stay away from them!” There is nothing ambiguous about that inspired counsel.”

It is false teachers who 2 John 9-11 applies to, not existing members of the congregation committing moral sins listed by Paul in 1 Corinthians 5.

At the website Biblegateway.com (a research database for comparing Bible translations and translation tools), there are five commentaries on 2 John 9-11. The authors of each article recognise that the prohibition to not greet or welcome relates to preachers bringing heretical beliefs. Similar research will yield the same conclusion.

The Watchtower Society is therefore quite wrong to use 2 John 9-11 as justification for totally shunning all disfellowshipped persons in all circumstances, to the extreme of even not saying a simple “hello”, which is a basic human courtesy extended to even the most sinful of ‘worldly’ persons.  Scripturally, such an extreme form of shunning should possibly only be reserved for person’s actively promoting anti-Christian teachings (not merely dissenting from certain disputable interpretations) to other members of the congregation.

What sort of heretical, antichrist teachings would these be?  This would be the case with a disfellowshipped person who was trying to convince other Jehovah’s Witnesses that Jesus never existed, or had never been resurrected, or that God did not exist, for example.  This is not the same category as Jehovah’s Witnesses who respectfully and without getting into heated arguments, disagrees with certain teachings specific to the Watchtower Society (see Romans 14:1). Provided they are not actively disrupting the unity of the congregation and trying to draw away disciples for themselves, there should be a level of toleration of dissenting views without need of disfellowshipping. This was in fact the view of C T Russell, quoted here again:

“We are not of those who disfellowship Christian brethren on account of some differences of opinion; but when it comes to the point of denying the very foundation of all christianity we must speak out and withstand all such to the face, for they become the enemies of the cross of Christ.” Watchtower 1882 Dec p.423

Matthew 18:17

“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.16But 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.17If 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 and as a tax collector.

After outlining the progressive steps for congregation discipline, Jesus discussed the treatment of one who did not respond with repentance at any point in the procedure. If the sinning individual was still unrepentant after being admonished by the congregation as a whole, he or she was to be regarded as “a pagan or a tax collector.” There has been some controversy over these words. The argument is sometimes made that the religious leaders of the time, particularly the so-strict Pharisees, utterly shunned Gentiles because they were not of the chosen people. Likewise, tax collectors were regarded as collaborators with the Roman government against their own people, and were also avoided socially. Hence, the Watchtower Society interprets these words to mean that Jesus was encouraging his disciples to practise the extreme shunning that the Pharisees practised. Is that reasonable?

Jesus disciples would have followed Jesus’ example in this, not the Pharisees. We find that Jesus did not shun pagans and tax collectors, in fact, he was known to eat with tax collectors.  Matthew was a tax collector. Jesus was criticized by the Pharisees for eating with tax collectors and sinners (Matt. 9:9-13; Matt. 11:19). It hardly seems reasonable that Jesus would condemn the religious leaders for their hypocrisy in shunning tax collectors and sinners but then hold them up as an example for his disciples to follow in how to treat unrepentant members of the congregation. Jesus was simply telling his followers to treat such persons as they would anyone else who was not a Christian. Jewish people worked with, conversed with, transacted business with, and preached to Gentiles. 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.” –Matt.9:9-13  

Jesus set the pattern in this. He specifically said we are to love our enemies and that a real neighbour is one who shows kindness and charity to us in our time of need, regardless of how they might otherwise feel about associating with us. Jesus associated with sinners and commanded us not to judge others harshly. He showed by example that those who are the most sinful are the ones who need our help the most, not the ones to be avoided the most.

If the law of Christianity can be summed up in one word, it is “LOVE.” Love rescues and recovers 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

Note that the sheep did not have to come back and find the shepherd, the shepherd went after the lost sheep. The principle here is that Jehovah’s Witnesses and the elders should be going out of their way to help a lost sheep return to the flock, not go out of their way to avoid the lost sheep by coldly shunning them in such an extreme way that not even the most sinful worldly persons would be subjected to.

The Watchtower Society would set Jesus example aside in its shunning policy, claiming that Jesus associated with such ones only due to their previous evidence of receptiveness to the good news, saying that this ‘was not a pattern of how unrepentant sinners were to be treated.”. The Society ignores the fact that it was, not before, but after receiving Jesus’ help that repentance came. Many were sinners, even prostitutes, at the time of Jesus’ associating with them, talking with them. As he said, “I have come to call not the righteous but sinners.” These were not “members in good standing” in the Jewish congregation. Nor were they prospective proselytes, like those whom Jehovah’s Witnesses would term “newly interested ones” and whose faulty conduct they may overlook for a time. They were for the most part already in the Jewish community, the covenant people of God (probably from birth onward), but their conduct made them “marked” persons, sometimes virtual outcasts. And those so marking them were the “elders” of the Jewish community. For one of Jehovah’s Witnesses to talk with and associate with people in comparable relationship to the Witnesses community would mean to risk being disfellowshipped themselves. But in stark contrast, to imitate Jesus’ conduct would mean to spend time contacting and talking – not only with those who had moved away from observing organisational norms and association – but even with some who were outcasts, having fallen into sinful practices, and to seek to be a positive, healing for them. The organisations policy sadly rules against such a course. Once the “disfellowshipped” label is applied to the outcast person, even his family members are to cut off any spiritual discussion with him.

The Watchtower’s application of Matthew 18:17 to disfellowshipped persons is modelled on the harsh and legalistic system of the Pharisees. It is not patterned on the model of love and forgiveness left by Jesus Christ.

lost-sheep

Going beyond what is written

Another way in which the Watchtower Society’s disfellowshiping policy is at odds with scripture is by adding offences that someone can be disfellowshiped for beyond what the scriptures justify as grounds for taking such strong action. At 1 Cor 5, the apostle Paul was very clear on what offences someone should be removed from the congregation for, ie, being “a fornicator or a greedy person or an idolater or a reviler or a drunkard or an extortioner”.  At John 9-11 persons promoting heretical, anti-Christian beliefs were also to be avoided.  Yet the Watchtower has decided that congregation members who smoke tobacco (regardless of whether it’s 3 cigarettes a day or 30), or who celebrate Christmas with relatives, for example, are liable to be disfellowshiped. The fact is that these are not the sorts of sins that fall into the category of serious sins listed specifically in scripture that would merit removal from the congregation for. The scriptures are quite explicit on the sorts of sin warranting disfellowshiping, yet the organisation goes beyond this.

Denying an otherwise good Christian fellowship with members of the congregation, which under the Watchtower’s current policy will also include being denied natural family relationships, is a serious matter. Jesus warned that stumbling a fellow Christian will bring a severe punishment. Members of the congregation struggling with addictions that are not listed in scripture as disfellowshiping offences should be “marked” per the policy of Paul at 2 Thess.

Hypocritically, the Watchtower Society justifies categorising such things as occasional smoking as offences meriting removal and shunning on the basis of “principles” in the Bible. In the case of smoking, the reason given is that the offender is showing no regard for the God-given “sanctity of life” and of putting the health of others at risk; yet on the matter of blood transfusions the Watchtower ignores the sanctity of life, a principle that Jesus demonstrated to the Pharisees was far more important than fanatical adherence to the letter of the law when it came to life and death decisions (see the article on blood transfusions). Instead, the Watchtower leadership throws this principle out of the window by preferring “sacrifice” of lives rather than “mercy”. Jesus condemned the Pharisees and all others of their ilk for such legalistic adherence to the law at the cost of higher principles, “Woe to you, hypocrites, for you squeeze out the gnat but gulp down the camel” is apt counsel for the Watchtower Society in this matter.

Forgiving up to 77 times

Another criticism of the policy is that often a person is disfellowshipped even though they express verbal contriteness and wish to remain in the congregation.  The Elders Manual lays down certain tests for the elders to tell if the sinner is genuinely repentant or not. Even if the offender expresses remorse and appears repentant, perhaps even shedding tears, they can still be judged to be unrepentant and disfellowshipped. This is often the case where the sinner has been previously reproved for the same or similar offence (either privately reproved, or publicly via an announcement to the congregation), but who errs again, which can be taken as a pattern demonstrating lack of genuine repentance. There is an informal rule that it’s “three strikes and you are out” regardless of what someone says or does to show that they are truly remorseful and have desisted from the practise. If the sinner has, for example, been slow in coming forth to confess their sin to the elders and stays away from the meetings for a while after sinning, this is also taken as a lack of repentance no matter what the person says and they are more or less summarily disfellowshipped.

The number 70×7 is synonymous with God’s eternal forgiveness. Matthew 18:21-22 reads: Then Peter came to Him and said, “Lord, how often shall my brother sin against me, and I forgive him? Up to seven times?,” Jesus said to him, “I do not say to you, up to seven times, but up to seventy times seven.”

Jesus isn’t telling us there is a numerical limit on the number of times we forgive others; he’s telling us there should be no limit to how often we forgive our brothers. Jehovah’s forgiveness is extended to us without limit, so how wrong it would be for us to deny our brothers and sisters such similar forgiveness. Back in the book of Matthew at 18:23-35, Jesus tells a parable:

“Therefore, the kingdom of heaven is like a king who wanted to settle accounts with his servants. As he began the settlement, a man who owed him ten thousand talents was brought to him. Since he was not able to pay, the master ordered that he and his wife and his children and all that he had be sold to repay the debt. The servant fell on his knees before him. “Be patient with me,” he begged, “and I will pay back everything.” The servant’s master took pity on him, canceled the debt and let him go.  

But when that servant went out, he found one of his fellow servants who owed him a hundred denarii. He grabbed him and began to choke him. “Pay back what you owe me!” he demanded. His fellow servant fell to his knees and begged him, “Be patient with me, and I will pay you back.” But he refused. Instead, he went off and had the man thrown into prison until he could pay the debt.

When the other servants saw what had happened, they were greatly distressed and went and told their master everything that had happened. Then the master called the servant in. “You wicked servant,” he said, “I cancelled all that debt of yours because you begged me to. Shouldn’t you have had mercy on your fellow servant just as I had on you?” In anger his master turned him over to the jailers to be tortured, until he should pay back all he owed. This is how my heavenly Father will treat each of you unless you forgive your brother from your heart.”

As long as the sinner is sorry, asks for forgiveness, and is not a predator of the innocent, they should never be expelled from the congregation. Jesus came to save sinners and help them, and the congregation should rally around to offer practical help and encouragement to help the contrite sinner overcome his weakness.

The reason is often given that the sinner who shows a pattern of offending is a corrosive influence in the congregation and must be cut out like a gangrenous cancer.  This may be the case if the brother or sister is actually influencing others in the congregation into sinning or is abusing children, but if there is no evidence of this at all, then provided the sinner is trying to desist from the sin, is sorry and asks for help and forgiveness, it is completely contrary to Christian love to kick them out under some kind of “three strikes and you’re out” policy or similar. The test of true Christianity is showing “love amongst yourselves” (John 13:35), and “love covers over a multitude of sins”.  There is nothing loving about coldly shunning a sinner who in all other respects maintains their belief in God and the Bible.

It is easy for the Watchtower to say that its organisation is a “spiritual paradise” when the sinners are kicked out, with often little to no help given to help the sinner overcome the weakness. (Despite expelling otherwise upstanding persons for relatively minor sins such as occasional smoking or visiting a casino, the organisation has policies that make it virtually impossible for elders to expel a paedophile who denies guilt). Most help offered is in the form of advice to attend more meetings and field service, and possibly to engage in an extra programme of study from selected Watchtower publications. After being disfellowshipped, the elders are meant to try and contact the person once a year to remind them what they need to do to get reinstated, but even this perfunctory gesture occurs in the exception.

Many otherwise good persons in the congregation with a love for Jehovah and the Bible are disfellowshiped for having been overcome by sin. They are not wicked persons with hardened hearts who couldn’t care less about their relationship with God any longer.  The Elders Manual contains legalistic rules and processes which, in the case of repeated offending, stops the elders from distinguishing the difference between a wicked and a weak person, and extending mercy where they are scripturally required to do so.

the-prodigal-son-01

The Prodigal Son

Even if the disfellowshipped person is genuinely repentant (but could not impress this on the three elders at the judicial committee) and ceases the sinful activity, and wants to be reinstated to the congregation, they are forced to attend meetings for many months, a year, or sometimes longer, all the while being shunned and ignored. Usually the disfellowshipped person only arrives at the Kingdom Hall as the meeting commences and leaves immediately the session ends, and is never spoken to the entire time by any members of the congregation, even not by their close family, eg, a teenager is expected to ignore their disfellowshipped parent. This humiliating experience is considered necessary for the person to demonstrate their true repentance. After at least 6 months, the disfellowshipped person can then write a letter to the Presiding Overseer asking for reinstatement. After some weeks or months, the Presiding Overseer will arrange for the original three elders who disfellowshipped the congregation member to meet together with the disfellowshipped person to deliberate on whether they should be readmitted or not, based on their meeting attendance and any other ‘proof’ of repentance during the period of isolation from the congregation. If given the ok, an announcement is made at the next meeting that they are no longer disfellowshipped, but the person is still subjected to certain reduced ‘privileges’ for a period of 6 months to a year or so, eg, they are not allowed to answer up at the meetings or give prayers.

All of this stands in contrast to the parable of the prodigal son. In that account, the father ran out to meet his remorseful and returning son as he saw him coming up the road, and he ordered a special feast to be prepared for him. There was no reluctance or hesitation on the father’s part, and no quarantining or restrictions for a period of time. On the contrary, like a shepherd eager to bring his lost sheep back into the flock, the father went out of his way to greet and welcome the sinful family member. The prodigal son was left in no doubt that he was still greatly loved.

Similarly, at 1 Corinthians 5, the sin was well known and Paul wrote it publicly in a letter for all to know. There was no secrecy or doubt as to what the man was being removed for. Paul then told the congregation to reassure the contrite sinner of their love for him when it was clear he had repented, telling them not to prolong the punishment lest the man become so dispirited that his faith is jeopardised and he becomes unrecoverable.  How is this compatible with Jehovah’s Witnesses practice of coldly and continually shunning a person who fell into a course of sin but who never professed any disbelief in Christianity, and who was disfellowshiped many years ago, and for a sin that the congregation never knew about?

Harshly disfellowshipping someone who has expressed sorrow and willingness to readjust, even if the genuineness of the repentance is doubted, is a grave matter. By being denied the wholesome spiritual association of the congregation and their friends and even family, the sinner often has little to no chance of spiritual healing. They are left on their own without help and encouragement at their weakest ebb, and must also endure a sometimes long period of isolation and humiliation before being reinstated. Many give up, emotionally traumatised, ashamed, and too weak to break their sinful lifestyle on their own strength.  Unmerciful elders who fail to give the benefit of the doubt and harshly disfellowship such ones under some unspoken “three strikes you’re out” and other legalistic rules, whether from the elders manual or not, should take to heart Jesus warning at Matthew 18: “But whoever stumbles one of these little ones who put faith in me, it is more beneficial for him to have hung around his neck a millstone such as is turned by an ass and to be sunk in the wide, open sea.”

Conclusion

It is apparent from this examination of these abused texts that there is no justification in Scripture for the Watchtower Society’s extreme position of requiring all congregation members to totally shun a disfellowshiped person in all circumstances. It must always be remembered that the primary purpose of congregation discipline at all stages is to reclaim the sinner to fellowship. The extent to which the disfellowshiped person should be disciplined is to be denied Christian association and social interaction. There is no prohibition in Scripture against extending normal human courtesy and kindness, such as saying “hello, how are you?” when incidentally encountering a disfellowshiped person in the street or at a shop, for example. In fact, the apostolic instruction is to keep admonishing them spiritually, ie, to proactively encourage them to see the need to change their sinful course, while being careful to guard one’s own spirituality. Galatians 6:1: “Brothers, if someone is caught in a sin, you who are spiritual should restore him gently. But watch yourself, or you also may be tempted.” (NIV)

Basically, the correct scriptural position for the organisation to take would be to revert to the policy stated by Judge Rutherford at the outset of this article, here quoted again:

“According to this Scripture the very most that the church could do would be that, after having vainly endeavoured to get the brother to repent and reform, it should withdraw special brotherly fellowship from him until such time as he would express willingness thereafter to do right. Then he should be received again into full fellowship….In the meantime the brother may merely be treated in the kindly, courteous way in which it would be proper for us to treat any publican or Gentile, withholding the special rights or privileges or greetings or voting opportunities that belong to the church as a class separate from the world” Watchtower 1919 Mar 1 p.69

Unfortunately, I strongly doubt the Watchtower Society will ever moderate its position. Why? Basically, for the same reasons the 1947 Awake magazine quoted earlier criticized Christendom for. The current hardline policy serves the Governing Body well in maintaining their unquestioned authority over all the flock, and as a weapon to expell all dissenters.

The fear of being expelled from the religious community was likewise used by the religious leaders in Jesus’ time to maintain their power.  At John 9:18-34, the Pharisees threw out a healed blind man who questioned the correctness of their views.  This fear influenced the whole community, and was used to try and suppress acceptance of the truth (about Jesus) in spite of all the evidence. Even some of the religious leaders themselves, such as Nicodemus, lived in fear of being expelled, causing them to only accept the truth in secret (John 3). The threat of being shunned by your family and friends can be a terrifying thought for someone whose entire social and family life revolves around fellow Jehovah’s Witnesses.

Unity at all costs is what holds the organisation together. Since it is an enforced unity, it is really uniformity masquerading as genuine unity. This is the overarching concern of the Watchtower leadership and always will be. If the cost of this unity means that a certain number of persons might be harshly expelled along the way, this is an acceptable price to pay in the interests of absolute unity.

This was in fact admitted by senior Watchtower leaders in court in November 1954, during a trial held in Scotland in which the Watchtower Society tried to establish before the British court that certain of its members were ordained ministers. High ranking leaders of the Society testified during this trial, including vice President Fred Franz and legal counsel for the Society, Haydon C. Covington.

Reproduced verbatim below is a portion of Haydon Covington’s testimony before the attorney for the Ministry of Labour and National Service concerning the Watchtower Society’s former belief that Jesus became spiritually present in 1874:

Q. Back to the point now. A false prophecy was promulgated?

A. I agree with that.

Q. It had to be accepted by Jehovah’s Witnesses?

A. That is correct.

Q. If a member of Jehovah’s Witnesses took the view himself that that prophecy was wrong and said so he would be disfellowshipped?

A. Yes, if he said so and kept persisting in creating trouble, because if the whole organisation believes one thing, even though it be erroneous and somebody else starts on his own trying to put his ideas across then there is disunity and trouble, there cannot be harmony, there cannot be marching. When a change comes it should come from the proper source, the head of the organisation, the governing body, not from the bottom upwards, because everybody would have ideas, and the organisation would disintegrate and go in a thousand different directions. Our purpose is to have unity.

Q. Unity at all costs?

A. Unity at all costs, because we believe and are sure that Jehovah God is using our organisation, the governing body of our organisation to direct it, even though mistakes are made from time to time.

Q. And unity based upon an enforced acceptance of false prophecy?

A. That is conceded to be true.

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