Why Disfellowshipping Is Wrong


Q. Why don’t you record a podcast talking about all the scriptures Jehovah’s Witnesses use relating to disfellowshipping and then explain why shunning is not scriptural?

A. Good idea! I have thought about doing this, but my opinion that disfellowshipping is wrong is actually independent of what the Bible says. Even if the Bible did advocate shunning in the way JWs apply it, I wouldn’t agree with it. I think how they go about things is cruel, barbaric, and a breach of human rights. Having said that, I also think the way disfellowshipping is implemented by Jehovah’s Witnesses is unscriptural, and in the past, they said essentially the same thing. In 1947 they spoke against the Catholic Church, Masons, Templars and others for their practice of ex-communication in a Watchtower article that denounced it as a “weapon” that “became the instrument by which the clergy attained a combination of ecclesiastical power.” Interestingly this article didn’t mention the scriptures that Watch Tower now uses to support disfellowshipping, in particular 1 Corinthians 5:11 and 2 John 10, although it did refer to verses 3 to 5 of First Corinthians chapter 5:

“This is ‘canon law’ which the Roman Catholic Hierarchy seeks to enforce on the pretext that it is God’s law. The authority for excommunication, they claim, is based on the teaching of Christ and the apostles as found in the following scriptures… But the Hierarchy’s excommunication and ‘medicinal remedy’… find no support in these scriptures. In fact, it is altogether foreign to Bible teachings… Where, then, did this practice originate? The Encyclopaedia Britannica says that papal excommunication is not without pagan influence… Thereafter, as the pretensions of the Hierarchy increased, the weapon of excommunication became the instrument by which the clergy attained a combination of ecclesiastical power and secular tyranny that finds no parallel in history.” — Golden Age January 8, 1947

Since then, Watch Tower has taken the Greek word sunanamignumi in 1 Corinthians 5:11 and rendered it “stop keeping company”, explaining that it means complete shunning, but it also uses the same word in 2 Thessalonians 3:14, there rendering it “stop associating with” to cover what they consider less serious sins (ie. they “mark” a person instead of disfellowshipping them). In the case of “marking” they say you should only withdraw social contact, because verse 15 says “yet do not consider him an enemy, but continue admonishing him as a brother.”

My understanding is that 1 Corinthians 5:11 refers to not eating with a man, which I consider to be the same level of withdrawal as 2 Thessalonians 3:14 (ie. it’s the same Greek word), whereas 2 John commands not to even greet a certain man. The man in question in John’s letter is not just a sinner but someone who denies that Christ came “in the flesh” and is therefore the “antichrist”. Clearly, we have two different writers talking about two different situations. Unlike John, I don’t think the apostle Paul was advocating complete shunning, especially in the case of family members, but as I say, if he was, I don’t think that’s very loving or “Christian” at all.

In my opinion, Watch Tower is a master at double speak. On one hand, they tell their members to have zero contact with family members who disassociate or disfellowship, apart from possible occasional “necessary family business”. On the other hand, their lawyers stand in court and say that disfellowshipping only applies to spiritual contact:

“Witnesses don’t use the word shun or shunning… They refer to it as disfellowship, disfellowshipping, disfellowshipped… Disfellowship literally means no further spiritual fellowship with the individual. As far as their family members are concerned, normal family relations continue with the exception of spiritual fellowship.” — David Gnam, Watch Tower Lawyer

Actually, Witnesses do use the word “shunning”. David Gnam is an example of a Watch Tower lawyer lying his socks off to make Watch Tower policy seem more reasonable.

Most brothers and sisters also don’t know that the elder’s book informs elders to merely counsel them if they associate with a disfellowshipped member. Many, myself included in the past, seem to think that if they have any association they run the risk of being disfellowshipped themselves, whereas it’s not so straightforward as that:

“If a publisher in the congregation is known to have unnecessary association with disfellowshipped or disassociated relatives who are not in the household, elders should use the Scriptures to counsel and reason with him… If it is clear that a Christian is violating the spirit of the disfellowshipping decree in this regard and does not respond to counsel, he would not qualify for congregation privileges, which require one to be exemplary. He would not be dealt with judicially unless there is persistent spiritual association or he persists in openly criticizing the disfellowshipping action.” — Shepherd the Flock of God chapter 12

I find it interesting that in 1974, The Watchtower had a much more reasonable view about how to treat disfellowshipped family members:

“As to disfellowshiped family members (not minor sons or daughters) living outside the home, each family must decide to what extent they will have association with such ones. This is not something that the congregational elders can decide for them. What the elders are concerned with is that “leaven” is not reintroduced into the congregation through spiritual fellowshiping with those who had to be removed as such “leaven.” Thus, if a disfellowshiped parent goes to visit a son or daughter or to see grandchildren and is allowed to enter the Christian home, this is not the concern of the elders. Such a one has a natural right to visit his blood relatives and his offspring. Similarly, when sons or daughters render honor to a parent, though disfellowshiped, by calling to see how such a one’s physical health is or what needs he or she may have, this act in itself is not a spiritual fellowshiping.” — Watchtower August 1, 1974 p. 471

In their public-facing literature (ie. Awake! magazine) they sanitize how disfellowshipping actually works. They even write articles like Is It Wrong to Change Your Religion? and make statements like “No one should be forced to worship in a way that he finds unacceptable or be made to choose between his beliefs and his family.”

With regards to disfellowshipped parents who divorce their spouses, they’ve even said this:

“Neither divorce nor expulsion from the Christian congregation ends a parent-child relationship; children continue to need both parents.” — Awake! September 22, 1991

But then they publish the following:

“What if we have a relative or a close friend who is disfellowshipped? Now our loyalty is on the line, not to that person, but to God. Jehovah is watching us to see whether we will abide by his command not to have contact with anyone who is disfellowshipped.” — Watchtower April 15, 2012 p. 12

“What your beloved family member needs to see is your resolute stance to put Jehovah above everything else — including the family bond.” — Watchtower January 15, 2013 p. 16

“Do not look for excuses to associate with a disfellowshipped family member, for example, through e-mail.” — Watchtower January 15, 2013 p. 16

It’s these inconsistencies in Watch Tower publications that really frustrate me. They can basically say whatever they like, even contradicting themselves, and Jehovah’s Witnesses are then able to cherry-pick which stance they want to take. It’s not right.