When one of Jehovah’s Witnesses does something that his local elders deem a serious offense against God and Watchtower, he will probably be disfellowshipped and therefore shunned by other Jehovah’s Witnesses. When I say that he’ll be shunned, I don’t mean he won’t get any presents on his birthday or that he won’t be invited over for Christmas. I mean that he is dead to them. In most cases, the Witnesses will simply pretend he’s invisible (like that episode from the Twilight Zone) and many will simply wander off if he attempts to communicate with them in any way. Either that, or they’ll get angry and blast him for it.
They call it “congregation discipline.” When they speak of it, they make it sound like it’s a punishment from Jehovah God himself. In reality, the decision to disfellowship is made during a closed-door session with three local elders. It’s how they keep their followers in line.
So how does it work and how far does it go? Technically, people living in the same household aren’t required to shun one another or expel the wrongdoer. But I know of many cases where the local elders did pressure parents to kick out their adult (18 years old+) children even if those children had no where else to go. Since good Jehovah’s Witnesses are supposed to obey their elders, this can put the parents of the disfellowshipped person in a tight spot. So while the elders can make it hard for the family, at least they do have the right to say no to the elders. That’s mostly because the Society hasn’t made expelling family members from the home mandatory, even though shunning in every other respect is mandatory.
There’s no rule that forces married couples to split up if one of them is disfellowshiped. But many do. It should be noted that the Society encourages couples in this situation to stay married in the hope that the “wrongdoer” can be brought back to the light with the help of his or her devoted spouse. That fact has not stopped many Jehovah’s Witnesses from leaving spouses who have been disfellowshipped, however, especially if the disfellowshipped individual was deemed to be an apostate. Many Witnesses will leave their disfellowshipped spouse for fear that they will be lead astray, or because they want to prove that their love for Jehovah is greater than their love for their spouse. The Witness hopes that this will ensure his own survival when Armageddon strikes and avert any chance that Jehovah will hold them guilty of bad association.
Despite the rigidity of the rules about disfellowshipped individulas, some exceptions do get made at some Kingdom Halls.
There are cases where Jehovah’s Witnesses are given special permission to write to – or even talk to (gasp!) a disfellowshipped person. These are usually special cases where an exception has been granted by local elders just once and only once. There are also stories – legends, almost – of congregations so liberal that they allow Witnesses to have some level of regular contact with disfellowshipped relatives so long as religion is not a topic of discussion. I have never seen this happen with my own eyes, but like Big Foot or alien abduction, it could be true. But it’s far from the norm. And more to the point, the Society’s literature makes it more than clear that it does not approve of any meaningful contact between its loyal Witnesses and disfellowshipped individuals for any reason. Period.
So here’s the bottom line: it doesn’t matter if it’s your best friend, your kids, your parents, or your siblings, all disfellowshipped individuals must be shunned by Jehovah’s Witnesses. Loyal Jehovah’s Witnesses are not to speak with them, write to them, or even eat a meal with them in silence. Note that even the sharing of meals with a disfellowshipped person is explicitly forbidden by the Society. The Society does allow disfellowshipped family members to live under the same roof as Witnesses in good standing, but in many cases, pressure from elders, the disapproval of other Witnesses, or even the family’s own fear of divine retribution can drive them to expel disfellowshipped members of the family.
Unless you ask the Watchtower Society or many of its Witnesses, that is…
Denial of Shunning
I had to put this in because it’s something you’ll hear from time to time. It’s also completely wrong.
The Watchtower Society – the corporation behind the teachings of Jehovah’s Witnesses – has publicly denied telling its Witnesses to shun the disfellowshipped on more than one occasion. One example comes from the The Independent:
Rick Fenton, a spokesperson for the Watchtower Society, insisted last night that ostracisation was “a personal matter for each individual to decide for himself”. “Any one of Jehovah’s Witnesses is free to express their feelings and to ask questions,” he said. “If a person changes their mind about Bible-based teachings they once held dear, we recognize their right to leave.”
I need to point out something here. When it comes to its more controversial practices, the Watchtower Society has a knack for … um … obfuscating the details, dare I to say. For instance, it is technically true that a person can change his mind about the Society’s “Bible-based teachings,” which he “once held dear.” Yes, he will be shunned for it and condemned to die at Armageddon like a mangy dog, but it’s not like they can chain him to the Kingdom Hall or cement him to the floor. So yes, technically, he can leave whenever he chooses. He just can’t leave with his friends, family, or his honor intact. I know former Witnesses who lost their jobs because they were employed by Jehovah’s Witnesses and, after being disfellowshipped, were fired. For some, even their livelihoods could be in jeopardy if they leave their Kingdom Hall.
So while it is technically true that Jehovah’s Witnesses are physically capable of choosing to leave the faith as the Society suggests, for many of them, it isn’t a real choice at all.
Another infamous example of an elder denying the practice of shunning to the public – in court, no less – can be found right here in glorious video. The overseer featured in the video starts out by hemming and hawing over the meaning of the word “shunning.” It takes a while for him finally deny that this is what Jehovah’s Witnesses are told to do. But deny it he does.
If there’s nothing wrong with the practice of shunning, then all of this denial seems pretty weird to me. Wouldn’t it be better – and more honest – to simply admit it and explain why it’s done?
Why Do They Deny Shunning?
There are several likely reasons. I suspect one of them has something to do with the fact that the Society has been sued more than once over the practice of shunning. It isn’t illegal to shun for religious reasons in the U.S., but defending yourself in court still takes a lot of money. Here’s another point: the Society isn’t just an American religion. It can be found in many countries, and some of them aren’t so tolerant of shunning in the legal sense. Maybe this, combined with a desire to avoid the whole creepy-cult-like-vibe that could run prospective converts down the road screaming, has something to do with it.
What’s even weirder is the fact that they talk about it – a lot – in their literature despite their denials to the media and courts. Even the Society’s website acknowledges that shunning exists, although the Society goes about this in its usual no-we-don’t, yes-we-do style of explanation. Let me show you what I mean.
Those who were baptized as Jehovah’s Witnesses but no longer preach to others, perhaps even drifting away from association with fellow believers, are not shunned. In fact, we reach out to them and try to rekindle their spiritual interest.
Oh, I guess I was wrong. They don’t shun … but wait.
If, however, a baptized Witness makes a practice of breaking the Bible’s moral code and does not repent, he or she will be shunned or disfellowshipped. The Bible clearly states:Remove the wicked man from among yourselves.—1 Corinthians 5:13.
Um … which is it, guys? Please note that the Society’s literature is full of contradictions like these, especially when that literature is open to public consumption. Somehow, Jehovah’s Witnesses usually know which lines count. Note that what the Society sees as a violation of the Bible’s moral code may not jive with yours and mine, but I’ll get to that in a minute.
Here’s another quote that is technically true but also leaves out certain details that you and I would probably deem important.
Disfellowshipped individuals may attend our religious services.
Yes, that’s true. In fact, attending meetings is a critical step for any disfellowshipped Witness who wants to be reinstated so he can have the ban on communication lifted. What the article doesn’t mention is that no one will speak to him, that he will have to sit alone, that he will have to scamper off with his head held low right after the prayer, or that anyone who does speak to him can be disfellowshipped too. So it’s not as if he’ll be welcomed with open arms. But hey, that’s probably not important. (Yes it is.) It’s not like that detail completely alters the impression made on anyone who reads the article, right? (Well, I think it does.)
More recently, on page 16 of the January 2013 edition of the Watchtower, under the article entitled “Let Nothing Distance You From Jehovah,” it tells Jehovah’s Witnesses the following:
Really, what your beloved family member needs to see is your resolute stance to put Jehovah above everything else – including the family bond… Do not look for excuses to associate with a disfellowshipped family member, for example, through e-mail. (1 Cor. 5:11).
Maybe it’s time they stopped pretending that this doesn’t happen? It’s starting to get embarrassing already.
Note that there are degrees of shunning. For instance, I was never officially disfellowshipped by my old Kingdom Hall. Yet many Jehovah’s Witnesses refuse to talk to me anyway. I’ve literally had some of them approach my wife to talk to her about her meeting attendance or to offer her the latest magazines (to remind her that she isn’t living up to their expectations) while completely ignoring me as if I wasn’t there. They have done this while literally standing three inches away.
While I was talking to them. Waving my arms. Jumping up and down. Offering to shake their hand. And getting nothing – not even an acknowledgement of my existence – in return.
As a former Witness, I am a very bad associate. So many Jehovah’s Witnesses will shun me even though I was never officially disfellowshipped. And that’s without any of them knowing that that I have written articles like this one. If they did, I would be disfellowshipped for it!
For many Witnesses, that’s a devastating loss of family, friends, even livelihoods.
I should mention that some Witnesses commit suicide after being disfellowshipped. I personally know of one case where a disfellowshipped Witness finally committed suicide after years of separation from his wife and children. His death had a big impact on many in the ex-Witness community. As you can imagine, developments like this don’t make the Society look very good, either.
What Can Get Jehovah’s Witnesses Disfellowshipped?
Only the most horrible of crimes! Like putting up a Christmas tree. Smoking. Openly disagreeing with the Society’s teachings. Expressing a lack of faith in the Society’s leaders or in Jehovah God. Accepting a life saving blood transfusion. Celebrating someone’s birthday. Premarital sex… Well, you know that last one would do it. They all hate the sex. And the gay. But you get my point. Surprisingly, masturbation won’t get you disfellowshipped. They don’t approve of it. I sure hope they aren’t checking you for it, either. But they consider it better than premarital sex.
Bear in mind that the rules about disfellowshipping do change from time to time. It used to be that you could be disfellowshipped just for going inside of a church (a place of worship that wasn’t in the control of Jehovah’s Witnesses) and for things like participating in “worldly” governments or joining the military. But those waters have gotten so muddy – and the teachings have changed so many times – that I hesitate to include them here. For now, just remember that those things are bad too.
In the end, Jehovah’s Witnesses do shun and they do it because the Watchtower Society tells them to. Many will deny it unless you ask the question in the right way. Don’t waste your time with something like, “Is it true that you guys shun your own family members?” Many of them will deny it if you ask it like that. Their excuse? Technically, they don’t call it shunning, which is the word you used when asking the question.
No, I’m really not joking.
But if you ask them, “Is it true that you refuse to talk or interact with family members who have been removed from the congregation for serious wrongdoing?” many more will admit it then. Just remember, once again, that their idea of serious wrongdoing isn’t the same as yours and mine.
Note that the Society’s Insight on the Scriptures book defines a lie in the following way:
The opposite of truth. Lying generally involves saying something false to a person who is entitled to know the truth and doing so with the intent to deceive or to injure him or another person.
Are we evil worldly-types entitled to know the truth about disfellowshipping? I bet you know the answer to that one.
But the truth is that Jehovah’s Witnesses do shun and shunning does irreparable harm to most of the people who experience it.