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Institutionally Enforced Shunning

A Biblical Precedent?

When individual members of Jehovah's Witnesses engage in an activity that the organization designates a "serious" or "gross" sin, they are subject to discipline. The first step is to bring the offender before a judicial body of three elders so that they may question the individual to ascertain the seriousness of the sin and the attitude of the individual about it. If it is determined that the person is unrepentant for the wrong (whether he or she claims to be or not), then that person is "disfellowshipped" (excommunicated) from the congregation. After this occurs, the rest of the members of the congregation are required to shun that person. The individual is free to attend congregation meetings, but will continue to be ignored by the others until such a time has passed that the elders are convinced that the person is now repentant of his or her sin. After this, the individual may be reinstated after meeting again with a judicial committee. As long as a person is in a disfellowshipped state, he or she is considered to be out of favor with God and subject to destruction at Armageddon.

The reformation movement is opposed to institutionally mandated shunning, because it is a policy that is in direct contradiction to Scripture and usurps authority that should be in the hands of congregation members. The central Governing Body uses this practice to maintain its grip of power, control the lives of others, and weed out any who might question its authority. The men who constitute this group have no right to do this. The practice must stop immediately. As long as it continues, Jehovah's spirit cannot operate fully on the worldwide brotherhood.

The Witness leadership teaches that the practice of disfellowshipping is called for by the apostle Paul in his letters. The chief scriptural passage relied upon is 1 Cor. 5: 1-13.

Paul indeed does speak of 'handing a person over to Satan' for certain offenses and that such a 'handing over' meant taking the person away from the midst of the congregation (5:2,5). He also urges the members of the congregations to go further and refrain from "mixing in company" with the offender, "not even eating" with such a person (5:11). 

The Governing Body of Jehovah's Witnesses asserts that the action Paul calls for here is a complete shunning of the individual who has been "handed over to Satan." Is this really the case? Further discussion of what it means not to "mix in company" (sunanamignusthai) with a person like this is given in Paul's second letter to the Thessalonians:

"But if anyone is not obedient to our word through this letter, keep this one marked, stop associating with him (sunanamignusthai), that he may become ashamed. And yet do not be considering him as an enemy, but continue admonishing him as a brother" (2 Thess. 3:14-15).

Paul uses the same word here as in 1 Corinthians and makes it clear that not to mix in company with someone does not mean a complete shunning, for he urges his readers to keep admonishing the one with whom they are not to associate. In order to do that, they would have to speak to that person. Congregation members, therefore, would limit their association with one who has been "handed over to Satan," not enjoying a meal of fellowship with that person, but would not shun them completely. The Governing Body, however, to avoid this obvious  conclusion deliberately created a new category of congregational discipline called "marking" to which they could apply 2 Thessalonians and separate it from 1 Corinthians. However, there is no other place in the Bible that speaks of "marking." It is a concoction made for the sole purpose of explaining away 2 Thessalonians 3:14-15, so that it could not be applied to disfellowshipped ones.   

An even more important difference between what Paul calls for and what the modern organization of Jehovah's Witnesses does  is that Paul tells the entire congregation of Corinthians that they themselves should be the judges of such issues and should gather together as a group to make decisions in this regard (5:4, 12; 6:2-4), whereas the leaders of Jehovah's Witnesses designate representatives to decide these matters for the congregation, and then the congregation is required to abide by the decisions made. Paul clearly calls all of the Corinthians judges and considers them wise enough to make these decisions. By ignoring this counsel, the Witness leaders place the elders in the congregation on a level higher than the congregation and promotes a clergy-laity distinction. When serving in a judicial capacity, the elders forsake their role as shepherds and fellow brothers and become masters over the faith of others.

One might argue that Paul was speaking only to the elders in the Corinthian congregation when he said this. However, if that were true, then his counsel not to speak to disfellowshipped ones should also then be directed to the elders, but such a conclusion does not coincide with the Governing Body's policy that elders are permitted to speak to disfellowshipped ones and admonish them to change their ways.     

Paul gives a list of offenses for which someone might be "handed over to Satan." Actually, it is inaccurate to say "a list of offenses;" the list is of types of people, and these are fornicators, greedy persons, idolators, revilers, drunkards, and extortioners (5:11). In another letter he appears to add "blasphemers" (1 Tim. 1:20). Notice that he does not say “someone who commits fornication” or “someone who commits idolatry.” He says, “a fornicator” and “an idolater.” Clearly he is referring to practicers of these sins, and these persons are not presumed future practicers or potential practicers. They are practicers. This explains why the entire congregation would be involved in the decision to remove the person from their midst--they are all privy to the person's conduct already.

The organization of Jehovah’s Witnesses has added a long list of other offenses for which someone might be disfellowshipped. These include: manslaughter, lying, obscene speech, failure to abstain from blood, refusal to provide materially for one’s family, non-neutral activities, fits of anger, misuse of tobacco or addictive drugs, loose conduct, associating with a disfellowshipped person, and several activities that come under the “apostasy” umbrella and have to do with syncretism, like attending meetings of another religious group, working secularly for another religious organization, celebrating a religious holiday, and the possession of images or pictures employed in another religion (Pay Attention, pp. 92-96). Is it justifiable to add to Paul’s words? Should the organization go beyond what is written? The reformation movement thinks not. If it is not called for in the Bible, then clearly it was not important enough for God to have included it (1 Cor. 4:6; Gal. 1:9).

With these scriptural thoughts in mind, we are asking the organization to change its policy when it comes to disfellowshipping. First, the offenses which might suggest a person's danger to the congregation should not go beyond scripture. Second, a person should be a known practicer of such things before coming before the judgment of the congregation. Thirdly, the shunning is not to be a complete shunning, but only limited. Lastly, judgment should be left up to members of the congregation. If we follow the first-century example strictly, this would be done as a group. If not, then individuals could make the judgments for themselves.

See further, "A History of Shunning"

Can You Be True to God Yet Hide the Facts?
"When persons are in great danger from a source that they do not suspect or are being misled by those they consider their friends, is it an unkindness to warn them? They may prefer not to believe the warning. They may even resent it. But does that free one from the moral responsibility to give that warning? If you are among those seeking to be faithful to God, the issues these questions raise are vital for you today. Why? Because God's servants in every period of history have had to face up to the challenge these issues present. They have had to expose falsehood and wrongdoing and warn people of dangers and deception—not just in a general way, but in a specific way, in the interest of pure worship. It would have been far easier to keep silent or say only what people wanted to hear. But faithfulness to God and love of neighbor moved them to speak. They realized that 'better is a revealed reproof than a concealed love.'" (Watchtower, January 15, 1974)
Should Falsehood and Corruption Be Exposed?
"How will you respond when pointed statements are made about false religious teachings and corrupt practices? Will you immediately condemn the person or organization making the exposé? Do you feel it is all right to teach lies and misrepresent God's Word, but wrong to expose the error? Contrary to what some may think, it is not unkind and unloving to lay bare falsehood and corruption." (Watchtower, March 1, 1966)
Discussion Forum (off site)
Bethsarim JW Reform Forum
Sites of Interest
Note: The following sites are supportive of the faith of Jehovah's Witnesses. At the same time, they promote, in one way or another, freeness of speech about the workings and teachings of the JW organization and show where improvement is needed..
Make Sure of All Things
New Light on Blood
Silent Lambs
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