Cultic Hate: Disfellowshipping and Shunning

In 1981, the Watchtower Society headquarters in Brooklyn was shaken by a series of schisms that led to many people leaving the organization. The opposition was led by a Canadian Professor, James Penton, whose family had been among Charles Russell’s earliest converts. Penton and the other JWs with him sought to reform the organization by an emphasis on justification by faith and return to their original interest in Bible study. The Watchtower Society strongly rejected their arguments and expelled everyone who supported their views. They were disfellowshipped.

It is estimated that about 1% of JWs worldwide, either leave the religion on their own (disassociation) or get expelled for various offences every year. In 1986 alone, 37,426 JWs “had to be disfellowshipped from the Christian congregation, the greater number of them for practicing sexual immorality.” (The Watchtower, Sept. 15, 1987, 13).

Disfellowshipping “is what Jehovah’s witnesses appropriately call the expelling and subsequent shunning of such an unrepentant wrong doer ” (WT, Sept. 15, 1981, 22). Once a person has been disfellowshipped in this way, every JW is mandated to shun him or her. In other words regard him/her as invisible or dead.

The disfellowshipped one is also reminded that “if one should remain in this disfellowshiped condition till he died, it would mean his everlasting destruction as a person who is rejected by God. Staying away from from meetings leads in that very direction.” (WT, Dec 15, 1965, 751) For those who believe the Watchtower Society is God’s mouthpiece, this declaration is psychologically, emotionally and spiritually damaging.

Interestingly, this religion says: “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.” (WT 7/07/p. 29) I have to link this remark with an article in the same magazine 4 years later. It warns JWs to stay clear of “false teachers” who are labelled as “mentally diseased” apostates who must be avoided at all cost:

“What is involved in avoiding false teachers? We do not receive them into our homes or greet them. We also refuse to read their literature, watch television programmes that feature them, examine their website or add our comments to their blogs.” (g7/11/ p. 16)

Let me rephrase this, replacing the “false teachers” with “Jehovah’s Witnesses”:

“What is involved in avoiding Jehovah’s Witnesses? We do not receive them into our homes or greet them. We also refuse to read their literature, watch television programmes that feature them, examine their website, or add our comments to their blogs.”

Can JWs see how “loving” this is? If this had appeared in a Protestant Christian magazine, it would have spewed an Awake! persecution-conscious article. A lapsed JW, told a British magazine:

“Many like me remain associated with the Watchtower out of fear of being uncovered as an ‘apostate’ and ousted, not just from the organization, but from their own friends and families. I find I am now branded as ‘mentally diseased’ – giving any who discovers my true beliefs free license to treat me with disdain.”

Rick Fenton, a JW spokesperson, said ostracisation of ex-members is “a personal matter for each individual to decide for himself” but concedes that “if a person changes their mind about Bible -based teachings they once held dear, we recognise their right to leave.” (The Independent, Sept. 26, 2011) Most JWs like Fenton have mastered ways of using cliched, rehearsed words to couch their beliefs in public. Shunning ex-members can’t be a “personal matter” since its demanded by “the Society.” This is not about recognising “their right to leave” but how they are being treated after they leave the group.

What Qualifies for Disfellowshipping?

In answering the question if JWs shun former members of their religion. They said:

“Those who are 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. 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 disfellowshiped – 1Cor. 5:13”

Again, they are serving cliched, flowery answers which tries to hoodwink the public. Let’s break it down. A baptized Witness who disassociates himself is visited by the elders. They “rekindle his spiritual interest” by knowing his stance – if he is willing to retrace his steps and submit to the organization or has quit his membership. If he voices the second option, he is to be shunned as a disfellowshipped person. Disassociation and disfellowship tend to go hand in hand.

Several things can call for a disfellowship. Some of them are:

a) Apostasy (e.g reading ex-JW or “apostate” literature)
b) Adultery (remarriage without permission, polygamy etc)
c) Associating with disfellowshipped people
d) Blood transfusion
e) Smoking
f) Drug use
g) False worship (e.g attending a Christian church)
h) Employment violating “theocratic” principles (e.g serving in the military or working in a religious organization)
i) Fornication
j) Sexual perversion e.g homosexuality, lesbianism etc.
k) Loose conduct e.g disrespect to elders, incest, oral sex, anal sex etc.
l) Gambling
m) Spiritism – idolatry, worldly celebrations (e.g birthdays, Easter etc).

From this list, we can infer that the JW slogan of “breaking the Bible’s moral code” is unduly overstretched. Nowhere does the Bible calls for disfellowship of believers because of smoking, gambling, blood transfusion or attending another church.

When a JW is found guilty of any of these offences, he is summoned before a Judicial Committee consisting of at least 3 elders. An ex-JW describes this as a “kangaroo court with the trappings of the Inquisition.” This is the deal: “If genuine repentance is not manifest to the elders who serve on a judicial committee, they must disfellowship the person … such a decision is a loving one.” (WT, April, 15, 2015)

How loving is this decision? These elders act as the jury, prosecutor and judge. They determine if the person has repented or not, thus forcing people to publicly disclose
things that should be kept private. For some years, married couples faced interrogation by elders about their “bedroom habits”, and those indulging in “lewd practice” were disfellowshipped. This intrusion into marital privacy caused many marriages to break up. The policy was later revoked in the February 15, 1978 edition of The Watchtower (pp 30-32).

Were the disfellowshipped reinstated? After all, once a person is disfellowshipped, his sentence is permanent, unless “the Society” formally reinstates him. For decades, tens of thousands of JWs worldwide went to prison to avoid being disfellowshipped for accepting the offer of non-military alternative service. This policy was quietly reversed in 1996 (WT, May, 1, 1996). Yet thousands of families had been destroyed over this Pharisaical policy, changed without a single apology.

The use of the term “repentance” in the context of disfellowship is also vague and misleading. Take the case of Shirley Jackson as an example. She had earlier expressed her doubt in the JW religion because of the spiritual emptiness she felt. When her daughter was sexually molested by another JW, she reported the case to the police. The elders visited her and charged her with “speaking against a brother” and gave her 24 hours to repent. She didn’t, and was disfellowshipped. How could she “repent” and look the other way, sacrificing her daughter’s well-being to uphold the image of the religion? Is this fair?

In the case of “apostasy”- leaving the JW religion after realizing its a sham – you can’t “repent” unless you are re-convinced that the Watchtower Society is God’s organization. What sin is there to repent of? When you come to the realization that the religion you gave your allegiance to has deceived you for years, you have not sinned, you have actually been sinned against! So the “does not repent” excuse is not relevant.

A Hateful Provision

Shunning and disfellowshiping former members is called a “loving provision,” but such nice-sounding words fall apart when the cruelty and injustice underpining them are unraveled. If you think this is a religion of love, you need to look again. The grass you thought was greener on the other side is actually dyed, dead grass.

The first Watchtower use of the term “disfellowship” was by Charles Russell:

“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.” (WT 1882 Dec., 423)

This view seems to be more Biblical than what JWs practice today. The modern definition of “disfellowhip” they follow was introduced in 1952. Here is a sample of it:

“Well, the reason for disfellowshipping is that some persons get into the congregation of God that do not love Christ. Those who are acquainted with the situation in the congregation should never say Hello or Goodbye to him. He is not welcome in our midst, we avoid him. Such an individual has no place in the clean organization or congregation of God. He should go back to the wicked group that he once came from and die with that wicked group, with Satan’s organization” (WT Mar. 1, 1952, 131, 134).

Since 1981, the treatment of the disfellowshipped has become harsher, perhaps due to the crisis in Brooklyn. The current laws are:

“We do not have spiritual or social fellowship with disfellowshipped
ones.” (WT, Sept 15, 1981, 25)

“And all members of the congregation need to be determined to avoid the company of disfellowshiped individuals.” (WT, Nov. 15, 2011)

“God’s Word states that we should ‘not even eat with such a man’ (1Cor. 5:11). Hence, we also avoid social fellowship with an expelled person. This would rule out joining him in a picnic, party, ball game, or trip to the mall or theater or sitting down to meal with him either in the home or at a restaurant” (Kingdom Ministry, Aug. 2002, 3).

“If after sufficient warning the publisher [baptized JW] persists in associating with the disfellowshipped person instead of aligning himself with Jehovah’s organization he also should be disfellowshipped.” (WT, 1995, Oct. 1, 607)

They also dismissed Jesus’ command to love our enemies:

“Jesus encouraged his followers to love their enemies, but God’s Word also says to ‘hate what is bad.’ When a person persists in a way of badness after knowing what is right, when the bad becomes so ingrained that it is an inseparable part of his make-up, then in order to hate what is bad a Christian must hate the person with whom the badness is inseparably linked.” (WT, Jul. 15, 1961, 420)

Once you scrap the “loving provision” label, there is nothing under it. A disfellowshiped person’s name is usually announced from the pulpit so that JWs must shun and hate him. While he has a morbid fear of being destroyed at Armageddon for being cast out of Jehovah’s organization, he is also rejected by his people. This is why we need to love and support ex-JWs. There is a high cost involved in leaving this religion.

When a person is so expelled, he is seen as a traitor and shunned by his family, friends, JW co-workers and members. Many ex-JWs have committed suicide or broken down mentally as a result. There are many heart breaking examples. I know an ex-JW who was pursued out of the house by his father who brandished a cutlass at him. A religion that compels people to hate and denounce their own loved ones for leaving their circle is a hate cult. To call this cruel action a “loving provision” is an insult to love.

It must be noted that the word “disfellowship” does not appear once in the Bible, and the Bible verses JWs use as support have little relevance:

1. 1Cor. 5:11. Only 6 categories of sinners are listed here and the passage does not say they should be totally shunned but only limits association with them. Apostle Paul was addressing a specific case of a fornicator here (vs 1-2). When majority of the church in Corinth didn’t accept him after he repented, Paul wrote to them to receive him back so that he won’t be overwhelmed with sorrow (2Cor, 2:6-8). This is far from what JWs do.

2. Luke 15:11-24. JWs claim shunning is done to bring ex-members “to their senses.”
This is emotional manipulation. The prodigal son was not “shunned” or “disfellowshipped” – he walked away and returned of his own accord. No judicial committee was needed to assess his repentance. He returned to his father, not to a religious organization. The Lord gave guidelines for excommunication in Matt. 18:15-17, and since He greeted and ate with tax collectors, we are not to shun sinners as well.

3. II John 10,11. Apostle John was specifically referring to those “who confess not that Jesus Christ is come in the flesh. This is a deceiver and an antichrist” (v 7). The statement “receive him not into your house” must be understood in terms of 1st century Jewish culture. The show of hospitality to Christian travellers or evangelists was culturally important. The early churches also met in homes, thus, this was to keep those denying Christ out of the church. This is unlike JWs whose allegiance is to their organization and not Christ. They disfellowship anyone who questions the Watchtower leadership, even if he truly believes in Christ.

Cult expert, Ronald Enroth was apt to observe that: “Cults require conformity to established practices and beliefs and readily exercise sanctions against the wayward. Those who fail to demonstrate the proper allegiance, who raise too many questions, disobey the rules or openly rebel are punished, formally excommunicated or merely asked to leave the group.” (What is a Cult? 1982, 32)

Advertisements

Evaluating Movements within the Church

 

For decades, there have been doctrinal trends or movements that have emerged in the church. Not all of them are harmful. Just as the Holy Spirit enlightens Believers and gives more insight into certain Scriptural truths reviving the Body of Christ, Satan also uses false movements to lead Christians astray. I must add, however, that a genuine movement – usually due to apostasy – can degenerate into a false one.

For instance, we’ve had the House Church movement in which Christians met in homes instead of church buildings; the Inner Healing movement which involved “healing of memories;” Branhamism, based on the teachings of William Branham and the Third Wave movement which emerged from the Charismatic movement. Evaluating movements within the church is part of Christian discernment. For a movement to be so described, it must have influenced people across denominational lines. Let’s now do a brief analysis of some popular ones.

1. The Emerging (or Contemplative) church movement.

This is a movement with divergent beliefs – a mixture of Orthodox, Catholic, liberal Protestant and Evangelical theology. It is termed “emerging” because it embraces a postmodern view in which the church is expected to adapt to the culture or spirituality of the world systems, thus its “emerging.”

The Emerging movement teaches “the theory that denies absolutism and insists that morality and religion are relative to the people who embrace them” (Modern Reformation Magazine, 2005, 14:4). In other words, they are not sure about what is right or wrong, neither does it really matter, because whatever you embrace is true for you. One of its leaders, Brian McLauren, dismisses parts of the Bible as Paul’s “personal opinions” while Rob Bell, another leader, says he has discovered “the Bible is a human product.” On Oprah show, he says “the church will continue to be even more irrelevant when it quotes letters from 2,000 years ago as their best defense.”

The Emerging church practice meditation, mysticism, yoga, use of prayer altars, candles, icons, centering prayer, visualization and other occult techniques. They also reject the substitutionary atonement of Christ as “a form of cosmic child abuse by a vengeful Father punishing his Son for an offence he didn’t commit.”

2. The Word of Faith (WOF) movement.

This movement teaches that faith is a force which can be applied by Christians (who are “little gods”) to speak positive, creative words just as God did at creation. Armed with this “God kind of faith,” one can dispel all sickness, poverty and control all of life’s circumstances. Though there are slight doctrinal variations among the WOF camp, its teachings on “positive confession,” Christians being gods, the denial of Jesus as the “only begotten Son” and His spiritual death in hell came from Essek Kenyon, a Baptist preacher. There is stronger evidence that he borrowed these doctrines from the Higher Life Movement (Robert Bowman Jnr. The Word-Faith Controversy, 2001).

Kenneth Hagin repeated Kenyon’s teachings and from him, they spread to Copeland, Paulk, Tilton, Dollar and other key WOF preachers. Through Christian TV and books, their teachings are being widely disseminated in Africa and other continents. Most, if not all, of WOF teachers claim to derive their teachings from Jesus Himself through visions or special revelations (thus are called “revelation knowledge”).

WOF leaders adjust Bible passages to rhyme with their peculiar doctrines. For example, Joel Osteen said God made Zechariah dumb “because God knew that Zacharias’ negative words would cancel out His plan. God knows the power of our words, He knows that we prophesy our future.” But no one who lets this passage speak for itself would come to this conclusion. He also said “Your words have creative power.” This is often laced with an alteration of Mark 11:22 “You shall have whatever you say!” Thus, man is in control while God takes a backseat.

WOF doctrines make adherents deny symptoms of sicknesses or shun medical treatment. This can be potentially dangerous. The movement’s obsession with materialism also raises some questions. The teaching that Jesus was dragged into hell to atone for sin utterly changes the place of redemption from the cross to hell (Col. 2:15).

3. The Hebrew Roots Movement (HRM)

This is a philosophy or a shared concept that Jewish traditions or Judaism are far superior, and are a sure way for Christians to have a deeper relationship with Christ, sanctification or even salvation. It’s a diversified movement made up of individuals or groups, ranging from the Jerusalem School of Synoptic Research to pop Judaism. Some adherents are called “Messianic Jews.” But a theme common to them is the idea that restoring the Jewish roots or following Jewish traditions is the only authentic form of Christianity.

The Sacred Name movement, for example, teaches that “Yahweh” is the only name to be used for God, and “Yahshua” for Jesus (varies from group to group – Yahuwah, Yeshua, Yahwah, Yahoshua etc). The use of any other name is deemed idolatry or blasphemy. They adhere more to the Talmuds than the New Testament. The Talmuds contain later traditions, customs and practices formulated when the Jews had no temple, priesthood or animal sacrifices and were completed about 400-500 years after Christ (The Encyclopedia of Jewish Religion, 1965, 374).

The HRM also observe Jewish feasts, festivals and laws, even though such requirements are not binding on Gentile Christians (Acts 15:19, Col 2:16-17). First century Judaism had different sects – the School of Shammai, Hillel, the Sadducees, the Zealots, Herodians and the Essenes – so its subjective to hold to any Jewish tradition as a valid path to spiritual fulfillment. This trend is hard for many non-Jews to adjust to because it makes Jewishness next to Godliness, whereas, saved Jews and Gentiles are one body in Christ (see Eph 3:1-8).

4. The Ecumenical Movement.

This is a unity of all non-Catholic churches with the Catholic church which came from the Vatican II Council (1962-1965) stating that “there may be one visible church of God, a Church truly universal and sent forth to the whole world.”

In 1967, some Pentecostals began holding prayer meetings with Catholics in Pittsburgh and Notre Dame where many Catholics spoke in tongues. This led to the Catholic Charismatic movement and was attributed to the Holy Spirit uniting the church. One of the first prophesies in these meetings was that “what Mary promised at Fatima was really going to take place” (The Pentecostal Movement in the Catholic Church, 1971, 58).

Later, ecumenical meetings began incorporating Hindus, Buddhists, Muslims, New Agers and animists in praying for world peace. Today, ecumenism has spread across denominations and church societies with the idea that all religions worship the same God, only differing in the details. Though many ecumenists today (like Rick Warren) drone on uniting religions through social work or activism, in reality, it has failed to create unity. It also dismisses clear Bible commands against ungodly partnership with unbelievers or heretics (2Cor. 6:12).

Fruits of a True Movement

Bible teacher, Derek Prince, in his book, Protection from Deception highlights ways to discern if a movement is true or false.

I. The Fruit of Exalting Jesus.
The Holy Spirit always glorifies Jesus Christ (Jh 16:13-14), therefore, a true movement glorifies or exalts Jesus Christ. He is the Head of the church and must have the preeminence in it. The Holy Spirit does not exalt human personalities or traditions in place of Christ.

II. The Fruit of Respect for Scripture.
The Lord Jesus Himself called Scripture “the Word of God” and said “the Scripture cannot be broken.” (Mk. 7:13, Jh 10:35). God does not take His Word lightly, and He doesn’t esteem those who don’t tremble at His Word (Is 66:2). A true movement takes the Bible as its final authority while a false one tries to subjugate it to its experiences or agenda.

III. The Fruit of Repentance
Repentance is one of the first messages of the New Testament (Mt 3:2, Mk 1:15). It is a decision to turn away from sin and submit totally to the Lordship of Christ. There cannot be a genuine revival in the church without total repentance. A movement which dismisses repentance or replaces it with “positive” words is not from God.

IV. The Fruit of Love for Fellow Christians.
Jesus gave an identification mark of true Christians and that is “if you have love for one another” (Jh. 13:35). It matters little what the spiritual experiences or gifts a movement boast of, if the mark of love is absent, they are all in vain (1Cor 13:2). One of the ways to know a false movement is to observe how its adherents treat or speak of other Believers outside their circle.

V. The Fruit of Loving Concern for the Unsaved.
Jesus said the Holy Spirit is to empower Christians to be His witnesses (Acts 1:8). A person who is truly saved and has the fire of God’s Word burning in his bones will always be eager to reach others with the Gospel truth. When this zeal is absent, it indicates that fire has left the cooking place. Many Christians have been led astray by becoming witnesses unto a doctrine, a system or a denomination, rather than being witnesses for Christ.

Observe the movements I mentioned so far, are most people in them meeting up to all these standards? The King James Only movement is a case in point. Do they love other Christians who differ only by using a different Bible version? Are they witnesses to Christ or a man-made tradition? Have they repented of promoting falsehood in the name of truth? These are ways to know what underlie trends in the church.