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 ” (The 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” (The WT, Dec. 15, 1965, 751).
To people who sincerely 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” (The 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. It also says:
“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” (The WT 7/11/ 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 incited an Awake! martyr 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).
Like most JWs, Mr. Fenton has mastered ways of using clichéd, rehearsed words to couch his beliefs in public. Shunning ex-members couldn’t be a “personal matter” since it’s demanded by “the Society.” This is not about recognising “their right to leave” but how they are treated after they leave.
What Qualifies for a Disfellowship?
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 – 1Corinthians 5:13”
Again, they are trying to hoodwink the public with clichéd, flowery answers. 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 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
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)
j) Sexual perversion e.g homosexuality, lesbianism etc.
k) Loose conduct e.g disrespect to elders, incest, oral sex, anal sex etc.
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 best 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). But none of those disfellowshipped were reinstated. Once a person is disfellowshipped, his sentence is permanent, unless “the Society” formally reinstates him/her.
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, no compensation was offered to the thousands of families that had been destroyed over this Pharisaical policy.
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 it’s 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” line is irrelevant.
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 underpinning them are unravelled. 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” (The WT December 1882, 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” (The 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.” (The WT, Sept 15, 1981, 25)
“And all members of the congregation need to be determined to avoid the company of disfellowshiped individuals.” (The 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” (The 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.” (The 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 brand him/her as a traitor. While he/she has a morbid fear of being destroyed at Armageddon for being cast out of Jehovah’s organization, he/she is also rejected and shunned by family, friends, JW co-workers and members.
This is why we need to love and support ex-JWs. There is a high cost involved in leaving this religion. Many ex-JWs have committed suicide or broken down mentally as a result. 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. 1 Corinthians 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 in 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 not what JWs do.
2. Luke 15:11-24. JWs claim shunning is done to bring ex-members “to their senses.” It’s 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 sums it up: “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? Downers Grove, IL., 1982, 32)