reprinted from the book, Refuting Jehovah's Witnesses see catalog

Disfellowshiping

(Excommunication)


Biblical Overview

by Randall Watters

Jesus gave a pattern to follow in regards to confronting our brother or sister with regards to unconfessed sin on their part. In Matthew 18:15-18, Jesus outlines three steps to take in talking to your brother, in dealing with unrepentant sin. If the three steps prove unfruitful, he says, "Let him be to you as a Gentile and a tax-gatherer." (Matt. 18:17b) Note the remarks about these words of Jesus from the Evangelical Dictionary of Theology:

Excommunication is said to have originated with the teaching of Jesus on binding and loosing (Matt. 16:19; 18:18; John 20:23). The sinner is bound in his sinful alienation from God's people and loosed following repentance. Excommunication came to be seen, then, as a responsibility of the true church derived from its Lord. The procedure for disciplining sinners and the three steps to be taken prior to excommunication were also delivered to the church by Jesus. The straying one is first to be corrected privately (Matt. 18:15), the object being his reclamation, not the purity of the community of believers. If he will not listen, he is to be corrected before witnesses (Matt. 18:16) whose task is to protect the offender (cf. Deut. 19:15), since the admonisher may be in error, or they might find the right reproof when he does not. Thirdly, the unrepentant offender is to be brought before the society of believers (Matt. 18:17), who are to sever all ties with him if he remains obdurate. (p. 392-393)

In Paul's correspondence with the Corinthians, he had heard of a fellow Christian who was cohabiting with his stepmother, and he wrote the Corinthians and told them not to associate "with any so-called brother if he should be an immoral person, or covetous, or an idolater, or a reviler, or a drunkard, or a swindler - not to even eat with such a one. . . ." (1 Cor. 5:11) Similar counsel was given regarding unruly ones in the church, who would not respond to initial counseling (2 Thes. 3:14,15). But in the case of the Corinthians, both the church and the individual failed to respond, and so Paul wrote them and said, "Remove the wicked man from among yourselves."

The purpose of disfellowshipping is (1) to cause the repentance of the errant Christian; (2) to remove a stumbling stone from the church, so that others would not be infected (1 Cor. 5:6,7); (3) to instill the others with fear of God's judgment for pursuing a wrong course, and (4) to keep the church free from a marred reputation with the world (Rom. 2:23,24). If the errant brother was to seek forgiveness and display heartfelt repentance for his actions and attitude, he was to be forgiven and accepted back into the church. Thus he would not be overly abused by Satan, whose authority he had temporarily come under by being cast out into the world (2 Cor. 2:10,11).

Elders in the Christian church are counseled to walk in humility and not to lord it over God's heritage (1 Pet. 5:16), and to become examples to the body (1 Tim. 4:12). They are to have tender affection for others (Rom. 12:10). Yet at the same time, they are to be ready to pray for the sick (James 5:14,15), correct those stepping out of line (Gal. 6:1), stop gossip and misleading talk (1 Tim. 1:3-7; Titus 1:9), and to warn the flock against false doctrine and false teachers or ideas that may be present in the body (Rom. 16:17,18; Titus 3:10,11). If necessary in order to protect the flock, the offender is to be marked as bad association (2 Thes. 3:14,15) or disfellowshipped (1 Cor. 5:11-13).

2 John 9, 10

In this passage, the elder John minces no words in warning against apostates and false teachers. Jesus had prophesied the appearance of false prophets, and by the end of the first century, there were already many at large. I. Howard Marshall, in The Epistles of John, states that,

There were no doubt various small groups of people calling themselves Christian at this time, and there was no denominational organization gathering them all together. It would be quite possible for "Christians" who held different views of the faith from their colleagues to set up their own groups. Consequently, when traveling preachers came around, it may have been difficult for a small church group to know whether they shared the same understanding of the faith, although orthodox and unorthodox leaders alike probably did their best to indicate which groups were acceptable from their own point of view. Here the elder proposes a clear test by which the church to which he is writing may test the orthodoxy of any suspect preachers, and at the same time warns the church that such people may well visit them. (p. 69, 70)

Before one can apply 2 John 9, 10 in context to those who believe non-Christian doctrine, their motives should be taken into consideration, as well as the situation at hand. The real point of 2 John 9, 10 is to avoid the danger of false doctrine being taught before a group of believers and swaying those not well-established in the faith. Additionally, it is to demonstrate to false teachers who once accurately knew the way of the Lord that they are not welcome to teach their new heresies.

Refuting Jehovah's Witnesses

Jehovah's Witnesses practice disfellowshipping, not only for immorality, but also for a number of other reasons. Since 1973, for instance, a member who smokes is subject to disfellowshipping. So would be those who work directly in defense departments or the military, or who are employed by any religious organization remotely connected with another religion. Walking into a church could merit this penalty, as could taking a blood transfusion, saluting the flag (or any act of patriotism), celebrating holidays, talking to a disfellowshipped person (including relatives), disagreeing with ANY doctrinal points, etc. The list of offenses grows greater each year. The May 1, 1986 WT adds overeating (gluttony) to the list so as to be consistent with their stand on tobacco use, reasoning that both are harmful to the body, and therefore the person who harms his body should be disfellowshipped.

It was not always so legalistic in the WT. Like many religious movements, "grace" abounds in the beginning; but as they get more structured, rules and regulations take the place of grace and mercy. Note this statement by the WT:

The endeavor to compel all men to think alike on all subjects, culminated in the great apostasy and the development of the great Papal system; and thereby the "gospel," the "one faith," which Paul and the other apostles set forth, was lost buried under the mass of uninspired decrees of popes and councils. The union of the early church, based upon the simple gospel and bound only by love, gave place to the bondage of the church of Rome a slavery of God's children, from the degradation of which multitudes are still weak and suffering. (WT REPRINTS, 1893, p. 1572)

We would not refuse to treat one as a brother because he did not believe the Society is the Lord's channel.

If others see it in a different way, that is their privilege. There should be full liberty of conscience. (WT April 1, 1920, p. 100, 101)

However, by 1930 those who disagreed with the Watchtower were classed as "evil slaves" and the "man of perdition," to be destroyed. (WT 1930, p. 275-281)

In 1952, a distinct disfellowshipping policy was laid out. Witnesses were not to even say a greeting to disfellowshipped ones. The March 1, 1952 Watchtower said, "Those who are acquainted with the situation in the congregation should never say `Hello' or `Goodby' to him. He is not welcome in our midst, we avoid him." (p. 141)

By 1955, associating with a disfellowshipped person was grounds for the disfellowshipping of a Baptized JW. (WT 1955, p. 607)

In January of 1972 it was declared that homosexuality and bestiality by one's marriage partner were not considered as porneia (fornication), and were therefore NOT grounds for divorce (Matt. 5:32). If one divorced under such conditions, he would lay himself open to adultery and could be disfellowshipped. (WT Jan. 1, 1972, p. 32) Yet, by December of the very same year, they had reversed their stand, saying that ALL types of illicit sexual intercourse are grounds for divorce, including the above-mentioned acts. (WT Dec. 15, 1972, p. 767, 768) Many unfortunate JW couples were caught in the midst of this flip-flop.

By 1974, the Governing Body entered the bedrooms of their subjects. Standards of conduct were laid out for married couples in bed. Oral or anal sex, or anything classified by the WT as "perversion" or "unnatural practices" in the sex act would subject them to disfellowshipping. (WT Nov. 15, 1974, p. 704; see also WT of 1974 pages 160, 484-486)

Oddly enough, in April of 1974 they had seemingly relaxed the tension towards disfellowshipped persons. In the April 1974 WT, for instance, on page 467, they said:

Congregation elders, as well as individual members of a congregation, therefore, ought to guard against developing an attitude approaching that which some Jewish Rabbinical writers fomented towards Gentiles in viewing them as virtual enemies.

The gist of the article was that disfellowshipped ones were not to be treated with unnecessary cruelty; especially members of one's family or those in obvious hardship situations. They stated that "we don't want to be like Pharisees" who walked on the other side of the road when a Gentile was in trouble. (WT Aug. 1, 1974, p. 467)

With the Feb. 15th issue of 1978, the bedroom rules were now not to be enforced by elders, and publishers were not to be intimidated or spied on any more; although the previously banned practices were still considered unclean. (p. 32)

A reversal of this "warming" trend was in store for the `80's, however. With the unrest in the organization over the failure of 1975 to bring the end of the world, followed by the headquarters shakeup in 1980, a hard line was taken in 1981 against any disfellowshipped or disassociated person. Even if they were members of one's own family, they were now to be shunned except in the most necessary functions of life. (WT Sept. 15, 1981, p. 26-31 under "If a Relative is Disfellowshipped.") The WT plainly says that Witnesses shouldn't even say "hello" to persons who have left the organization. On p. 25 they say:

And we all know from our experience over the years that a simple "Hello" to someone can be the first step that develops into a conversation and maybe even a friendship. Would we want to take that first step with a disfellowshiped person?

In spite of the ban, however, some Witnesses were speaking out in discontent or disagreement with the WT. An even greater number were subject to "witch hunts" where suspected dissenters were asked a series of questions to determine if they still believed the Society was "God's channel of communication." Many of those questioned were automatically disfellowshipped, often without a fair trial and in secret meetings. Yet, the word got out through the grapevine that all was not well with the WT's doctrine. A special problem began to develop within families where one dissenter might speak to several others, and yet remain concealed from the eyes of the elders.

In order to choke the "grapevine," the WT of Jan. 1, 1983 (p. 30,31) contained a "Questions From Readers" article on "How can we assist those in our congregation who have a disfellowshipped relative?"

In the first part of the article, they attack the "heart condition" of such a person, denying any possibility that they may have left the organization for a valid reason. Here is a sample quote:

It is to illustrate that if someone is disfellowshipped, he must at the time have had a truly bad heart and/or been determined to pursue a God-dishonoring course. Peter said that the condition of such a person is worse than before he became a Christian; he is like "a sow that was bathed but has gone back to rolling in the mire."

However, the WT reluctantly acknowledged that people are human (an ever-present hindrance to their techniques). They continued:

But human emotions and attachments can have a powerful effect, making it difficult for people to act in accord with the disfellowshipping decree if a relative is involved.

As the article continues, those who left the organization (including relatives) were put down for interfering with the rest of the family's "happiness." Using an illustration involving three generations of a family: (1) children, (2) parents who have been disfellowshipped, and (3) the grandparents (who are typical JWs), they comment:

Of course, the grandparents have to determine if some necessary family matters require limited contact with the(ir) disfellowshipped children. And they might sometimes have the grandchildren visit them. How sad, though, that by their unchristian course the children interfere with the normal pleasure that such grandparents enjoyed!

The reader must see some vestige of human consideration in the midst of this situation. So the following sentence, humorous in its irony, is injected:

We just need to go out of our way to be warm, genuinely interested and, above all, spiritual.

The WT continues with the example of a couple, one of which is disfellowshipped:

 . . . the expelled mate has proved that he is not the sort of person that we want to be around. . . . So maybe a visit can be made when the disfellowshipped one is known to be out of the house.

So, in other words, the WT finally did go so far as to develop the attitude of the Rabbis in Jesus' day, and have no doubt surpassed them on occasion. Not only are Witnesses currently forbidden to speak to anyone who leaves the organization, but they are to avoid them like the plague. Those who have seen this attitude in practice could add that JWs usually avoid even making eye contact with such persons, and sometimes even move out of the neighborhood. It is all part of the attitude that they must "punish" those that leave, and this punishment is almost always of a psychological nature.

Due to an increase in lawsuits directed against the WT over disfellowshipping since the late `70's, the Society officially stopped disfellowshipping people who voluntarily want out of the organization as of July 1, 1984. Though provision had previously been made for this in the book Organization For Kingdom Preaching, published in 1972, virtually all were disfellowshipped who disassociated from the WT, regardless of the reason. Though this practice has continued in some cases since the July 1st article, others are now allowed to be considered as "disassociated," though the treatment is the same as if they were disfellowshipped. A confidential letter from the WT to the local bodies of elders was sent out on May 8, 1986 to reinforce this procedure. This change was made strictly for legal reasons, to avoid lawsuits.

However, evil motives or wicked sins are automatically attributed to those who wish to disassociate. Notice the way the WT expresses their thoughts regarding these ones:

Or, as mentioned in John 6:66, occasionally a Witness on his own initiative will decide to leave the way of truth. He may even make known his decision after the committee begins to look into his wrongdoing. . . . Then it will no longer be necessary for the elders to continue their investigation. (WT 7/1/84, p. 31)

The implication is that he is a "wrongdoer," either because he is leaving, or more likely, because he is involved in some kind of sin.

The December 15, 1984 WT (p.19) added this "barb" in an effort to prevent Witnesses from learning too much:

We have been forewarned that there will be apostates and people who just like to have their ears tickled. Counsel such as at 2 John 911, 1 Corinthians 5:11-13 and 2 Timothy 3:5 allows no room for associating with those who turn away from the truth. Nor do we purchase or read their writings.

It became obvious that too many were still questioning the WT, reading literature that exposed their past, or were talking to disfellowshipped relatives. So in the July 15, 1985 WT, the Governing Body applied the injunction in 2 John 10 (against antichrists) to those that disassociate themselves. No mention at all is made of the context of this passage (verse 7 tells us that these ones deny Christ as come in the flesh). Nevertheless, the penalty meant for true apostate teachers is now applied to ANYONE disassociating himself. The article is not specific as to whether this total shunning is to be carried out with relatives living in one's own home. In reference to "apostates," they say,

Such ones willfully abandoning the Christian congregation thereby become part of the "antichrist." (1 John 2:18,19)

A person who had willfully and formally disassociated himself from the congregation would have matched that description. (Aid To Bible Understanding, p. 31)

The Witnesses are then counseled not to even say a simple greeting to such ones, and to avoid having them in their houses at all. In the case of a married mate being an "apostate," there might be concessions made, though this is not indicated here.

Still, some Witnesses continued to entertain doubts and talk about these in private. In November of 1985, the WT warned its readers of "sharing in the sins of others." How might they do this? By failing to tell the elders of a fellow brother or sister who is a "wrongdoer." Since being a "wrongdoer" includes disagreeing with the WT, members are encouraged to tattle on friends and relatives who hold to any variation from WT doctrine. If they don't, then they share in the "apostate's" sin. (WT Nov. 15, 1985, p. 19,20)

The Governing Body is taking the stand that those who reject any of the teachings of the "mother" organization are "apostasizing" from the true Christian faith. The March 15, 1986 issue of The Watchtower even provides the reader with visual aids, as it shows a picture of a JW demonstrating how to throw "apostate" literature away as soon as it hits the mailbox. They say,

Now, what will you do if you are confronted with apostate teaching - subtle reasonings - claiming that what you believe as one of Jehovah's Witnesses is not the truth? For example, what will you do if you receive a letter or some literature, open it and see right away that it is from an apostate? Will curiosity cause you to read it, just to see what he has to say? You may even reason: "It won't affect me; I'm too strong in the truth. And, besides, if we have the truth, we have nothing to fear. The truth will stand the test." In thinking this way, some have fed their minds upon apostate reasoning and have fallen prey to serious questioning and doubt. (p. 12)

Therefore, resolve in your heart that you will never even touch the poison that apostates want you to sip. (p. 20)

The Governing Body is cultivating in the minds of their followers an abject fear of any dissenters. They thereby hope to cause the Witnesses to run at the sight of anything that seriously challenges their authority. In the April 1, 1986 issue of The Watchtower, an effort is made to support their disfellowshipping of those who disagree in the slightest with WT teaching. In the article, they first accuse the clergy of having no authority because they are not able to agree on all matters of doctrine. Then they take Galatians 1:8,9 out of context in order to "prove" that the churches are teaching a different gospel than the apostle Paul, which is not true. 1 Cor. 1:10 is quoted as an attempt to "prove" that the early church was not divided, but the context of the verse proves the opposite, since the Corinthians DID have a problem with divisions. (Paul never actually says they settled the differences, either. Furthermore, the church as a whole had problems according to Revelation chapters 13.) Finally, the WT states:

Approved association with Jehovah's Witnesses requires accepting the entire range of the true teachings of the Bible, including those Scriptural beliefs that are unique to Jehovah's Witnesses. What do such beliefs include? (p. 31)

They list the beliefs necessary:

1. Their view on the issue of God's sovereignty.

2. Jesus was a preexistent created being prior to his birth.

3. The Governing Body of Jehovah's Witnesses are the sole interpreters of the Bible.

4. Christ returned in 1914 and set up his kingdom in heaven.

5. Only 144,000 will go to heaven.

6. Armageddon is near, followed by the Paradise earth, where the rest of the Witnesses will live.

The Governing Body is thusly confusing the issue, by painting a false picture of the NT church. The church was apparently divided on many things. On the major doctrinal issues they agreed, though, such as the message of the gospel (1 Cor. 15:3,4), the incarnation of Christ (1 John 4:2; 2 John 7), and Jesus being the promised Messiah in the Jewish context (1 John 2:22,23). Later heresies would demand further clarifications of orthodoxy, such as the Deity of Christ, the means of salvation, etc. The orthodox churches today are in agreement on these issues.

Furthermore, the Witnesses admit that, since 1918, they have been teaching a "new gospel not taught in centuries past," namely, the invisible return of Christ and setting up the kingdom in 1914 (WT 5/1/81, p.17). Therefore they themselves fall under the curse of Gal. 1:8,9 for preaching a false gospel, and a false Jesus (2 Cor. 11:4).

As time goes on, we can expect the WT to become even more paranoid regarding the questioning of their authority or doctrine. This is largely for two reasons: (1) there is an ever-increasing amount of information available that exposes their scholastic dishonesty, and (2) there is an ever-increasing number of dissenters who will not remain silent. Their recourse (assuming they want to maintain absolute authority) is to fortify the "Watchtower Curtain" against people defecting towards freedom.

Counseling Those Who Leave

The Witness leaving the WT is faced with FEAR, as follows:

(1) FEAR OF BEING AN APOSTATE

If the WT can factually be shown to be a false religion (a clever counterfeit of Christianity), then being an "apostate" from it would be no worse than leaving the Moonies or the Mormons. Since the person is, in many cases, trying to draw CLOSER to Christ rather than drawing away, he has certainly not "left the teaching of Christ" (2 John 9), but is, rather, SEEKING the teaching of Christ. Jesus said he would not turn away the little ones coming to him (Matt. 19:14; 11:28-30).

(2) FEAR OF LOSING ALL THEIR FRIENDS

Fear of losing friends is one of the greatest obstacles. It is painful to lose close friends that you love dearly. Most of their JW friends will cut off the ex-Witness and never talk to them again. In such a case, the Bible provides counsel, in Mark 10:29, 30. Jesus' words should be reviewed carefully and made a matter of continual prayer. He will give such a person the strength to endure this hardship, as few people can endure this pain in their own strength. Others, especially ex-JWs, can be a real source of comfort during these times, and can help them to make new friends.

(3) FEAR OF DYING AT ARMAGEDDON

If the Witness concept of Armageddon and God's judgment is seen to be in error, this will eliminate the fear of dying at Armageddon. Instead, the individual will come to hope in Jesus' second coming. Research on their part is needed to help them understand what the Bible says about God's judgment day and salvation in Christ.

(4) LOSS OF FAITH IN GOD DUE TO LOSS OF FAITH IN THE ORGANIZATION

The person must come to understand that God does not work through manmade organizations, but deals with people individually (and lovingly). Jesus cares about people, not organizations. His life on earth testifies wonderfully to that. Though there is a body of Christ on the earth, our faith is not in the body, but in Christ himself. The body of Christ (the church) will always be encompassed with problems, and wasn't meant to be the object of one's admiration or trust. Rather, it is our medium for serving others and working together in love. The person must learn what it means to have a relationship with God, rather than an organization. He/she must realize that it's possible to lose faith in fellow Christians or in the body locally without losing faith in Christ. This is a protection against being stumbled by others.

(5) CONFUSION OVER DOCTRINE

Up until this point, the JW or ex-JW has placed his trust in the writings of the WT as truth. Other writings, including those of imminent scholars, are disdained because they are not part of the WT organization. (However, such works are quoted if it suits the WT's purpose!) The individual must learn what true BIBLE STUDY is, and learn how to go to libraries and do REAL research. This will initially be disturbing, as Biblical issues soon appear to be much more complex than before. While he may have learned everything taught by the WT within two years, he realizes that it may now take him several years just to get a few things clear in his mind. There is so much more to know than the WT has revealed! Yet, he must realize that he can have a saving and loving relationship with Christ from the start. As time goes on, the Holy Spirit will grant him wisdom in understanding the deeper things of God (1 John 2:27).

It should be pointed out to the individual that scholars can err or color their statements at times. The probability of getting wrong information can be greatly minimized by a study of many different sources, preferably the work of people with a good reputation in their field. Especially helpful are the studies of scholars relating to Biblical languages, Biblical history, exegesis, etc. The WT has no such reputable persons, nor do any of the members of the Governing Body have any formal training in Biblical languages. They have a bad habit of bypassing 99% of the evidence (that stands against them) and looking high and low to find the 1% evidence that agrees with their point. The individual should come to understand that it is better to ask what the Bible really teaches before demanding to fully comprehend such teachings. It is dangerous to try and make the Bible say what we want it to, just because it would be easier to understand.

The ex-JW needs to be taught to study the Bible BOOK-BY-BOOK rather than subject-by-subject. Subjective studies can easily ignore the context of the passages they quote from, just to prove a point. If one studies the Bible FIRST, then subjective studies will be valuable later.

Above all, have patience! It takes time for a person to discard everything they have learned, and to begin replacing it with new ways of thinking. It is not just an intellectual process, either, but will strain one's faith and emotions to the limit. Be sure and show more than average love to the person in this process. 


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