There are several myths about shunning. It has exceptions, such as for cohabiting relatives. It is painful for both shunners and shunned. Its aim is both protecting the believers and inducing the sinners to repent.
by Massimo Introvigne
What is shunning? Media often rely on accounts of apostate ex-members. As I have explained elsewhere, not all ex-members of a religion become “apostates” and in fact most don’t. Scholars of religion use “apostates” as a technical term designating those ex-members who become militant opponents of the religion they have left. Since they joined an oppositional coalition whose aim is to criticize and, if possible, destroy their former religion, their accounts, while not deprived of interest, are obviously biased. Sociologists have often described them as “atrocity tales,” whose first aim is to be used as weapons to hit the religion they have left.
Mainline scholars of new religious movements do not believe that everything an apostate reports is by definition false. Apostate accounts should be considered and studied. But certainly not everything the apostates state is true, and using them as the sole source on a religion would only lead to biased if not caricatural assessments.
This is also true when considering accounts of shunning. As one of the leading academic scholars of the Jehovah’s Witnesses, George Chryssides, has observed, sometimes apostate ex-members and self-appointed “experts on cults” who rely on their accounts tell stories that range from the “unlikely” to the “absurd.”
What happens, in reality? In the case of former Jehovah’s Witnesses who have been disfellowshipped or have disassociated themselves—I clarified what this means in the previous article of this series—, a sober announcement is made in the midweek meeting of their congregation that “X is no longer one of Jehovah’s Witnesses.”
Some of the apostate “atrocity tales” mentioned by Chryssides pretend that in this case the disfellowshipped ex-member is “ordered out of the family home with only a few belongings such as an old van and no money for petrol, and [has] to sleep under a bridge as a consequence.” This would perhaps make for a dramatic script for a movie, but is not true.
In FAQ published on the Witnesses official website, jw.org, in 2020, we read: “What of a man who is disfellowshipped but whose wife and children are still Jehovah’s Witnesses? The religious ties he had with his family change, but blood ties remain.”
In the 2008 book “Keep Yourselves in God’s Love,” also published by the Witnesses, we read: “Since… being disfellowshipped does not sever the family ties, normal day-to-day family activities and dealings may continue. Yet, by his [sic] course, the individual has chosen to break the spiritual bond between him and his believing family. So loyal family members can no longer have spiritual fellowship with him. For example, if the disfellowshipped one is present, he would not participate when the family gets together for family worship.”
On April 15, 1991, The Watchtower stated that, “If in a Christian’s household there is a disfellowshipped relative, that one would still be part of the normal, day-to-day household dealings and activities.”
This is not a new development. On August 1, 1974, The Watchtower had already explained that, “Since blood and marital relationships are not dissolved by a congregational disfellowshipping action, the situation within the family circle requires special consideration. A woman whose husband is disfellowshipped is not released from the Scriptural requirement to respect his husbandly headship over her; only death or Scriptural divorce from a husband results in such release. (Rom. 7:1–3; Mark 10:11, 12) A husband likewise is not released from loving his wife as ‘one flesh’ with him even though she should be disfellowshipped (Matt. 19:5, 6; Eph. 5:28–31).”
On April 15, 1988, the Watchtower stated again that, “A man who is disfellowshipped or who disassociates himself may still live at home with his Christian wife and faithful children. Respect for God’s judgments and the congregation’s action will move the wife and children to recognize that by his course, he altered the spiritual bond that existed between them. Yet, since his being disfellowshipped does not end their blood ties or marriage relationship, normal family affections and dealings can continue.”
Sensational apostate accounts sometimes report cases where, notwithstanding these clear provisions, disfellowshipped spouses or adult children have been compelled to leave the family home by their relatives.
However, upon further investigation, it came out that these incidents do not refer to disagreements about religion but to abusive individuals whose habits of violence, drunkenness, or outrageous or deliberately provocative behavior made cohabitation with their family members impossible and even dangerous. Some of them had been disfellowshipped precisely for their violent behavior but they conveniently “forget” to include this detail in their stories. In these cases, the abusive person would be thrown out of the family home by relatives of all religions, and courts of law would not object.
This is not to say that shunning is not taken seriously by the Jehovah’s Witnesses. It does extend to non-cohabiting relatives. The same April 15, 1988, issue of The Watchtower explained that, as opposite to the case of cohabiting relatives, “The situation is different if the disfellowshipped or disassociated one is a relative living outside the immediate family circle and home. It might be possible to have almost no contact at all with the relative. Even if there were some family matters requiring contact, this certainly would be kept to a minimum.”
The same is true in the case of business relations with disfellowshipped or disassociated ex-members. Jehovah’s Witnesses are not asked to sever these relations, but are counseled to limit them to interaction and discussions about work, avoiding in particular any conversation about religion. Egregiously disrespecting these indications may be in itself cause for judicial action, and the Jehovah’s Witnesses would refer to what 2 John 11 has to say about the apostates: “Anyone who welcomes them shares in their wicked work.”
As Chryssides commented, “disfellowshipping is not meant to foster callousness.” He cites an example from The Watchtower of a disfellowshipped woman whose car had a flat tire. In this case, congregation members were counseled to help her, and told that refusing to assist her “would be needlessly unkind and inhumane,” and would show “a lack of balance” in understanding the principle of shunning. This is even more true in the case of seriously sick or ageing disfellowshipped relatives in need of assistance. The Jehovah’s Witnesses teach that shunning does not eliminate their relatives’ duty to assist them.
This shows the difference between shunning as practiced by the Jehovah’s Witnesses and the “social death” we encountered in the first article of this series as practiced by some radical ultra-Orthodox Jewish groups. The expression “social death” was coined by early 20th century scholars of Judaism to designate this version of herem among ultra-Orthodox Jews. Using it with reference to the Jehovah’s Witnesses is baseless, and is used by apostates and anti-cultists just to impress the media and their readers.
Jehovah’s Witnesses recognize that shunning is painful. For example, in the study edition of The Watchtower for October 2017, they comment that it is “despite our pain of heart” that “we must avoid normal contact with a disfellowshipped [non-cohabiting] family member by telephone, text messages, letters, e-mails, or social media.”
The pain, on the other hand, does not affect only the disfellowshipped ex-members. Although anti-cult and apostate accounts do not mention it, scholars who have interviewed Jehovah’s Witnesses in good standing (rather than apostates only) are aware of how painful it is for one of them to have a relative or close friend who has been disfellowshipped.
There may be pain for the fact of shunning, which the Jehovah’s Witnesses regard as a duty mandated by the Bible, and there may be additional pain due to the reasons of the shunning, for example when an abusive husband has been disfellowshipped for brazenly beating his wife or unrepentantly cheating on her.
For the Jehovah’s Witnesses, shunning comes from clear indications in the Bible, particularly in 1 Corinthians 5:9–13 and 2 John 9–11. As proof of this, the Witnesses quote well-respected historians clearly stating that shunning was practiced by Christians in the first centuries, as I have mentioned in the first article of this series. They do not believe it would be right to change or disregard these biblical precepts.
However, they also believe that the Bible cannot teach anything harmful, and the divine plan is a plan of love. As painful as it is, shunning has the aim not only of protecting the believers but also of causing the sinners to come to their senses and repent. Unless these visits are refused, elders may visit disfellowshipped members to offer their counsel hoping they will repent and return.
Even opponents acknowledge that a large percentage of disfellowshipped ex-Jehovah’s Witnesses are eventually reinstated. They speculate that they ask for reinstatement only to avoid shunning, not because they are persuaded by the doctrines and practices of the Jehovah’s Witnesses. I wonder how opponents can know that this is the case. Ultimately, this is a philosophical question as old as humanity. Do disfellowshipped Jehovah’s Witnesses repent out of a sincere conversion or just to avoid the consequences of disfellowshipping? Do we respect the laws because we are good citizens or just to avoid punishment? Who can know for sure?