Shunning is part of these typically religious teachings and practices secular authorities should not interfere with.
by Massimo Introvigne
Bitter Winter has published a series of five articles about the Jehovah’s Witnesses and shunning, i.e. their teaching and practice that their members in good standing should, in most circumstances (since there are exceptions), no longer associate with disfellowshipped ex-members, except if they are part of their immediate family and cohabit with them. Opponents of the Jehovah’s Witnesses call the practice cruel and inhuman, and sometimes ask governments and courts of law to forbid its teaching.
I will summarize here the reasons why I regard these requests as both unreasonable and dangerous for the religious liberty of all religions.
Although shunning as practiced by the Jehovah’s Witnesses has unique features, the practice of a strict separation from those who have left the faith or have been excluded for serious transgressions was typical of the monotheistic religions—Judaism, Christianity, and Islam—since their very origins. Scholars have explained that the early devotees of monotheistic faiths were surrounded by polytheists, and shunning was a way to protect their young and fragile religions. Even when the number of their followers grew so much that they became majority, they still believed that the integrity of their faith should be protected.
Jews of old practiced a very strict separation from “apostates,” which has persisted to this very day in some ultra-Orthodox groups under the name of “herem.” Shunning was practiced by the first Christians, and traces remained in the Roman Catholic Church until the mid-20th century. Some Muslim states maintain not only separation, but the death penalty for apostates. Those Protestants who defended religious liberty, and asked the state not to intervene and punish the apostates, still protected their communities’ shared faith through strict forms of shunning. They still exist as “Meidung” among direct heirs of the so-called Radical Reformation, such as the Amish.
The Jehovah’s Witnesses disfellowship members guilty of serious unrepentant sins. Courts of law all around the world have recognized that interfering with the procedure leading to disfellowshipping would be a violation of the fundamental right of religions to organize themselves as they deem fit. At the same time, they have also recognized that the religious judicial committees of the Jehovah’s Witnesses consistently respect their own procedure, and members accused of wrongdoings have a fair opportunity of being heard and appeal the first decision rendered against them.
Shunning applies also to members who have formally renounced their faith. Some critics have claimed that it is unfair to treat them in the same way as the disfellowshipped ex-members guilty of unrepentant offenses. This criticism is based on a misunderstanding. As in all other religions, there are among the Jehovah’s Witnesses those who become inactive. Some may no longer associate with fellow believers. These “weak” or “lapsed” members are not shunned. On the other hand, are shunned those who formally declare or demonstrate that they renounce their spiritual standing, or announce that they have joined another religion, or atheism, or another group whose objectives are regarded by the Jehovah’s Witnesses as contrary to Biblical teachings. Again, this is not a unique peculiarity of the Jehovah’s Witnesses. The Catholic Church and other denominations also distinguish between those who become inactive and those who publicly declare their apostasy, and excommunicate the latter only.
How shunning exactly works is also often misunderstood. It does not apply to cohabiting members of the family. Husbands and wives maintain their normal marital relations, except that they do not participate in family religious activities together.
Opponents mention cases of husbands who have been compelled to leave the family home when they have been disfellowshipped, but “forget” to specify that these are cases of abusive or ostentatiously immoral spouses, who would be thrown out of their homes in all religions and with the blessing of courts of law.
Shunning also has exceptions. Business relations with a disfellowshipped ex-member, when they exist, continue. The Jehovah’s Witnesses are taught that they should still help a disfellowshipped ex-member in need (one example given is helping a lady whose car has a flat tire), and this becomes a strict duty in the case of sick or aging relatives who need assistance. Elders are also mindful that the purpose of disfellowshipping and shunning is medicinal rather than punitive. When welcomed, they visit the disfellowshipped ex-members and try to elicit their repentance and return to the community. This makes shunning among the Jehovah’s Witnesses very much different from the “social death” described by early 20th-century scholars who studied the “herem” of ultra-Orthodox Jews. Applying the expression “social death” to the shunning as practiced by the Jehovah’s Witnesses, as some opponents do, is certainly incorrect.
Nobody becomes a Jehovah’s Witness overnight. There is a codified path to baptism and, before being baptized, candidates should know the main doctrines and practices of the Jehovah’s Witnesses including those about disfellowshipping and shunning. Critics object that, while this is true for those who join the Jehovah’s Witnesses as adults, it is not true for children whose parents are already part of the organization, which may be both baptized at a very young age and disfellowshipped. The objection is perhaps more impressive for those who do not consider that, unlike other Christian organizations, the Jehovah’s Witnesses do not practice infant baptism. It is true that minors are baptized, but at an age where the elders believe they are mature enough to understand the core teachings and practices of the faith. There is no fixed age, as maturity varies among different cultures and individuals.
It is possible that teenagers become guilty of serious offenses, which is confirmed by looking at how many of them in our modern societies commit crimes (in some countries, they are tried as adults). If they are unrepentant, they may be disfellowshipped, but disfellowshipping minors is a very rare occurrence. Even in this case, minors remain in the family home and the parents’ care, and duties towards them do not cease.
Is shunning “illegal”? Although there have been a couple of recent cases in Belgium and Norway where decisions currently under appeal declared that some aspects of the shunning teachings justify fines and other measures against the Jehovah’s Witnesses, these are exceptions. There is a solid body of court decisions in numerous countries that have concluded that shunning is not illegal. I agree with these decisions, which are based on two sets of reasons.
The first is that our decision whether to associate or not to associate with persons we have had strong disagreements with, be it because of a divorce or a quarrel about business, politics—or religion—is not something courts of law can interfere with. This decision is part of our most intimate, personal sphere. A court can order a divorced husband to pay alimony to his ex-wife but cannot compel the two of them to continue seeing each other or remain friend.
The second reason answers the objection that critics do not want to compel Jehovah’s Witnesses in good standing to associate with disfellowshipped ex-members—although in some court cases they ask just this. They only ask courts and governments, we are told, to prohibit the Jehovah’s Witnesses from teaching the principle of shunning. In fact, this is even more problematic. Nobody can seriously doubt that shunning is a religious practice, based on the interpretation of the Bible by the Jehovah’s Witnesses, and that individual Witnesses practice it based on their religious conscience. As such, it is protected by their right to religious liberty.
Shunning is clearly taught in the Bible, by the authors of 1 Corinthians 5:13 (“Expel the wicked person from among you”) and 5:11 (“Do not even eat with such people”), and 2 John 10–11 (“Do not take them into your house or welcome them. Anyone who welcomes them shares in their wicked work”: all quotes from the New International Version). Some other Christian denominations may teach that these prescriptions referred to the social circumstances of the time and are no longer in force. The Jehovah’s Witnesses disagree. It is not for secular courts of law to adjudicate theological disputes, or determine what the “true” interpretation of the Bible should be.