Many do not understand how shunning exactly works. Erroneous representations of the practice may have influenced the Ghent judges.
by George D. Chryssides*
*A paper presented at the Webinar “Jehovah’s Witnesses, Shunning, and Religious Liberty: The Ghent Court Decision,” April 9, 2021 [see video of the Webinar].
Update (June 20, 2022): On June 7, 2022, the first degree decision unfavorable to the Jehovah’s Witnesses was overturned by the Court of Appeal of Ghent, which concluded that shunning can be freely taught and practiced in Belgium.
The subject of disfellowshipping among the Jehovah’s Witnesses is seriously misunderstood. One “renowned expert on cults” asserts that one can be disfellowshipped for sending someone a birthday card! This of course is absurd. Disfellowshipping is only for serious offences, for which there must either be two witnesses or a confession from the wrongdoer, and for which the offender is unrepentant.
The Society’s sanction of shunning applies to baptized members (adults and minors), and those who have dissociated themselves—that is to say, those who have formally expressed in writing a desire to be no longer part of the Watch Tower organization, or whose actions plainly demonstrate a desire to leave, such as regularly attending a mainstream church, joining the army, or voluntarily accepting a blood transfusion.
The elders’ manual “Shepherd the Flock of God” lists 18 types of offence which are potential grounds for disfellowshipping. The most common is sexual immorality, but the sanction also applies to celebrating other religious festivals, spreading false teachings, drunkenness, fraud, and theft. The elders appoint a committee of three men, who will listen to the witnesses and the offender, and then decide the outcome.
When someone is disfellowshipped or disassociates, a simple announcement is made at the midweek congregational meeting, which takes the form, “X is no longer one of Jehovah’s Witnesses.” It is only made once at a single location, and the grounds are not publicly mentioned. Disfellowshipping is a congregational matter: one cannot be expelled by the branch office or the Governing Body, and any reinstatement must be also done at congregational level. If a member believes that the judicial committee’s decision was unjust, he or she may appeal in writing within seven days, following which the Circuit Overseer will appoint an appeal committee, normally from a different congregation.
Disfellowshipped members are encouraged to continue to take part in public worship, including congregational meetings and conventions. They no longer have to sit at the back. Their “privileges” are withdrawn. Privileges are assigned tasks such as house-to-house witnessing, greeting attendees at the door, organizing the literature stand, giving talks, or taking part in on-stage role-plays. They are so-called because it is considered a privilege to serve Jehovah.
There are three main reasons for shunning. It is reckoned to be in accordance with scripture (e.g., 2 John 10); it is intended to keep the congregation free of “bad associations” (1 Corinthians 15:33); and it aims to give the offender a jolt, providing an incentive to repent.
Members may not associate with the disfellowshipped or disassociated individual. It is also worth noting that reinstatement is possible, and indeed encouraged: the elders will attempt to visit the disfellowshipped member at least once a year to offer counsel and to determine whether the ex-member might be persuaded to return.
One hears stories about a disfellowshipped Jehovah’s Witness being ordered out of the family home, with only a few belongings such an old van and no money for petrol, and having to sleep under a bridge as a consequence. It is hard to adjudicate on the veracity of individual stories, but it is certainly unlikely that this would be the norm in a Kingdom Hall today.
However, it is disingenuous to believe that family ties remain intact, and that only spiritual fellowship is withdrawn. Bitter Winter quoted the statement: “Since […] being disfellowshipped does not sever the family ties, normal day-to-day family activities and dealings may continue. Yet, by his course, the individual has chosen to break the spiritual bond between him and his believing family…” (“Keep Yourselves in God’s Love” [2008, 2014]: 208).
This might seem to suggest that family relationships remain the same, but that the disfellowshipped member may not participate in the weekly Family Worship Evening. The situation is not quite so simple. So long as the household remains together, normal family activities take place. If the father of the household has been disfellowshipped, he will still be permitted to eat with the others, watch television, go on family outings, and have normal relationships with his wife, including sexual relations. He is still the head of the household, to whom his wife should be subject, unless his demands are contrary to Jehovah’s law. If some other member of the family is disfellowshipped, normal familial relationships are intact, but they will be excluded from the Family Worship Evening. instead, the father is encouraged to give them one-to-one spiritual counselling. What the offender may not to do, however is to speak to non-family Witnesses who call.
The offender is not normally required to leave home—certainly not if he or she is a minor. However, one Watch Tower publication states that it may be necessary for a householder to ask a disfellowshipped member to leave. This would be considered appropriate if they continued to engage in unacceptable practices, for instance if they repeatedly came home drunk, or persistently stayed out late with a non-believing partner. Once the offender leaves the home, then social interaction discontinues. Two Watch Tower videos depict parents refusing to open a text message from disfellowshipped children, since they are no longer allowed to have social contact.
A disfellowshipped member may need to come into contact with Jehovah’s Witnesses at work. Where this occurs, conversation would be confined to work matters, and no exchange would take place either socially, or concerning religion. There have been situations where a disfellowshipped member has been part of a small firm run by a Witness, for example a company of window cleaners. Disfellowshipped employees would not be sacked, since a practicing Witness should not want them to lose their means of livelihood. Dismissal may also be illegal. Discussion might take therefore place as to how relationships might continue in the course of employment.
The Ghent ruling suggested that plaintiffs suffered loss of business. There is certainly no instruction to rank and file members to boycott businesses of disfellowshipped people, and entering a shopkeeper’s premises would not be construed as a violation of shunning. Members of the congregation may find such contact embarrassing, but it is a personal decision.
Disfellowshipping is not meant to foster callousness. One Watch Tower publication cites the example of a disfellowshipped woman whose car is in the Kingdom Hall car park with a flat tyre. The article recommends that members of the congregation to offer help, although it implies that congregations had been taking shunning too far.
As Massimo Introvigne argues, belonging voluntarily to an organization involves accepting its rules, and in order to undergo baptism Jehovah’s Witnesses receive detailed instructions which includes acquaintance with the organization’s disciplinary procedures. Anyone who voluntarily disassociates ought to be aware of the consequences, and consider whether it might be better simply to fade from the congregation. One qualification should perhaps be mentioned: although most candidates for baptism are adults, it is possible to be baptized at quite a young age, and arguably, even though they can satisfy the elders on their acquaintance with Christian beliefs and living, perhaps the full impact of the responsibilities of belonging has not yet dawned. In one of two JW videos dealing with disfellowshipping, the girl who gets baptized looks very young, perhaps only about ten years old.