Disfellowshipping by Jehovah’s Witnesses: A Brief History

This is a guest post by James Zimmerman. He’s the author of the book Deliverance at Hand!: The Redemption of a Devout Jehovah’s Witness.

The millenarian religious sect known as Jehovah’s Witnesses includes over 8 million active members worldwide. Self-identifying as Christians, the Witnesses’ doctrines and practices are formulated by the Governing Body of the Watchtower, Bible, and Tract Society, a multi-billion-dollar corporation headquartered in New York. This Governing Body bases their decisions, policies, and writings on their interpretation of the Holy Bible. Witnesses are expected to defer unquestioningly to the authority of this group of men. As such, Witnesses are not permitted to read material critical of their religion, and they all accept all the teachings of the Watchtower Society. This includes teachings such as abstaining from blood transfusions, remaining politically neutral, holding a literal interpretation of the entire Bible, and discouraging higher education.

There is a problem, however.

Despite the Governing Body’s best efforts, members do leave the faith. The Governing Body insists there is no valid reason for leaving the religion. In fact, their brand new brochure, Return to Jehovah, lists only three reasons why someone might leave the religion: misplaced guilt, being mad at a Witness, and being busy with life. But of course, there are several valid reasons for walking away from the faith, all of which are much more damning than the sanitized “reasons” the Watchtower Society lists. This includes cover-up of child abuse, the Witnesses’ refusal to accept large chunks of accepted science and history, and their refusal to admit any biblical interpretation — however slight — that differs from their official doctrine. With so many reasons for leaving, it’s almost a wonder that the religion has any members left… almost.

In order to ensure the faithful stay faithful, the Watchtower Society maintains a policy of shunning dissenting members. It’s a process called disfellowshipping.

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Shunning has been a common tool of cults and other organizations throughout the centuries. Though it wasn’t always so, Jehovah’s Witnesses’ policy of shunning former members has developed into what Don Cameron in his book Captives of a Concept calls “one of the harshest instances among major organized religions.” Such shunning serves to strengthen and protect the group. Not only does it remove burdensome members, but it can correct deviant behavior in such members because they will long to return to normal relationships with their former associates. Groups become more cohesive when they ostracize dissenting members, and it provides members of the group a feeling that they are more powerful and have a higher level of control.

But shunning is a form of psychological torture.

Almerindo Ojeda, from the Center for the Study of Human Rights in the Americas, defines shunning as “the deliberate, systematic, or wanton infliction of physical or mental suffering by one or more persons acting alone or on the orders of any authority, to force another person to yield information, to make a confession, or for any other reason.”

Shunning, therefore, “is torture” (emphasis his).

Discipline among Witnesses began in the early twentieth century — before they even called themselves Jehovah’s Witnesses. The Watchtower Society’s first president, Charles Russell, was called upon to decide what should be done with members of the local congregations who sinned or otherwise engaged in behavior contrary to the group’s policies, including criminal activity and adultery. While other Christian religions resorted to excommunication, Russell believed this was too harsh and unloving. Instead, he proposed a “church trial” in which the sinner was to admit their sin to the entire congregation and state whether he was repentant. The congregation then voted on the matter. If the sinner was found guilty by a majority, he or she was then reproved. According to The Watchtower (March 1, 1912), to be reproved meant that the person could no longer “take part in the service, either as an elder or as a deacon.”

Russell, in his book Studies in the Scriptures (vol. VI), stressed that these disciplined persons “should not be treated as an enemy” and “should not be passed by on the street unnoticed by the brethren, but be treated courteously.” The discipline was not meant to be an excommunication, but a suspension of the privileges and assignments within the congregation.

Following Russell’s death in 1916, President Joseph Rutherford eliminated voting; no longer would congregation members decide on the discipline of their members. Rutherford instead instituted circuit overseers, elders appointed directly by the Watchtower Society, to visit local congregations and make disciplinary decisions. Another change Rutherford instituted was that disciplining could be used for matters of conscience, such as alcohol consumption and military service.

Rutherford’s successor Nathan Knorr gave the elders in each congregation the power to establish judicial committees (groups of three elders) to hold trials in cases of alleged wrongdoing. Knorr also refined what was involved in the disciplining of such members. In the March 1, 1952 issue of The Watchtower, he provided a list of offenses and said that congregation members who unrepentantly committed such offenses were to be disfellowshipped.

This meant that loyal members of “the congregation should never say hello or goodbye to him. He is not welcome in our midst, we avoid him.” This policy gave way to what Tony Wills, in his book A People for His Name, calls the “harsh excommunication” of members. A few years later, even associating with a disfellowshipped person became a reason to be disfellowshipped. The Watchtower (October 1, 1955) said that a Witness who associates with disfellowshipped persons “is rebelling against the congregation of Jehovah” and equates this action to “the sin of witchcraft.”

During Knorr’s final years, however, the Watchtower Society eased up a bit.

In the August 1, 1974 issue of their magazine, the Watchtower Society admitted that unyielding shunning of former members could be “cruel,” “needlessly unkind and inhumane,” and they provided two examples where a faithful Witness could, in good conscience, temporarily suspend shunning: The first example is if a former member’s boat capsized and he or she was in danger of drowning. The second example is if a male Witness sees a female ex-Witness on the side of the highway with a flat tire. In both cases, the faithful Witnesses were permitted to provide assistance if they were able.

But this easing-up quickly ended. In 1977, Knorr died and Vice President Fred Franz took over as President. That year, the Watchtower Society distributed a new elders’ manual titled Pay Attention to Yourselves and to All the Flock. Seven of the twelve chapters are devoted to handling issues of wrongdoing in the congregation.

Soon after, three high-ranking members of the Watchtower’s governing body defected due to irreconcilable differences of opinion, and Franz likely feared that they would spread information critical of the Watchtower Society. To that end, disfellowshipped relatives not living in the same house were to be treated as nonexistent. The Watchtower Society also expanded the list of offenses for which a person could be disfellowshipped — included donating blood, drunkenness, gambling, working for a casino, selling tobacco, attending a non-Witness religious activity, gluttony, fraud, homosexuality, serving in the military, smoking, viewing pornography, boxing, and certain sexual practices. Elders were also empowered to compel congregation members to shun former Witnesses who had resigned from the religion voluntarily.

Jehovah’s Witnesses, including minor children, could now be disfellowshipped even for disagreeing with one of the Watchtower’s teachings. In his book Kingdom of the Cults, cult expert Walter Martin writes, “Dissent is not permitted and, if discovered, is punished swiftly and completely.” He adds that the Witness authorities exclude from their membership not only those who have committed “gross, unrepentant immorality or heresy but also for questioning the teachings and authority of the Society.”

When a Witness is expelled from the congregation, he or she completely shunned by the very people “once considered friends, family, and brothers and sisters.” This shunning is immediate; as soon as an announcement is made expelling a member from the congregation, loyal Witnesses cease making eye contact with that person, even if they are sitting right next to him or her.

Witnesses are thus instructed to isolate themselves from their friends who have been disfellowshipped or disassociated, as well as from any former Witness who holds a viewpoint, however minute, that differs from the Watchtower. Some Witnesses have even been disfellowshipped for reading material critical of the faith. The Watchtower Society attacks those with both privately-held dissonance and open disagreement.

In his book Jehovah’s Witnesses: Portrait of a Contemporary Religious Movement, sociologist Andrew Holden profiled several former Witnesses who doubted the organization’s teachings and policies. In one profile, an ex-Witness related that, after he left the religion, others who remained in membership contacted him and admitted that they, too, had harbored misgivings “but were too afraid to leave the community for fear of losing their closest friends and having no one else to whom they could turn.”

Further, those who leave run the risk of not merely being shunned, but of being labeled as diseased, poisonous individuals. In their June 15, 1980 issue, the Watchtower Society advised their members that former Witnesses should “be hated in the sense of avoiding them as we would poison or a poisonous snake.” And in their July 15, 2011 issue, they reminded members of the seriousness of shunning those who have defected from the faith:

Apostates are mentally diseased, and they seek to infect others with their disloyal teachings. We do not receive them into our homes or greet them. We also refuse to read their literature, watch TV programs that feature them, examine their Web sites, or add our comments to their blogs. Why do we take such a firm stand? Because of love.

The Watchtower Society disparages former members by pointing out that they are angry apostates who revel in “fits of anger” and “speak abusively” against the Witnesses. While this may be true of some former members, the Watchtower Society suggests that this behavior is the cause of someone leaving the religion, rather than a consequence of being shunned. Psychologist Kipling Williams notes in his book Ostracism: The Power of Silence that being excluded from a group triggers the same part of the brain as physical pain; thus, an expected reaction to exclusion is anger.

One reason why former members are viewed with such contempt by the faithful is due to the Witnesses’ perception of themselves and their own religion. Holden notes in his book that Witnesses believe “there is never any valid reason for leaving” the religion. The Watchtower Society claims a “monopoly over truth,” so members cannot fathom that a fellow Witness could “make the claim that their search for salvation is causing them to seek new pastures.” Abandoning the Watchtower Society is therefore viewed as the ultimate betrayal by loyal members. People who willfully leave the religion are therefore vilified by faithful Jehovah’s Witnesses, whom they believe will be murdered by their all-loving deity in the near future. This helps explain why the practice of shunning subsists among them. Not only does it help insulate loyal Witnesses from critical exposure to their beliefs by former members, but it is also the only power the Watchtower Society truly has.

People considering leaving the religion likely will not mourn the end of door-to-door proselytizing or freedom from the Watchtower Society’s numerous rules, but they are likely to pause when they consider that everyone they’ve ever known — including friends, parents, and even their own children — will be compelled to shun them if they exit.

However, it is not just the dissenters who experience hardship as a result of the Watchtower’s shunning policy. The practice of shunning is detrimental to the faithful as well.

By being forced to ostracize their friends and relatives, they are turned into bullies — strong-arming their friends in an attempt to force conformity. This “act of ostracism is psychologically costly. It takes energy and depletes cognitive resources,” Williams notes, adding that “ostracism is a two-edged sword, cutting not only the target but also the source.”

Loyal Witnesses, like those they’re shunning, are not immune to the emotional distress of swiftly, fully, and permanently ignoring a good friend. Former member James Penton points out in Apocalypse Delayed that the Watchtower’s “campaign to disfellowship anyone showing signs of dissidence” often results in “personal trauma, family alienation, divorce, emotional breakdown, loss of employment, and even suicide.”

The Watchtower Society agrees that this is true for their members, noting in their April 15, 1988 issue that shunning “may be difficult because of emotions and family ties, such as grandparents’ love for their grandchildren.” Yet they remind their adherents that shunning “is a test of loyalty to God.” The Witnesses must then constantly deal with the cognitive dissonance of believing that their religion is the epitome of love, while simultaneously being obligated to hate their friends and relatives.

Indeed, Witnesses are not merely supposed to obediently ostracize those who have left the faith, they are also supposed to defend this behavior as an act of love. Even the Witnesses’ official website includes an article titled “Why Disfellowshipping Is a Loving Provision.” In it, the Watchtower’s leaders employ doublespeak to argue that such bullying is not “unkind” and that by “putting up a barrier” between themselves and the disfellowshipped person (even if it their own child), they are demonstrating love that can “bring the wrongdoer to his senses.”

The loyalty of these Witnesses will continue to be tested for the foreseeable future. The Watchtower Society offers no means for dissenters to air their views or to work for change from within. Those who are opposed to bullying their parents or siblings, or who have difficulty reconciling the idea of loving someone by hating them, or who disagree with any Watchtower policy are reminded to keep their views to themselves. In their July 15, 2006 issue, the Watchtower Society encouraged members “to maintain a positive attitude,” to keep busy in religious activities, and to “wait on God and Christ” for changes that may be warranted.

As a former Witness, I have experienced this shunning first-hand. Most recently, at a family picnic my Witness sister-in-law attended. She neither contributed nor partook of the potluck, as that would have violated the Watchtower’s instruction to not eat with former members. Yet she was friendly and conversational with relatives who have never been Witnesses. She was trying to give her family a good impression of her religiosity while simultaneously keeping me and my wife (her sister) at a distance. The contradiction was palpable and everyone commented on it after she left. Though her actions do more to undermine the appearance of her faith than enticing others toward it, her willful blindness serves to keep her in the fold. At least for the time being.

James Zimmerman‘s essays have appeared in The Humanist, Atheist Voices of Minnesota, and The St. Paul Almanac. He is also a frequent host of the Twin Cities-based cable TV show Atheists Talk. This post is an edited version of a paper he presented at the National Conference of Undergraduate Research last spring.

(Image via Shutterstock)

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