But despite Witnesses having mostly admirable qualities as individuals, the leadership of the religion is coming under increasing scrutiny for some of its more disturbing practices – especially that of shunning former members.
When you challenge a Jehovah’s Witness on their religion’s treatment of disfellowshipped or disassociated former members, you will typically be met with a response that goes something like this: “We do this as an act of loving discipline out of loyalty to God’s command.”
Those on the receiving end will reply to this by pointing out that ostracism to the point of not speaking to someone is anything but “loving,” and this sort of behavior has driven shunned ones to depression and even suicide.
But what about shunning being “God’s command?”
It turns out when you consult the Scriptures, the biblical justification for Watchtower’s disfellowshipping policy is flimsy at best. In fact, there are 14 verses I will point to in this article that either question or flatly contradict this controversial rule.
Before listing these verses, perhaps it would be helpful to briefly go through the Bible verses commonly invoked in support of disfellowshipping, along with the basic reasons why I believe these are misapplied.
Bible verses used to support JW shunning
1. Deuteronomy 21:20, 21; 22: 23, 24
and say to the elders of his city, ‘This son of ours is stubborn and rebellious, and he refuses to obey us. He is a glutton and a drunkard.’ Then all the men of his city must stone him to death. So you must remove what is bad from your midst, and all Israel will hear and become afraid. … If a virgin is engaged to a man, and another man happens to meet her in the city and lies down with her, you should bring them both out to the gate of that city and stone them to death, the girl because she did not scream in the city and the man because he humiliated the wife of his fellow man. So you must remove what is evil from your midst.
Are we really supposed to stone sinners to death? The law of Moses was supposedly nailed to Jesus’ torture stake (Col 2:14), which is why we’re no longer executing adulterers (or rape victims who don’t scream!).
If you are a Witness, before you say “But that’s an extreme example! The organization would never use those verses in defense of shunning!”, please consult the Organized book on page 140.
2. Matthew 10:34-37
Do not think I came to bring peace to the earth; I came to bring, not peace, but a sword. For I came to cause division, with a man against his father, and a daughter against her mother, and a daughter-in-law against her mother-in-law. Indeed, a man’s enemies will be those of his own household. Whoever has greater affection for father or mother than for me is not worthy of me; and whoever has greater affection for son or daughter than for me is not worthy of me.
When read in context, this passage is clearly describing Jesus’ followers being shunned by their unbelieving family members, not vice versa.
3. 1 Corinthians 5:5-7, 11-13
you must hand such a man over to Satan for the destruction of the flesh, so that the spirit may be saved in the day of the Lord. Your boasting is not good. Do you not know that a little leaven ferments the whole batch of dough? Clear away the old leaven so that you may be a new batch, inasmuch as you are free from ferment. For, indeed, Christ our Passover lamb has been sacrificed. … But now I am writing you to stop keeping company with anyone called a brother who is sexually immoral or a greedy person or an idolater or a reviler or a drunkard or an extortioner, not even eating with such a man. For what do I have to do with judging those outside? Do you not judge those inside, while God judges those outside? “Remove the wicked person from among yourselves.”
There is obviously a difference between not “keeping company” or socializing (i.e. dining) with someone and ignoring them as though they don’t exist – not even speaking to them. And “anyone called a brother” needn’t be applied even to family members. Even Watchtower makes allowances in this regard, allowing a disfellowshipped husband to remain with his wife and permitting children to continue living with their disfellowshipped parents. Also, 2 Thessalonians chapter 3 sheds more light on 1 Corinthians chapter 5, as I will explain later.
4. 1 Timothy 1:20
Hymenaeus and Alexander are among these, and I have handed them over to Satan so that they may be taught by discipline not to blaspheme.
“Handed over to Satan” does not specify shunning as practiced by Jehovah’s Witnesses.
5. 1 John 2:19
They went out from us, but they were not of our sort; for if they had been of our sort, they would have remained with us. But they went out so that it might be shown that not all are of our sort.
This verse merely describes those who stop believing, or “disassociate.” It does not advise that believers should shun such ones.
6. 2 John 7-11
For many deceivers have gone out into the world, those not acknowledging Jesus Christ as coming in the flesh. This is the deceiver and the antichrist. Look out for yourselves, so that you do not lose the things we have worked to produce, but that you may obtain a full reward. Everyone who pushes ahead and does not remain in the teaching of the Christ does not have God. The one who does remain in this teaching is the one who has both the Father and the Son. If anyone comes to you and does not bring this teaching, do not receive him into your homes or say a greeting to him. For the one who says a greeting to him is a sharer in his wicked works.
This verse is talking about “antichrists” who deny Jesus. Clearly, not all who are disfellowshipped cease to be believing Christians. Even those who do cease to be religious needn’t be shunned according to this verse, because it is contradicted by another Bible verse that I will come to later.
Obviously there are other Bible verses appealed to by Watchtower when it comes to promoting the practice of shunning (verses describing the divine execution of certain Israelites, e.g. Aaron’s sons or Korah and his followers, spring to mind) but for the sake of argument I have tried to focus on the most compelling and/or prominently-used scriptures.
Bible verses that contradict JW shunning
Having breezed through the Bible verses most regularly appealed to by Watchtower in defense of its shunning policy we can now get stuck in to the verses that contradict it. And it turns out there are more than you might think.
For the purpose of brevity I will only partially quote some of the longer verses quoted, but I would recommend looking up and reading the cited passages in their entirety, particularly if you are skeptical about the way I am applying them.
1. Matthew 5:43-48
“You heard that it was said: ‘You must love your neighbor and hate your enemy.’ However, I say to you: Continue to love your enemies and to pray for those who persecute you, so that you may prove yourselves sons of your Father who is in the heavens, since he makes his sun rise on both the wicked and the good and makes it rain on both the righteous and the unrighteous. For if you love those loving you, what reward do you have? Are not also the tax collectors doing the same thing? And if you greet your brothers only, what extraordinary thing are you doing? Are not also the people of the nations doing the same thing? You must accordingly be perfect, as your heavenly Father is perfect.”
You cannot love your enemy in any meaningful sense if you refuse to talk to him or her. This verse also gives context to Matthew chapter 18, which I will mention later, since there Jesus said that avowed sinners should be treated as being “of the nations” (in other words, no longer “brothers”) and here he is saying that his followers should take no pride in only greeting their brothers.
2. Matthew 9:10-13
Later as he was dining in the house, look! many tax collectors and sinners came and began dining with Jesus and his disciples. But on seeing this, the Pharisees said to his disciples: “Why does your teacher eat with tax collectors and sinners?” Hearing them, he said: “Healthy people do not need a physician, but those who are ill do. Go, then, and learn what this means: ‘I want mercy, and not sacrifice.’ For I came to call, not righteous people, but sinners.”
Jesus here advocated the principle that, just because someone is a sinner, this does not mean they should be shunned. In fact shunning makes it impossible to help someone correct their course. Mercy, according to Jesus, was the dominant consideration.
It’s also interesting to note that Jesus’ eating with sinners was a continuing source of irritation for the Jewish religious leaders, specifically in the synoptic gospels. If Jesus wanted to leave his followers with the impression that sinners were to be shunned and avoided, he did an appalling job. (Compare Matthew 11:19, Mark 2:16, Luke 5:30; 7:34; 15:1, 2)
3. Matthew 18:15-17
“Moreover, if your brother commits a sin, go and reveal his fault between you and him alone. If he listens to you, you have gained your brother. But if he does not listen, take along with you one or two more, so that on the testimony of two or three witnesses every matter may be established. If he does not listen to them, speak to the congregation. If he does not listen even to the congregation, let him be to you just as a man of the nations and as a tax collector.“
No allowance here for kangaroo court-style judicial committees made up of Jehovah’s Witness elders. Rather, believers were to sort out grievances between themselves. Also, since Jesus ate with tax collectors (as we have already established), clearly JW-style total avoidance wasn’t on the menu even in the worst case scenario.
4. Luke 6:27
“But I say to you who are listening: Continue to love your enemies, to do good to those hating you“
Again, it’s impossible to love someone or do good to them if you are refusing to acknowledge their existence. And we are talking here about “enemies” who “hate” believers. Most disfellowshipped Jehovah’s Witnesses I know of have nothing but love for their believing family but are shunned all the same.
5. Luke 6:35-37
“On the contrary, continue to love your enemies and to do good and to lend without hoping for anything back; and your reward will be great, and you will be sons of the Most High, for he is kind toward the unthankful and wicked. Continue being merciful, just as your Father is merciful. Moreover, stop judging, and you will by no means be judged; and stop condemning, and you will by no means be condemned. Keep on forgiving, and you will be forgiven“
Again, you cannot show kindness toward “the unthankful and wicked” by shunning them. Jesus warned his followers to be forgiving rather than judgmental, reminding them that mercy should be the preeminent factor. Can separating someone from their loved ones be considered merciful?
6. Luke 10:25-37
But wanting to prove himself righteous, the man said to Jesus: “Who really is my neighbor?” In reply Jesus said: “A man was going down from Jerusalem to Jericho and fell victim to robbers, who stripped him, beat him, and went off, leaving him half-dead. Now by coincidence a priest was going down on that road, but when he saw him, he passed by on the opposite side. Likewise, a Levite, when he came to the place and saw him, passed by on the opposite side. But a certain Samaritan traveling the road came upon him, and at seeing him, he was moved with pity. So he approached him and bandaged his wounds, pouring oil and wine on them. Then he mounted him on his own animal and brought him to an inn and took care of him. The next day he took out two denarii, gave them to the innkeeper, and said: ‘Take care of him, and whatever you spend besides this, I will repay you when I return.’ Who of these three seems to you to have made himself neighbor to the man who fell victim to the robbers?” He said: “The one who acted mercifully toward him.” Jesus then said to him: “Go and do the same yourself.”
In Jesus’ famous parable, which I consider to be the most beautiful passage in the Bible, the true neighbor turned out to be the heretic (the Samaritan) who had what Jews considered to be apostate religious beliefs, and it was precisely such a neighbor to whom his followers were reminded to show love.
7. Luke chapter 15
Now all the tax collectors and the sinners kept gathering around him to hear him. And both the Pharisees and the scribes kept muttering: “This man welcomes sinners and eats with them.” Then he told them this illustration, saying: “What man among you with 100 sheep, on losing one of them, will not leave the 99 behind in the wilderness and go after the lost one until he finds it? And when he has found it, he puts it on his shoulders and rejoices. … In the same way, I tell you, joy arises among the angels of God over one sinner who repents.” Then he said: “A man had two sons. And the younger one said to his father, ‘Father, give me the share of the property that should come to me.’ So he divided his belongings between them. A few days later, the younger son gathered all his things together and traveled to a distant country and there squandered his property by living a debauched life. When he had spent everything, a severe famine occurred throughout that country, and he fell into need. He even went and attached himself to one of the citizens of that country, who sent him into his fields to herd swine. And he longed to be filled with the carob pods that the swine were eating, but no one would give him anything. “When he came to his senses, he said, ‘How many of my father’s hired men have more than enough bread, while I am dying here from hunger! I will get up and travel to my father and say to him: “Father, I have sinned against heaven and against you. I am no longer worthy of being called your son. Make me as one of your hired men.”’ So he got up and went to his father. While he was still a long way off, his father caught sight of him and was moved with pity, and he ran and embraced him and tenderly kissed him. Then the son said to him, ‘Father, I have sinned against heaven and against you. I am no longer worthy of being called your son.’ But the father said to his slaves, ‘Quick! bring out a robe, the best one, and clothe him with it, and put a ring on his hand and sandals on his feet. Also bring the fattened calf, slaughter* it, and let us eat and celebrate, for this son of mine was dead but has come to life again; he was lost and has been found.’ And they started to enjoy themselves. … ‘But we just had to celebrate and rejoice, for your brother was dead but has come to life; he was lost and has been found.’”
This chapter of the Bible, when read in context and fully contemplated, is dynamite to Watchtower’s shunning policy, which is probably why it rarely features in material on how disfellowshipped ones are to be treated.
Notice that the entire reason for Jesus launching into the parable of the prodigal son was that he had again been chastised for being too friendly with sinners. He responded by reminding his accusers that it was impossible to help someone or be a good example by refusing to interact with them.
In the parable itself, Jesus describes an errant son who only returns after exhausting his funds, making it impossible to continue his debauched lifestyle. Such a person would be disfellowshipped by Jehovah’s Witness elders for only exhibiting “worldly sadness.”
Worldly sadness, according to Watchtower, “mourns the unpleasant consequences wrongdoing brings. But it does not mourn over the unrighteousness itself, or the reproach it brings on God.” (w72 7/15 p. 438) Furthermore, it is telling that the father runs to embrace his son “while he was still a long way off” – in other words, before any repentance could be determined.
8. 2 Corinthians 2:1-7
For I have made up my mind not to come to you again in sadness. For if I make you sad, who will be there to cheer me up except the one I saddened? I wrote what I did, so that when I come I may not be saddened by those over whom I ought to rejoice, because I have confidence that what brings me joy brings all of you the same joy. For out of much tribulation and anguish of heart I wrote you with many tears, not to sadden you, but to let you know the depth of love I have for you. Now if anyone has caused sadness, he has saddened, not me, but all of you to an extent—not to be too harsh in what I say. This rebuke given by the majority is sufficient for such a man; now you should instead kindly forgive and comfort him, so that he may not be overwhelmed by excessive sadness.
Interestingly, in his follow-up letter to 1 Corinthians (in which the most direct counsel on the treatment of wrongdoers is given) Paul sounds a vague note of regret at what he had written, or at least how it had been interpreted. (“For if I make you sad, who will be there to cheer me up except the one I saddened?”) He reminds the congregation of the need for forgiveness lest the wrongdoer “be overwhelmed by excessive sadness,” and even suggests that a “rebuke given by the majority is sufficient for such a man.” This indicates it is not necessary for each and every individual in a congregation to “rebuke” a wrongdoer. It was possible, in Paul’s mind, to apply his words too harshly.
9. Colossians 3:13, 14
Continue putting up with one another and forgiving one another freely even if anyone has a cause for complaint against another. Just as Jehovah freely forgave you, you must also do the same. But besides all these things, clothe yourselves with love, for it is a perfect bond of union.
Self explanatory! Are you really putting up with someone or freely forgiving them by treating them as though they don’t exist?
10. 1 Thessalonians 4:3-8; 9-12
For this is the will of God, that you should be holy and abstain from sexual immorality. Each one of you should know how to control his own body in holiness and honor, not with greedy, uncontrolled sexual passion like the nations have that do not know God. No one should go beyond proper limits and take advantage of his brother in this matter, because Jehovah exacts punishment for all these things, just as we told you previously and also strongly warned you. For God has called us, not for uncleanness, but for holiness. So, then, the man who disregards this is disregarding, not man, but God, who gives you his holy spirit. … However, concerning brotherly love, you do not need us to write to you, for you yourselves are taught by God to love one another. In fact, you are doing so toward all the brothers in all of Macedonia. But we urge you, brothers, to go on doing so in fuller measure. Make it your aim to live quietly and to mind your own business and to work with your hands, just as we instructed you, so that you may walk decently in the eyes of people outside and not need anything.
Paul believed that God would punish wrongdoers, and it was God, not man, to whom they were accountable. This is a recurring theme in Paul’s writings, namely judgment in the hereafter rather than the here and now.
Believing Christians were not to take punishment into their own hands. They were to “love one another” and “mind their own business.”
Can Jehovah’s Witness elders who investigate and interrogate congregation members over accused wrongdoing (to the extent of delving into sexual matters in gratuitous detail) be considered to be minding their own business? Can it be considered evidence of “brotherly love” to behave in such a manner?
11. 1 Thessalonians 5:14, 15
On the other hand, we urge you, brothers, to warn the disorderly, speak consolingly to those who are depressed, support the weak, be patient toward all. See that no one repays injury for injury to anyone, but always pursue what is good toward one another and to all others.
Again, self explanatory. You cannot “support the weak” by ostracizing them and weaponizing family relationships against them. Patience is required, as is the avoidance of vindictive, judgmental behavior, i.e. repaying “injury for injury” through excessive discipline.
12. 2 Thessalonians 3:6-15
Now we are giving you instructions, brothers, in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ, to withdraw from every brother who is walking disorderly and not according to the tradition that you received from us. For you yourselves know how you should imitate us, because we did not behave in a disorderly way among you, nor did we eat anyone’s food free. … For we hear that some are walking disorderly among you, not working at all, but meddling with what does not concern them. To such people we give the order and exhortation in the Lord Jesus Christ that they should work quietly and eat food they themselves earn. For your part, brothers, do not give up in doing good. But if anyone is not obedient to our word through this letter, keep this one marked and stop associating with him, so that he may become ashamed. And yet do not consider him an enemy, but continue admonishing him as a brother.
If you read 2 Thessalonians chapter 3 and compare it with 1 Corinthians chapter 5 you find both passages are discussing the same problem of how to deal with wrongdoers.
Rather than being separate instructions – one for “disfellowshipping” (1 Corinthians) one for “marking” (2 Thessalonians) – Paul makes clear that the recommendation to merely “stop associating” (socializing) with “disorderly” ones applies to all the behavior outlined in “this letter” of 2 Thessalonians (see verse 14) which in the previous chapter includes a rebuke of the “man of lawlessness” who “did not believe the truth but took pleasure in unrighteousness.”
Remember 2 John 10 (cited earlier) where readers were told to ostracize the “antichrists” among them by not receiving them into their homes or saying a greeting to them? Well, here we have different instructions. Paul’s suggested punishment for such ones was far less extreme. As far as he was concerned, the “man of lawlessness” who “stands in opposition and exalts himself above every so-called god or object of worship” could be dealt with more leniently, because it was for Jesus to “do away” with such ones “by the manifestation of his presence” if they failed to correct their course. (2 Thess. 2:3-8)
Again, Paul apparently believed that morbid fear of the impending destruction of wrongdoers was sufficient motivation to bring them to their senses, hence his repeated counsel for Christians to not take matters into their own hands.
Even when describing believers distancing themselves from “disorderly” ones among them, this was only to be done to a limited degree, i.e. by refraining from “keeping company,” eating with, or “associating” with such a person – and, even then, they were to “continue admonishing him as a brother.”
13. 1 Timothy 5:8
Certainly if anyone does not provide for those who are his own, and especially for those who are members of his household, he has disowned the faith and is worse than a person without faith
If you are not providing materially or emotionally for a family member, perhaps because you have been persuaded to shun him or her by religious zealots, you are worse than a person without faith.
14. Hebrews 10:26-31
For if we practice sin willfully after having received the accurate knowledge of the truth, there is no longer any sacrifice for sins left, but there is a certain fearful expectation of judgment and a burning indignation that is going to consume those in opposition. Anyone who has disregarded the Law of Moses dies without compassion on the testimony of two or three. How much greater punishment do you think a person will deserve who has trampled on the Son of God and who has regarded as of ordinary value the blood of the covenant by which he was sanctified, and who has outraged the spirit of undeserved kindness with contempt? For we know the One who said: “Vengeance is mine; I will repay.” And again: “Jehovah will judge his people.” It is a fearful thing to fall into the hands of the living God.
Interestingly, this verse was cited in a 1947 Awake! article titled “Are You Also Excommunicated?” (g47 1/8 pp. 27, 28) – an article that predated Watchtower’s practice of disfellowshipping, which wasn’t introduced until 1952. (Scans are available here and here.)
The article argued strongly that excommunication, which Watchtower has equated to disfellowshipping (see “Expelling” in Insight Vol. 1), is an instrument of “ecclesiastical power and secular tyranny,” “not without pagan influence,” that is “altogether foreign to biblical teachings.”
The verse from Hebrews chosen by Watchtower to argue this point again highlights Paul’s belief that punishment was exclusively God’s remit, not that of men.
Cruel, unbiblical, and detrimental to Watchtower’s aims
So next time a Jehovah’s Witness tells you that, by shunning their disfellowshipped family member, they are following God’s command, politely remind them that the New Testament is strewn with cautions to show love and mercy, and to refrain from being judgmental or taking punishment into one’s own hands.
Even Paul, Watchtower’s poster boy when arguing in favor of shunning, believed that sinners were answerable to God alone, and seemed to express regret to the Corinthians that the advice he gave them in his first letter could have resulted in “excessive sadness” when ruthlessly implemented.
But the biggest irony of Watchtower’s shunning policy is that, in addition to being cruel and unbiblical, it is actually detrimental to the organization’s aims. If the Governing Body were to reverse their policy of shunning, their organization would instantly shed a large portion of its cult reputation making it easier to attract new converts.
Yes, there would inevitably be an exodus if Witnesses were allowed to vote with their feet or were otherwise no longer bound to a captive organization. But whoever remains (I believe we would still be talking in the order of millions) could be truly considered devout believers whose loyalty to the organization would be beyond question.
Sadly, the penny is unlikely to drop any time soon. The Governing Body have wedded themselves to the shunning policy they inherited from their 1980s forebears in a string of Watchtower articles and propaganda videos reinforcing the rule to shun disfellowshipped family members (there were two video dramatizations in 2016 alone).
The stubbornness of these men knows no bounds. Their delusion is not only ruining lives for former members, it is also self-destructive both for the organization and its members who are forced to bypass their humanity in order to comply with “God’s commands.”
It is for this reason that JWsurvey remains committed to highlighting the abusive policies inflicted on Jehovah’s Witnesses, who do not deserve to be exploited, threatened or lied to. Even though the “faithful slave” seem unmoved by the suffering they are causing, we who feel the brunt of their cruelty are appealing to the outside world loudly and persistently, and the media and various law-makers and influencers are starting to take an interest. Slowly but surely, our voices are being heard.
* All scripture quotations are from the New World Translation, 2013 revision (obviously!)
** It should be noted that, despite quoting from the Bible and arguing along theological lines, the author of this article is an atheist. I am no longer persuaded that the Bible is a sound moral authority for reasons I have explained on my YouTube channel. However, even though there was nothing stopping the Bible writers from advocating shunning as currently practiced by Jehovah’s Witnesses, it turns out this is not the case when examining their writings (or it can be said their advice on the treatment of wrongdoers is inconsistent at best).