Shunning: A Social Death

Shunning: A Social Death

The Practice of Disfellowshipping among Jehovah’s Witnesses

Many societies establish rules or norms for inclusion in their membership. Adherence to the established norms permits full membership in the group. However, failure to follow those norms, or deviance from those norms, results in sanctions, discipline or expulsion from the group. In some religious groups an extreme form of sanction is the act of excommunication, a type of social death for the deviant member. One religious group that practices this form of expulsion is the Jehovah's Witnesses. The Witness practice of disfellowshipping errant members is a form of social death to the member who is disfellowshipped as well as to family and friends of that person.

In all known societies, social norms or rules are developed to define who is to be included in the group. Rules of behavior are accepted as legitimate by the members of the group. Pressure is placed on group members to conform to the norms of the group. This is the process of social control (Napier, 1981).

Sanctions are placed on members of the group who do not conform to the norms. Napier (1981) states that "any member who does not adhere will be seen as a threat... and efforts will be made to induce him or her to return to the group procedures". For example, in human society the norm has been established that it is wrong to murder. Laws are enacted to inform everyone what the norm is. Pressure in the form of threats of punishment by means of fines and/or imprisonment, is placed upon all members of society. Those who fail to heed the warnings and commit murder are caught, tried and if found guilty, placed in jail, and excluded from society.

To continue as members of the group individuals must accept the group norms or suffer the consequences. Susan Opotow (1990), states that exclusion "occurs when individuals or groups are perceived as outside the boundary in which moral values, rules, and considerations of fairness apply. Those who are morally excluded are perceived as nonentities, expendable, or undeserving." Being excluded from the group then, allows continuing members to view the excluded one as different and therefore not deserving of normal participation in the group's activities.

Various religious groups practice forms of exclusion for those deemed to behave in ways that do not conform to the norms of the religious group. As far back as 1640 the Catholic Church has excommunicated errant church members (Capps, 1979) and in 1908 the Old Order Mennonite community practiced excommunication (Dreidger, 1979). The International Standard Bible Encyclopedia states,

"Excommunication in its most general sense is the deliberate act whereby a group denies the privileges of its membership to those who were once members in good standing... Excommunication came in the Christian era to refer to an act of exclusion by which a religious community denies to offenders the sacraments, congregational worship, and possibly social contact of any kind."          (Bromiley, 1979).

Historically, religious communities have practiced some form of exclusion. The community "claims the right to protect itself against nonconforming members... In a religious setting this right has often been reinforced by the belief that the sanction affects one's standing before God, inasmuch as it entails being cut off from the community of the saved." (Eliade, 1987). Those who are cut off lose basic rights in the church. They are denied any role in receiving or administering any of the sacraments. (Opotow, 1990).

Eliade (1987) states that minor exclusions may involve being left out of "mainstream activities" while in more serious degrees of exclusion there is a "stripping of identity ...along with various restrictions placed on the person's behavior and freedom of movement."  The most severe form of exclusion would involve "forced exile".  This forced exile is a form of social death because the excluded person is cut off from the support, care and spiritual life of the religious community.

One rationale for religious exclusion is based in the belief that the sacred texts and rituals must be kept in a pure state free from spiritual contamination from external beliefs. For the religious community to survive their distinctive beliefs must be reinforced and protected. Eliade (1987) maintains that the smaller the religious group, such as the Amish, Mennonite and Hutterite communities, the greater their need to protect their beliefs and therefore the greater reliance on expulsion as a means of social control. The Jehovah's Witnesses also practice this form of social death on errant members.

To better understand the impact of expulsion on the individual we need to look at the inclusionary processes among some of these groups. Lofland (1966) presents a 7 step model of conversion to help us understand why and how individuals get involved in some of the smaller religious communities. An initial disposition towards religious conversion must involve a perceived discrepancy between the present spiritual condition and the desired one. These "pre-converts felt themselves frustrated in their various aspirations" (Lofland, 1966). In the second step the pre-convert, although disillusioned with the present situation, continues to look to religion as a source of resolution to problems.

Thirdly, the pre-convert actively seeks a religious viewpoint that provided answers to unresolved questions. These first three steps are predispositions to religious conversion according to Lofland (1966). The reality that religious converts did not find comfort in their past religions and then left to search for another source of spiritual comfort is significant to their inclusion and later exclusion from the new religious community.

The fourth step requires that the individual reach a turning point where "circumstances in which old obligations and lines of action had diminished and new involvements had become desirable and possible." (Lofland, 1966). It is at this point that the individual is vulnerable to contact with individuals from the new religious community. Usually, the convert meets one person from the new community and a friendship is formed. It is the friendship with the new person that seems necessary "to bridge the gap between first exposure to the message and coming to accept the truth" (Lofland, 1966).

Since ties to the old community had already been severed the new friendship often met a need for companionship without the censure of old friends. If the situation arose that old friends questioned the new spiritual community the pre-converts were thrown into intense emotional strain". If the old friendship withstood the search for spiritual comfort by the potential convert, then conversion was generally aborted. If however, the old friend caused too much strain for the convert, the new relationships would take precedence over the old. Usually though, most converts were "unintegrated into any network ... that for the most part they could simply fall out of society virtually unnoticed." (Lofland, 1966).

At this point, the new converts began to get more seriously involved in the new religious community. Meeting attendance increases, fellowship with other community member increases, and a re-organization of the converts' lives conclude the conversion process (Lofland, 1966). By the time the individual has fully converted to the new religious community, there are few, if any, emotional connections to the past life. The new life revolves totally around acceptance of the new religious community and its norms.

According to Ms S. D, who was an active member of the Jehovah's Witnesses for 17 years, the work of bringing new converts into the community follows Lofland's model quite closely. Part of the work that she was engaged in involved going from door-to-door looking for prospective converts. They would frequently find individuals who were experiencing many difficulties in their present life and had few resources to assist them in dealing with their problems. She recounted one story where a family was contacted that had no furniture. The children were sleeping on mattresses on the floor. The Witnesses who made the contact arranged for the family to get basic furniture for their apartment. Regular contact was kept with the family in the guise of baby-sitting, providing transportation, and material goods. The family was requested to participate in weekly Bible study sessions and to attend weekly meetings in the Kingdom Hall, the meeting place for Jehovah's Witnesses. Weekly meetings were slowly extended to three times per week and the family was encouraged to participate in searching for new converts. Mrs. D said that within six months Jehovah's Witnesses expect most new converts to be fully integrated into the community.

Prospective members are warned that contacts outside of the religion will try to dissuade them from converting. Scripture is heavily used to encourage them to avoid dealings with non-Witnesses. Eventually the individuals drop all association with outsiders and new relationships are formed within the community. (Mrs. D.,1993). This separateness from people who are outside thw Witness community contributes greatly to the isolation that the disfellowshipped person experiences when excluded from the Witnesses, as we shall see later.

Witnesses are expected to live a highly moral, clean life. Scriptural warnings are used to encourage Witnesses to "protect the congregation from contamination" (Watchtower, 1988b; Watchtower, 1991a). Heavy sanctions are routinely used to discipline wrong-doers. Penton, (1985) states that judicial committees of three elders were set up to fulfill "the role of judge, jury and prosecution of the accused".

Mrs. D. talks about her disfellowshipping eight years ago. She stated that she met with three elders from the congregation she was associated with. They questioned her on the alleged wrong-doing. They did not ask why she had acted in the way that she had and did not question her emotional state or some contradictory remarks she had made. At the end of a two hour interview she was told that she would be disfellowshipped from the congregation and was given thirty days to appeal the decision. Due to her emotional state at the time she decided not to appeal. An announcement was made at the next congregational meeting informing everyone that she was disfellowshipped and warnings were given for members to not associate with her. (Mrs. D. 1993).

The Witnesses' rationale for disfellowshipping wrong-doers is based on scriptural texts such as I Corinthians 5:6-8 which states:

"do you not know that a little leaven ferments the whole lump? Clear away the old leaven that you may be a new lump, according as you are free from ferment... Consequently let us keep the festival, not with the old leaven, neither with leaven of badness and wickedness, but with unfermented cakes of sincerity and truth"

and Numbers 15:30-31 which states:

"But the soul that does something deliberately, whether he is a native or an alien resident, he speaking abusively of Jehovah, in that case that soul must be cut off from among his people. Because it is Jehovah's word that he has despised and his commandment that he has broken, that soul should be cut off without fail. His own error is upon him."

Witnesses believe that the only way to keep the congregation clean is to remove sinners from among them. (Watchtower, 1988a; 1988b; 1991a; 1992).  The Apr. 15, 1991a Watchtower states, "Expelling him would prevent his wickedness from dishonoring both God and His people. The severe discipline of being disfellowshipped might also shock him to his senses and instil in him and the congregation due fear of God". By removing him from the congregation there would be little possibility for others to follow his lead.

To further protect the congregation members are warned not to fellowship with the dissociated member. Again scriptural references are used to encourage the shunning of the ex-member.   I Corinthians 5:11 states:

...quit mixing in company with anyone called a brother that is a fornicator or a greedy person or an idolator or a reviler or a drunkard or an extortioner not even eating with such a man.

The disfellowshipped person is no longer welcome at the homes of other Witnesses and can no longer participate in the celebration of the Lord's Evening Meal (Easter). The scripture at II John 9-11 is used to extend the ostracism. it states:

Everyone that pushes ahead and does not remain in the teaching of the Christ does not have God....If anyone comes to you and does not bring this teaching, never receive him into your homes or say a greeting to him. For he who says a greeting to him is a sharer in his wicked works.

Mrs. D. states that these scriptures have encouraged her friends and family to shun her. Old friends cross the street or look away if they see her. She has not been invited to family weddings or other gatherings. Her mother who is also a Jehovah's Witness does not call even when it was know that she was having major surgery. Her family is not permitted to pray for her and when she dies she will not be allowed to have a Witness funeral. If she were to attend a meeting she knows she will be shunned.

Although Mrs. D. realizes that other Witnesses are bound by the norms established by the Witnesses, she states that what made the disfellowshipping even more difficult was that as a Witness she was encouraged not to have friends outside the Witness community. As a result of the lack of social support from the outside and the shunning from the Witnesses themselves she was left in a position of no social support whatsoever. There was no one she could discuss this matter with. Contributing to this problem was that even other ex-Witnesses could not be contacted. There was no way of knowing who else may have been disfellowshipped and of forming friendships with them.

Mrs. D. says, "although the actual act of disfellowshipment before the elders in the congregation was difficult, the practice of it caused me to become severely depressed. Not only did I have my original problem which I felt very shamed about, I had been tried and found guilty. My guilt had been announced to all my friends without any details. My entire life disappeared before my eyes and there was nothing I could do to stop it. I lost everything, my friends, my family, my children, my home, even my identity. I had been a respected member of the Witnesses, an elder's wife. I gave much of my time to Witness activities, meetings, preaching, conducting Bible studies with interested persons. I was the Sign Language interpreter for the a deaf congregation and taught sign language to other Witnesses. By the time they were finished, I didn't know who I was anymore. I had to stop and build a new life for myself with no support from any one that I knew. It was very hard."

It seems that for the disfellowshipped person the cutting off is so severe that the person must grieve the loss of friends, a social support system, the religious community, family as well as their own spiritual life and identity in the community, a complete sense of social death.

Mrs. D. also commented on the experience of being a Witness and shunning another member who had been disfellowshipped. "There was a sense of loss, a mourning that we went through. We rarely spoke of that person. Seeing them on the street would trigger a sense of sadness over losing a good friend. However, to talk to that person meant risking our own good standing in the congregation. Few ever tried." The experience of disfellowshipping a member of the Jehovah's Witnesses is a form of social death not only to the disfellowshipped person but also to the friends and family of that person.

All societies establish norms for both the inclusion and exclusion of its members. Members are made aware of the sanctions placed on various unacceptable behaviors. In religious communities serious failure to obey the established norms can lead to excommunication. A severe form of excommunication practiced by Jehovah's Witnesses is called disfellowshipping. Witnesses maintain that the practice of disfellowshipping is scriptural sound and necessary to protect the congregation and their beliefs and to discipline the errant member. The practice involves refusal to talk to or meet with disfellowshipped members. The disfellowshipped member experiences a loss of family and friends, community support, as well as a loss of identity.

The inclusionary practice of cutting themselves off from contact from non-Witnesses compounds the lack of support that is available to them after being disfellowshipped. Not only have they lost contact with past friends, they now lose contact with their present life. The total loss of support from family, friends and identity, results in a social death for the individual. And if the person was raised as a Witness there are no supports for them to fall back onto.


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  • Watchtower Bible and Tract Society. (1988a). Discipline that can Yield Peaceable Fruit.  Watchtower, Apr.15,: 26-31.
  • Watchtower Bible and Tract Society. (1988b). Who Will become Approved by Jehovah?   Watchtower, Nov. 15: 10-20.
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Copyright 1994, 2014 Lee Marsh

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Lee Marsh,
Mar 18, 2014, 10:15 AM