He has told you, O earthling man, what is good. And what is Jehovah asking back from you but to exercise justice and to love kindness and to be modest in walking with your God? – Micah 6:8
Disassociation, Disfellowshipping, and the Love of Kindness
What does the second of God’s three requirements for earthling man have to do with disfellowshipping? To answer that, let me tell you about a chance encounter that came to my attention some time ago.
Two Jehovah’s Witnesses meet for the first time at a Christian gathering. During the conversation that ensues, one reveals that he is a former Muslim. Intrigued, the first brother asks him what drew him to Jehovah’s Witnesses. The former Muslim explains it was our stand on Hell. (Hellfire is also taught as part of the religion of Islam.) He explains how he always felt the doctrine portrayed God as grossly unfair. His reasoning is that since he never asked to be born, how could God give him only two choices, “Obey or be tortured forever”. Why couldn’t he simply return to the state of nothingness he was in before God gave him a life he never asked for?
When I heard this novel approach to countering the false doctrine of Hellfire, I realized what a great truth this brother had discovered.
Scenario A: The Just God: You don’t exist. God brings you into existence. To continue existing, you have to obey God or else you return to what you were, non-existent.
Scenario B: The Unjust God: You don’t exist. God brings you into existence. You will continue to exist whether you want to or not. Your only choices are obedience or unending torture.
From time to time, some members of our Organization wish to withdraw. They do not engage in sin, nor do they cause dissension and division. They simply wish to resign. Will they experience a parallel to scenario A and simply return to the state they were in before being one of Jehovah’s Witnesses, or is a version of scenario B their only option?
Let’s illustrate this with a hypothetical case of a young girl growing up in a family of Jehovah’s Witnesses. We’ll call her “Susan Smith.”[i] At age 10 Susan, wanting to please parents and friends, expresses a desire to be baptized. She studies hard and by age 11 her wish comes true, much to the delight of all in the congregation. During the summer months, Susan auxiliary pioneers. At 18 she starts to regular pioneer. However, things change in her life and by the time Susan is 25, she no longer wishes to be recognized as one of Jehovah’s Witnesses. She doesn’t tell anyone why. There is nothing in her lifestyle that conflicts with the clean, Christian practices which Jehovah’s Witnesses are known for. She just doesn’t want to be one anymore, so she asks the local elders to remove her name from the congregation membership list.
Can Susan return to the state she was in prior to her baptism? Is there a scenario A for Susan?
If I were to ask this question of any non-witness, he would likely go to jw.org for the answer. Googling “Do Jehovah’s Witnesses shun family”, he’d find this link which opens with the words:
“Those who were baptized as Jehovah’s Witnesses but no longer preach to others, perhaps even drifting away from association with fellow believers, are not shunned. In fact, we reach out to them and try to rekindle their spiritual interest.” [boldface added]
This paints a picture of a kindly people; one who do not force their religion on anyone. There is certainly nothing to compare with Christendom’s/Islam’s Hellfire God who gives a man no choice other than full compliance or eternal torment.
The problem is that what we say officially on our web site is a classic example of political spin, designed to present a favorable picture while hiding the not-so-pleasant truth.
Our hypothetical scenario with Susan is not really hypothetical. It fits the situation of thousands; even tens of thousands. In the real world, are those who follow a course like Susan’s shunned? Not according to the jw.org web site. However, any honest member of Jehovah’s Witnesses would be obliged to answer with a resounding “Yes”. Okay, maybe not a resounding one. More likely it would be a head-hung, eyes-downcast, feet-shuffling, half-mumbled “Yes”; but a “Yes”, nonetheless.
The fact is that the elders would be obliged to follow the rules established by the Governing Body of Jehovah’s Witnesses and consider Susan as disassociated. The difference between being disassociated and being disfellowshipped is similar to the difference between quitting and being fired. Either way you end up on the street. Whether disfellowshipped or disassociated, the same announcement would be made from the Kingdom hall platform: Susan Smith is no longer one of Jehovah’s Witnesses.[ii] From that point forward, she would be cut off from all her family and friends. No one would talk to her anymore, not even to say a polite hello should they pass her on the street or see her at a congregation meeting. Her family would treat her like a pariah. The elders would discourage them from having any but the most necessary contact with her. Simply put, she would be an outcast, and if family or friends were seen to be breaking with this Organizational procedure by even talking with her, they would be counseled, accused of being disloyal to Jehovah and his Organization; and if they continued to disregard the counsel, they would also risk being shunned (disfellowshipped).
Now all of this would not have happened if Susan had remained unbaptized. She could have grown to adulthood, even taken up smoking, getting drunk, sleeping around, and the JW community would still be able to speak with her, preach to her, encourage her to change her way of life, study the Bible with her, even have her over to a family dinner; all without repercussions. However, once she got baptized, she was in our Hellfire God scenario B. From that point forward, her only choice was to obey all the instructions of the Governing Body of Jehovah’s Witnesses, or be cut off from everyone she has ever loved.
Given this alternative, most wishing to leave the Organization try to drift away quietly, hoping not to be noticed. However, even here, the well-chosen, kindly words from the first paragraph of our web site answer to the question “Do You Shun Former Members of Your Religion?” constitute a shameful prevarication.
Consider this from the Shepherd the Flock of God book:
Those Who Have Not Associated for Many Years[iii]
40. In deciding whether to form a judicial committee or not, the body of elders should consider the following:
- Does he still profess to be a Witness?
- Is he generally recognized as a Witness in the congregation or the community?
- Does the person have a measure of contact or association with the congregation so that a leavening, or corrupting, influence exists?
This direction from the Governing Body makes no sense unless we can still consider such ones as being members of the congregation and thus under its authority. If a non-Witness in the community were sinning—say, committing fornication—would we consider forming a judicial committee? How ridiculous that would be. However, if that same individual used to be baptised but had drifted away, even years earlier, everything changes.
Consider our hypothetical sister Susan.[iv] Let’s say she simply drifted away at age 25. Then at 30 she started smoking, or perhaps became an alcoholic. Would we still consider her a former member and leave it up to the family as to how they would deal with the situation, as our web site implies? Perhaps she needs family support; an intervention even. Can we leave it to them to handle as they see fit, based on their trained Christian conscience? Alas no. It is not up to them. Instead, the elders are required to act.
The final proof that those who drift away are not treated like former members is the fact that if the elders formed a judicial committee in Susan’s case based on the foregoing criteria and ruled to disfellowship her, the same announcement would be made as was made when she was disassociated: Susan Smith is no longer one of Jehovah’s Witnesses. This announcement makes no sense if Susan was already not a member of the JW community. Obviously, we would not consider her to be a former member as our web site implies, even though she fits the scenario described as one who ‘drifted away’.
Our actions reveal that we still consider those who drift away and those who stop publishing as under the authority of the congregation. A true former member is one who resigns his or her membership. They are no longer under the authority of the congregation. However, before they go, we publicly instruct all the members to the congregation to shun them.
In acting this way, are we meeting Jehovah’s requirement to love kindness? Or are we acting like the hellfire God of false Christianity and Islam? Is this how Christ would act?
A family member who doesn’t join the faith of Jehovah’s Witnesses will still be able to talk and associate with his JW family members. However, a family member that becomes a JW then changes his mind will be forever cut off from all others in the family who practice the faith of Jehovah’s Witnesses. This will be the case even if the former member lives an exemplary life as a Christian.
What Does It Mean to “Love Kindness”?
It’s an odd expression to the modern ear, is it not?…“to love kindness”. It implies so much more than simply being kind. Each of our three requirement words from Micah 6:8 is tied to an action word: exercise justice, be modest while walking with God, and love kindness. We are not simply to be these things, but to do them; to practice them at all times.
If a man says he really loves baseball, you would expect to hear him talking about it all the time, going to baseball games, reciting game and player statistics, watching it on TV, maybe even playing it whenever he had the chance. If however, you never hear him mention it, watch it, or do it, you will know he is deceiving you, and possibly himself.
To love kindness means to act unfailingly with kindness in all our dealings. It means loving the very concept of kindness. It means wanting to be kind all the time. Therefore, when we exercise justice, it will be tempered by our overriding love of kindness. Our justice will never be harsh nor cold. We may say we are kind, but it is the fruitage we produce that bears witness about our righteousness or lack thereof.
Kindness is most often expressed to those in dire need. We must love God but would there ever be an occasion when God would need us to be kind toward him? Kindness is most needed when there is suffering. As such it is akin to mercy. Not to put too fine a point on it, we might say that mercy is kindness in action. Can the love of kindness and the exercise of mercy play a role in how we deal individually with the Organization’s policy on disassociated ones? Before we can answer that, we need to understand the scriptural basis—if there is one—for disassociation.
Is Equating Disassociation with Disfellowshipping Scriptural?
It is of interest that up to 1981, you could leave the congregation without fear of punishment. “Disassociation” was a term only applied to those who entered politics or the military. We didn’t “disfellowship” such ones so as not to run afoul of laws that could have brought us a lot of persecution. If asked by an official if we expel members who join the military, we could answer, “Absolutely not! We don’t disfellowship congregation members who choose to serve their country in the military or in politics.” Nevertheless, when the announcement was made from the platform, we all knew what it really meant; or as Monty Python might put it, “So-and-so’s disassociated. Know what I mean? Know what I mean? Nudge, nudge. Wink, wink. Say no more. Say no more.”
In 1981, about the time Raymond Franz left Bethel, things changed. Up to that point, a brother who handed in a letter of resignation was simply treated like anyone we viewed to be “in the world”. This was scenario A. Abruptly, after 100 years of publishing the Watchtower, Jehovah allegedly chose that point in time to reveal hitherto concealed truths through the Governing Body on the subject of disassociation? Thereafter, all disassociated ones were suddenly and without warning thrust into scenario B. This direction was applied retroactively. Even those who had resigned before 1981 were treated as if they had just disassociated themselves. An act of loving kindness?
If you were to ask the average JW today why brother Raymond Franz was disfellowshipped, the answer would be, “For apostasy”. That was not the case. The fact is he was disfellowshipped for having lunch with a friend and employer who had disassociated himself from the Organization before the 1981 position took effect.
Still, before we label this action unjust and unkind, let us see what Jehovah has to say. Can we prove our teaching and policy on disassociation from Scripture? That is not only the final measuring stick—it is the only one.
Our own encyclopaedia, Insight on the Scriptures, Volume I is a good place to start. “Disfellowshipping” is covered under the topic, “Expelling”. However, there is no subtopic or subheading which discusses “Disassociation”. All there is can be found in this one paragraph:
However, regarding any who were Christians but later repudiated the Christian congregation…the apostle Paul commanded: “Quit mixing in company with” such a one; and the apostle John wrote: “Never receive him into your homes or say a greeting to him.”—1Co 5:11; 2Jo 9, 10. (it-1 p. 788)
For the sake of argument, let’s assume that leaving the Organization of Jehovah’s Witnesses is tantamount to ‘repudiating the Christian congregation’. Do the two scriptures cited support the position that such ones be treated as disfellowshipped, not even ‘saying a greeting to him’?
(1 Corinthians 5:11) 11 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.
This is clearly a misapplication. Paul are talking about unrepentant sinners here, not about people who while maintaining a Christian lifestyle, resign from the Organization.
(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. 8 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. 9 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. 10 If anyone comes to you and does not bring this teaching, do not receive him into your homes or say a greeting to him. 11 For the one who says a greeting to him is a sharer in his wicked works.
The Insight book only quotes verses 9 and 10, but the context shows that John is talking about deceivers and antichrists, people engaging in wicked works, pushing ahead and not remaining in the teaching of the Christ. He is not talking about people who quietly walk away from the Organization.
Applying these two scriptures to those who simply wish to break off association with the congregation is insulting to such ones. We are indirectly engaging in name calling, labeling them with fornicators, idolaters and antichrists.
Let’s go to the original article that launched this new understanding. Surely, as the source of this radical change of thought there will be much more scriptural support than we’ve found in the Insight book.
w81 9/15 p. 23 par. 14, 16 Disfellowshiping—How to View It
14 One who has been a true Christian might renounce the way of the truth, stating that he no longer considers himself to be one of Jehovah’s Witnesses or wants to be known as one. When this rare event occurs, the person is renouncing his standing as a Christian, deliberately disassociating himself from the congregation. The apostle John wrote: “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.”—1 John 2:19.
16 Persons who make themselves “not of our sort” by deliberately rejecting the faith and beliefs of Jehovah’s Witnesses should appropriately be viewed and treated as are those who have been disfellowshiped for wrongdoing.
You will likely notice that only one scripture is being used to change this policy which will radically affect the lives of tens of thousands. Let’s have a good look at that scripture, but this time in context.
(1 John 2:18-22) . . .Young children, it is the last hour, and just as you have heard that the antichrist is coming, even now many antichrists have appeared, from which fact we know that it is the last hour. 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. 20 And you have an anointing from the holy one, and all of you have knowledge. 21 I write you, not because you do not know the truth, but because you know it, and because no lie originates with the truth. 22 Who is the liar but the one who denies that Jesus is the Christ? This is the antichrist, the one who denies the Father and the Son.
John is not talking about people who simply left the congregation, but of antichrists. People who were against Christ. These ones are ‘liars who deny that Jesus is Christ.’ They deny the Father and the Son.
It seems this is the best we can do. One scripture and a misapplied one at that.
Why are we doing this? What is to be gained? How is the congregation protected?
A person asks to have his name removed from the roster and our response is to punish him by cutting him off from everyone he has ever loved in his life—mother, father, grandparents, children, intimate friends? And we dare to present this as the way of the Christ? Seriously???
Many have concluded that our true motivation has nothing to do with the protection of the congregation and everything to do with the preservation of ecclesiastical authority. If you doubt that, consider what exhortations we get repeatedly when articles come out—on an increasingly frequent basis—dealing with the need for us to support the disfellowshipping arrangements. We are told that we must do this to support the unity of the congregation. That we must show submission to Jehovah’s theocratic organization and not question the direction from the elders. We are discouraged from independent thinking and told that to challenge the direction from the Governing Body is pushing ahead, and following in the rebellious steps of Korah.
Often those who leave have come to see that some of the core teachings of Jehovah’s Witnesses are false. We teach that Christ began to reign in 1914, which we have shown in this forum to be untrue. We teach that the majority of Christians have no heavenly hope. Again, untrue. We have prophesied falsely about the resurrection coming in 1925. We have given false hope to millions based on flawed chronology. We have given undue honor to men, treating them as our leaders in all but name. We have presumed to alter the Holy Scriptures, inserting God’s name in places it does not belong based solely on speculation. Perhaps worst of all, we have devalued the rightful place of our appointed king by underemphasizing the role he plays in the Christian congregation.
If a brother (or sister) is disturbed by the continuing teaching of doctrine which conflicts with Scripture, as per the examples just cited, and consequently wishes to distance himself from the congregation, he must do so very carefully, and quietly, realizing that a large sword hangs over your head. Unfortunately, if the brother in question is what we might term, high profile, having served as a pioneer and elder, it is not so easy to back away unnoticed. A strategic withdrawal from the Organization, no matter how discreet, will be seen as an indictment. Well-meaning elders are sure to pay the brother a visit with a view—perhaps one that is truly sincere—of restoring him to “spiritual health”. They will understandably want to know why the brother is drifting away, and will not be satisfied with vague answers. They will likely ask pointed questions. This is the dangerous part. The brother will have to resist the temptation to answer such direct questions honestly. Being a Christian, he will not wish to lie, so his only option is to maintain an embarrassed silence, or he can simply refuse to meet with the elders at all.
However, if he answers honestly, expressing that he disagrees with some of our teachings, he will be shocked how the atmosphere of loving concern for his spirituality shifts to something cold and harsh. He might think that since he’s not promoting his new understandings the brothers will leave him alone. Alas, that will not be the case. The reason for this goes back to a letter dated September 1, 1980 from the Governing Body to all Circuit and District Overseers—to date, never rescinded. From page 2, par. 1:
Keep in mind that to be disfellowshipped, an apostate does not have to be a promoter of apostate views. As mentioned in paragraph two, page 17 of the August 1, 1980, Watchtower, “The word ‘apostasy’ comes from a Greek term that means ‘a standing away from,’ ‘a falling away, defection,’ ‘rebellion, abandonment. Therefore, if a baptized Christian abandons the teachings of Jehovah, as presented by the faithful and discreet slave, and persists in believing other doctrine despite Scriptural reproof, then he is apostatizing. Extended, kindly efforts should be put forth to readjust his thinking. However, if, after such extended efforts have been put forth to readjust his thinking, he continues to believe the apostate ideas and rejects what he has been provide through the ‘slave class, then appropriate judicial action should be taken.
Just for holding a different belief in the privacy of your own mind, you are an apostate. We are talking about a total submission of heart, mind and soul here. That would be fine—indeed, laudable—were we talking about Jehovah God. But we are not. We are talking about the teachings of men, claiming to speak for God.
Of course, the elders are directed to first scripturally reprove the erring one. While the presumption here is that such “Scriptural reproof” can be made, the tested reality is that there is no way to defend our doctrines of 1914 and the two-tier system of salvation using God’s inspired Word. That will nonetheless not inhibit the elders from taking judicial action. In fact, in account after account, we are told that the accused is eager to discuss the differences in belief from Scripture, but the brothers sitting in judgment will not engage him. Men who quite willingly engage in lengthy scriptural discussions with total strangers over doctrines like the Trinity or the immortal soul, will run from a similar discussion with a brother. Why the difference?
Simply put, when truth is on your side, you have nothing to fear. The Organization is not afraid to send its publishers door-to-door to discuss the Trinity, Hellfire and the immortal soul with members of Christendom’s churches, because we know they can win by using the sword of the spirit, God’s Word. We are well trained on how to do this. As regards those false doctrines, our house is built on a rock mass. However, when it comes to those doctrines peculiar to our faith, our house is built on sand. The torrent of water that is cold scriptural reasoning would eat away at our foundation and bring our house crashing down around us.[v] Therefore, our only defense is an appeal to authority—the alleged “divinely appointed” authority of the Governing Body. Using this, we attempt to quell dissent and silence contrary opinion by a misuse of the disfellowshipping process. We quickly stamp the figurative forehead of our brother or sister with the label “Apostate” and like the lepers of ancient Israel, all will avoid contact. If they do not, we can pull out the Apostate stamp a second time.
When we retroactively changed the policy regarding how we treat those who withdraw from us, we were instituting an arrangement that would adversely affect tens of thousands. Whether it drove some to suicide, who can say; but we do know that many were stumbled which lead to a worse death: spiritual death. Jesus warned us of our fate should we stumble the little one.[vi] There is a growing weight of bloodguilt as a consequence of this misapplication of Scripture. But let us not think that it only applies to those who are taking the lead among us. If a man ruling over you demands that you cast a stone at the one he has condemned, are you to be excused for hurling it because you are only following orders?
We are to love kindness. That is a requirement of our God. Let’s repeat that: God requires that we “love kindness”. If we treat your fellow man harshly because we are afraid that we will be punished for disobeying the orders of men, we are loving ourselves more than our brother. These men only have power because we have given it to them. We are fooled into granting them this power, because we are told that they speak for God as his appointed channel. Let’s stop for a moment and ask ourselves if our loving Father, Jehovah, would be party to such unkind and unloving acts? His Son came to earth to reveal the Father to us. Is this how our Lord Jesus acted?
When Peter rebuked the crowd at Pentecost because they had supported their leaders in killing the Christ, they were cut to the heart and moved to repentance.[vii] I confess that I have been guilty of condemning the righteous one in my time because I put faith and trust in the word of men instead of following my conscience and obeying God. By doing so, I made myself something detestable to Jehovah. Well, no more.[viii] Like the Jews of Peter’s day, it is time for us to repent.
True, there are valid scriptural reasons to disfellowship an individual. There is a scriptural basis for refusing even to say hello to a person. But it is not for someone else to tell me or you who we can treat as a brother and who we must treat as an outcast; a pariah. It is not for someone else to hand me a stone and tell me to throw it at another without providing me with all I need to make the decision for myself. No more should we follow the course of the nations and surrender our conscience to a mere human or group of humans. All manner of wickedness has been done in that way. Millions have killed their brothers on the battlefields, because they surrendered their conscience to some higher human authority, allowing it to take responsibility for their very souls before God. This is nothing but a grand self-delusion. “I was just following orders”, will carry less weight before Jehovah and Jesus on Judgment Day than it did at Nuremberg.
Let us be free of the blood of all men! Our love of kindness can be expressed through the judicious exercise of mercy. When we stand before our God on that day, let there be a huge credit of mercy on the ledger in our favor. We don’t want our judgment to be without God’s mercy.
(James 2:13) . . .For the one that does not practice mercy will have [his] judgment without mercy. Mercy exults triumphantly over judgment.
To view the next article in this series, click here.
[ii] Shepherd the Flock of God (ks-10E 7:31 p. 101)
[iii] (ks10-E 5:40 p. 73)
[iv] The fact is that Susan’s case is far from hypothetical. Her situation has been repeated thousands of times over the years within the worldwide community of Jehovah’s Witnesses.
[v] Mat. 7:24-27
[vi] Luke 17:1, 2
[vii] Acts 2:37, 38
[viii] Proverbs 17:15