What should we think about the religious practice of shunning?

I was raised as one of Jehovah’s Witnesses, a group that practices shunning. I left when I was 30 and, although I was not formally shunned it is a subject that is very close to my heart. Along with my daughter, I host a podcast about making sense of life after leaving a cult or high control group, and in our interviews I hear many stories of people who have experienced the practice. The effect of shunning means parents become estranged from their children and children from their parents. Siblings can live out the rest of their lives having nothing to do with each other and individuals can suffer isolation, leading to depression and other mental health problems which can lead, at times to suicide. The fact that this practice happens in modern democracies around the world raises questions about how to balance the religious freedom of groups, with individual human rights, and whether society ever has a responsibility to intervene, and if so how?

Jehovah’s Witnesses practice shunning following a process called disfellowshipping (Watchtower, 2022) where, after a determination, made in an internal hearing by three local elders, known as a Judicial Committee (See Organized to do Jehovah’s Will), an announcement is made from the platform of a Kingdom Hall that the person is no longer one of Jehovah’s Witnesses. The stated purpose of the policy is to “keep the congregation clean” by removing an individual who is doing something that Jehovah’s Witnesses forbid, but also, it is claimed, to shock them into realising that they need to show repentance and begin a lengthy process called reinstatement.

Religious freedom is an important right that should be protected by law and some argue that groups like Jehovah’s Witnesses must be allowed to practice their religion as they see fit, regardless of secular sensitivities, including the right to remove individuals who contravene the rules from their congregations. There are however, some specific elements about the policy, as practiced by Jehovah’s Witnesses that should raise serious concern among societies who, as well as protecting religious freedom, also strive to protect the individual from coercive and abusive practices.

What shunning means in practice It would be impossible in this short article to describe anything like the totality of the many ways shunning affects people’s lives. In my podcast I get to talk to many people who have experienced the pain of losing contact with their children, their parents, siblings and friends. I hear about young people being kicked out of the family home because they have been disfellowshipped and are no longer welcome there. I have spoken to a father whose son lives a few minutes away whom he never sees and to grandparents who have never seen their grandchildren (see also Ransom, Monk & Heim, 2020).

As an example I will describe what shunning means to a young Jehovah’s Witness who has just been informed that they have been disfellowshipped. At the next meeting at the local Kingdom Hall an announcement will be made from the platform to say that “person x” is no longer one of Jehovah’s Witnesses. The members of the congregation know what this means, and from that point on the disfellowshipped person’s Jehovah’s Witness family, friends or associates will stop talking to them. They will be shunned by everyone. If they are a spouse or a young person who still lives in the family home they will be allowed to talk to their family members who live in the same house but anyone else who is a Jehovah’s Witness will walk past them in the street. If they live outside of their family home they will be shunned by everyone including parents, siblings, grandparents cousins etc. Due to the fact that often, young Jehovah’s Witnesses remain in the family home even into adulthood until they get married, many young adults receive an unwelcome ultimatum from their parents that basically says either come back and go through the arduous process of reinstatement, or you are not welcome in the house.

This treatment is particularly difficult for members who were raised in the group and in this article I am focusing upon this group. If they are a second or third generation they will likely have very few contacts outside of the faith they can turn to. It is possible that even extended family will be Witnesses and thanks to the directive not to have worldly friends (Watchtower Simplified, 2015) they are unlikely to have much of a support network outside. It is easy to imagine the psychological impact upon a person whose entire social world has just been ripped from them. At this point they are extremely vulnerable. Such is the indoctrination and level of the control the organization has over them, they may well blame themselves entirely and buy into the narrative of being a gross sinner who has let down Jehovah.

Some, within a short period of time start coming back to the meetings, hoping to be reinstated. They must follow the instruction to attend just as it starts, and leave just as it finishes to avoid any discomfort for the brothers and sisters who will have to ignore them and not communicate with them at all. After about six months some will write a letter to the Body of Elders requesting reinstatement. Some are reinstated, others are told they have not shown enough works that demonstrate repentance, some try again, some give up and live the rest of their lives believing they will die at Armageddon, and others realise that they actually don’t believe it and accept that they may never speak to their families again.

The above is a typical example but each person’s story is unique. The 2019 movie Apostasy, written and directed by former Jehovah’s Witness Daniel Kokotajlo, accurately and touchingly tells the fictional but highly accurate story of one individual who goes through this process and is highly recommended.

A Biblical case for shunning? If you are part of a religion that practices religious shunning then the case for it is normally made by interpreting certain scriptures that, it is claimed, demonstrate that it is a practice mandated by God (Watchtower, 2015). By appealing to scripture, Jehovah’s Witnesses feel on familiar ground and find comfort in the claim that they are simply following God’s direction as revealed through his earthly organization. It’s a smart move. For an outsider to argue with this either means rolling up one’s sleeves and engaging with the texts that are pointed to, or to apparently ride rough shod over sincerely held beliefs by saying they don’t matter. Modern secular societies, contrary to what religious fundamentalists often claim, are very sensitive to accusations of religious intolerance and bend over backwards to avoid, even the appearance that they are persecuting a minority for their religious beliefs. I think it is important therefore to take a look at the Biblical argument for the practice, without being able to address all of the claims to scripture that is made about it.

At this point I need to point out that I am not a Bible scholar and most of what I know about the Bible was taught to me by the Jehovah’s Witnesses themselves. I am also now a non-believer, so in the section that follows I am not trying to construct a definitive religious argument against it, but rather I am making a good faith attempt to explain and understand the reasons Jehovah’s Witnesses practice shunning and why, even from the perspective of a believer there are some serious questions about it.

The part of the Bible that is often quoted by defenders of shunning is 1 Corinthians 5:11–13. I will be quoting and paraphrasing small sections from the New World Translation of the Holy Bible, a translation produced by the Jehovah’s Witnesses themselves. According to Christian tradition the 1st and 2nd Corinthians are letters written by the Apostle Paul to a congregation in Corinth in the first century telling them to stop mixing with “anyone called a brother”, a recognised member of the congregation, who it is known 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”. After making the point that they do not judge people outside he instructs the congregation to “Remove the wicked person from among yourselves”.

It is important to understand that Paul’s letters are to the congregation as a whole so this instruction was for every member of the congregation. To many Jehovah’s Witnesses they immediately make sense of this passage of scripture through the framework they know as disfellowshipping, a process owned by the local body of elders, a group of men appointed to operate as leaders within the congregation. Jehovah’s Witnesses frame it this way because this is the way it is presented by the organization but nowhere here or anywhere else in the Bible does it describe a judicial committee of elite members of the congregation casting a binding judgement on the individual that the rest of the congregation must follow. It is at least as possible that Paul was telling the congregation members individually to make their own decisions about this and take action accordingly. Going back to the text, the thrust of the passage seems to be that non-Christians do all sorts of bad things but we can’t judge them because they are outside of the congregation. People in the congregation, however must be judged if they are doing these ‘bad’ things. Basically the instruction seems to be “don’t be friends with people called brothers who are doing bad things”. There is nothing here that talks about a body of elders forming a judicial committee, making a judgement for the whole congregation and of course the word ‘disfellowship’ never appears in the Bible anywhere. I would also propose that if someone has literally been put outside of the congregation they are no longer called a brother, in which case the instruction to stop mixing with anyone called a brother no longer applies.

I would also point out the vagueness of the sins for which someone would qualify as an undesirable associate, such as sexual immorality, greed, an idolater — a reviler. What is a reviler? Apparently this is referring to someone who uses abusive speech to denigrate someone else. Fundamentalist Christians such as Jehovah’s Witnesses often claim that the Bible is clear about what sexual immorality is but this is by no means certain. Even Christians admit that rules around this have changed over the years. In ancient Israel it was perfectly acceptable and even encouraged for a man to have multiple wives. A modern day Jehovah’s Witness would soon find themselves in front of a Judicial committee should he try that!

The fact that Jehovah’s Witnesses interpret the admonition by Paul to, stop mixing with bad people who claim to be Christians, as something that has to be mandated by the elders, not by individuals following their own conscience, means they now have to create a judicial system which in turn means getting more specific about what these sins are, and when they meet the standard for a disfellowshipping offence. They must be clear about what constitutes sexual immorality, or at what point a person is greedy or what a reviler is. This has required much additional information provided to the elders from the leadership of the organization so that they can determine what is a disfellowshipping offence and how it must be dealt with.

Again I stress that I am a non-believer, but back in my believing days I seem to remember Jesus having a lot to say about religious leaders of his day, the Pharisees, who made up many rules for the people to have to follow. I should also point out that never in my 30 years of being a Jehovah’s Witness did I ever hear of someone being disfellowshipped for greediness or indeed for being a reviler or an idolator, but I knew of many thrown out for smoking tobacco, something of course not even hinted at in the text. The conditions that I have just outlined has therefore led to a situation, within every congregation of Jehovah’s Witnesses, where a male only elite group sit in judgement of members of the congregation, based upon rules that are nowhere found in the Bible, the decisions of which, are handed down as an edict to the rest of the congregation (and in fact all other congregations) to shun them.

A religious freedom case for shunning? Another case for shunning is made by some academics of religious studies and defenders of the religious freedom of minorities, who point to the need to protect religious minorities and warn that any criticism of policies such as shunning is an attack on these cherished rights. They might point to authoritarian states such as Russia or China where groups like Jehovah’s Witnesses are banned and warn that a move to curtail practices such as shunning moves us closer to States with poor human rights records. Perhaps controversially among other ex-members, this is the argument for which I have most sympathy. We do have to be extremely careful not to allow our desire to protect individuals from abuse in one situation to lead us to legislate in ways that stops people believing whatever they want to believe. The oddness or unorthodox nature of the belief is irrelevant and as a society we must protect people’s rights to practice their religion. Of course this concern for religious freedom must be balanced against other human rights, such as the right to leave a religion, in particular, as I will explain later the right for adults and children not to be held to ransom over a decision they may have made as a minor or without sufficient knowledge, or under false pretences. Given the delicate balance here, I want to stress that I not calling for the banning of religions that practice shunning, rather I would favour the removal of state support such as charity status and tax exemption for any organization applying inhumane practices, something that an increasing number of modern democracies are considering.

There is also sometimes a historical argument for the right of Christian Groups to practice mandated religious shunning that goes something like this. Shunning is a well established practice among monotheistic religions (such as Christianity) and was seen, at its inception as a more progressive practice when compared to previous customs (Introvigne, 2022). The Bible’s Old Testament or Hebrew Scriptures does indeed contain clear instructions of what to do with people who break the rules, whether that be working on the sabbath, stealing, sleeping with someone else’s wife or just speaking against the leadership of the tribe. Such people were routinely stoned to death. So yes shunning is preferable to being stoned to death, but the fact that it’s not as barbaric as the former way we dealt with the disobedient is hardly a good argument for it. On the contrary it demonstrates that Christianity has a history of being open to change. When secular governments determined to govern separate from religious dogma, they would no longer support capital punishment for contravention of religious rules, so Christianity adapted and found a better way, one more in line with the sensitivities of the society in which it existed. I would argue this is a time to repeat this sensible approach.

Well you knew the rules before you joined up A final argument that I will address could be described as the “well you knew the rules when you joined” assertion. The claim is that no-one forces anyone to become a Jehovah’s Witness, they chose to join with free will, so if they break the rules they have to accept the punishment. This argument appeals to black-and-white thinkers everywhere but even a cursory glance is enough to see this is nonsense. Putting aside for a moment the lack of transparency for newcomers about the judicial procedures, including an Elder’s manual that is quite literally banned from the rank and file members, the “you knew what you were getting yourself into” argument ignores the hundreds of thousands of children raised to become one of Jehovah’s Witnesses. Being raised as one of Jehovah’s Witnesses is not the same as most Christian denominations. There is a clear and explicit programme of inculcation and indoctrination designed with the stated aim to make sure that they love Jehovah and become baptised members of the congregation. When I was a child being raised as a Jehovah’s Witness it was normal for young people to get baptised at around 16 or 17, in fact I was this age when I was baptized but there are cases of children as young as 8 being baptized (Watchtower, 1988). The question has to be; how can an 8 year old child be expected to understand the rules and the consequences at such a young age. Even at 16 or 17 the person is still a minor and I would question the ethics of encouraging someone at such an age to make such a life-changing decision.

The baptizing of minors is so egregious, not because young people or children shouldn’t voluntarily decide they want to belong to a religion, but because for Jehovah’s Witnesses, at the moment of baptism they are considered a full member of the congregation and are subject to all of its punitive measures including disfellowshipping. This means that by the time a young person has reached an age where they can make a proper informed choice it’s too late and they are already locked in. It would be like a local sports club tying in 8 year olds to a lifelong contract.

Of course it could be argued that an 8 year old is unlikely to engage in one of the ‘gross sins’ I outlined above, although not entirely impossible. If they decided they didn’t believe it anymore and started telling other people they could be labelled an apostate. However as they reach adolescence and start to think about their lives and their choices, as they start to discover their sexuality and as they start to get to know their own mind they are already locked in. They will be very cognizant as I was, that leaving the faith comes with serious consequences for their relationships with their friends and family.

At this point some apologists for Jehovah’s Witnesses or the organization itself may say that no-one is forced to stay a Jehovah’s Witness and that leavers are not routinely disfellowshipped, and that disfellowshipping is reserved for people who have committed a gross sin and are not repentant. This is partly true but the argument is misleading. To leave without being hauled before a judicial committee requires a steely determination to either continue sticking to the strict rules of the organization after leaving or to hide your new lifestyle or beliefs. For many who leave, this is impossible; maybe they have fallen in love and have started a sexual relationship, maybe they have realised they are gay and have met someone, maybe they fancy a cigarette every now and again, or maybe they want to be able to explain why they don’t believe the Jehovah’s Witnesses doctrines anymore, which leads me to one of the most indefensible grounds for disfellowshipping — apostasy.

Apostasy is another one of those sins that is, in many ways, in the eye of the beholder and when that beholder is the local body of elders it means that explaining why you are leaving can be a bit like playing Russian Roulette. Apostasy as interpreted by Jehovah’s Witnesses means denying the truth of the religious faith you held but now don’t. The organization is terrified of leaving members convincing other people to join them in their exit. In practice this means that simply by a well-meaning Jehovah’s Witness asking a former member why they don’t come to the meetings anymore, they are setting a trap for that individual. If the former Witness answers the question truthfully they run the risk of being accused of apostasy. So shrewd ex Jehovah’s Witnesses normally give a bland excuse or even claim to still believe it.

Unfortunately despite the angry denials of members of the Group, the situation as I have outlined above has many of the hallmarks of a coercive cult. Apologists of groups such as these often accuse the anti-cult contingent of ascribing exotic or unproven methods to these organizations but while I’m happy to debate the concepts of “brainwashing” and “thought control” I argue that most of what they do is very easy to understand and rooted in psychological explanations we already understand very well. Even without any psychological training the tactics are transparent — I call it the classic one-two-three!

1. Set up a situation where the child is socially isolated, dependent upon the group, and heavily indoctrinated from infancy, while at the same time undermining worldly knowledge and learning.

2. Encourage the child to commit themselves to the group and its rules as soon as possible, and before the commitment is fully understood.

3. Have in place a set of rules that makes leaving so costly that, despite having grave personal doubts, the fear of losing their family and the only community they have ever known means they stay.

And there you have it. No need for psychological explanations or philosophical descriptions, no need for religious academic study, it’s common sense, the system is set up to reduce the religious freedom of the person born into the group, so as to coerce them to stay a member of a religion they may not even believe.

The people that are so concerned with religious freedom that they not only tolerate this situation but actually defend it should be ashamed of themselves. I ask these apologists; what about the freedom of the young person to make their own decision about which (if any) religion to belong to? No I am not talking about the normal social pressures a young person might feel to become a Catholic like their parents. I am not saying that religious education is wrong or should not be allowed. I am not saying that there is no value in religious communities that may feel at times restrictive to the young person growing up. I am not even saying that if a parent is disappointed with their child for turning away from the family faith that they should be forced to associate with them. These are often sad but normal family difficulties where parents may or may not be able to come to terms with their child’s decisions, as they grow up to leave the faith in which they were raised. As much as I would hope that all parents could accept their children for who they are not who they who they wish them to be, it is none of the business of the state to determine this.

As I have explained disfellowshipping as practiced by Jehovah’s Witnesses is different. It is not simply a devout parent or individuals within a community turning their backs upon an individual for breaking the rules, the problem is that it is mandated by the organization. If the parents wish to continue being in good standing they must shun their child once they are publicly disfellowshipped. If the members of the congregation want to avoid being at the wrong end of a judicial committee themselves, they have no choice, they have to obey. An announcement is made at the Kingdom Hall, that the person is no longer one of Jehovah’s Witnesses and it is made clear what this means.

Not only is the act of shunning required by the congregation, as I have argued above, the situation for this to happen has been cynically manufactured. The young person was encouraged to make a commitment at an age where they did not understand the gravity of what they were doing, and now must either get in line or pay the consequences. The disfellowshipping of minors or young adults, baptized as minors is not the only problem with this practice. Through my podcast I also get to hear of parents who have left the organization and are being shunned by their children. Some of these parents were themselves raised as Jehovah’s Witnesses who were pressured into baptism as minors and decades later are paying the price for a decision made without full understanding at 14 or 15 or even younger.

What to do Shunning is more than just an odd policy of small religious groups. It separates families, isolates vulnerable people, forces people to stay in a religion they wish to leave and ruins lives. Despite this I do not advocate for legislation to outlaw it. My view is that such legislation would be almost impossible to enforce and the practice would still happen just in a less obvious way. It would also play into the narrative of extremism by allowing groups to claim to be persecuted.

My view is that we should do two things. Firstly we need to talk about it more. There has been a hesitancy within progressive circles to criticize religions, for reasons I have already discussed, but we simply have to be prepared to look at the problem and not pretend it doesn’t exist. Religious groups have a right to practice their faith but it does not give them a blank cheque to do anything they like. We should be willing to call them out when they do things that are cruel and inhumane. The image of nice people who knock on your door every now and again, who are a bid odd but essentially harmless, means that the media are sometimes shy at talking about the darker side. I want to stress I am not advocating attacking Jehovah’s Witnesses physically or verbally, I deplore such actions. As I often point out, the rank and file members are also the victims, but we should not feel unable to criticize groups who practice shunning.

Secondly Jehovah’s Witnesses, in many countries including the UK enjoy charitable status which means they get substantial tax breaks. Some European countries such as Norway have started looking at this status because of the practice. As it stands by giving charitable status to groups who practice shunning, the government is supporting, with the taxpayer’s money, this behaviour. I should point out that many of the people being shunned will also be taxpayers so they are in effect helping to support the institutions responsible for their own abuse. Removing charitable status will both inflict a significant cost for this bad behaviour and send a message that this society does not condone the practice of systematic and mandated shunning.

Finally I want to point out that many Jehovah’s Witnesses themselves deeply dislike the practice. This statement is hard to prove by talking to existing members because of their fear of giving a ‘bad witness’, but if you speak to people who have left they often express how much they hated having to shun people. Most Jehovah’s Witnesses hate doing it but follow the rules out of loyalty to the organization, and their sincere belief that the rules passed down by the governing body are from Jehovah God.

Jehovah’s Witnesses and other such groups do sometimes change their policies and this is my hope in relation to shunning. Jehovah’s Witnesses in fact have a history of receiving “new light” which has meant at times quite significant changes in beliefs and policy. It is my belief that if such a change were to be made, it would be greeted perhaps at first with some confusion but followed by great joy and relief by the members. Maybe with some pressure, the policy of mandated shunning will be one of those examples of “new light”, a text reinterpreted, a wonderful example of God’s forgiveness, evidence of his loving organization — it could be spun a million different ways without compromising the religion itself. For the sake of the many people I talk to on my podcast and the thousands of others affected I really hope this can happen.

Stephen Mather MBPsS is a Podcaster and Corporate Leadership and Management Trainer & Coach with a Bachelor's Degree in Psychology and a Masters in Organizational Psychology. He was raised as a Jehovah’s Witness and studies cults and high control groups.

Podcast ‘What should I think about..?’: https://pod.link/1540824671

Further Reading and References

Paper about Leavers Ransom, H. J., Monk, R. L., & Heim, D. (2021). Grieving the living: The social death of former Jehovah’s Witnesses. Journal of religion and health, 1–23. https://link.springer.com/article/10.1007/s10943-020-01156-8

Disfellowshipping process Organized to do Jehovah’s Will p. 148–149 https://wol.jw.org/en/wol/d/r1/lp-e/1102014944#h=28:732-37:348

Disfellowshipping a loving provision Watchtower April 15 2015, p.29 https://wol.jw.org/en/wol/d/r1/lp-e/2015287?q=Disfellowshipping&p=par

Disfellowshipping by elders Watchtower February 2022, p. 2–7 https://wol.jw.org/en/wol/d/r1/lp-e/2022280#h=19:0-21:685

Not associating with people who do not love Jehovah Watchtower Simplified 2015 https://wol.jw.org/en/wol/d/r1/lp-e/402015606?q=Bad+associations&p=par

Child Baptism Watchtower, 1988 https://wol.jw.org/en/wol/d/r1/lp-e/1988047?q=baptised+8-year-old&p=par

Case for shunning Bitter Winter Introvigne, M. 2022, Bitter Winter, Jehovah’s Witnesses and Shunning. 1. Why Shunning? https://bitterwinter.org/jehovahs-witnesses-and-shunning-1-why-shunning/

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