The judicial excommunication, or disfellowshipping, of delinquents from membership and association in a community or organization. With religious societies it is a principle and a right inherent in them and is analogous to the powers of capital punishment, banishment, and exclusion from membership that are exercised by political and municipal bodies. In the congregation of God it is exercised to maintain the purity of the organization doctrinally and morally. The exercise of this power is necessary to the continued existence of the organization and particularly so the Christian congregation. The congregation must remain clean and maintain God’s favor in order to be used by him and to represent him. Otherwise, God would expel or cut off the entire congregation.
Jehovah’s Action. Jehovah God took expelling, or disfellowshipping, action in numerous instances. He sentenced Adam to death and drove him and his wife Eve out of the garden of Eden. (Ge 3:19, 23, 24) Cain was banished and became a wanderer and a fugitive in the earth. (Ge 4:11, 14, 16) The angels that sinned were thrown into Tartarus, a condition of dense darkness in which they are reserved for judgment. (2Pe 2:4) Twenty-three thousand fornicators were cut off from Israel in one day. (1Co 10:8) Achan was put to death at Jehovah’s command for stealing that which was devoted to Jehovah. (Jos 7:15, 20, 21, 25) Korah the Levite along with Dathan and Abiram of the tribe of Reuben were cut off for rebellion, and Miriam was stricken with leprosy and eventually might have died in that condition if Moses had not pleaded for her. As it was, she was expelled from the camp of Israel under quarantine seven days.
Under the Mosaic Law. For serious or deliberate violations of God’s law given through Moses a person could be cut off, that is, put to death. (Le 7:27; Nu 15:30, 31) Apostasy, idolatry, adultery, eating blood, and murder were among the offenses carrying this penalty.
Under the Law, for the penalty of cutting off to be carried out, evidence had to be established at the mouth of at least two witnesses. (De 19:15) These witnesses were required to be the first to stone the guilty one. (De 17:7) This would demonstrate their zeal for God’s law and the purity of the congregation of Israel and would also be a deterrent to false, careless, or hasty testimony.
The Sanhedrin and synagogues. During Jesus’ earthly ministry the synagogues served as courts for trying violators of Jewish law. The Sanhedrin was the highest court. Under Roman rule the Jews did not have the latitude of authority that they had enjoyed under theocratic government. Even when the Sanhedrin judged someone deserving of death, they could not always administer the death penalty, because of restrictions by the Romans. The Jewish synagogues had a system of excommunication, or disfellowshipping, that had three steps or three names. The first step was the penalty of nid·duyʹ, which was for a relatively short time, initially only 30 days. A person under this penalty was prohibited from enjoying certain privileges. He could go to the temple, but there he was restricted in certain ways, and all besides his own family were commanded to stay at a distance of 4 cubits (c. 2 m; 6 ft) from him. The second step was cheʹrem, meaning something devoted to God or banned. This was a more severe judgment. The offender could not teach or be taught in the company of others, nor could he perform any commercial transactions beyond purchasing the necessities of life. However, he was not altogether cast out of the Jewish organization, and there was a chance for him to come back. Finally, there was sham·mat·taʼʹ, an entire cutting off from the congregation. Some believe the last two forms of excommunication were undistinguishable from each other.
One who was cast out as wicked, cut off entirely, would be considered worthy of death, though the Jews might not have the authority to execute such a one. Nevertheless, the form of cutting off they did employ was a very powerful weapon in the Jewish community. Jesus foretold that his followers would be expelled from the synagogues. (Joh 16:2) Fear of being expelled, or “unchurched,” kept some of the Jews, even the rulers, from confessing Jesus. (Joh 9:22, ftn; 12:42) An example of such action by the synagogue was the case of the healed blind man who spoke favorably of Jesus.
During the time of his earthly ministry, Jesus gave instructions as to the procedure to follow if a serious sin was committed against a person and yet the sin was of such a nature that, if properly settled, it did not need to involve the Jewish congregation. (Mt 18:15-17) He encouraged earnest effort to help the wrongdoer, while also safeguarding that congregation against persistent sinners. The only congregation of God in existence then was the congregation of Israel. ‘Speaking to the congregation’ did not mean that the entire nation or even all the Jews in a given community sat in judgment on the offender. There were older men of the Jews that were charged with this responsibility. (Mt 5:22) Offenders who refused to listen even to these responsible ones were to be viewed “just as a man of the nations and as a tax collector,” association with whom was shunned by the Jews.
Christian Congregation. Based on the principles of the Hebrew Scriptures, the Christian Greek Scriptures by command and precedent authorize expulsion, or disfellowshipping, from the Christian congregation. By exercising this God-given authority, the congregation keeps itself clean and in good standing before God. The apostle Paul, with the authority vested in him, ordered the expulsion of an incestuous fornicator who had taken his father’s wife. (1Co 5:5, 11, 13) He also exercised disfellowshipping authority against Hymenaeus and Alexander. (1Ti 1:19, 20) Diotrephes, however, was apparently trying to exercise disfellowshipping action wrongly.
Some of the offenses that could merit disfellowshipping from the Christian congregation are fornication, adultery, homosexuality, greed, extortion, thievery, lying, drunkenness, reviling, spiritism, murder, idolatry, apostasy, and the causing of divisions in the congregation. (1Co 5:9-13; 6:9, 10; Tit 3:10, 11; Re 21:8) Mercifully, one promoting a sect is warned a first and a second time before such disfellowshipping action is taken against him. In the Christian congregation, the principle enunciated in the Law applies, namely, that two or three witnesses must establish evidence against the accused one. (1Ti 5:19) Those who have been convicted of a practice of sin are reproved Scripturally before the “onlookers,” for example, those who testified concerning the sinful conduct, so that they too may all have a healthy fear of such sin.
The Christian congregation is also admonished by Scripture to stop socializing with those who are disorderly and not walking correctly but who are not deemed deserving of complete expulsion. Paul wrote the Thessalonian congregation concerning such: “Stop associating with him, that he may become ashamed. And yet do not be considering him as an enemy, but continue admonishing him as a brother.”
However, regarding any who were Christians but later repudiated the Christian congregation or were expelled from it, 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.”
Those who have been expelled may be received back into the congregation if they manifest sincere repentance. (2Co 2:5-8) This also is a protection to the congregation, preventing it from being overreached by Satan in swinging from condoning wrongdoing to the other extreme, becoming harsh and unforgiving.