The Bible’s Viewpoint
Why Disfellowshipping Is a Loving Arrangement
EXCOMMUNICATION—the very idea stirs up mixed feelings among many religious people.* Most people agree that religions need some sort of discipline. But many view excommunication as a relic from the past—a harsh style of discipline that reminds them of witch-hunts and inquisitions.
Adding to the problem is the pervasive influence of the secular world. Thus, most of Christendom’s religions have adopted a more tolerant view of sin. Little wonder, then, that one Episcopalian minister said: “Excommunication is part of our tradition, but I don’t think it’s been invoked in this century.”
However, many people may be surprised to learn that among Jehovah’s Witnesses, disfellowshipping (the equivalent of excommunication) is taken seriously. Granted, it is not an easy action to take, but it is a loving arrangement. How so?
It Upholds God’s Name
Jehovah is a holy God. He does not tolerate deliberate sin on the part of those claiming to worship him. The apostle Peter wrote to Christians: “Become holy yourselves in all your conduct, because it is written: ‘You must be holy, because I am holy.’” (1 Peter 1:15, 16) So disfellowshipping unrepentant sinners upholds God’s holy name; it shows love for that name.—Compare Hebrews 6:10.
Does this mean that if a Christian succumbs to weakness or stumbles into grave sin, he is automatically expelled from the congregation? By no means! Jehovah is not a coldhearted dictator. He is merciful and understanding. He remembers that we are imperfect. (Psalm 103:14) Jehovah recognizes that “all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God.” (Romans 3:23) God has arranged for spiritual help within the congregation so that if a Christian takes a “false step” or even commits a serious sin, he may be lovingly ‘readjusted’ in a spirit of mildness. (Galatians 6:1) By accepting counsel from God’s Word and demonstrating heartfelt sorrow and genuine repentance, one who has strayed from the path of righteousness can “get healed” spiritually.—James 5:13-16.
What, though, if a baptized Christian seriously errs and all efforts to restore him are unsuccessful? In other words, what if he stubbornly refuses to correct his sinful course?
It Keeps the Congregation Safe
The Bible commands Christians: “Quit mixing in company with anyone called a brother that is a fornicator or a greedy person or an idolater or a reviler or a drunkard or an extortioner, not even eating with such a man.”—1 Corinthians 5:11.
Is this Bible law harsh and demeaning? Just consider this: When a hardened criminal is sent to prison for breaking the law, is that viewed as harsh or coldhearted? No, because the public has the right to safeguard the peace and security of the community. In effect, the criminal is disfellowshipped from law-abiding society during his prison term.
Similarly, the Christian congregation is justified in expelling unrepentant wrongdoers from their midst. Why? Because the congregation must be a haven from immoral predators and other willful practicers of sin.
Realizing that “one sinner can destroy much good,” the apostle Paul commanded fellow believers: “Remove the wicked man from among yourselves.” (Ecclesiastes 9:18; 1 Corinthians 5:13) This action prevents the sinner from spreading corruption in the congregation, and it protects the congregation’s good name.—Compare 1 Timothy 3:15.
Protection for Individuals
Disfellowshipping also protects individual members of the congregation. Let us illustrate: Imagine being roused from sleep by the noisy blast of a car horn or alarm. The piercing sound is difficult to ignore; indeed, it startles you! Likewise, when someone is expelled from the congregation, the action hopefully grabs the attention of every member of the flock. It disturbs their senses. It cannot be ignored. How may this be a protection?
“When I first heard at the Kingdom Hall that someone had been disfellowshipped, my initial reaction was shock,” says one Witness. “Then it humbled me. It made me realize that I too could fall.” As her words indicate, disfellowshipping can move others to take stock of their conduct.—1 Corinthians 10:12.
By asking ourselves questions such as ‘Are there any areas of my life in which I am spiritually vulnerable?’ we can be helped to examine our own standing with God. In this way we can continue to ‘work out our own salvation with fear and trembling.’—Philippians 2:12.
Return to God
“As hard as it was,” said one Christian who was expelled for a time, “the discipline was necessary and much needed, and it proved to be lifesaving.” This highlights another important aspect of disfellowshipping. It can move previously unrepentant sinners to take their first steps back to God.
The apostle Paul said: “Whom Jehovah loves he disciplines.” (Hebrews 12:6) And while it is true that “no discipline seems for the present to be joyous, but grievous; yet afterward to those who have been trained by it it yields peaceable fruit, namely, righteousness.”—Hebrews 12:11.
That is what happened to Richard. After being disfellowshipped for almost two years, he repented, corrected his God-dishonoring conduct, and was accepted back into the Christian congregation. Looking back, he says regarding the experience: “I realize that I had to be disfellowshipped and that I fully deserved what I got. It really was necessary and helped me to see just how serious my course was and the need to seek Jehovah’s forgiveness.”
Discipline may not be easy to endure. Accepting it requires humility, but those who learn from it reap bountiful fruitage.
Therefore, disfellowshipping is a loving arrangement because it upholds God’s holy name and it protects the congregation from the corrupting influence of sin. Also, it demonstrates love for the wrongdoer by encouraging him to repent and “turn around so as to get [his] sins blotted out, that seasons of refreshing may come from the person of Jehovah.”—Acts 3:19.
Excommunication is a disciplinary action that results in exclusion from membership in a religion.
[Picture Credit Line on page 26]
The New Testament: A Pictorial Archive from Nineteenth-Century Sources, by Don Rice/Dover Publications, Inc.