What Disfellowshiping Means
A LOVING father takes a keen interest in his children. He guides them in the right way and, when necessary, disciplines them to correct errors.
Jehovah has great love for his children, his servants. He guides them in a way that will be pleasing to Him and that will bring them the greatest happiness. As the Great Father, Jehovah also provides for the discipline of his servants who err. This he does, not because he hates them, but because he loves them and wants to keep them on the way to everlasting life. “My son, do not belittle the discipline from Jehovah, neither give out when you are corrected by him; for whom Jehovah loves he disciplines.”—Heb. 12:5, 6.
Jehovah administers correction to the wrongdoer through his visible organization. (Isa. 32:1; Matt. 24:45-47) The disciplinary measures taken depend upon the enormity of the sin and upon the attitude of the offender.
However, minor offenses that one individual may commit against another are often resolved by overlooking the trespasses of another. As the apostle Peter said: “Love covers a multitude of sins.” (1 Pet. 4:8) Repeated forgiveness is necessary due to human imperfection, and this was emphasized by Jesus in response to Peter’s question of how often one was to forgive. Jesus said: “Not, Up to seven times, but, Up to seventy-seven times.”—Matt. 18:22.
If a person feels he cannot overlook the difficulty caused by another’s offense, then he can resolve it by lovingly discussing it with the one he feels has given offense. This is the first step to take; as Jesus said: “If your brother commits a sin, go lay bare his fault between you and him alone. If he listens to you, you have gained your brother.” (Matt. 18:15) If the matter cannot so be resolved, then other mature servants of God may be asked to give counsel. Jesus gave this as the second step: “Take along with you one or two more, in order that at the mouth of two or three witnesses every matter may be established.” (Matt. 18:16) Where this does not solve the difficulty, or when the sin is of a very serious nature, then “speak to the congregation,” Jesus advised; that is, bring it before those in authority in the congregation.—Matt. 18:17.
If the attitude of the violator is one of heartfelt repentance, Jehovah even extends mercy to one who commits violations of his righteous principles that are serious enough to be called to the attention of the congregation. An act of wrongdoing, an indiscretion committed in a moment of weakness, while reprehensible, does not make a person a hardened sinner. Those who stumble into serious wrongs but who are truly repentant and confess their sins of their own free will may receive undeserved kindness and loving assistance from Jehovah’s organization. As Peter told men of Israel: “Repent, therefore, and turn around so as to get your sins blotted out, that seasons of refreshing may come from the person of Jehovah.” (Acts 3:19) So today when wrongdoers have not practiced sin, but show they are cut to the heart and pledge not to continue in a course of sin, they are dealt with very mercifully by Jehovah and need not be cut off from the congregation. If the sin has not caused public notoriety and does not endanger the congregation, the one involved may be placed on probation. The terms of the discipline would be made clear and the one under such surveillance would report to the overseer once each month for the specified period as a loving arrangement to assist the individual to regain himself.
However, there are times when offenses against God and man cannot be overlooked, nor settled by asking for counsel, nor resolved by placing the offender on probation. There are offenses that call for more drastic action on the part of God’s visible organization.
In ancient Israel the laws given by God governed the correction. Offenders who went beyond the atoning provisions of the law were to be cut off from the congregation of Israel. How? By being put to death. Later, in the Christian congregation, those who persisted in transgressing against Jehovah’s merciful provisions and who failed to show evidence of proper repentance were likewise cut off, though not being put to death. This was done by their being disfellowshiped, or excommunicated, from the Christian congregation. The requirement of adherence to righteousness was binding on both ancient Israel and the early Christian congregation. For Israel the injunction was: “Clear out what is bad from your midst.” (Deut. 17:7) For the Christian congregation the principle was reaffirmed: “Remove the wicked man from among yourselves.”—1 Cor. 5:13.
Therefore, the ones who are hardened in wrongdoing are the ones who are disfellowshiped. It is where serious violations of Jehovah’s righteous requirements have become a practice that this measure is taken. First John 3:4 states: “Everyone who practices sin is also practicing lawlessness.” So dedicated Christians who become practicers of lawlessness in the Christian congregation today are disfellowshiped.
What kind of offenses are regarded as disfellowshiping offenses? These include persistence in sexual offenses, stealing, lying, dishonest business practices, rebellion against Jehovah’s organization, slandering, drunkenness, apostasy, teaching of false doctrine and other wrongs. As the apostle Paul warned: “Do not be misled. Neither fornicators, nor idolaters, nor adulterers, nor men kept for unnatural purposes, nor men who lie with men, nor thieves, nor greedy persons, nor drunkards, nor revilers, nor extortioners will inherit God’s kingdom.”—1 Cor. 6:9, 10.
What is the purpose of this cutting off from God’s congregation? The most important purpose is the preservation of Jehovah’s pure worship. No corrupting influence is allowed to remain. The one who practices wrongdoing must be taken out for the protection and purity of the congregation, since “a little leaven ferments the whole lump.” (Gal. 5:9) If not cleared out, this corruption can block the free flow of Jehovah’s spirit to the entire congregation. Jehovah will not bless that which is impure, as was evidenced in the case of Achan. (Josh. 7:1-26) These serious derelictions can be compared to a cancer. If a body member is cancerous, the entire body is in danger. If necessary, the diseased member is amputated in order to save the rest of the body.
Another benefit derived is that others in the congregation will have their confidence in God’s visible organization strengthened by observing its firm stand for righteous principles. Also, it serves as a powerful warning example to those in the congregation, since they will be able to see the disastrous consequences of ignoring Jehovah’s laws. Paul said: “Reprove before all onlookers persons who practice sin, that the rest also may have fear.”—1 Tim. 5:20.
In the Christian congregation there is yet another important benefit, this time to the one disfellowshiped. Under the Christian system of things, the offender is not put to death. Through this drastic disfellowshiping action, the offender might be shaken and shocked to his senses and become ashamed of his bad course of action. This, in turn, could produce proper repentance and he could then take steps to turn from his bad course and begin to walk in the way that Jehovah approves. “For sadness in a godly way makes for repentance to salvation.” (2 Cor. 7:10) Thus in time the one cut off would have hopes of becoming reconciled to God and to his visible organization and be forgiven. As the apostle Paul counseled: “This rebuke given by the majority is sufficient for such a man, so that, on the contrary now, you should kindly forgive and comfort him, that somehow such a man may not be swallowed up by his being overly sad.”—2 Cor. 2:6, 7.
Truly, under the Christian system of things, this is indeed a marvelous display of undeserved kindness on God’s part. “You are not under law but under undeserved kindness.”—Rom. 6:14.
MEANING FOR THOSE DISFELLOWSHIPED
It is a great tragedy for one to be disfellowshiped. For this means a cutting off, not just from God’s visible organization on earth, but it means a cutting off from Jehovah and his favor. The disfellowshiping action taken by the congregation is merely the confirmation of what has already taken place in the heavens. These visible agents of God merely acknowledge what Jehovah has already done in heaven. As Jesus stated: “Whatever things you may bind on earth will be things bound in heaven.”—Matt. 18:18.
A disfellowshiped person is cut off from the congregation, and the congregation has nothing to do with him. Those in the congregation will not extend the hand of fellowship to this one, nor will they so much as say “Hello” or “Good-bye” to him. He is not welcome in their private homes, even if such home serves as a center of worship for a local group of Jehovah’s witnesses. This is in harmony with Scriptural principles. Second John 9, 10 says: “Everyone that pushes ahead and does not remain in the teaching of the Christ does not have God. He that does remain in this teaching is the one that has both the Father and the Son. If anyone comes to you and does not bring this teaching, never receive him into your homes or say a greeting to him.” Romans 16:17 also counsels: “Now I exhort you, brothers, to keep your eye on those who cause divisions and occasions for stumbling contrary to the teaching that you have learned, and avoid them.”
The transgressor loses other precious privileges in addition. He is removed from any positions of special service in the congregation. While he may attend all meetings at the Kingdom Hall that are open to the public, he will not be permitted to talk to individuals, address the congregation from the platform, nor contribute to discussions by offering comments from his seat. As long as he behaves properly he may come and sit, but if he becomes obstreperous he will be asked to leave. Additionally, he will no longer represent Jehovah’s organization in the field ministry. His activity will not be recognized by the congregation, and if he turns in a report of any activity, it will not be accepted or recorded.
The disfellowshiped person may purchase literature as any of the public can, but he will not be given the monthly Kingdom Ministry, since he is no longer a minister of the good news of the Kingdom. Neither can he feel that by moving to another congregation he will be freed from the sanctions placed upon him. The local congregation will be notified and public announcement made of his disfellowshiping for the protection of the congregation there.
However, one who is disfellowshiped can become reconciled to Jehovah and to his organization in time and be reinstated as a brother, provided he repents, changes his course, manifests a humble attitude and proves over a period of time that he earnestly desires to live in harmony with God’s Word. However, even after reinstatement, his position will never again be quite the same. He has broken a precious trust and cannot be given oversight in the congregation. Hence, he suffers the loss of servants’ privileges on earth irrevocably.
The principle here is similar to the case of Jacob’s firstborn, Reuben. Because Reuben committed incestuous immorality with his father’s concubine, he lost the right of firstborn. He was not to be enrolled genealogically as such, nor would the tribe of Reuben exercise the privileges of overseership in the nation of Israel, either as governors or as priests. (Gen. 49:3, 4; 1 Chron. 5:1) Similarly today, servants excommunicated from Jehovah’s visible organization are disqualified from ever again taking a position of oversight among Jehovah’s people. If a reinstated person has been conducting Bible studies with an isolated group, and this group is then organized into a congregation, another dedicated brother will be appointed as servant. However, until the congregation is formed and servants are needed, he may continue to conduct studies with the group, since he may share in the field ministry, publishing the good news of the Kingdom.
ATTITUDE OF THOSE IN CONGREGATION
Under Jehovah’s law arrangement for ancient Israel, the people in the congregation executed the death sentence on those deserving it. At Deuteronomy 17:6, 7 we read: “At the mouth of two witnesses or of three witnesses the one dying should be put to death. He will not be put to death at the mouth of one witness. The hand of the witnesses first of all should come upon him to put him to death, and the hand of all the people afterward; and you must clear out what is bad from your midst.”
In the Christian congregation a like principle of cooperation and participation is found. While the erring one is not put to death, his excommunication is observed and acted upon by all in the congregation. This Scriptural procedure is described at 1 Corinthians 5:11: “I am writing you to 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.”
Therefore the members of the congregation will not associate with the disfellowshiped one, either in the Kingdom Hall or elsewhere. They will not converse with such one or show him recognition in any way. If the disfellowshiped person attempts to talk to others in the congregation, they should walk away from him. In this way he will feel the full import of his sin. Otherwise, if all communicated freely with the offender, he would be tempted to feel that his transgression was not such a terrible thing. If it occurs that someone visiting in the congregation or at a larger assembly is not aware that a person has been disfellowshiped and attempts to talk to that one, other brothers observing will tactfully inform him of the situation. Also, the disfellowshiped person who wants to do what is right should inform any approaching him in innocence that he is disfellowshiped and they should not be conversing with him.
There is another aspect to the need for those in the congregation to cooperate with the committee responsible for taking the disfellowshiping action. What this is 2 John 11 makes clear: “For he that says a greeting to him is a sharer in his wicked works.” Yes, one’s attitude toward a person cut off from the congregation shows his attitude toward Jehovah’s righteous principles. When one ignores the disfellowshiping action and continues his association with the disfellowshiped person, then it shows a bad attitude toward Jehovah’s laws. He, in effect, is showing that he upholds the offender and thinks Jehovah’s righteous laws are of no account. The seriousness of not abiding by the disfellowshiping procedure can be seen when he is called “a sharer” in the wicked works of the one disfellowshiped. Actually, the one who deliberately does not abide by the congregation’s decision puts himself in line to be disfellowshiped for continuing to associate with such one. Since he is classified the same as the one disfellowshiped, “a sharer,” then it is reasonable for the same action to be taken against this dissenter. He too can be cut off from Jehovah’s favor and from his visible organization.
What if a disfellowshiped person and a member of the congregation both work at the same place of secular employment? Could they have association then, since their work may require them to have communication with one another? Here again, it is a matter of recognizing the changed status of the one who is disfellowshiped. While it is permissible to converse to the extent necessary for carrying out the functions of the work, it would not be proper to associate in the sense of communicating freely, without regard for his status. Only the necessary business would be discussed, never spiritual matters or any other matter that does not come under the category of necessary business related to the secular employment. If the contact required is too frequent and intimate, the Christian could consider changing his employment so as not to violate his conscience.
However, what is the position of those who are related by blood ties to the one disfellowshiped? What principles are involved regarding headship and the instructing of children in the home? How is reinstatement in time possible? Additionally, with such serious consequences involved, should one be tempted not to confess his wrongdoing if no one would have known otherwise? And, finally, how can one guard against a course that will lead to being disfellowshiped? For information on these vital matters, we look forward to succeeding issues of the Watchtower magazine.