Disfellowshiping—How to View It
“O Jehovah, . . . who will reside in your holy mountain? He who is walking faultlessly and practicing righteousness.”—Ps. 15:1, 2.
1, 2. How do we know that God expects his worshipers to uphold his standards?
JEHOVAH is righteous and holy. Though he is merciful and understanding with imperfect humans, he expects those worshiping him to reflect his holiness by trying to uphold his righteous standards.—Ps. 103:8-14; Num. 15:40.
2 An Israelite who deliberately violated God’s commands, such as those against apostasy, adultery or murder, was to be cut off, put to death. (Num. 15:30,31; 35:31; Deut. 13:1-5; Lev. 20:10) This firmness in upholding God’s reasonable and just standards was good for all Israelites, for it helped to maintain the congregation’s purity. And it served to deter anyone from spreading corruption among the people who had God’s name on them.
3. What was the situation of a Jew expelled from the synagogue?
3 In the first century C.E. the Jews under Roman rule did not have the authority to administer the death penalty. (John 18:28-31) But a Jew guilty of violating the Law could be expelled from the synagogue. An effect of this severe punishment was that other Jews would shun or avoid the expelled person. It is said that others would not even have commercial transactions with him beyond selling him the necessities of life.*—John 9:22; 12:42; 16:2.
4, 5. How was the Christian congregation to deal with an unrepentant sinner?
4 After the Christian congregation was formed, it replaced the Jewish nation in having God’s name upon it. (Matt. 21:43; Acts 15:14) Accordingly, Christians could rightly be expected to uphold Jehovah’s righteousness. The apostle Peter wrote: “In accord with the Holy One who called you, do you also become holy yourselves in all your conduct, because it is written: ‘You must be holy, because I am holy.’” (1 Pet. 1:14-16) Jehovah loves his people and wants to protect the purity of the Christian congregation. So he outlined a provision to reject or expel a person who persists in a course that dishonors God and endangers the congregation.
5 The apostle Paul advised: “As for a man that promotes a sect, reject him after a first and a second admonition; knowing that such a man has been turned out of the way and is sinning, he being self-condemned.” (Titus 3:10, 11) Yes, spiritual elders, such as Titus was, first try lovingly to help a wrongdoer. If he will not respond to their help and persists in a course of “sinning,” they have authority to convoke a committee of elders to “judge the members of [the] fellowship.” (1 Cor. 5:12, Today’s English Version) Love for God and for the purity of his people requires that those in the “fellowship,” the congregation, reject that man.
6. Why was it right and proper to expel unrepentant sinners?
6 In the first century some of such wrongdoers arose. Hymenaeus and Alexander were of that sort, men who had “experienced shipwreck concerning their faith.” Paul said: “I have handed them over to Satan that they may be taught by discipline not to blaspheme.” (1 Tim. 1:19, 20) Expelling those two men was a severe chastisement, or discipline, a punishment that might teach them not to blaspheme the holy and living God. (Compare Luke 23:16, where the basic Greek word often rendered “discipline” is used.) It was proper that these blasphemers be turned over to the authority of Satan, cast into the darkness of the world under Satan’s influence.—2 Cor. 4:4; Eph. 4:17-19; 1 John 5:19; compare Acts 26:18.
HOW TO TREAT EXPELLED ONES
7, 8. How can we determine what our conduct should be toward an expelled one?
7 Some questions, however, may arise about how we should treat a former member who has been expelled. Thankfully, God has provided in his Word answers and directions that we can be sure are perfect, righteous and just.—Jer. 17:10; Deut. 32:4.
8 At one point a man in the Corinthian congregation was practicing immorality and evidently was unrepentant. Paul wrote that this man ‘should be taken away from their midst,’ for he was like a little leaven that could ferment, or corrupt, a whole mass. (1 Cor. 5:1, 2, 6) But, was he, when once expelled, to be treated as if he were just an average person of the world whom the Christians might meet in their neighborhood or daily life? Note what Paul said.
9. What was Paul’s counsel about dealing with unrighteous persons in general?
9 “I wrote you to quit mixing in company with fornicators, not meaning entirely with the fornicators of this world or the greedy persons and extortioners or idolaters. Otherwise, you would actually have to get out of the world.” (1 Cor. 5:9, 10) In these words Paul realistically acknowledged that most persons whom we contact in our daily affairs have never known or followed God’s way. They may be fornicators, extortioners or idolaters, so they are not persons whom Christians choose as regular, close associates. Still, we live on this planet among mankind and may have to be around such persons and speak to them on the job, at school, in the neighborhood.
10, 11. Why are Christians to act differently toward a sinner who has been expelled?
10 In the next verse Paul contrasts this situation with how Christians should conduct themselves toward one who had been a Christian “brother” but who was expelled from the congregation because of wrongdoing: “But now I am writing you to quit mixing in company [“not associate,” TEV] 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 Cor. 5:11.
11 The expelled person is not a mere man of the world who has not known God nor pursued a godly way of life. Rather, he has known the way of truth and righteousness, but he has left that way and unrepentantly pursued sin to the point of having to be expelled. So he is to be treated differently.* Peter commented on how such former Christians differ from an average “man on the street.” The apostle said: “If, after having escaped from the defilements of the world by an accurate knowledge of the Lord and Savior Jesus Christ, they get involved again with these very things and are overcome, the final conditions have become worse for them than the first. . . . The saying of the true proverb has happened to them: ‘The dog has returned to his vomit, and the sow that was bathed to rolling in the mire.’”—2 Pet. 2:20-22; 1 Cor. 6:11.
12. (a) Why is “disfellowshiping” an appropriate term? (b) What does history show as to how those professing Christianity dealt with sinners in early times?
12 Yes, the Bible commands Christians not to keep company or fellowship with a person who has been expelled from the congregation. Thus “disfellowshiping” is what Jehovah’s Witnesses appropriately call the expelling and subsequent shunning of such an unrepentant wrongdoer. Their refusal to fellowship with an expelled person on any spiritual or social level reflects loyalty to God’s standards and obedience to his command at 1 Corinthians 5:11, 13. This is consistent with Jesus’ advice that such a person be considered in the same way as “a man of the nations” was viewed by the Jews of that time. For some time after the apostles died, those professing Christianity evidently followed the Biblical procedure.* But how many churches today comply with God’s clear directions in this regard?
THOSE WHO DISASSOCIATE THEMSELVES
13. What should be done in the case of a person who becomes weak and inactive?
13 A Christian might grow spiritually weak, perhaps because of not studying God’s Word regularly, having personal problems or experiencing persecution. (1 Cor. 11:30; Rom. 14:1) Such a one might cease to attend Christian meetings. What is to be done? Recall that the apostles abandoned Jesus on the night of his arrest. Yet Christ had urged Peter, “When once you have returned, strengthen your brothers [who also abandoned Jesus].” (Luke 22:32) Hence, out of love Christian elders and others might visit and help the one who has grown weak and inactive. (1 Thess. 5:14; Rom. 15:1; Heb. 12:12, 13) It is another matter, though, when a person repudiates his being a Christian and disassociates himself.
14. How might a person disassociate himself?
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.
15, 16. (a) How else might a person become disassociated? (b) How should Christians view and deal with disassociated persons?
15 Or, a person might renounce his place in the Christian congregation by his actions, such as by becoming part of an organization whose objective is contrary to the Bible, and, hence, is under judgment by Jehovah God. (Compare Revelation 19:17-21; Isaiah 2:4.) So if one who was a Christian chose to join those who are disapproved of God, it would be fitting for the congregation to acknowledge by a brief announcement that he had disassociated himself and is no longer one of Jehovah’s Witnesses.
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.
COOPERATING WITH THE CONGREGATION
17, 18. What is involved in our cooperating with the congregation as to disfellowshiping?
17 Though Christians enjoy spiritual fellowship when they discuss or study the Bible with their brothers or interested persons, they would not want to have such fellowship with an expelled sinner (or one who has renounced the faith and beliefs of Jehovah’s Witnesses, disassociating himself). The expelled person has been ‘rejected,’ being “self-condemned” because of “sinning,” and those in the congregation both accept God’s judgment and uphold it. Disfellowshiping, however, implies more than ceasing to have spiritual fellowship.—Titus 3:10, 11.
18 Paul wrote: “Quit mixing in company . . . , not even eating with such a man.” (1 Cor. 5:11) A meal is a time of relaxation and socializing. Hence, the Bible here rules out social fellowship, too, such as joining an expelled person in a picnic or party, ball game, trip to the beach or theater, or sitting down to a meal with him.* (The special problems involving a relative who has been disfellowshiped are considered in the following article.)
19. Why may it sometimes seem difficult to uphold a disfellowshiping, but why is it important that we do?
19 Sometimes a Christian might feel under considerable pressure to ignore this Bible advice. His own emotions may create the pressure, or it may be brought to bear on him by acquaintances. For instance, one brother was pressured to officiate at the marriage of two disfellowshiped persons. Could that service be rationalized as a mere kindness? One could feel that way. But why were his services wanted, rather than those of the town mayor or other state marrying agent? Was it not because of his standing as a minister of God and his ability to offer marriage counsel from God’s Word? To give in to such pressure would involve him in fellowshiping with the couple, persons who had been expelled from the congregation for their ungodly way.—1 Cor. 5:13.
20. What should be our reaction if a business associate is disfellowshiped?
20 Other problems arise in connection with business or employment. What if you were employed by a man who now was expelled by the congregation, or you employed a person to whom that happened? What then? If you were contractually or financially obliged to continue the business relationship for the present, you certainly would now have a different attitude toward the disfellowshiped individual. Discussion of business matters with him or contact on the job might be necessary, but spiritual discussions and social fellowship would be things of the past. In that way you could demonstrate your obedience to God and have a protective barrier for yourself. Also, this might impress on him how much his sin has cost him in various ways.—2 Cor. 6:14, 17.
SPEAK WITH A DISFELLOWSHIPED OR DISASSOCIATED PERSON?
21, 22. The Scriptures provide what advice about speaking with a disfellowshiped person?
21 Would upholding God’s righteousness and his disfellowshiping arrangement mean that a Christian should not speak at all with an expelled person, not even saying “Hello”? Some have wondered about that, in view of Jesus’ advice to love our enemies and not ‘greet our brothers only.’—Matt. 5:43-47.
22 Actually, in his wisdom God did not try to cover every possible situation. What we need is to get the sense of what Jehovah says about treatment of a disfellowshiped person, for then we can strive to uphold His view. Through the apostle John, God explains:
“Everyone that pushes ahead and does not remain in the teaching of the Christ does not have God. . . . If anyone comes to you and does not bring this teaching, never receive him into your homes or say a greeting to him. For he that says a greeting to him is a sharer in his wicked works.”—2 John 9-11.
23, 24. Why is it wise to avoid speaking to expelled individuals?
23 The apostle who gave that wise warning was close to Jesus and knew well what Christ had said about greeting others. He also knew that the common greeting of that time was “Peace.” As distinct from some personal “enemy” or worldly man in authority who opposed Christians, a disfellowshiped or disassociated person who is trying to promote or justify his apostate thinking or is continuing in his ungodly conduct is certainly not one to whom to wish “Peace.” (1 Tim. 2:1, 2) And we all know from our experience over the years that a simple “Hello” to someone can be the first step that develops into a conversation and maybe even a friendship. Would we want to take that first step with a disfellowshiped person?
24 ‘But what if he seems to be repentant and needs encouragement?’ someone might wonder. There is a provision for handling such situations. The overseers in the congregation serve as spiritual shepherds and protectors of the flock. (Heb. 13:17; 1 Pet. 5:2) If a disfellowshiped or disassociated person inquires, or gives evidence of wanting to come back into God’s favor, the elders can speak to him. They will kindly explain what he needs to do and might give him some appropriate admonition. They can deal with him on the basis of facts about his past sin and his attitude. Others in the congregation lack such information. So if someone felt that the disfellowshiped or disassociated person ‘is repentant,’ might that be a judgment based on impression rather than accurate information? If the overseers were convinced that the person was repentant and was producing the fruits of repentance,* he would be reinstated into the congregation. After that occurs, the rest of the congregation can warmly welcome him at the meetings, display forgiveness, comfort him and confirm their love for him, as Paul urged the Corinthians to do with the man reinstated at Corinth.—2 Cor. 2:5-8.
NOT SHARING IN WICKED WORKS
25, 26. What does God counsel about becoming a “sharer” with a disfellowshiped person?
25 All faithful Christians need to take to heart the serious truth that God inspired John to write: “He that says a greeting to [an expelled sinner who is promoting an erroneous teaching or carrying on ungodly conduct] is a sharer in his wicked works.”—2 John 11.
26 Many of Christendom’s commentators take exception to 2 John 11. They claim that it is ‘unchristian counsel, contrary to the spirit of our Lord,’ or that it encourages intolerance. Yet such sentiments emanate from religious organizations that do not apply God’s command to “remove the wicked man from among yourselves,” that seldom if ever expel even notorious wrongdoers from their churches. (1 Cor. 5:13) Their “tolerance” is unscriptural, unchristian.—Matt. 7:21-23; 25:24-30; John 8:44.
27. How might a Christian become such a “sharer,” and with what result?
27 But it is not wrong to be loyal to the righteous and just God of the Bible. He tells us that he will accept ‘in his holy mountain’ only those who walk faultlessly, practice righteousness and speak truth. (Ps. 15:1-5) If, though, a Christian were to throw in his lot with a wrongdoer who has been rejected by God and disfellowshiped, or has disassociated himself, that would be as much as saying ‘I do not want a place in God’s holy mountain either.’ If the elders saw him heading in that direction by regularly keeping company with a disfellowshiped person, they would lovingly and patiently try to help him to regain God’s view. (Matt. 18:18; Gal. 6:1) They would admonish him and, if necessary, ‘reprove him with severity.’ They want to help him remain ‘in God’s holy mountain.’ But if he will not cease to fellowship with the expelled person, he thus has made himself ‘a sharer (supporting or participating) in the wicked works’ and must be removed from the congregation, expelled.—Titus 1:13; Jude 22, 23; compare Numbers 16:26.
LOYAL TO GOD’S VIEW
28. How can we manifest our loyalty to Jehovah’s view?
28 Loyalty to Jehovah God and his provisions is a source of happiness, for all his ways are righteous, just and good. This is true, too, concerning his provision to disfellowship unrepentant wrongdoers. As we cooperate with that arrangement, we can trust in David’s words: “Take knowledge that Jehovah will certainly distinguish his loyal one.” (Ps. 4:3) Yes, God sets apart, honors and guides those who are loyal to him and his ways. Among the many blessings we receive from such loyalty is the joy of being among those whom God approves and accepts ‘in his holy mountain.’—Ps. 84:10, 11.
DO YOU RECALL THESE POINTS?
When Jews were expelled from the synagogue, how were they treated?
Paul showed what difference in treating
(1) immoral persons in the world?
(2) immoral persons disfellowshiped from the congregation?
How should Christians view a person who disassociates himself from the congregation?
“Disfellowshiping” implies the terminating of what kinds of fellowship?
Why do Christians not greet or speak with disfellowshiped persons?
With regard to disfellowshiping, what do we need to do to remain ‘in God’s holy mountain’?
“Henceforth he was like one dead. He was not allowed to study with others, no [social] intercourse was to be held with him, he was not even to be shown the road. He might, indeed, buy the necessaries of life, but it was forbidden to eat or drink with such an one.”—The Life and Times of Jesus the Messiah, by A. Edersheim, Vol. II, p. 184.
In line with this Bible teaching, Adam Clarke highlights the difference, stating: “Have no communion with [an expelled sinner] in things sacred or civil. You may transact your worldly concerns with a person that knows not God, and makes no profession of Christianity, whatever his moral character may be; but, ye must not even thus far acknowledge a man professing Christianity, who is scandalous in his conduct. Let him have this extra mark of your abhorrence of all sin.”
Ecclesiastical historian Joseph Bingham writes concerning the early centuries: “The discipline of the church consisted in a power to deprive men of all the benefits and privileges of baptism, by turning them out of the society and communion of the church, . . . and every one shunned and avoided them in common conversation, partly to establish the church’s censures and proceedings against them, and partly to make them ashamed, and partly to secure themselves from the danger of contagion.” “ . . . no one was to receive excommunicated persons into their houses, nor eat at the same table with them; they were not to converse with them familiarly, whilst living; nor perform the funeral obsequies for them, when dead, . . . These directions were drawn up upon the model of those rules of the apostles, which forbade Christians to give any countenance to notorious offenders.”—The Antiquities of the Christian Church, pp. 880, 891.
Our issue of September 1, 1981, discussed 2 Thessalonians 3:14, 15, where the Bible says that it might be necessary to ‘mark’ a Christian who persists in disorderly conduct. He is still a brother and to be admonished as such, but other Christians are to “stop associating with him.” If they should avoid his company on a social basis, much clearer separation should exist in the cases of disfellowshiped or disassociated wrongdoers.
For a discussion of repentance, see The Watchtower of September 1, 1981.
[Pictures on page 22]
“Not even eating with” a disfellowshiped person