Questions From Readers
Can a person be disfellowshipped from the Christian congregation for engaging in uncleanness as he can be for fornication or loose conduct?
Yes, an individual can be expelled from the congregation if he unrepentantly practices either fornication, some forms of uncleanness, or loose conduct. The apostle Paul cites all three of these sins along with other disfellowshipping offenses when he writes: “The works of the flesh are manifest, and they are fornication, uncleanness, loose conduct . . . I am forewarning you . . . that those who practice such things will not inherit God’s kingdom.”—Galatians 5:19-21.
Fornication (Greek, por·neiʹa) applies to illicit sexual relations outside Scriptural marriage. It includes adultery, prostitution, and sex relations between unmarried individuals as well as oral and anal sex and the sexual manipulation of the genitals of an individual to whom one is not married. A person who unrepentantly practices fornication does not belong in the Christian congregation.
Loose conduct (Greek, a·selʹgei·a) denotes “licentiousness; wantonness; shameless conduct; lewdness of conduct.” The New Thayer’s Greek-English Lexicon defines the Greek term as “unbridled lust, . . . outrageousness, shamelessness, insolence.” According to another lexicon, loose conduct is a form of behavior that “violates all bounds of what is socially acceptable.”
As the foregoing definitions show, “loose conduct” involves two elements: (1) The conduct itself is a serious violation of God’s laws, and (2) the attitude of the wrongdoer is disrespectful, insolent.
Therefore, “loose conduct” does not refer to bad conduct of a minor nature. It pertains to acts that are serious violations of God’s laws and that reflect a brazen or boldly contemptuous attitude—a spirit that betrays disrespect or even contempt for authority, laws, and standards. Paul links loose conduct with illicit intercourse. (Romans 13:13, 14) Since Galatians 5:19-21 lists loose conduct among a number of sinful practices that would disqualify one from inheriting God’s Kingdom, loose conduct is grounds for reproof and possible disfellowshipping from the Christian congregation.
Uncleanness (Greek, a·ka·thar·siʹa) is the broadest of the three terms rendered “fornication,” “uncleanness,” and “loose conduct.” It embraces impurity of any kind—in sexual matters, in speech, in action, and in spiritual relationships. “Uncleanness” covers a wide range of serious sins.
As recorded at 2 Corinthians 12:21, Paul refers to those who “formerly sinned but have not repented over their uncleanness and fornication and loose conduct that they have practiced.” Since “uncleanness” is listed with “fornication and loose conduct,” some forms of uncleanness warrant judicial action. But uncleanness is a broad term that includes things that are not of a judicial nature. Just as a house may be somewhat dirty or completely filthy, uncleanness has degrees.
Paul said, according to Ephesians 4:19, that some individuals had “come to be past all moral sense” and that “they gave themselves over to loose conduct to work uncleanness of every sort with greediness.” Paul thus puts “uncleanness . . . with greediness” in the same category as loose conduct. If a baptized person unrepentantly practices “uncleanness . . . with greediness,” he can be expelled from the congregation on the grounds of gross uncleanness.
Suppose an engaged couple indulged in passion-arousing heavy petting on numerous occasions. The elders might determine that even though these individuals did not manifest a brazen attitude characterizing loose conduct, there was a measure of greediness in their conduct. So the elders might take judicial action because gross uncleanness was involved. Gross uncleanness might also be appropriate grounds for handling a case involving a person who repeatedly makes sexually explicit telephone calls to another person, especially if he was previously counseled about the matter.
The elders need discernment in making such judgments. To determine whether judicial action is warranted, they must carefully look at what happened and the extent to which it was done. It is not a matter of charging with loose conduct anyone who does not accept Scriptural counsel; nor is it a case of deciding mathematically how many times a person can commit a certain sinful act before judicial action is required. Elders should carefully and prayerfully weigh each situation and find out what occurred and how often, the nature and extent of the misconduct, and the intent and motive of the wrongdoer.
Gross uncleanness entails more than sexual sins. For instance, a baptized boy might smoke a few cigarettes in a short period of time and confess this to his parents. He is determined not to smoke again. This is uncleanness, but it has not escalated to the point of being gross uncleanness or “uncleanness . . . with greediness.” Scriptural counsel from an elder or two along with support from the boy’s parents should suffice. But if the boy is a frequent user of tobacco, this would be a deliberate defilement of the flesh, and a judicial committee would be convened to consider this case of gross uncleanness. (2 Corinthians 7:1) If the boy is not repentant, he would be disfellowshipped.
Some Christians have become involved in the viewing of pornography. This is offensive to God, and the elders may be shocked that a fellow believer has done this. But not all viewing of pornography calls for a hearing before a judicial committee. For example, suppose a brother viewed so-called soft-core pornography on several occasions. He is ashamed, confesses to an elder, and is determined not to repeat this sin. The elder might well conclude that the brother’s conduct did not escalate to the point that he engaged in “uncleanness . . . with greediness”; nor did he display a brazen attitude, indicating loose conduct. Although no judicial action would be warranted, this type of uncleanness would call for strong Scriptural counsel and perhaps follow-up help from the elders.
However, suppose a Christian has secretly viewed abhorrent, sexually degrading pornography for years and has done everything possible to conceal this sin. Such pornography might feature gang rape, bondage, sadistic torture, the brutalizing of women, or even child pornography. When others become aware of his conduct, he is deeply ashamed. He has not been brazen, but the elders may determine that he has ‘given himself over’ to this filthy habit and has practiced ‘uncleanness with greediness,’ that is, gross uncleanness. A judicial committee would be formed because gross uncleanness is involved. The wrongdoer would be disfellowshipped if he did not display godly repentance and the determination never to view pornography again. If he invited others to his home to view pornography—in effect, promoting it—he would give evidence of a brazen attitude characterizing loose conduct.
The Scriptural term “loose conduct” always involves serious sin, often sexual in nature. When trying to identify loose conduct, elders should look for brazenness, wantonness, filthiness, shamelessness, and what is shocking to public decency. On the other hand, serious transgressions of Jehovah’s law that are committed by a person who does not manifest a brazen attitude may involve “greediness.” These cases have to be handled on the basis of the gross uncleanness that they involve.
Determining whether someone has gone far enough to be guilty of gross uncleanness or loose conduct is a serious responsibility, for lives are involved. Those judging such cases should do so prayerfully, asking God for his holy spirit, discernment, and understanding. Elders need to maintain the purity of the congregation and must base their judgment on God’s Word as well as on the direction of “the faithful and discreet slave.” (Matthew 18:18; 24:45) And in these evil days, more than ever before, elders need to bear in mind the words: “See what you are doing, because it is not for man that you judge but it is for Jehovah.”—2 Chronicles 19:6.