Shunning, Ostracizing, Disfellowshipping, Casting Out… A Devastating Practice
Some religious movements practice shunning. They require members to shun (avoid) anyone who has left (apostates) or has been expelled (‘excommunicated‘ — also known as ‘disfellowshipped’ from) the movement, church, or group.
Members are not to interact with those who are being shunned. In some religious movements such former adherents, including one’s own family members, are to be considered as if they were ‘dead.’
Various destructive cults, such as Jehovah’s Witnesses and Scientology, practice such extreme forms of ostracism that scholars use terms such as “psychologically devastating” to describe the impact.
What the Bible teaches about shunning
The Bible does not teach that Christians much shun former members. It does teach that someone who refuses to repent from sin must be expelled from fellowship. That is, they are no longer considered members of the Christian Church.
The Apostle Paul says:
I wrote to you in my letter not to associate with sexually immoral people — not at all meaning the people of this world who are immoral, or the greedy and swindlers, or idolaters. In that case you would have to leave this world. But now I am writing to you that you must not associate with anyone who claims to be a brother or sister but is sexually immoral or greedy, an idolater or slanderer, a drunkard or swindler. Do not even eat with such people.
What business is it of mine to judge those outside the church? Are you not to judge those inside? God will judge those outside. “Expel the wicked person from among you.”
– Source: 1 Corinthians 5:9-13, NIV. Read this passage in context.
The author of an article titled, Jehovah’s Witnesses and Shunning, explains:
Clearly, Paul did instruct Christians to expel from the congregation’s fellowship any person who was purposely practicing willful sin. The disassociation would quite naturally exclude them from being greeted by the identifying “holy kiss,” as well as not being allowed to share in meetings and the meals for Christian worship and prayer.
However, Paul’s instruction did not prohibit normal conversation or witnessing to former members. Nor were they barred from attending worship in the temple or the synagogues. Jesus, the apostles and Paul, along with the rest of the Jews, worshipped God both publicly in the temple and synagogues, and privately with small groups in various homes. (Acts 5:42) It was from the private Christian fellowship for worship that sinners were excluded.
– Source: Anonymous author, Jehovah’s Witnesses and Shunning. 1 Copyright, 1966.
Disfellowshipping is part of a series of progressive steps in a church discipline process as described in the book of Matthew:
“If your brother sins against you,[a] go and rebuke him in private. If he listens to you, you have won your brother. But if he won’t listen, take one or two more with you, so that by the testimony of two or three witnesses every fact may be established. If he pays no attention to them, tell the church. But if he doesn’t pay attention even to the church, let him be like an unbeliever and a tax collector to you.
– Source: Matthew 18:15-17, HCSB. [a] Some manuscripts omit “against you.” However, the process remains the same.
Someone who persists in sin 2 — ignoring private and ecclesiastical rebukes — is placed outside the fellowship of believers. That means that you no longer treat that person as if he were a member of your fellowship.
After all, someone who walks in sin is not a Christian (a word that means, “follower of Christ“).
Treating someone like “an unbeliever and a tax collector” does not mean to completely ignore the person or to consider the person as if he or she were dead.
Jesus himself interacted with unbelievers. Likewise, Christians are supposed to love non-Christians:
If you love those who love you, what credit is that to you? Even sinners love those who love them. If you do what is good to those who are good to you, what credit is that to you? Even sinners do that. And if you lend to those from whom you expect to receive, what credit is that to you? Even sinners lend to sinners to be repaid in full. But love your enemies, do what is good, and lend, expecting nothing in return. Then your reward will be great, and you will be sons of the Most High. For He is gracious to the ungrateful and evil. Be merciful, just as your Father also is merciful.
– Source: Luke 6:32-36, HCSB
Shunning in various religions
Shunning is practiced, in one form or another, in various religions, cults and sects. This includes — but is not limited to — Islam, the Amish, the Jehovah’s Witnesses, Mennonites, the Church of Scientology (“disconnection), the Exclusive Brethren 3, and so on.
In its extreme forms — such as in Islam, the Scientology cult, and Jehovah’s Witnesses 4 — shunning is a destructive practice.
The Jehovah’s Witnesses are hardly unique in sometimes removing folks from membership in the congregation.
“Almost any religious body would, on occasion, drop a membership – by request, due to inactivity or as a matter of discipline due to some kind of moral failure,” said Ron Stansell, professor of religion studies at George Fox University.
Catholics, for instance, can be excommunicated – denied sacraments considered their means of salvation.
But the Jehovah’s Witnesses are among a minority of Christian groups in the United States known to cut off social – and, as a result, business and family – contact with the disfellow- shipped.
Such shunning is “a fairly common practice of radical reformation sects, groups that tend to be drawn in very much on themselves,” said Carl Raschke, a Denver University religious studies professor.
Other practitioners include certain Old Order Mennonite and Amish communities, Hutterites and the Bruderhof.
Disfellowshipping is not the most radical practice out there, Colorado College professor David Weddle said. Some ultra-orthodox Jewish congregations, for example, go so far as to hold funerals for former members who decide to marry outside the religion.
And in some extremist Islamic groups around the world, apostasy (renunciation of faith) is considered punishable by death.
– Source: Karen McGowan, Many Religions Remove Members, The Register Guard, March 2, 2003
You’ll find research resources on shunning below this graphic
- ‘A Loving Provision’? How Former Jehovah’s Witnesses Experience Shunning Julie Gutgsell, Master’s Thesis
The impact of ostracism (being excluded or ignored) on its targets has been extensively explored in the last decades. Ostracism has been found to have adverse effects on targeted individuals physical and mental health. Most research in this field, however, has focused on the immediate and short-term impact on ostracised individuals and has been conducted under laboratory conditions. Utilising a qualitative approach, the current study explored the long-term impact of chronic ostracism in former members of the Jehovah’s Witnesses who were excommunicated from their community following a variety of doctrinal transgressions. Moreover, the study explored how ostracised individuals make sense and explain ostracism to themselves. […]
The study has provided insight into the short and long-term effects of ostracism by religious high-control groups and the sense making employed by its targets. […]
The key findings relate to how individuals’ lives were impacted on a personal level/identity and on a social level. Further emergent themes explored how participants coped with being excluded and adjusted to their lives as part of mainstream society. The long-term exploration of excommunication provided insight into how participants created new narratives of their stories and turned their adverse experiences into sources of hope and optimism.
- Jehovah’s Witnesses and Shunning. Author unknown. Posted on a website titled, Beacon – Light for Former Jehovah’s Witnesses. The website is no longer online, but the link leads to an archived version of the article,
which was copyrighted in 1996.
- The Reluctant Apostate: Leaving Jehovah’s Witnesses Comes at a Price. Loyd Evans [ Kindle edition]
In this remarkably candid part-memoir, part-history guide, former Witness Lloyd Evans comprehensively explores the religion of his upbringing, charting the organization’s metamorphosis from unassuming 19th Century brethren to global brand in the modern age. […]
Evans lays bare the circumstances leading to his “awakening” with startling honesty and reveals how the heartbreaking loss of his mother played a profound role in keeping long-held doubts suppressed.
In the final chapters, the author discusses the various means by which Witnesses are controlled by their leadership. Evans analyzes the role of shunning (disfellowshipping) and the stigmatization of “apostates” in enforcing loyalty among Witnesses, and reflects on the indifference of society in general to human rights violations by high-control groups. The phenomenon of fundamentalist brainwashing, or “undue influence,” is also scrutinized, and those in search of a new life free from its pervasive effects are given reasons for hope.
- Shunning Within the Seventh-day Adventist Church Kindle only. By Nikki Smith. Note that theologically the Seventh-day Adventist Church is a cult of Christianity.
- Banned From Church Alexandra Alter, Wall Street Journal, Jan 18, 2008. Reports on
…a growing movement among some conservative Protestant pastors to bring back church discipline, an ancient practice in which suspected sinners are privately confronted and then publicly castigated and excommunicated if they refuse to repent. While many Christians find such practices outdated, pastors in large and small churches across the country are expelling members for offenses ranging from adultery and theft to gossiping, skipping service and criticizing church leaders.
- Cast Out. Karen McGowan, The Register-Guard, Mar. 2, 2003
Officially, the practice is known as “disfellowshipping.” The word may sound less drastic than the “excommunication” of the Roman Catholic Church, but the practice goes far beyond denying sacraments to those cast out. […]
Scholars who’ve studied the Jehovah’s Witnesses use terms such as “psychologically devastating” to describe the impact of shunning – particularly on those who’ve known only the Jehovah’s Witness faith.
- Spiritual Shunning. Sharon Tubbs, St. Petersburg Times, August 22, 2002
When Jehovah’s Witnesses excommunicate, or ”disfellowship,” a member, even the closest human ties can be severed without question. […]
The excommunication announcement tells members to begin shunning that person. If they don’t, they, too, risk being disfellowshipped. Fear of being disfellowshipped is gripping for many Witnesses. Because they believe that only Witnesses will be saved from death, many don’t associate with non-Witnesses.
Being disfellowshipped, then, means losing your circle of friends, not to mention family members who remain in the faith.
- Scientology: The Unperson. Robert Farley, St.
Petersburg Times, June 25, 2006
Scientologists who cross their religion can be declared suppressive persons, shunned by peers and ostracized by family. […]
Scientologists declare their outcasts “suppressive persons.”
Another Scientology policy – called “disconnection” – forbids Scientologists from interacting with a suppressive person. No calls, no letters, no contact.
An SP is a pariah. Anyone who communicates with an SP risks being branded an SP himself. […]
Whatever Scientology’s motivation, its suppressive person policy results in wrenching pain, say a dozen SPs interviewed by the St. Petersburg Times.
Some have gone years without seeing or talking with sons, daughters, mothers, fathers – all of whom abide by Scientology’s no-contact requirement.
For a Scientologist thinking of forsaking the church, the decision is grueling: stay in or risk being ostracized from loved ones and friends.
Former Jehovah’s Witness John Cedars share my thoughts on the relentless nature of shunnning, namely the way it can continue punishing you long after you have left the abusive Jehovah’s Witness faith:
BBC item on shunning as practiced by Jehovah’s Witnesses. Former members describe being shunned and the psychological problems this has caused:
- Posted on a website titled, Beacon – Light for Former Jehovah’s Witnesses. The website is no longer online. The link leads to an archived version. ↩
- Sin includes not just sinful behavior, but also believing and teaching false doctrine. ↩
- This extremist group currently calls itself Plymouth Brethren Christian Church ↩
- Theologically Jehovah’s Witnesses is a cult of Christianity. Sociologically, it has many cult-like elements as well. ↩