“WHEN I listened to the announcement that my son had been disfellowshipped, my whole world seemed to come to an end,” recalls Julian. “He was my oldest child, and we were very close; we did lots of things together. He had always been an exemplary son, and then suddenly he began behaving in a way that was unacceptable. My wife wept repeatedly, and I did not know how to console her. We kept asking ourselves if we had somehow failed as parents.”
How can it be said that disfellowshipping a Christian is a loving provision if it causes so much pain? What reasons do the Scriptures give for taking such drastic measures? And what exactly leads to a person’s being disfellowshipped?
TWO FACTORS THAT LEAD TO DISFELLOWSHIPPING
Although Jehovah does not demand perfection from us, he does have a standard of holiness that he expects his servants to meet. For example, Jehovah insists that we avoid such serious sins as sexual immorality, idolatry, thievery, extortion, murder, and spiritism.
Would you not agree that Jehovah’s clean standards are reasonable and that they serve to protect us? Who does not prefer to live among peaceful, decent people who can be trusted? We find such an environment among our spiritual brothers and sisters, thanks to the promise we make at the time of our dedication to God to live in harmony with the guidelines found in his Word.
But what if a baptized Christian commits a serious sin because of human weakness? Faithful servants of Jehovah in the past made such mistakes, yet God did not reject them outright. King David is a prime example. David committed adultery and murder; yet, the prophet Nathan informed him: “Jehovah . . . forgives your sin.”
God pardoned David’s sin because of David’s sincere repentance. (Ps. 32:1-5) Likewise, a servant of Jehovah today will be disfellowshipped only if he is unrepentant or continues to practice what is bad. (Acts 3:19; 26:20) If genuine repentance is not manifest to the elders who serve on a judicial committee, they must disfellowship the person.
At first, we may feel that the decision to disfellowship the wrongdoer is drastic or even unkind, especially if we have close ties to that person. Nevertheless, Jehovah’s Word gives us sound reasons for believing that such a decision is a loving one.
DISFELLOWSHIPPING CAN BENEFIT EVERYONE CONCERNED
Jesus pointed out that “wisdom is proved righteous by its results.” (Matt. 11:19, ftn.) A wise decision to disfellowship an unrepentant wrongdoer produces righteous results. Consider these three:
Disfellowshipping wrongdoers honors Jehovah’s name. Since we bear the name of Jehovah, our behavior inevitably reflects on his name. (Isa. 43:10) Just as a son’s conduct can bring either honor or reproach on his parents, so people’s feelings toward Jehovah will depend to some extent on the good or bad example they observe in his name people. God’s good name is upheld if the people who bear that name make Jehovah’s moral standard their own. The situation was somewhat similar in Ezekiel’s time when people of the nations closely associated the name of Jehovah with the Jews.
We would bring reproach on God’s holy name if we practiced immorality. The apostle Peter counseled Christians: “As obedient children, stop being molded by the desires you formerly had in your ignorance, but like the Holy One who called you, become holy yourselves in all your conduct, for it is written: ‘You must be holy, because I am holy.’” (1 Pet. 1:14-16) Clean, holy conduct brings honor to God’s name.
If one of Jehovah’s Witnesses practices what is bad, however, it is likely that friends and acquaintances will become aware of this. The disfellowshipping act shows that Jehovah has a clean people who adhere to Scriptural guidelines in order to maintain that holiness. A stranger once came to a meeting at a Kingdom Hall in Switzerland and said that he wanted to become a member of the congregation. His sister had been disfellowshipped for immorality. He said that he wanted to join an organization that “does not tolerate bad conduct.”
Disfellowshipping protects the clean, Christian congregation. The apostle Paul warned the Corinthians of the danger of allowing willful sinners to remain in their midst. He compared the bad influence of such ones to that of leaven that causes a whole lump of dough to rise. “A little leaven ferments the whole batch of dough,” he noted. He then counseled them: “Remove the wicked person from among yourselves.”
Apparently, “the wicked person” mentioned by Paul blatantly practiced immorality. And other congregation members had even begun to justify his conduct. (1 Cor. 5:1, 2) If such a gross sin had been condoned, other Christians might have felt inclined to follow the immoral customs of the licentious city in which they lived. Overlooking willful sins encourages a lax attitude toward divine standards. (Eccl. 8:11) Furthermore, unrepentant sinners could become “rocks hidden below water” and shipwreck the faith of others in the congregation.
Disfellowshipping may bring the wrongdoer to his senses. Jesus once spoke of a young man who left his father’s home and squandered his inheritance on a life of debauchery. The prodigal son learned the hard way that life outside his father’s home was empty and heartless. The son finally came to his senses, repented, and took the initiative to return to his family. (Luke 15:11-24) Jesus’ description of the loving father who rejoiced at his son’s change of heart helps us understand Jehovah’s feelings. “I take no pleasure in the death of the wicked, but rather that someone wicked changes his way and keeps living,” he assures us.
Likewise, disfellowshipped ones who are no longer members of the Christian congregation
Love and firmness are needed to produce the desired result. “Should the righteous one strike me, it would be an act of loyal love,” said the psalmist David, and “should he reprove me, it would be like oil on my head.” (Ps. 141:5) To illustrate: Imagine a hiker who succumbs to exhaustion on a cold winter day. He begins to suffer from hypothermia, and he feels drowsy. If he falls asleep in the snow, he will die. While waiting for a rescue party, his companion occasionally slaps him in the face to keep him awake. The slap may sting, but it could well save his life. Similarly, David recognized that a righteous person might need to give him painful correction for his own good.
In many cases, disfellowshipping provides the discipline the erring one needs. After some ten years, Julian’s son, mentioned at the outset, cleaned up his life, returned to the congregation, and now serves as an elder. “Being disfellowshipped brought me face-to-face with the consequences of my lifestyle,” he admits. “I needed that sort of discipline.”
THE LOVING WAY TO DEAL WITH DISFELLOWSHIPPED ONES
True, disfellowshipping is a spiritual tragedy, but the tragedy need not become an unmitigated disaster. All of us play a role in making sure that the disfellowshipping serves its purpose.
Elders who have the sad task of communicating a disfellowshipping decision strive to reflect Jehovah’s love. When informing the person of their decision, they kindly and clearly explain the steps he needs to take to be reinstated in the congregation. For the sake of reminding disfellowshipped ones of how they can return to Jehovah, elders may periodically visit those who have given some evidence of changing their ways. *
Family members can show love for the congregation and the erring one by respecting the disfellowshipping decision. “He was still my son,” explains Julian, “but his lifestyle had put up a barrier between us.”
All in the congregation can show principled love by avoiding contact and conversation with the disfellowshipped person. (1 Cor. 5:11; 2 John 10, 11) They thus reinforce the discipline that Jehovah has given him through the elders. Furthermore, they can give extra love and support to the family of the disfellowshipped one, who suffer considerably and who should not be made to feel that they too are excluded from association with fellow believers.
“Disfellowshipping is an arrangement that we need, one that helps us live according to Jehovah’s standards,” Julian concludes. “In the long run, despite the pain, it brings good results. Had I been tolerant of my son’s bad conduct, he would never have recovered.”
^ par. 24 See The Watchtower, April 15, 1991, pages 21-23.
How does God’s loving discipline benefit a repentant wrongdoer?