Jehovah’s Witnesses proudly paint an image that they are pro-family and that the Jehovah’s Witnesses enjoy a happy and healthy family life. But what happens when a loved one wants to leave the group, or if they get disfellowshipped? Will they get shunned by their very own family members?”
Jehovah’s Witnesses must shun family members who are disfellowshipped or who have voluntarily left the organization. This enforced shunning includes immediate family members, parents, children, or siblings. Failure to follow the direction to shun a family member can result in disciplinary action and, consequently, being shunned.
Despite the claim that Jehovah’s Witnesses “work to build up families, both our own and those of our neighbors.”, the reality is that there are policies in place that break up families. I do not expect you to simply take my word for it; I will explain how Jehovah’s Witnesses break up families in this article. But first, I would like to elaborate on how Jehovah’s Witnesses justify shunning their very own flesh and blood.
Why do Jehovah’s Witnesses shun family?
In most cases, shunning starts with the formal ex-communication of a Jehovah’s Witness, known as disfellowshipping and is used as a form of discipline when a witness breaks one of the group’s many rules, most of which are completely foreign to the Bible. This decision is reached after a committee of three elders decides the individual is unrepentant and hand down whatever punishment they deem fit, including disfellowshipping.
Suppose a Jehovah’s Witness no longer wants to be part of the organization and formally resigns from the group. In that case, the elders will interpret that decision as a disassociation. While disassociation and disfellowshipping are slightly different forms of ex-communication, they both have the same implications for the individual.
Whether a person is disfellowshipped or disassociated, an announcement is made in the Kingdom Hall. All congregation members are required to shun that person, even if that person is an immediate family member.
Contrary to their claims that they only enforce “shunning unrepentant wrongdoers”, Chapter 14, paragraph 33 of their 2019 internal manual “Organized to Do Jehovah’s Will“, states: “… if a person who is a Christian chooses to disassociate himself, a brief announcement is made to inform the congregation, stating: “[Name of person] is no longer one of Jehovah’s Witnesses.” Such a person is treated in the same way as a disfellowshipped person.
“What sort of fellowship with disfellowshipped and disassociated people is forbidden?
This means that loyal Christians do not have spiritual fellowship with anyone who has been expelled from the congregation. But more is involved. God’s word states that we should ‘not even eat with such a man.’ (1 Cor. 5:11) Hence, we also avoid social fellowship with an expelled person. This would rule out joining him in a picnic, party, ball game, or trip to the mall or theater or sitting down to a meal with him either in the home or at a restaurant.“
In effect, Jehovah’s Witnesses will shun former members of their religion, even if it includes their family. This is a typical cult tactic used to forbid members from having anything to do with those who want to leave the group.
“…people are told to avoid contact with ex-members or critics. Those who could provide the most information are the ones to be especially shunned.”
Combatting Cult Mind Control, Dr. Steven Hassan
Do Jehovah’s Witnesses break up families?
Under the Frequently Asked Questions section of the jw.org website, a section entitled “Do Jehovah’s Witnesses Break Up Families or Build Them Up?” boasts that their practices have “admittedly” led to broken relationships but shifts the blame to the non Jehovah’s Witness family member by quoting a statement from the European Court of Human Rights that “Non-witness family members often cause conflict by refusing to ‘accept and to respect their religious relative’s freedom to manifest and practice his or her religion”.
What an audacious statement to make when Jehovah’s Witnesses have an institutional policy that forces members to actively shun and completely cut off any family members who no longer want to identify as a Jehovah’s Witness.
“Love for the Organization must be stronger than our love for Family”
If that isn’t convincing enough, a more recent article puts the final nail in the coffin. According to the Life and Ministry Meeting Workbook for December 2020, an article under the section “Treasures from God’s Word” for the week of December 7-13 is explicitly entitled “Love for Jehovah, Stronger Than Love for Family”. The last line of this shocking article says that “Our love for Jehovah must be stronger than our love for unfaithful family members”. What they’re communicating here is that “Our love for the organization must be stronger than our love for family”.
That message is clear: family members should be more than willing to sacrifice their relationship with their unfaithful/unbelieving loved ones in their pursuit of salvation from Jehovah. This means absolutely no contact with the disfellowshipped individual.
Don’t believe me? Here it is in their own words:
“Is strict avoidance really necessary? Yes, for several reasons. First, it is a matter of loyalty to God”
“What if a relative is disfellowshipped? In such a case, the close bond between family members can pose a real test of loyalty. “
“do not look for excuses to have dealings with a disfellowshipped relative”
The family can no longer have them in their home or spend time with them. They can no longer give them a phone call, correspond through email, or even send out a simple text message to check on them. Any and all communication is ceased.
The family of a disfellowshipped or disassociated individual will be repeatedly reminded by the body of elders and other congregation members that this is a means of “keeping the congregation clean” and helping their loved one to “come back to Jehovah”. To a Jehovah’s Witness, shunning is simply a test of their relationship with Jehovah, and they must stay strong. Any inclination to reach out to their family member will be shot down. Their pain over the situation will be blamed on the non-witness family member for “disobeying Jehovah” or wanting to leave the group.
Does the Bible support the shunning of family members?
A common scripture used by many Christian cults to justify shunning can be found at 1 Corinthians 5:11-13 in the New World Translation version of the Bible:
“But now I am writing you to stop keeping company with anyone called a brother who is sexually immoral or a greedy person or an idolater or a reviler or a drunkard or an extortioner, not even eating with such a man. For what do I have to do with judging those outside? Do you not judge those inside, while God judges those outside? “Remove the wicked person from among yourselves.”
1 Corinthian 5:11-13, New World Translation
According to the Overview of 1 Corinthians section of the JW Library, the apostle Paul meant that “keeping company” with others would imply having close fellowship or companionship with them and sharing their views and sentiments.
Taking a stand against specific behavior that is against your conscience is one thing. An “institutionalized decision to ex-communicate” and shun a fellow human is another. Being required to ignore someone simply because they choose to no longer identify as a Jehovah’s Witness is going beyond the text of the Bible and denies that person their freedom to have their own viewpoint.
What are the mental health effects of shunning?
People are social creatures that thrive on a feeling of belonging to a community and a support system built on mutual trust. Our social lives are intertwined with our psyche, and having that taken away can lead to some very tragic consequences.
According to Purdue University Psychological Science Prof. Kipling D. Williams, the effects of social ostracism are “long-lasting and cut deeper than physical wounds”.
“Being excluded or ostracized is an invisible form of bullying that doesn’t leave bruises, and therefore we often underestimate its impact. Being excluded by high school friends, office colleagues, or even spouses or family members can be excruciating… When a person is ostracized, the brain’s dorsal anterior cingulate cortex, which registers physical pain, also feels this social injury.”
Prof. Kipling D. Williams, Psychological Science expert, Purdue University
“researchers in psychology have observed a high prevalence of PTSD amongst people who have been shunned. To get a more clear idea of the pain that shunning can cause, researchers have observed that even being a bystander to shunning can have dire psychological consequences. The psychological consequences of being shunned are long. Although, externally there may not be any wounds, internally the wounds are deep and long-lasting.”
Shunning is a form of emotional and psychological abuse. Simply put, it is an attack on one’s self-esteem, which is also why ostracism is often thought of as the death of personhood. This can lead to feelings of depression, suicidal ideations, and self-destructive behaviors. The Jehovah’s Witnesses shunning police has even contributed to the brutal murder-suicide of a Jehovah’s Witness family, and countless other suicides.
Jehovah’s Witnesses encourage their members to shun anyone who doesn’t follow their teachings, including their own family. This includes those who have a different interpretation or disagree with any of their false teachings, such as the fabricated date of Jerusalem’s destruction, the false teaching about blood transfusions, or the disfellowshipping and shunning policy. They try to frame this as an “act of love”, that ignoring your loved one will make them come to their senses and return to the fold. However, their downplaying of their actual policy suggests otherwise.
The truth is, shunning is a manipulative, scripturally unfounded abuse tactic meant to keep Jehovah’s Witnesses in line and demonize anyone who challenges current policy.