The Register-Guard, Mar. 2, 2003
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.
For Witnesses, disfellowshipping is the most severe of a range of disciplines intended to correct behavior at variance with scripture, national spokesman J.R. Brown said. The decision of whether to disfellowship rests with an official judicial committee composed of elders from the local congregation.
“Basically, they listen to what has been done – most people will come in and confess it, because they want a clear conscience before God,” Brown said.
“The elders could pray with him right there,” he continued. “The idea is to restore a proper relationship with God.”
But if the person is not repentant, “then their decision could be to disfellowship,” he said.
“Every effort is made to help wrongdoers,” the group’s Web site explains. “But if they are unrepentant, the congregation needs to be protected from their influence. The Bible clearly directs: ‘Remove the wicked man from among yourselves.’ “
The outcast is informed, and notice of his disfellowshipping is read to his congregation, Brown said. The congregation is “already educated” in what this means: severing of all spiritual and social contact.
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 – witness the bounty placed on author Salman Rushdie after he was branded an apostate for “The Satanic Verses.”