04: Present Study Context

The present study examines one tactic used by high-control groups to retain and control members; shunning. In the context of the BITE model, detailed above, shunning can be argued to be part of all four control areas, behaviour, information, thought and emotion. Members are taught to not associate with non-members, as well as former members of the group, which constitutes behavioural control. Due to members being allowed to freely associate only with other members, they have access to a limited amount of information, which is produced and controlled by the group itself. Dissident members who doubt group doctrine or spread contradictory beliefs are at risk of being shunned. Thus the fear of being ostracised by one’s community keeps members from developing doubts/ or raising them publicly within the group – thought control. Lastly, as members are taught to associate only within the group, members circle of friends and relationships are limited to the group. Shunning would involve the severing of these ties and relationships, and members may choose to remain with a group, despite doubts or a desire to leave the group, to prevent a relationship breakdown.

The current study is interested in how members of one high-control group, the Jehovah’s Witnesses, who have been shunned, experienced and dealt with being ostracised by their community. The study also investigated how former members coped with being shunned, as well as the challenges they were facing in their recovery and the long-term impact on their relationship with themselves, others and religion.

To understand the current study’s findings, it is important to have a better understanding of how shunning, as a disciplinary action, has evolved in the Jehovah’s Witnesses and in which cases and how it is being used. The following section aims to provide this understanding.


The Jehovah’s Witnesses are most known by outsiders for their proselytizing activities, refusal of blood transfusions and political neutrality. However, as Knox (2011, p. 158) points out, the general public knows little else about the Witnesses. Furthermore, Knox (2011, p. 158) demonstrates that researchers have shown limited interest in studying this group. The majority of academic research on Jehovah’s Witnesses, society? comes from the medical field, which is particularly pre-occupied with the group’s stance on blood transfusions and from the legal field, an interest that has been sparked as a result of law suits Jehovah’s Witnesses have filed worldwide and the impact they have had on the law (Stinnett, 2005, 439 – 440). Another difficulty with literature regarding the Jehovah’s Witnesses, is that the majority of literature arises from three different stances, first there is the literature published by the society itself, secondly literature is available from disassociated (members who have left the movement voluntarily, or committed a sin that is equaled as voluntary abandonment) or disfellowshipped (members who have been excommunicated and are subsequently shunned by active Witnesses) members, thirdly literature from critics, oftentimes referred to as ‘anti-cult movement’. This makes it difficult to find academic, unbiased sources of knowledge.

It is worth noting that recently the Jehovah’s Witnesses (hereafter interchangeably referred to as society, abbreviated form of legal entity name ‘Watchtower and Bible Tract Society’) have attracted considerable international attention. The Australian Royal Commission has launched an Inquiry in 2016 to examine the policies and procedures of the society in relation to child-protection and child-safety standards, as well as allegations of child sexual abuse. The Royal Commission has been critical of the society’s policies in relation to handling child-sexual abuse cases and has made several recommendations. In particular, they have recommended revision of the society’s ‘two Witness rule’ requirement (the society will only investigate abuse cases if two witnesses can testify to the abuse, or if the perpetrator confesses to the abuse). The Australian Royal Commission (2016) also showed criticism regarding the society’s’ stance toward secular authorities. According to the Royal Commission, the society had records of 1,006 child sexual abuses in Australia, relating to at least 1,800 alleged victims, but none had been reported to secular authorities in Australia. Furthermore, the Royal Commission found that many perpetrators had been disfellowshipped (excommunicated) and later been reinstated (rejoined), without introducing necessary risk management policies or informing the members of the abuse thereby placing children at risk. Lastly, the Australian Royal Commission has also criticised the Jehovah’s Witness policy of shunning, referring to the removal of disassociated or disfellowshipped members complete ‘social structure’ as ‘cruel’ (Australian Royal Commission, 10/03/2017, p. 26542). The Australian Royal Commission criticises the shunning policy in particular for victims of sexual abuse:

‘The Royal Commission found that members of the organisation who no longer wanted to be subject to its rules and discipline have no alternative but to actively leave or disassociate from the organisation, and that it found that the Jehovah’s Witnesses’ practice of shunning members who disassociate from the organisation potentially puts survivors in the untenable position of having to choose between constant re-traumatisation and having to share a community with their abuser or losing their entire community.’

(Royal Australian Commission, 10/03/2017, 26536)

The practice of ‘shunning’ anyone, including a victim of child sexual abuse, who wishes to leave the Jehovah’s Witnesses was considered to be one of the most damaging practices. Great concern was also expressed over the practice of reproval, which allows a repentant perpetrator to remain within a congregation and consequently at risk of re-offending.’

(Australian Royal Commission, 10/03/2017, 26495)

The society has recently (March 2017) also been involved in a case in the Russian Supreme Court, where their activities have been banned due to being labelled an extremist organization (The Human Rights Watch, 2017, n.p). In the United Kingdom (UK), the charity commission for England and Wales launched a statutory inquiry into the society’s safeguarding policies (The Charity Commission, 2014, n.p. ). This current international interest may lead to further research regarding Jehovah’s Witnesses society being conducted.


The Jehovah’s Witnesses initially started as a loosely organised Bible study group, set up by Charles Taze Russell in the 1870s. Charles Taze Russell was raised Presbyterian but became disillusioned by his faith when he was unable to find explanations for certain doctrines of Protestantism. It was only after meeting a Second Day Adventist preacher, Jonas Wendell, that his interest in religion resurfaced. His interests were centred around the end of days, and he set out to study the events that would lead up to Armageddon, when, as he believed, Christ would resurrect the dead and establish his new kingdom of heaven and earth. Russell believed that he had found the true meaning of the Bible, which previously had been obscured by mainstream Christians. He initially spread the ‘truth’ he found in the scriptures through printed material, which led to groups of men joining him and together they were known as Bible students. In 1877, Russell and his Bible students started publishing the first periodicals, under which most notably the Zion’s Watch Tower and Herald of Christ’s Presence (since 1939 ‘The Watchtower’). Seven years later, in 1884, the Bible students established themselves as a legal entity – the Zion’s Watch Tower and Tract Society, later renamed to ‘Watch Tower Bible and Tract Society’. It was around that time when Russell and a small group of his students began their proselytizing travels, which led them to America, Europe, Russia and Japan. Russell soon started to send supporters and students overseas to establish international branches, the first of which was opened in London in 1900. Russell’s main influences visible in today’s group are his proselytizing activities worldwide and his usage of printed materials to spread his message. Russell died on October 31st, 1916 and was followed in leadership by Joseph Franklin Rutherford 1917. Rutherford’s work led to significant changes in the group many of which remain unchanged until today. Under Rutherford, a new magazine ‘The Golden Age’ was established (from 1937 known as Consolation and since 1946 as Awake!). He further introduced the door-to-door ministry, where ‘publishers’ and ‘pioneers’ would spread the ‘good news’ and encourage the public to join the group. Following Rutherford’s death, his successor Nathan Knorr established the Watchtower Bible School of Gilead, a missionary Academy, where Witnesses would not only be taught on Scriptural matters but also learn how to deliver sceptical talks to various audiences. During Knorr’s time, the Witnesses broadened their geographic scope by spreading beyond Anglophone countries. By the time of Knorr’s death in 1977, the society was already firmly established and solely little changes have taken place since, with his successors’ (Frederick W. Franz (1977–1992), Milton George Henschel (1992–2000), Don Alden Adams (2000–present)) focus being mainly on growing the society through attracting new members (Knox, 2011, p. 159 – 163).

From an organizational point of view, the society is highly centralized (Knox, 2011, p. 163; Australian Royal, 2016, p. 24687 – 24688). At the very top reside its president and the Governing Body. The Governing Body is based in the United States (US) and oversees the branches that exist worldwide. It is responsible for providing definitive spiritual guidance and developing the organizational policies. All countries, in which the society is operating, have individual branch offices, which are responsible for overseeing the national congregations (local communities of Witnesses). Congregations are made up of publishers (ordinary members), ministerial servants (practical assistance to the congregation) and Elders (responsible for spiritual matters). The position of ministerial servants and Elders are exclusive to men and is in line with the society’s’ strict patriarchal structure, with men at the head of the family and organisation.

Each Elder, upon being appointed, is provided with an internal handbook entitled ‘Shepherd and the Flock of God’ (2010). This handbook details Elders responsibilities in the congregation, with their main duty being spiritual guides to its members. Spiritual guidance includes assisting those members who are perceived as ‘spiritually weak’ since spiritual weakness is believed to be able to develop into bad trends that may lead to ‘disfellowshipping’; the society’s’ term for excommunication. The Watch Tower Bible and Tract Society stipulates a policy of shunning former members of the society. This also extends to former members who have left voluntarily, in other terms ‘disassociated’ themselves. Disassociation is regarded as an action taken by an individual member, who no longer wishes to be part of it. However, there are some instances where certain actions are treated as equal to voluntary disassociation, and the member will be shunned, regardless of whether the member wishes to be part of the society. The Elders’ handbook outlines the actions that are cause for disassociation. The following information on disfellowshipping policies and treatment of disfellowshipped members is based on literature from the Watch Tower Bible and Tract Society’s Elders’ handbook, the Society’s magazine ‘Awake!’ and the Watchtower. The Elders’ handbook is proclaimed by the society as reference material only intended for Elders of the congregation and distribution is strictly prohibited. A copy of this book has been given to the researcher by a participant. However, the handbook is also circulating online as former members have made it available to the public.

Reasons for disassociation include but are not limited to (The Watch Tower Bible and Tract Society, 2010, 111-112):

  • Making known a firm decision to be known no longer as one of Jehovah’s Witnesses
  • Joining another religious organisation and making known his intention to remain with it
  • Willingly and unrepentantly taking blood
  • Taking a course contrary to the neutral position of the Christian congregation (through joining or through employment with a non-neutral organisation)’

Contrary to disfellowshipping offences, where individual members have a right to appeal a Judicial’s Committee decision, individuals who have disassociated or are understood to have disassociated themselves through an action, as stated above, do not have this right. The Elders of the congregation will make an announcement at the next meeting to make other members aware that a member has left the society. The announcement is a way of letting active Witnesses know that this individual should no longer be associated with (The Watch Tower Bible and Tract Society, 2010, p. 112).

It is interesting to note that the society has not always disfellowshipped and shunned members who had committed doctrinal wrongdoings. In fact, in 1947, the ‘Awake!’ magazine described the practice of excommunication as being unfounded according to the Bible and argued that excommunication became a ‘weapon’, ‘by which the clergy attained a combination of ecclesiastical power and secular tyranny that finds no parallel in history’ (Awake!, 1947, p.27) It was only in 1952 that the society officially introduced disfellowshipping. The society argued that their decision came as a consequence of ‘moral corruption’ that, according to them, had been on the increase since World War Two.

‘During the years following World War II the moral corruption of the world began to reach frightful proportions. The possibility existed that God’s clean organization could become contaminated by such corruptive influences. But Jehovah was interested in his people, just as in times past, so through his channel of communication he lovingly brought forward information to counteract the filth that could tarnish or cause his people to become unholy.’

(Watchtower, 1976, p. 122).

Until recently, loopholes in the shunning policy have existed, making it possible for members to simply fade or drift from the society, without officially disassociation themselves. This meant that members who wanted to leave the congregation and did so without drawing attention to themselves were able to avoid being shunned. However, recent policy changes (Watchtower, 11/15, 2015, n.p) meant that inactive members are now being shunned too. In practice, these recent policy changes meant that people who became inactive several years, or even decades ago and who were still able to have contact with their families and friends, have had these relationship ties severed as a result. Thus, current shunning policies regulate that regardless of how members leave the society – disfellowshipped, disassociated, or inactive – they will be shunned as a consequence of doing so.


The Elders’ handbook (The Watch Tower Bible and Tract Society, 2010) provides a list of ‘offences’ (The Watch Tower Bible and Tract Society, 2010, 58), for which members may be disfellowshipped. The handbook states that the list provided is not exhaustive (The Watch Tower Bible and Tract Society, 2010, 59 – 71):


Attempted Suicide (In most cases a judicial hearing is not required)

Porneia (immoral use of the genitals. There must have been another party to the immorality – a human of either sex or a beast. Willing participation incurs guilt and requires judicial action)

Brazen conduct, loose conduct (not an exhaustive list: association with disfellowshipped, non-relatives sexual abuse, continuing to date or pursue a romantic relationship with a person thought not legally or scripturally free to marry)
Staying in the same house with a person of the opposite sex (or in the same house with a known homosexual) under improper circumstances (exceptions are unexpected emergency or extenuating circumstances)

Gross uncleanness, uncleanness with greediness (not exhaustive list: passion arousing heavy petting or caressing of breasts on numerous occasions between individuals not married to each other, practice of engaging in immoral conversation by telephone, in internet chat rooms, or through similar electronic means, an entrenched practice of viewing, perhaps for years, abhorrent forms of pornography that is sexually degrading, misuse of tobacco, extreme physical uncleanness)

Misuse of addictive drugs (use of addictive drugs under medical supervision would not necessarily require judicial review)

Apostasy (Celebrating false religious holidays, participation in interfaith activities, deliberately spreading teachings contrary to Bible truth as taught by Jehovah’s Witnesses, causing divisions and promoting sects, continuing in employment that makes one an accomplice to or a promoter of false worship, spiritism, idolatry)

Drunkenness (practice of drunkenness or a single incident of drunkenness that bring notoriety)

Gluttony (showing a lack of restraint. Gluttony is determined, not by someone’s size, but by his attitude toward food)

Stealing, thievery

Deliberate, malicious lying, bearing false witness

Fraud, slander

Reviling (involves ‘subjecting a person to insulting speech, heaping abuse upon him’)

Obscene speech (involves sexually explicit, filthy expressions, sexually explicit and persistent despite counsel both in written and in oral communication)

Greed – gambling, extortion (also employment directly involved with gambling)

Adamant refusal to provide materially for one’s own family, leaving wife and children destitute when having the means to provide (elders should consider the person’s financial means and whether the family is destitute, because they have rejected the family head’s provisions by choosing to live apart from him)

Fits of anger, violence (also includes professional boxing)

Exceptions to the above list include mental illnesses and cases where the ‘wrongdoer may have been a victim of some type of abuse in the past’. (The Watch Tower Bible and Tract Society, 2010, 94)


Before a Witness can be disfellowshipped, a Judicial Committee, an internal disciplinary board consisting of Elders from the relevant congregation, is formed to establish which sin, also referred to as ‘offense’, has been committed and whether the individual member is ‘genuinely repentant’ (The Watch Tower Bible and Tract Society, 2010, p. 38). If an individual member can prove that he/she is truly repentant for the sin he/she committed, he/she may be forgiven. As a disciplinary consequence, repentant Witnesses will still have special privileges removed, referred to as ‘judicial reproof’. Special privileges include: ‘Pioneering, offering prayer, sharing in service meeting, until he has made further spiritual progress. Judicial restriction: not commenting at congregation meetings and not giving student talks in the Theocratic Ministry School.’ (The Watch Tower Bible and Tract Society, 2010, p. 97).

In the case of a ‘judicial reproof’, the body of Elders will decide whether an announcement should be made to the congregation. An announcement is a way of letting the congregation know that a member has committed an ‘offence’ and is currently working on being fully integrated into the congregation again.

If an individual, who has committed a disfellowshipping offence, is unable to prove that he/she is ‘genuinely repentant’, the individual may be disfellowshipped. Elders are directed, via the Handbook (The Watch Tower Bible and Tract Society, 2010, p. 100), to be kind and reassuring with the individual member and to remind him/her that forgiveness (reinstatement) is possible. Elders are also required to inform disfellowshipped individuals that they have a right to appeal the process. The appeal is then heard by another Body of Elders, usually from a different congregation. The appeal Body of Elders will re-establish that a disfellowshipping ‘offence’ has been committed and examine whether the individual member was ‘genuinely repentant’ at the time of the original Judicial Committee. If the appeal committee comes to a different conclusion, they are ought to send a letter to the branch office for further direction. The appeal committee should not inform the individual member that it disagrees with the original committee’s decision.

If the committee decides to disfellowship an individual member, an announcement to the congregation will be made at the next meeting. The announcement is a way of letting the congregation know that a person has committed a disfellowshipping offence and is no longer a member of the congregation, meaning that the member should no longer be associated with. This announcement takes the following format (The Watch Tower Bible and Tract Society, 2010, p. 112):

‘[name of person], is no longer one of Jehovah’s Witnesses’

Disfellowshipping, according to the Elders’ handbook, is not a permanent condition. Individual members who have been disfellowshipped may be re-instated in the future, provided they can prove ‘genuine repentance’. The Handbook provides a list of actions that may be indicative of someone who is ‘genuinely repentant’, such as voluntary confession, truthfulness, praying to Jehovah for forgiveness, apologizing to offended ones, showing sadness about hurting Jehovah, accepting responsibility etc. (The Watch Tower Bible and Tract Society, 2010, p. 91).

The disfellowshipped member, who wishes to be reinstated, is given the opportunity to prepare a written statement to demonstrate his repentance and proof the positive actions she/he has taken since being disfellowshipped. The Elders’ Handbook is vague on the time frame for reinstatement, referring to it as ‘sufficient time’: ‘perhaps many months, a year, or even longer’ (The Watch Tower Bible and Tract Society, 2010, p. 119).


Several Watch Tower and Bible Tract Society resources offer instructions on how to treat shunned members. For example, the Elders’ handbook ‘Shepherd the Flock of God’ (The Watch Tower Bible and Tract Society, 2010, p. 116) outlines how members should treat disassociated and disfellowshipped members:

‘There should be no fraternizing or conversing with the disfellowshipped or disassociated person’

Members also must abstain from having ‘undue association with disfellowshipped or disassociated relatives who are not in the household’ (The Watch Tower Bible and Tract Society, 2010, p. 116). Having a ‘persistent spiritual association’ with the disassociated or disfellowshipped member, ‘or openly criticizing the disfellowshipping decision’, may lead to a disciplinary action being taken against that individual member. The Watch Tower Bible and Tract Society’s magazines ‘Awake!’ and ‘The Watchtower’ offer further guidance on how members are ought to treat disassociated or disfellowshipped members:

‘… a simple ‘Hello’ to someone can be the first step that develops into a conversation and maybe even a friendship. Would we want to take that first step with a disfellowshipped person?’

(Watchtower, 1981, p.25)

The society uses various reasons to justify their decision to shun disassociated or disfellowshipped members. The society refers to disfellowshipping as a ‘loving provision’ (Watchtower, 2015, p.29)

‘By cutting off contact with the disfellowshipped or disassociated one, you are showing that you hate the attitudes and actions that led to that outcome. However, you are also showing that you love the wrongdoer enough to do what is best for him or her. Your loyalty to Jehovah may increase the likelihood that the disciplined one will repent and return to Jehovah.’

(Watchtower, 2011, p. 32)

‘Cooperating with the Scriptural arrangement to disfellowship and shun unrepentant wrongdoers is beneficial. It preserves the cleanness of the congregation and distinguishes us as upholders of the Bible’s high moral standards. (1 Pet. 1:14-16) It protects us from corrupting influences. (Gal. 5:7-9) It also affords the wrongdoer an opportunity to benefit fully from the discipline received.

(Kingdom Ministry, 2002, p. 3)

‘We might wonder, then, since this congregation which God is developing or bringing into existence is based on love, why anyone should ever want to talk about disfellowshipping or putting people out of this congregation. There certainly must be some reason. Well, the reason for disfellowshipping is that some persons get into this congregation of God that do not love Christ. Those who are acquainted with the situation in the congregation should never say Hello or Goodbye to him. He is not welcome in our midst, we avoid him. Such an individual has no place in the clean organization or congregation of God. He should go back to the wicked group that he once came from and die with that wicked group with Satan’s organization.’

(Watchtower, 1952, p. 131)

Having ‘unnecessary association’ is not limited to face-to-face encounters. The shunning policy has been adapted to encompass technological advances:

‘Really, what your beloved family member needs to see is your resolute stance to put Jehovah above everything else – including the family bond. […] Do not look for excuses to associate with a disfellowshipped family member, for example, through e-mail.’ (

Watchtower, 2013, p. 16)

Members must put Jehovah first, and this includes breaking ties with close relatives, such as children:

‘But what will those dear parents do? Will they obey Jehovah’s clear direction? Or will they rationalize that they can have regular association with the disfellowshipped son and call it ‘necessary family business’? In making their decision, they must not fail to consider how Jehovah feels about what they are doing. […] Today, Jehovah does not immediately execute those who violate his laws. He lovingly gives them an opportunity to repent from their unrighteous works. How would Jehovah feel, though, if the parents of an unrepentant wrongdoer kept putting Him to the test by having unnecessary association with their disfellowshipped son or daughter?’

(Watchtower, 2011, p. 31-32)

An exception to shunning close relatives is permitted, if the person is living in the same household, such as children or partner:

‘If the child is a minor and is living at home, you will naturally continue to take care of his physical needs. He also requires moral training and discipline, and you have the responsibility to provide these.’

(Watchtower, 2007, p. 20)

‘Thus, a man who is disfellowshipped or who disassociates himself may still live at home with his Christian wife and faithful children. The situation is different if the disfellowshipped or disassociated one is a relative living outside the immediate family circle and home. It might be possible to have almost no contact at all with the relative.’

(Watchtower, 1988, p. 27)

The Watch Tower Bible and Tract Society does not only require of its members to shun former members, but to actively hate them:

‘Jesus encouraged his followers to love their enemies, but God’s Word also says to “hate what is bad”. When a person persists in a way of badness after knowing what is right, when the bad becomes so ingrained that it is an inseparable part of his makeup, then in order to hate what is bad a Christian must hate the person with whom the badness is inseparably linked.’

(Watchtower, 1961, p. 420)

It is difficult to estimate how many people are affected by this policy. This difficulty arises from several angles: The Watch Tower Bible and Tract Society does not keep statistics on how many members disassociate, are disfellowshipped or become inactive. The society does, however, publish annual statistics on the number of active members (publishers) and of new members (baptisms). By subtracting the amount of currently active publishers from the total amount of members (newly baptized and already active) of the previous year, we derive a number of Witnesses that are ‘missing’ from the annual statistics. ‘Missing’ does not equal disfellowshipped but also includes members who have been disassociated or become inactive. Furthermore, the number of ‘missing’ Witnesses does not account for a mortality rate. It also does not account for former members being reinstated. Moreover, the society does not specify how they arrive at the numbers presented in the annual statistics; it is, therefore, uncertain how reliable the society’s’ statistical data are in the first place. Putting these limitations aside, we arrive at a number of 1,451,737 ‘missing’ Witnesses between the years 2000-2016. It is also crucial, to keep in mind that it was not until 2015, that the congregation shunned inactive members. Therefore, the number of missing members does not necessarily equal the amount of shunned members. For the annual reports on membership as provided by The Watch Tower Bible and Tract Society for the years 2000 to 2016 see Worldwide report Grand Totals for each year on the Jehovah’s Witnesses official website. (https://www.jw.org/en/)

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