There are few topics that will provoke stronger emotions among members and former members of the Organization of Jehovah’s Witnesses than that of disfellowshipping. Proponents defend it as a scriptural process intended to discipline the erring one and keep the congregation both clean and protected. Opponents claim is it often misused as a weapon to get rid of dissenters and enforce compliance.
Could they both be right?
You may wonder why I should choose to open an article on disfellowshipping with a quotation from Micah 6:8. As I researched this topic, I began to see how complex and far-reaching are its implications. It is easy to get mired in such confusing and emotionally charged issue. Yet, truth is simple. It’s power comes from that simplicity. Even when the issues seem complex, they always rest on the simple foundation of truth. Micah, in just a handful of inspired words, beautifully sums up the whole obligation of man. Viewing this issue through the lens he provides will help us cut through the obscuring clouds of false teaching and get to the heart of the matter.
Three things God is asking back from us. Each one bears on the issue of disfellowshipping.
So in this post, we will look at the first of these three: The Proper Exercise Of Justice.
The Exercise of Justice Under the Mosaic Law Code
When Jehovah first called a nation unto himself, he gave them a set of laws. This law code made allowance for their nature, for they were a stiff-necked lot. (Exodus 32:9) For example, the law provided protection and just treatment for slaves, but it didn’t eliminate slavery. It also allowed men to have multiple wives. Still, the intention was to bring them to the Christ, much like a tutor conveys his young charge to the teacher. (Gal. 3:24) Under Christ, they were to receive the perfect law.[i] Still, we can get some idea of Jehovah’s view of the exercise of justice from the Mosaic law code.
it-1 p. 518 Court, Judicial
The local court was situated at the gate of a city. (De 16:18; 21:19; 22:15, 24; 25:7; Ru 4:1) By “gate” is meant the open space inside the city near the gate. The gates were places where the Law was read to the congregated people and where ordinances were proclaimed. (Ne 8:1-3) At the gate it was easy to acquire witnesses to a civil matter, such as property sales, and so forth, as most persons would go in and out of the gate during the day. Also, the publicity that would be afforded any trial at the gate would tend to influence the judges toward care and justice in the trial proceedings and in their decisions. Evidently there was a place provided near the gate where the judges could comfortably preside. (Job 29:7) Samuel traveled in a circuit of Bethel, Gilgal, and Mizpah and “judged Israel at all these places,” as well as at Ramah, where his house was located.—1Sa 7:16, 17. [Italics added]
The older men [elders] sat at the gate of the city and the cases they presided over were public, witnessed by anyone who happened to be passing by. The prophet Samuel also judged at the city gate. You may think this only has to do with civil matters, but consider the issue of apostasy as related at Deuteronomy 17:2-7.
“In case there should be found in your midst in one of your cities that Jehovah your God is giving you a man or a woman who should practice what is bad in the eyes of Jehovah your God so as to overstep his covenant, 3 and he should go and worship other gods and bow down to them or to the sun or the moon or all the army of the heavens, a thing that I have not commanded, 4 and it has been told you and you have heard it and have searched thoroughly, and, look! the thing is established as the truth, this detestable thing has been done in Israel! 5 you must also bring that man or that woman who has done this bad thing out to your gates, yes, the man or the woman, and you must stone such one with stones, and such one must die. 6 At the mouth of two witnesses or of three witnesses the one dying should be put to death. He will not be put to death at the mouth of one witness. 7 The hand of the witnesses first of all should come upon him to put him to death, and the hand of all the people afterward; and you must clear out what is bad from your midst. [Italics added]
There is no indication that the older men judged this man in private, keeping the names of the witnesses secret for the sake of confidentiality, then brought him to the people so they could stone him on the word of the older men alone. No, the witnesses were there and presented their evidence and were also required to throw the first stone before all the people. Then all the people would do likewise. We can easily imagine the injustices that would have been possible if Jehovah’s law provided for secret judicial proceedings, making the judges answerable to no one.
Let us look at one more example to drive our point home.
“In case a man happens to have a son who is stubborn and rebellious, he not listening to the voice of his father or the voice of his mother, and they have corrected him but he will not listen to them, 19 his father and his mother must also take hold of him and bring him out to the older men of his city and to the gate of his place, 20 and they must say to the older men of his city, ‘This son of ours is stubborn and rebellious; he is not listening to our voice, being a glutton and a drunkard.’ 21 Then all the men of his city must pelt him with stones, and he must die. So you must clear away what is bad from your midst, and all Israel will hear and indeed become afraid.” (Deuteronomy 21:18-21) [Italics added]
It is clear that when dealing with issues involving the death penalty under Israelite law the case was heard publicly—at the city gates.
The Exercise of Justice Under the Law of the Christ
Since the law code of Moses was a mere tutor bringing us to Christ, we can expect that the exercise of justice would achieve its highest form under the kingship of Jesus.
Christians are counseled to resolve issues internally, not relying on secular courts. The reasoning is that we will judge the world and even angels, so how could we then go before law courts to settle matters between ourselves. (1 Cor. 6:1-6)
However, how were early Christians intended to deal with wrongdoing that threatened the congregation? There are very few examples in the Christian Scriptures to guide us. (Considering how big and complex our entire judicial system has become, it is most telling that the Scriptures offer so very little guidance on the subject.) Jesus’ law is based on principles not an extensive code of laws. Extensive law codes are a characteristic of independent Pharisaical thinking. Still, we can glean much from what does exist. Take for example the case of a notorious fornicator in the Corinthian congregation.
“Actually fornication is reported among YOU, and such fornication as is not even among the nations, that a wife a certain [man] has of [his] father. 2 And are YOU puffed up, and did YOU not rather mourn, in order that the man that committed this deed should be taken away from YOUR midst? 3 I for one, although absent in body but present in spirit, have certainly judged already, as if I were present, the man who has worked in such a way as this, 4 that in the name of our Lord Jesus, when YOU are gathered together, also my spirit with the power of our Lord Jesus, 5 YOU hand such a man over to Satan for the destruction of the flesh, in order that the spirit may be saved in the day of the Lord… 11 But now I am writing YOU to quit mixing in company with anyone called a brother that is a fornicator or a greedy person or an idolater or a reviler or a drunkard or an extortioner, not even eating with such a man. 12 For what do I have to do with judging those outside? Do YOU not judge those inside, 13 while God judges those outside? “Remove the wicked [man] from among yourselves.” (1 Corinthians 5:1-5; 11-13)
To whom is this counsel written? To the body of elders of the Corinthian congregation? No, it was written to all the Christians in Corinth. All were to judge the man and all were to take the appropriate action. Paul, writing under inspiration, makes no mention of special judicial proceedings. Why would such be needed. The congregation members knew what was going on and they knew God’s law. As we’ve just seen—as Paul points out in the very next chapter—Christians were going to judge the world. Therefore, all have to develop the ability to judge. No provision is made for a judge class or a lawyer class or a police class. They knew what fornication was. They knew it was wrong. They knew this man was committing it. Therefore, all knew what they were supposed to do. However, they were failing to act. So Paul counseled them—not to look to someone in authority to decide for them, but to take their Christian responsibility upon themselves and rebuke the man as a collective.
In a similar vein, Jesus gave us direction on the exercise of justice when it pertained to personal offenses like fraud or slander.
“Moreover, if your brother commits a sin, go lay bare his fault between you and him alone. If he listens to you, you have gained your brother. 16 But if he does not listen, take along with you one or two more, in order that at the mouth of two or three witnesses every matter may be established. 17 If he does not listen to them, speak to the congregation. If he does not listen even to the congregation, let him be to you just as a man of the nations and as a tax collector.” (Matthew 18:15-17) [Italics added]
There is nothing here about a committee of three or more older men meeting in secret. No, Jesus says that if the first two steps—taken in confidence, in private—failed, then the congregation gets involved. It is the entire congregation that must render judgment and deal appropriately with the offender.
How could this be accomplished you may say. Wouldn’t that result in chaos? Well, consider that the making of congregation law—legislation—was performed with the involvement of the entire Jerusalem congregation.
”At that the entire multitude became silent… Then the apostles and the older men together with the whole congregation…” (Acts 15:12, 22)
We must trust the power of the spirit. How can it lead us, how can it speak through us as a congregation, if we stifle it with man-made rules and surrender our right to decide to the will of others?
Apostasy and the Exercise of Justice
How are we to exercise justice when dealing with apostasy? Here are three commonly cited scriptures. As you read them, ask yourself, “To whom is this counsel directed?”
“As for a man that promotes a sect, reject him after a first and a second admonition; 11 knowing that such a man has been turned out of the way and is sinning, he being self-condemned. “ (Titus 3:10, 11)
“But now I am writing YOU to quit mixing in company with anyone called a brother that is a fornicator or a greedy person or an idolater or a reviler or a drunkard or an extortioner, not even eating with such a man.” (1 Corinthians 5:11)
“Everyone that pushes ahead and does not remain in the teaching of the Christ does not have God. He that does remain in this teaching is the one that has both the Father and the Son. 10 If anyone comes to YOU and does not bring this teaching, never receive him into YOUR homes or say a greeting to him. “(2 John 9, 10)
Is this counsel directed to a judicial class within the congregation? Of is it directed to all Christians? There is no indication that the counsel to “reject him”, or to “quit mixing in company” with him, or to “never receive him” or “say a greeting to him” is achieved by waiting for someone in authority over us to tell us what to do. This direction is intended for all mature Christians whose “perceptive powers [have been trained] to distinguish both right and wrong. (Heb. 5:14)
We know what a fornicator or an idolater or a drunkard or a prompter of sects or an teacher of apostate ideas is and how he acts. His conduct speaks for itself. Once we know these things, we will obediently cease associating with him.
In summary, the exercise of justice under both the Mosaic law and the law of the Christ is done openly and publicly, and it requires all involved to make a personal determination and act accordingly.
The Exercise of Justice in Christian Nations
The record of the nations of the world is far from untarnished with regard to the righteous exercise of justice. Still, the belief in the Bible and the influence of Christ’s law has provided many legal safeguards in nations professing Christianity against the abuse of power by those in authority. Certainly, we all acknowledge the protection afforded us by the legal right to a fair and impartial public hearing before one’s peers. We acknowledge the justice in allowing a man to face his accusers with the right to cross-examine them. (Pro. 18:17) We acknowledge the right for a man to prepare a defense and to know fully what charges are being brought against him without being blindsided by concealed attacks. This is part of the process called “discovery”.
It is clear that anyone in a civilized land would quickly condemn a secret trial where a man is denied the right to know all the charges and witnesses against him until the moment of the trial. We would likewise condemn any trail where a man is not given time to prepare a defense, to gather witnesses on his behalf, to have friends and advisors to both observe and counsel and to bear witness as to the legality and fairness of the proceedings. We would consider such a court and legal system to be draconian, and would expect to find it in a land ruled by a tin pot dictator where citizens have no rights. Such a justice system would be anathema to the civilized man; having more to do with lawlessness than law.
Speaking of lawlessness….
The Exercise of Justice Under the Man of Lawlessness
Unfortunately, such a lawless system of justice is not uncommon in history. It existed in Jesus` day. There was already a man of lawlessness at work then. Jesus referred to the scribes and Pharisees as men “full of hypocrisy and lawlessness”. (Mat. 23:28) These men who prided themselves on upholding the law were quick to abuse it when it suited the purpose of protecting their position and authority. They hauled Jesus off at night without a formal accusation, nor the chance to prepare a defense, nor the opportunity to present witnesses in his behalf. They judged him in secret and condemned him in secret, then brought him before the people using the weight of their authority to persuade the people to join in the condemnation of the righteous one.
Why did the Pharisees judge Jesus secretly? Simply put, because they were children of darkness and the darkness cannot survive the light.
“Jesus then said to the chief priests and captains of the temple and older men that had come there for him: “Did YOU come out with swords and clubs as against a robber? 53 While I was with YOU in the temple day after day YOU did not stretch out YOUR hands against me. But this is YOUR hour and the authority of darkness.” (Luke 22:52, 53)
Truth was not on their side. They could find no pretext in God’s law to condemn Jesus, so they had to invent one; one that wouldn’t stand the light of day. The secrecy would allow them to judge and condemn, then present a fait accompli to the public. They would denounce him before the people; label him a blasphemer and use the weight of their authority and the punishment they could wield on dissenters to win the support of the people.
Sadly, the man of lawlessness did not pass away with the destruction of Jerusalem and of the judicial system that condemned the Christ. It was prophesied that after the death of the apostles, the “man of lawlessness” and the “son of destruction” would again assert himself, this time within the Christian Congregation. Like the Pharisees before him, this metaphorical man ignored the proper exercise of justice as laid down in the Holy Scriptures.
For centuries, secret trials have been used in Christendom to protect the power and authority of Church leaders and to quell independent thinking and the exercise of Christian Freedom; even down to prohibiting the reading of the Bible. We may think of the Spanish Inquisition, but it is only one of the more notorious examples of a centuries-long abuse of power.
What Characterizes a Secret Trial?
A secret trial is a trial that goes beyond merely excluding the public. To work best, the public should not even be aware there is such a trial. Secret trials are noted for not keeping a written record of the proceedings. If a record is kept, it is kept secret and never released to the public. Often there is no indictment, the accused is usually denied counsel and representation. Often the accused it given little or no warning prior to the trial and is unaware of the evidence against him until confronted with it in court. Thus he is blindsided by the weight and nature of the accusations and kept off balance so as not to be able to mount a credible defense.
The term, Star Chamber, has come to represent the concept of a secret court or trial. This is a court which is accountable to no one and which is used to suppress dissent.
The Exercise of Justice in the Organization of Jehovah’s Witnesses
Given that there is ample evidence in Scripture on how judicial matters are to be handled, and given that these Bible principles have guided even worldly lawmakers in setting up modern systems of jurisprudence, it would be expected that Jehovah’s Witnesses, who claim to be the only true Christians, would exhibit the world’s highest standard of scriptural justice. We would expect the people who proudly bear Jehovah’s name to be a shining example to all in Christendom of the proper, godly exercise of justice.
With that in mind, let’s examine some of the direction given to congregation elders when judicial matters are to be undertaken. This information comes from a book given only to elders, titled Shepherd the Flock of God. We will be quoting from this book using its symbol, ks10-E.[ii]
When there is a grave sin, such as fornication, idolatry, or apostasy, a judicial proceeding is called for. A committee of three elders[iii] is formed.
No announcement of any kind is made that there is to be a hearing. Only the accused is notified and invited to attend. From ks10-E p. 82-84 we have the following:
[all italics and boldface taken from ks book. Highlights in red added.]
6. It is best for two elders to invite him orally.
7. If circumstance permit, hold the hearing at the Kingdom hall. This theocratic setting will put all in a more respectful frame of mind; it will also help to ensure greater confidentiality for the proceedings.
12. If the accused is a married brother, his wife would normally not attend the hearing. However, if the husband wants his wife to be present, she may attend a portion of the hearing. The judicial committee should maintain confidentiality.
14. …However, if the accused living in his parent’s home has recently become an adult and the parents ask to be present and the accused has no objection, the judicial committee may decide to allow them to attend a portion of the hearing.
18. If a member of the media or an attorney representing the accused contacts the elders, they should not give him any information about the case or verify that there is a judicial committee. Rather, they should give the following explanation: “The spiritual and physical welfare of Jehovah’s Witnesses is of paramount concern to the elders, who have been appointed to ‘shepherd the flock.’ The elders extend this shepherding confidentially. Confidential shepherding makes it easier for those who seek the elders’ help to do so without worrying that what they say to the elders will be divulged later. Consequently, we do not comment on whether elders are currently or have formerly met to assist any member of the congregation.”
From the above, it is made to appear that the only reason for maintaining confidentiality is to protect the privacy of the accused. However, if that were the case, why would the elders refuse to admit even the existence of a judicial committee to an attorney representing the accused. Clearly the attorney has attorney/client privilege and is being asked by the accused to gather information. How are the elders protecting the confidentiality of the accused in a case where the accused is the one making the inquiry?
You will also notice that even when others are allowed to attend it is only when there are special circumstances, such as a husband asking his wife to be present or the parents of a child still living at home. Even in these circumstance, the observers are only allowed to attend a portion of the hearing and even that is done at the discretion of the elders.
If confidentiality is to protect the rights of the accused, what about his right to waive confidentiality? If the accused wishes others present, should that not be his decision to make? To deny access to others indicates that it is the confidentiality or privacy of the elders which is really being protected. As proof of this statement, consider this from ks10-E p. 90:
3. Hear only those witnesses who have relevant testimony regarding the alleged wrongdoing. Those who intend to testify only about the character of the accused should not be allowed to do so. The witnesses should not hear details and testimony of other witnesses. Observers should not be present for moral support. Recording devices should not be allowed.
Everything that is said in a worldly court of law is recorded.[iv] The public can attend. Friends can attend. Everything is open and above board. Why is this not so in the congregation of those bearing Jehovah’s name and claiming to be the only true Christians left on earth. Why is the exercise of justice in Caesar’s courts of a higher order than in our own?
Do We Engage in Star Chamber Justice?
The majority of judicial cases involve sexual immorality. There is a clear scriptural need to keep the congregation clean of individuals who unrepentantly engage in sexual immorality. Some may even be sexual predators, and the elders have a responsibility to protect the flock. What is being challenged here is not the right nor duty of the congregation to exercise justice, but the way it is carried out. For Jehovah, and therefore for his people, the end can never justify the means. Both the end and the means must be holy, because Jehovah is holy. (1 Peter 1:14)
There is a time when confidentiality is preferred—is a loving provision even. A man who confesses a sin may not want others to know about it. He may benefit from the assistance of elders who can counsel him in private and help him back on the course to righteousness.
However, what if there is a case where the accused feels he is being abused by those in power or misjudged by some in authority who might have a grudge against him? In such a case, confidentiality becomes a weapon. The accused should have the right to a public trial if he wishes it. There is no basis for extending the protection of confidentiality to those who sit in judgment. There is no provision in holy Scripture for protecting the privacy of those sitting in judgment. Quite the opposite. As Insight on the Scriptures states, “…the publicity that would be afforded any trial at the gate [i.e., in public] would tend to influence the judges toward care and justice in the trial proceedings and in their decisions.” (it-1 p. 518)
The abuse of our system becomes evident when dealing with individuals who tend to hold a view that differs from that of the Governing Body on scriptural interpretation. For example, there have been cases—some now famous among Jehovah’s Witnesses—of individuals who came to believe that Christ’s presence in 1914 is a false teaching. These individuals shared this understanding privately with friends, but did not make is widely known nor did they go about prompting their own belief among the brotherhood. Still, this was viewed as apostasy.
A public hearing where all could attend would require that the committee present scriptural proof that the “apostate” was wrong. After all, the Bible commands us to “reprove before all onlookers persons who practice sin…” (1 Timothy 5:20) Reprove means to “prove again”. However, a committee of elders would not want to be in a position where they had to “prove again” a teaching like 1914 before all onlookers. Like the Pharisees that secretly arrested and tried Jesus, their position would be tenuous and would not hold up well to public scrutiny. So the solution is to hold a secret hearing, deny the accused any observers, and deny him the right to a reasoned scriptural defense. The only thing the elders want to know in cases like this is whether or not the accused is willing to recant. They are not there to argue the point nor to reprove him, because frankly, they can’t.
If the accused refuses to recant because he feels to do so would be to deny the truth and therefore views the matter as a question of personal integrity, the committee will disfellowship. What follows will come as a surprise to the congregation which will be unaware of the goings-on. A simple announcement will be made that “Brother so-and-so is no longer a member of the Christian congregation.” The brothers will not know why and will not be permitted to inquire on the grounds of confidentiality. Like the crowds that condemned Jesus, these faithful Witnesses will only be allowed to believe that they are doing God’s will by complying with the direction of the local elders and will cut off all association with the “wrongdoer.” If they do not do so, they will be hauled in to a secret trial of their own and their names may be the next ones read out at the Service Meeting.
This is precisely how and why secret tribunals are used. They become a means for an authority structure or hierarchy to preserve its hold over people.
Our official means of exercising justice—all these rules and proceedings—do not originate from the Bible. There is not a single scripture that supports our complex judicial process. All of this comes from direction that is kept secret from the rank and file and which originates from the Governing Body. Despite this, we have the temerity to make this claim in our current study issue of The Watchtower:
“The only authority that Christian overseers have comes from the Scriptures.” (w13 11/15 p. 28 par. 12)
How Will You Exercise Justice?
Let us imagine being back in Samuel’s day. You have been standing at the city gate enjoying the day when a group of city elders approaches dragging a woman with them. One of them stands up and proclaims that they have judged this woman and found she has committed a sin and must be stoned.
“When did this judgment take place?” you ask. “I have been here all day and have seen no judicial case presented.”
They reply, “It was done last night in secret for reasons of confidentiality. This is now the direction God is giving us.”
“But what crime has this woman committed?” you ask.
“That is not for you to know”, comes the reply.
Astonished at this remark, you ask, “But what is the evidence against her? Where are the witnesses?”
They answer, “For reasons of confidentiality, to protect the privacy rights of this woman, we are not allowed to tell you that.”
Just then, the woman speaks up. “That’s okay. I want them to know. I want them to hear everything, because I am innocent.”
“How dare you”, the elders say rebukingly. “You have no right to speak anymore. You must be silent. You have been judged by those whom Jehovah has appointed.”
Then they turn to the crowd and declare, “We are not allowed to tell you more for reasons of confidentiality. This is for the protection of all. This is for the protection of the accused. It is a loving provision. Now everyone, pick up stones and kill this woman.”
“I will not!” you cry out. “Not until I hear for myself what she has done.”
At that they turn their gaze on you, and proclaim, “If you do not obey those whom God has appointed to shepherd you and protect you, then you are rebellious and causing division and disunity. You will also be taken into our secret court and judged. Obey, or you will share the fate of this woman!”
What would you do?
Make no mistake. This is a test of integrity. This is one of those defining moments in life. You were simply minding your own business, enjoying the day, when suddenly you are being called upon to kill someone. Now you are in a life-and-death situation yourself. Obey the men and kill the woman, possibly condemning yourself to death by God in retribution, or refrain from participating and suffer the same fate as she. You might reason, Maybe they are right. For all I know the woman is an idolater or a spirit medium. Then again, maybe she really is innocent.
What would you do? Would you put your trust in nobles and the son of earthling man,[v] or would you recognize that the men had not followed Jehovah’s law in the way they exercised their brand of justice, and therefore, you could not obey them without enabling them in a disobedient course of action? Whether the end result was just or not, you could not know. But you would know that the means to that end followed a course of disobedience to Jehovah, so any fruit produced would be fruit of the poisonous tree, so to speak.
Bring this little drama forward to the present day and it is an accurate description of how we handle judicial matters in the Organization of Jehovah’s Witnesses. As a modern Christian, you would never allow yourself to be persuaded to kill someone. However, is physically killing someone worse than killing them spiritually? Is it worse to kill the body or to kill the soul? (Matthew 10:28)
Jesus was lawlessly disfellowshipped and the crowd, stirred up by the scribes and Pharisees and older men in authority, shouted for his death. Because they obeyed men, they were blood guilty. They needed to repent to be saved. (Acts 2:37,38) There are those who should be disfellowshipped—no question. However, many have been wrongly disfellowshipped and some have stumbled and lost their faith because of the abuse of power. A millstone awaits the unrepentant abuser. (Matthew 18:6) When the day comes that we have to stand before our Maker, do you think he’ll buy the excuse, “I was just following orders?”
Some who read this will think I am calling for rebellion. I am not. I am calling for obedience. We must obey God as ruler rather than men. (Acts 5:29) If obeying God means rebelling against men, then where are the T-shirts. I’ll buy me a dozen.
It is clear from the foregoing that when it comes to the first of the three requirements Jehovah asks of us as revealed through the prophet Micah—to exercise justice—we, the Organization of Jehovah’s Witnesses, have fallen far short of God’s righteous standard.
What about the other two requirements Micah spoke of, ‘to love kindness’ and ‘to be modest in walking with our God’. We will examine how these impact the issue of disfellowshipping in a future post.
To view the next article in this series, click here.
[i] I will not presume to say that we have the complete law for humans. Only that the law of the Christ is the best law for us under the present system of things, given that he has made allowances for our imperfect human nature. Whether the law will be expanded once humans are sinless is a question for another time.
[ii] Some have referred to this book as a secret book. The Organization counters that like any institution, it has a right to its confidential correspondence. That is true, but we are not talking about internal business processes and policies. We are talking about law. Secret laws and secret law books have no place in a civilized society; especially do they have no place in a religion based on the public law of God made available to all mankind in his Word, the Bible.
[iii] Four or five may be needed for unusually difficult or complicated cases, though these are quite rare.
[iv] We have learned much about the inner workings of our Organization from public transcripts of trials involving high ranking officials whose testimony was given under oath and is part of the public record. (Mark 4:21, 22)
[v] Ps. 146:3