He has told you, O earthling man, what is good. And what is Jehovah asking back from you but to exercise justice and to love kindness and to be modest in walking with your God? – Micah 6:8

According to the Insight book, Modesty is “an awareness of one’s limitations; also chastity or personal purity. The Hebrew root verb tsa·naʽ′ is rendered “be modest” in Micah 6:8, its only occurrence. The related adjective tsa·nu′aʽ (modest) occurs in Proverbs 11:2, where it is contrasted with presumptuousness.”[1]

The fact that tsana is contrasted with presumptuousness at Proverbs 11:2 indicates that this awareness of one’s limitations is not confined to the boundaries imposed by our human nature, but also those imposed by God. To be modest in walking with God is to recognize our place before Him.  It means keeping in step with Him, recognizing that running ahead is as bad as falling behind.  In accordance with the authority which God has granted us, we should use it to the fullest potential without either abusing it or failing to use it when action is called for.  The person who says, “I can’t do that” when he can is just as immodest as the one who says “I can do that” when he can’t.

Applying Micah 6:8

One of the most controversial practices of the Organization of Jehovah’s Witnesses is that of disfellowshipping.  In discussing the various aspects of this policy, I came to realize that the simple requirements of Jehovah laid down in Micah 6:8 for all his subjects could be used to throw much light on the subject.  In this, the third installment,[2] I was planning on reviewing in detail the policies and practices of our judicial system to see if and how they conform to Scripture.  The result was a very negative article because frankly, they don’t.  It does little good to simply criticise, to highlight the imperfections in another, unless you are also willing to offer up a solution.  Yet in this matter, it is not for me to provide a solution. That would be most immodest, because the solution has always been there, right in God’s word.  All that is required is for us to see it.  However, that may not be as easy at is sounds.

Avoiding Bias

The motto of this site is “Striving for unbiased Bible research”.  This is no small goal.  Bias is very difficult to eradicate.  It comes in various disguises: Prejudice, preconceptions, traditions, even personal preference.  It is hard to avoid the trap Peter referred to of believing what we want to believe rather than what is in front of our eyes.[3]   As I researched this topic, I found that even when I thought I had eliminated these negative influences, I found them creeping back in.  To be honest, I cannot even now be sure I’m completely free of them, but it is my hope that you, gentle reader, will help me to identify any that survived my purge.

Disfellowshipping and Christian Modesty

The words “disfellowshipping” and “disassociation” do not appear in the Bible.  For that matter, neither do related words used by other Christian denominations such as “excommunication”, “shunning”,  “ostracising” and “expelling”.  Nevertheless, there is direction in the Christian Scriptures intended to protect the congregation and the individual Christian from a corrupting influence.

As it pertains to this subject, if we are “to be modest in walking with our God”, we have to know where the limits are.  These are not only limits which Jehovah—or more precisely for the Christian—which Jesus has placed via his legal instructions, but also limits imposed by the nature of imperfect humankind.

We know that men should not rule men, for it does not belong to man “even to direct his step.”[4]  Likewise, we cannot see into the heart of a man so as to judge his motivation.  All we are really capable of judging are the actions of an individual and even there we must tread carefully so as not to misjudge and sin ourselves.

Jesus would not set us up to fail. Therefore, any instruction he gives us on this topic would have to fall within our grasp.

Categories of Sin

Before we  get into the nitty-gritty, let it be understood that we are going to be dealing with three distinct categories of sin.  The proof of this will be provided as we go along, but for now let’s establish that there are sins of a personal nature that don’t lead to disfellowshipping; sins which are more serious and may lead to disfellowshipping; and finally, sins which are criminal, that is sins where Caesar gets involved.

Disfellowshipping—Handling Sins of a Criminal Nature

Let us handle this one up front, since it could cloud the rest of our discussion if we don’t get it out of the way up first.

(Romans 13:1-4) . . .Let every person be in subjection to the superior authorities, for there is no authority except by God; the existing authorities stand placed in their relative positions by God. 2 Therefore, whoever opposes the authority has taken a stand against the arrangement of God; those who have taken a stand against it will bring judgment against themselves. 3 For those rulers are an object of fear, not to the good deed, but to the bad. Do you want to be free of fear of the authority? Keep doing good, and you will have praise from it; 4 for it is God’s minister to you for your good. But if you are doing what is bad, be in fear, for it is not without purpose that it bears the sword. It is God’s minister, an avenger to express wrath against the one practicing what is bad.

There are some sins which the congregation is not fully equipped to handle. Murder, rape, and child abuse are examples of sinful conduct that is criminal in nature and therefore goes beyond our limitations; beyond what we can fully handle. To deal with such things exclusively within the congregation framework would not be walking modestly with our God. To hide such sins from the superior authorities would be to show a disregard for those whom Jehovah has placed as his ministers for expressing wrath against evildoers. If we ignore the authorities God himself has placed, we are putting ourselves above God’s arrangement.  Can anything good come of disobeying God in this way?

As we are about to see, Jesus directs the congregation on how to deal with sinners in its midst, whether we are speaking of a single incident or a long term practice.  So even the sin of child abuse must be dealt with congregationally. However, we must first recognize the aforementioned principle and hand the man over to the authorities as well.  We are not the only Christian denomination that has tried to hide its dirty laundry from the world.  In our case, we would reason that to reveal these things would bring reproach on the name of Jehovah.  However, there is no excuse for disobedience to God.   Even assuming our intentions were good—and I’m not arguing they were—there is no justification for failing to walk with God in modesty by obeying his direction.

There is abundant evidence that this policy of ours has been a disaster, and we are now beginning to reap what we have sown.  God is not one to be mocked.[5]  When Jesus gives us a command and we disobey, we cannot expect things to turn out well, no matter how we have tried to justify our disobedience.

Disfellowshipping—Handling Sins of a Personal Nature

Now that we’ve cleared the air on how to deal with the most atrocious of sinners, let’s move to the other end of the spectrum.

(Luke 17:3, 4) Pay attention to yourselves. If your brother commits a sin, rebuke him, and if he repents, forgive him. 4 Even if he sins seven times a day against you and he comes back to you seven times, saying, ‘I repent,’ you must forgive him.”

It is obvious that Jesus is talking here about sins of a personal and relatively minor nature.  It would be ridiculous to include the sin of, say, rape, in this scenario.  Notice also that there are only two options: Either you forgive your brother or you do not.  The criteria for forgiveness is an expression of repentance.  So you can and should rebuke the one who has sinned.  Either he then repents—not to God, but to you, indicating against whom the sin was committed—in which case you must forgive him; or he doesn’t repent, in which case you have no obligation to forgive him at all.  This bears repeating because I have often had brothers and sisters approach me because they have found it hard to forgive some transgression committed against them by another.  Yet, they have been led to believe through our publications and from the platform that we must forgive all slights and transgressions if we are to imitate the Christ.  Notice however that the forgiveness he commands us to grant is conditional on repentance.  No repentance; no forgiveness.

(This isn’t to say that we cannot forgive another even if there is no spoken expression of repentance.  Repentance can be expressed in various ways.  It is up to each to decide.  Of course, a lack of repentance doesn’t give us the right to bear a grudge.  Love covers a multitude of sins.[6]  Forgiveness wipes the slate clean.[7]  In this, as in everything, there must be balance.)

Notice also that no mention is made of escalating this process beyond the personal.  The congregation does not get involved, nor does anyone else for that matter.  These are sins of a minor and personal nature.  After all, a man who commits fornication seven times a day would definitely qualify to be called a fornicator, and we are told at 1 Corinthians 5:11 to quit mixing in company with such a man.

Now let’s look at the other scriptures that touch on the matter of disfellowshipping.  (Given the extensive catalogue of rules and regulation we have built up over the years to cover all things judicial, it may surprise you to see just how little the Bible has to say on the subject.)

Disfellowshipping—Handling More Serious Personal Sins

We have many Letters to Bodies of Elders from the Governing Body, as well as numerous Watchtower articles and whole chapters in the Shepherd the Flock of God book which lay down the rules and regulations governing our organizational system of jurisprudence.  How odd then to learn that the only formalized procedural process for dealing with sin in the Christian congregation was expressed by Jesus in just three short verses.

(Matthew 18:15-17) “Moreover, if your brother commits a sin, go and reveal 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, so that on the testimony 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.

What Jesus is referring to are sins of a personal nature, though obviously these are sins which are a step up in gravity from those he spoke of at Luke 17:3, 4, because these can end with a disfellowshipping.

In this rendering, Jesus gives no indication that the sin referred to is personal in nature.  So one could arrive at the conclusion that this is how one deals with all sin in the congregation.  However, this is one of many examples where the translators of the NWT have been sloppy.  The interlinear rendering of this passage clearly shows that the sin is committed “against you”.  So we are talking about sins like slander, stealing, fraud, etc.

Jesus tells us to deal with the matter privately in the first attempt.  However, if that fails, one or two individuals (witnesses) are brought in to bolster the appeal for the offender to see reason and repent.  If the second attempt fails, then does Jesus tell us to take the matter before a committee of three?  Does he tell us to engage in a secret session?  No, he tells us to take the matter before the congregation.  Like a public trial for slander, stealing, or fraud, this final stage is public. The whole congregation gets involved.  This makes sense, because it is the whole congregation which must engage in dealing with the man as a tax collector or man of the nations.  How can they conscientiously do so—throw the first stone, as it were—without knowing why?

At this stage we find the first major departure between what the Bible says and what we practice as Jehovah’s Witnesses.  At stage 3, the offended individual is instructed to go to one of the elders, assuming that neither of the other witnesses used in stage 2 are elders.  The elder he contacts will talk with the Coordinator of the Body of Elders (COBE) who will call an elders meeting to appoint a committee.  Often, at these elders meetings, the nature of the sin is not revealed even to the elders, or if it is revealed, it is done only in the most general of terms.  We do this so as to protect the confidentiality of all involved.  Only the three elders appointed to judge the case will know all the details.

Jesus says nothing about some alleged need to protect the confidentiality of the offender or the offended.  He says nothing about going to the older men only, nor does he mention the appointment of a committee of three.  There is no precedent in Scripture, neither under the Jewish judicial system nor in the history of the first century congregation to support our practice of secret committees meeting in secret session to handle judicial matters.  What Jesus said was to take the matter before the congregation.  Anything else is “going beyond the things that are written”.[8]

Disfellowshipping—Handling General Sins

I have used the inadequate term, “general sins”, to encompass those sins which are not criminal in nature but rise above the personal, such as idolatry, spiritism, drunkenness and fornication.  Excluded from this group are sins related to apostasy for reasons we shall soon see.

Given that Jesus gave his disciples a precise step-by-step procedure to follow in dealing with sins of a personal nature, one would think that he would have also laid out a procedure to follow in the case of general sins.  Our highly structured organizational mindset begs for such a judicial procedure to be spelled out for us.  Alas, there is none, and its absence is most telling.

There is really only one account in the Christian Greek Scriptures of a judicial process in any way similar to what we practice today. In the ancient city of Corinth, there was a Christian who was fornicating in a way that was so notorious even the pagans were shocked. In the first letter to the Corinthians Paul instructed them to “remove the wicked [man] from among yourselves.”  Then, when the man exhibited a change of heart some months later, Paul exhorted the brothers to welcome him back for fear that he might be swallowed up by Satan.[9]

Almost everything that we need to know about the judicial procedure within the Christian congregation can be found in this one account. We will learn:

  1. What qualifies as a disfellowshipping offence?
  2. How are we to treat the sinner?
  3. Who determines if a sinner is to be disfellowshipped?
  4. Who determines if a sinner is to be reinstated?

The answer to these four questions can be found in these few verses:

(1 Corinthians 5:9-11) In my letter I wrote you to stop keeping company with sexually immoral people, 10 not meaning entirely with the sexually immoral people of this world or the greedy people or extortioners or idolaters. Otherwise, you would actually have to get out of the world. 11 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.

(2 Corinthians 2:6) This rebuke given by the majority is sufficient for such a man…

What Qualifies As a Disfellowshipping Offense?

Fornicators, idolaters, revilers, drunkards, extortioners…this is hardly an exhaustive list but there is a commonality here. He is not describing sins, but sinners.  For example, we all have lied at some time, but does that qualify us to be called liars? To put it another way, if I play the occasional game of golf or baseball, does that make me a sportsman?  If a man gets drunk on one or two occasions, would we call him an alcoholic.

Paul’s list of actionable sins would certainly include the works of the flesh which he listed to the Galatians:

(Galatians 5:19-21) . . .Now the works of the flesh are manifest, and they are fornication, uncleanness, loose conduct, 20 idolatry, practice of spiritism, enmities, strife, jealousy, fits of anger, contentions, divisions, sects, 21 envies, drunken bouts, revelries, and things like these. As to these things I am forewarning YOU, the same way as I did forewarn YOU, that those who practice such things will not inherit God’s kingdom.

Again, notice that he uses the plural. Even the mass nouns are expressed in such a way as to indicate a course of action or a state of being rather than isolated incidents of sin.

Let us leave it at that for now since this understanding is crucial in answering the other questions under consideration.

How Are We to Treat the Sinner?

The Greek word the NWT translates with the phrase “stop keeping company” is a compound verb, made up of three words: sun, ana, mignuni; literally, “to mix up with”.  If you simply drop black paint in a can of white without mixing it thoroughly, would you expect it to turn grey?  Likewise, to carry on a casual conversation with someone is hardly the same as mixing in company with him.  The question is, where do you draw the line?  Paul helps us to set a reasonable limit by adding the exhortation, “…not even eating with such a man.”  This indicates that some in his audience would not have immediately understood ‘mixing in company’ to include having a meal with the person.  Paul is here saying that in this case, it would be going too far even to eat with the individual.

Notice that in drawing the line, Paul stops at “not even eating with such a man.”  He says nothing about cutting off all contact with him.  Nothing is said about not even saying hello or having a casual conversation.  If while shopping we were to meet a former brother who we had stopped associating with because we knew him to be a drunkard or a fornicator, we could still say hello, or ask him how he had been faring.  No one would take that for mixing in company with him.

This understanding is critical to answering the following questions.

Who Determines If a Sinner Is to Be Disfellowshipped?

Remember, we are not allowing bias or indoctrination to restrict our thinking process. Rather, we want to stick with what the Bible says and not go beyond it.

Given that, let’s start with an example.  Say two sisters are working at the same firm.  One begins an affair with a co-worker.  She commits fornication, possibly more than once.  What Bible principle should guide the actions of the other sister?  Obviously, love should motivate her to approach her friend to help her to come back to her senses.  If she won her over, would she still be required to report this to the elders, or would the sinner need to make confession to men?  Certainly such a serious, potentially life altering step would be spelled out somewhere in the Christian Scriptures.

“But isn’t it up to the elders to decide?”, you may say.

The question is, where does it say that? In the case of the Corinthian congregation, Paul’s letter was not addressed to the body of elders but to the entire congregation.

Still you might say, “I am not qualified to judge someone’s repentance, or lack thereof.” Well said. You are not. Neither is any other man. That is why Paul mentions nothing about judging repentance. You can see with your own eyes whether a brother is a drunkard. His actions speak louder than his words.  You don’t need to know what is in his heart to determine whether to continue fellowship with him.

But what if he says he only did it the once and has stopped. How do we know he isn’t continuing the sin secretly.  We don’t.  We are not God’s police force.  We have no mandate to interrogate our brother; to sweat the truth out of him.  If he fools us, he fools us.  So what?  He’s not fooling God.

What Determines If the Sinner Is to Be Reinstated?

In short, the same thing that determines if he is to be disfellowshipped. For instance, if a brother and sister moved in together without benefit of marriage, you would not want to continue to associate with them, would you? That would be in effect approving of their illicit relationship.  If however, they got married, their status would have changed.  Would it be logical—more important, would it be loving—to continue to disassociate yourself from someone who has set their life straight?

If you reread 2 Corinthians 2:6, you will notice that Paul says, “This rebuke given by the majority is sufficient for such a man.”  When Paul wrote the first letter to the Corinthians, it was up to each individual to make an assessment. It seems that the majority were in line with Paul’s thinking. A minority perhaps were not. Obviously, there would be Christians at all levels of development in any given congregation. However the rebuke, given by the majority, was sufficient to correct this brother’s thinking and bring him to repentance. However, there was a danger that the Christians would take his sin personally and wish to punish him. This was not the purpose of the rebuke, nor is it in the purview of one Christian to punish another. The danger of doing this is that one might be blood-guilty by causing the little one to be lost to Satan.

General Sins – a Summary

So with the exclusion of apostasy, if there is a brother (or sister) in the congregation who is engaging in a sinful course of conduct, despite our attempts to bring him to his senses, we should simply decide personally and individually to cease association with such a one. If they cease their course of sinful conduct, then we should welcome them back into the congregation so that they do not get lost to the world. It really is no more complicated than that. This process works. It has to, because it comes from our Lord.

Disfellowshipping—Handling the Sin of Apostasy

Why does the Bible deal with the sin of apostasy[10] differently from that of the other sins we have discussed? For example, if my former brother is a fornicator, I can still talk with him though I will not keep company with him. However, if he is an apostate I will not even say hello to him.

(2 John 9-11) . . .Everyone who pushes ahead and does not remain in the teaching of the Christ does not have God. The one who does remain in this teaching is the one who has both the Father and the Son. 10 If anyone comes to you and does not bring this teaching, do not receive him into your homes or say a greeting to him. 11 For the one who says a greeting to him is a sharer in his wicked works.

There is a marked difference between someone who is a fornicator versus someone who promotes fornication. This is comparable to the difference between the Ebola virus and cancer. One is contagious and the other is not. However, let’s not take the analogy too far. Cancer cannot morph into the Ebola virus. However, a fornicator (or any other sinner for that matter) can morph into an apostate. In the congregation of Thyatira, there was a woman called Jezebel ‘who called herself a prophetess and taught and misled others in the congregation to commit sexual immorality and eat things sacrificed idols.’[11]

Notice however that John does not tell us that it is some body of elders that decides whether or not an apostate is to be disfellowshipped from the congregation. He simply says, “if anyone comes to you…”  If a brother or sister came to you claiming to be God’s prophet and telling you that it’s okay to commit sexual immorality, do you have to wait around for some judicial committee to tell you to stop associating with that person?

Disfellowshipping—Going Beyond the Things Written

Personally, I don’t like the term “disfellowshipping” nor any of its bedfellows: excommunication, shunning, etc.  You coin a term because you need a way to describe a procedure, policy or process.  The instruction Jesus gives us on dealing with sin is not some policy that has to be labelled.  The Bible puts all the control into the hands of the individual.  A religious hierarchy eager to protect its authority and maintain control over the flock will not be happy with such an arrangement.

Since we now know what the Bible instructs us to do, let us compare that with what we actually do within the organization of Jehovah’s Witnesses.

The Informant Process

If you witness a brother or sister getting drunk at a public gathering, you are instructed to approach them to encourage them to go to the elders. You are to give them some time, a few days, and then talk to the elders yourself just in case they failed to follow your advice. In short, if you witness a sin you are required to report it to the elders. If you do not report it, you are considered to be complicit in the sin.  The basis for this goes back to the Jewish law. However, we are not under Jewish law. There was a great deal of dispute in the first century about the circumcision issue. There were those who wished to implement this Jewish custom within the Christian congregation. The Holy Spirit directed them not to do so, and eventually those who continued to promote this idea were to be removed from the Christian congregation; Paul making no small bones about how he felt about such Judaizers.[12]  By implementing the Jewish informant system, we are like modern-day Judaizers, replacing new Christian law with outdated Jewish law.

When Manmade Rules Count More Than Scriptural Principles

Paul makes it clear that we are to quit mixing in company with a man who is a fornicator, idolater, etc. He is obviously talking about a practice of sin, but what constitutes a practice? Our judicial system is not comfortable with principles, though we often give them lip service.  For example, if I went to the driving range and hit only three golf balls, then told you that I practiced my golf swing, you’d probably have to stifle a laugh, or perhaps you’d just nod and back away slowly.  So how would you feel if you got drunk on two occasions and the elders accused you of engaging in a practice of sin?

In giving elders direction on determining repentance, our Organization’s judicial handbook asks “Was it a single offense, or was it a practice?”[13]  On numerous occasions, I have seen where this mentality has led.  It has guided elders, and the circuit and district overseers who direct them, to consider a second offense as a practice which indicates a hardening of the heart.  I have seen the “practice” that two or three occurrences represents be the determining factor on whether to disfellowship.

Determining Repentance

Paul’s direction to the Corinthians is simple. Is the person committing the sin? Yes. Then don’t associate with him anymore. Obviously, if he’s no longer committing the sin, there’s no reason to break off association.

That simply will not do for us however. We have to determine repentance. We have to try to peer into the heart of our brother or sister and determine whether or not they really mean what they say when they say they’re sorry. I have been on more than my fair share of judicial cases. I have seen sisters in tears who still will not leave their lovers.  I have known ultra-reserved brothers who give no outward hint at what is in their heart, but whose subsequent conduct indicated a repentant spirit.  There really is no way for us to know for sure.  We are talking about sins against God, and even if a fellow Christian is hurt, ultimately it is only God who can grant forgiveness.  So why do we tread on God’s territory and presume to judge the heart of our fellow?

To show where this need to determine repentance leads, let us look at the issue of automatic disfellowshipping.  From the Shepherd the Flock of God book, we have:

9. While there is no such thing as automatic disfellowshipping, an individual may have gone so far into sin that he may not be able to demonstrate sufficient repentance to the judicial committee at the time of the hearing.  If so, he must be disfellowshipped. [Boldface in original; italics added for emphasis][14]

So here’s a scenario.  A brother has been secretly smoking marijuana off and on for a year.  He goes to the circuit assembly and there’s a part on holiness that cuts him to the heart.  He goes to the elders the following Monday and confesses his sin.  They meet with him that Thursday.  Less than a week has passed since his last smoke.  Not enough time for them to know with any reasonable certainly that he will continue to refrain from lighting up.  So, he must be disfellowshipped!  Yet, we claim that we have no such things as automatic disfellowshipping.  We are speaking out of both sides of our mouth.  The irony is that if the brother had kept the sin to himself, waited a few months, then revealed it, he would not be disfellowshipped because sufficient time had transpired for the brothers to see “signs of repentance”.  How ridiculous this policy makes us look.

Could it be more clear why the Bible does not direct elders to determine repentance?  Jesus would not set us up to fail, which is exactly what we are doing over and over by trying to read the heart of our brother.

The Requirement to Confess Our Sins to Men

Why would the brother in this scenario even bother to come to the elders? There is no Scriptural requirement for us to confess our sins to our brothers in order to be forgiven.  He would have simply repented to God and ceased the practice.  I know of cases  where a brother sinned secretly over 20 years in the past, yet felt the need to confess it to the elders to be “right with God”.  This mentality is so engrained in our brotherhood, that even though we say that the elders are not “father confessors”, we treat them as if they were and do not feel that God has forgiven us until some man says he has.

There is a provision for confessing sins to men, but its purpose isn’t the procurement of God’s forgiveness through the hands of humans.  Rather, it is about getting needed help and to aid in healing.

(James 5:14-16) 14 Is there anyone sick among you? Let him call the elders of the congregation to him, and let them pray over him, applying oil to him in the name of Jehovah. 15 And the prayer of faith will make the sick one well, and Jehovah will raise him up. Also, if he has committed sins, he will be forgiven. 16 Therefore, openly confess your sins to one another and pray for one another, so that you may be healed. A righteous man’s supplication has a powerful effect.

Notice that this isn’t direction for us to confess all our sins to men.  Verse 15 indicates that forgiveness of sins could even be incidental to the process.  Someone is sick and needs help and [incidentally] “if he has committed sins, he will be forgiven.”

We might compare this to a doctor. No doctor can heal you.  The human body heal itself; so ultimately, it is God who does the healing. The physician can just make the process work better, faster, and guide you on what you need to do to facilitate it.

Verse 16 talks about openly confessing our sins to one another, not publishers to elders, but each Christian to his fellow. The elders should be doing this as much as the next brother.  Its purpose is for the upbuilding of the individual as well as the collective.  It is not part of some unstated judicial process where humans judge other humans and evaluate their level of repentance.

Where is our sense of modesty in any of this? It is clearly outside of our capabilities—therefore, outside of our limits—to evaluate the repentant heart condition of anyone. All we can do is observe one’s actions. If a brother has been smoking pot or getting drunk repeatedly in the privacy of his own home, and if he then comes to us to confess his sins and seek our help, we must give it.  Nothing is stated in Scripture about our first needing to evaluate whether he is worthy of this help.  The fact he came to us indicates he is worthy of it.  However, we don’t deal with these situations that way.  If a brother has become an alcoholic, we require that he first desist from drinking for a long enough period of time for us to determine his repentance.  Only then can we give him the help he needs.  That would be like a doctor telling a patient, “I can’t help you until you get better.”

Returning to the case of Jezebel in the Thyatira congregation,  here we have an individual who is not simply sinning, but encouraging others to do so.  Jesus tells the angel of that congregation, “…I gave her time to repent, but she is not willing to repent of the sexual immorality.  Look! I am about to throw her into a sickbed, and those committing adultery with her into great tribulation, unless they repent of her deeds.”[15]  Jesus had already given her time to repent, but he’d reached the limit of his patience.  He was going to throw her into a sickbed and her followers into tribulation, but even then, there was still the possibility for repentance and salvation.

If she were around today, we’d toss her out on her backside at the first or second instance of her sin.  Even if she or her followers repented, we’d likely disfellowship them just to teach the rest a lesson about what happens if you disobey our laws.  So which way is better?  Obviously the tolerance Jesus demonstrated to Jezebel and her followers is far in excess of what we practice today.  Is our way better than Jesus’?  Was he being too forgiving?  Too understanding?  A little too permissive, perhaps?  One would certainly think so given that we would never allow such a condition to exist without prompt and decisive action.

Of course, there is always the possibility, and I know this suggestion is way out in left field, but there is always the possibility that maybe, just maybe, we could learn a thing or two from the way Christ deals with these situations.

Causing Others to Sin

It is clear from what we have studied so far that the way we are to deal with the sinner in the general sense varies from how the Bible instructs us to deal with the apostate. It would be wrong to treat someone guilty of the type of sin Paul lists in 2 Corinthians 5 in the same manner as we would treat the apostate that John describes in his second letter.  The trouble is that our current system denies the congregation member the necessary knowledge for him to know the proper course of action to take. The transgressor’s sin is kept secret.  The details are kept secret.  All we know is that a person has been pronounced as disfellowshipped by a committee of three men.  Perhaps he couldn’t give up smoking cigarettes.  Perhaps he just wanted to resign from the congregation.   Or perhaps he was prompting devil worship.   We just don’t know, so all transgressors get tarred with the same brush.  All are treated the way the Bible instructs us to treat apostates, not even saying a greeting to such ones.  Jesus commands us to treat an unrepentant drunkard or fornicator a certain way, but we say, “Sorry, Lord Jesus, but no can do.  The Governing Body is telling me to treat them all like apostates.”  Imagine if our worldly judicial system worked this way. All prisoners would have to get the same sentence and it would have to be the worst possible sentence, be they a pickpocket or a serial killer.

A Bigger Sin

Another way that this process causes us to sin is very grave indeed. The Bible says those who stumble the little one might as well have a millstone tied around their neck and be tossed into the deep blue sea.  Not a comforting image, is it?

I have known cases where a sinner has actually come forward to confess a sin to the elders, having desisted from it (in one case for three months) but because he had carried it out repeatedly and in secret, possibly after being counseled against an unwise course of action that might lead to sin, the elders felt it necessary to disfellowship him.  The reasoning is, ‘He was warned. He should have known better.  Now he thinks all he has to do is say “I’m sorry” and all is forgiven?  Not going to happen.’

To disfellowship a repentant individual who has desisted from his sin is fleshly thinking.  This is shunning as punishment. It is the mentality of “You do the crime. You do the time.” This mentality is supported by direction we get from the governing body. For example, elders have been warned that some married couples wishing to obtain a scriptural divorce have conspired for one of the two to commit a single act of fornication so as to give them scriptural grounds. We are warned to be wary of this and if we believe this is the case, that we should not quickly reinstate the disfellowshipped individual. We are instructed to do this so that others do not follow in the same course. This is very much a mentality of deterrence based on punishment. It is how the judicial system of the world works. There simply is no place for it in the Christian congregation. In fact, it shows a lack of faith. No one can fool Jehovah, and it is his role not ours to deal with wrongdoers.

Think about how Jehovah dealt with the repentant King Manasseh?[16]  Who do you know that has come  anywhere close to the level of sin that he achieved.  There was no “prison sentence” for him; no extended period of time in which to prove his true repentance.

We also have the Christian era example of the prodigal son.[17]  In the video of the same name released by the Watchtower society last year, the son returning to his parents was required to report his sin to the elders.  They would decide whether he could return or not.  If they had decided against—and in real life, I would have given the young man a 50/50 chance they would have said “No”—he would have been denied the help and encouragement he needed from his family.  He would have been on his own, to fend for himself.  In his weakened state, he might very likely have returned to his worldly friends, the only support system left to him.  If his parents had decided to take him in despite the disfellowshipping, they would have been considered as disloyal to the Organization and the decision of the elders.  Privileges would have been removed, and they would have been threatened with disfellowshipping themselves.

Contrast his very real scenario—for it has happened countless times in our Organization—with the lesson Jesus was trying to communicate through this parable.  The father forgave the son at a distance—“while he was still a long way off”—and welcomed his son back with great rejoicing.[18]  He didn’t sit down with him and try to determine his true level of repentance.  He didn’t say, “You’ve only just returned. How do I know you are sincere; that you’re not going to go off and do it all again?  Let’s give you some time to show your sincerity and then we’ll decide what to do with you.”

That we could use the illustration of the prodigal son to lend support to our judicial system and get away with it is a shocking indictment to the degree to which we have been indoctrinated into thinking this system is just and originates with God.

Involving Us in Their Sin

Paul warned the Corinthians not to keep the man they had removed from their midst outside for fear that he might give in to sadness and be lost. His sin was scandalous in nature and notorious, so that even the pagans were aware of it.  Paul didn’t say to the Corinthians that they needed to keep the man out for a good period of time so that the people of the nations would realize we don’t put up with that kind of behavior.  His first concern wasn’t how the congregation would be perceived, nor was he concerned for the sanctity of Jehovah’s name.  His concern was for the individual.  Losing a man to Satan would not sanctify the name of God.  It would bring God’s anger however.  So Paul is exhorting them to return the man so as to save him.[19]  This second letter was written within the same year, possibly only a few months after the first.

However, our modern-day application has left many languishing in a disfellowshipped state for 1, 2 or even more years—long after they ceased practicing the sins for which they were disfellowshipped.  I have known cases where the individual stopped sinning before the judicial hearing and yet was disfellowshipped for almost two years.

Now here is where they involve us in their sin.  If we see the that disfellowshipped individual is going downhill spiritually, and try to render aid so that he is not “overreached by Satan”, we will  be in danger of being disfellowshipped ourselves.[20]  We punish with the greatest severity all who do not respect the decision of the elders.  We have to wait on their decision to reinstate the individual.  Yet Paul’s words were not directed to a committee of three, but to the entire congregation.

(2 Corinthians 2:10) . . .If you forgive anyone for anything, I do also.. . .

In Summation

The Bible puts the responsibility to deal with sinners into the hands of the Christian—that’s you and me—not into the hands of human leaders, a religious hierarchy or overlord.  Jesus tells us how to deal with minor and major sins of a personal nature.  He tells how to deal with those who sin against God and practice their sins while claiming to be our brothers and sisters.  He tells us how to deal with sins of a criminal nature and even sins of apostasy.  All this power lies in the hands of the individual Christian.  Of course, there is guidance that we can obtain from the older men, “those taking the lead among you”.  However, the ultimate responsibility on how to deal with sinners lies with us individually. There is no provision in scripture that authorizes us to surrender that responsibility to another, no matter how august and spiritual the individual claims to be.

Our current judicial system requires us to report sins to a group of men in the congregation.  It authorizes those men to determine repentance; to decide who stays and who goes.  It mandates that all their meetings, records and decisions be kept in secret.  It denies us the right to know the issues and requires us to put blind faith in the decision made by a group of three men.  It punishes us if we conscientiously refuse to obey these men.

There is nothing in the law the Christ imparted while on earth, nor in the apostolic letters, nor in the vision of John to give support to any of this.  The rules and regulations that define our judicial process with its three-man committees, secret meetings, and harsh punishments is nowhere—I repeat, NOWHERE—to be found in Scripture.  We have made it all up ourselves, claiming that it is done under the direction of Jehovah God.

What Will You Do?

I am not talking rebellion here.  I am talking obedience.  We owe our Lord Jesus and our heavenly Father our unconditional obedience.  They have given us their law. Will we obey it?

The power that the Organization wields is an illusion.  They would have us believe that their power comes from God, but Jehovah does not empower those who disobey him.  The control they exercise of our minds and hearts is due to the power that we grant them.

If a disfellowshipped brother or sister is languishing in sadness and in danger of being lost, we have an obligation to help.  What can the elders do if we act?  If the entire congregation were to welcome the individual back, then what can the elders do?  Their power is an illusion. We give it to them by our complacent obedience, but if we obey the Christ instead, we strip them of all power that goes contrary to his righteous decrees.

Of course, if we stand alone, while the rest continue to obey men, we are in danger. However, that may just be the price we have to pay to stand up for righteousness.  Jesus and Jehovah love courageous people; people who act out of faith, knowing that what we do in obedience will not go unnoticed nor unrewarded by our King and our God.

We can be cowards or we can be conquerors.

(Revelation 21:7, 8) Anyone conquering will inherit these things, and I will be his God and he will be my son. 8 But as for the cowards and those without faith…their portion will be in the lake that burns with fire and sulfur. This means the second death.”

To view the next article in this series, click here.


[1] Modesty (from Insight on the Scriptures, Volume 2 p. 422)
[2] For previous installments, see “Exercise Justice” and “Love Kindness”.
[3] 2 Peter 3:
[4] Jeremiah 10:23
[5] Galatians 6:7
[6] 1 Peter 4:
[7] Isaiah 1:18
[8] 1 Corinthians 4:6
[9] 1 Corinthians 5:13; 2 Corinthians 2:5-11
[10] For purposes of this discussion, any reference to apostasy or apostates is to be understood from the Bible viewpoint of one who opposes God and his Son. One who through word or action, denies the Christ and his teachings.  This would include those who claim to worship and obey the Christ, but teach and act in a way that demonstrates they really stand in opposition to him.  Unless specifically stated, the term “apostate” does not apply to those who deny the teachings of the Organization of Jehovah’s Witnesses (or any other faith for that matter).  While opposition to a church’s doctrinal framework is often viewed by the church authorities as apostasy, we are only concerned with how the ultimate authority in the universe views it.
[11] Revelation 2:20-23
[12] Galatians 5:12
[13] ks 7:8 p. 92
[14] ks 7:9 p. 92
[15] Revelation 2:21, 22
[16] 2 Chronicles 33:12, 13
[17] Luke 15:11-32
[18] Luke 15:20
[19] 2 Corinthians 2:8-11
[20] 2 Corinthians 2:11