Choosing to Shun Family Over a Church

Editor’s Note: This article previously appeared in a different format as part of The Atlantic’s Notes section, retired in 2021.

In this video from atheist blogger Hemant Mehta, the second of his “nine things you should Know About Jehovah’s Witnesses” regards disfellowship, which involves not just getting kicked out of a congregation for disobeying the church, but the complete shunning of the individual by JWs, including members of his or her own family:

Here are two more stories from readers who parted ways with the JWs. The first one voluntary left the church after being shunned while the second one was straight-up disfellowshipped:

I am writing in response to “a Jehovah’s Witness reader,” which was an update to “Disowning A Daughter Over A Church.” Yes, Jehovah’s Witnesses do discourage higher education. A recent quote from Anthony Morris, one of the seven governing body members that are responsible for the teachings, is as follows:

I have long said: the better the university, the greater the danger. The most intelligent and eloquent professors will be trying to reshape the thinking of your child, and their influence can be tremendous.

There he directly links higher education as being a danger. It is taken from his own words in video on the website. There are numerous articles and talks that have been given regarding the dangers of education.  

I was one of Jehovah’s Witnesses until last year when I, at the age of 38, having spent a lifetime in the organization, found myself shunned. What grievous sin did I commit?

I reached out to my brother who had been disfellowshipped for 14 years or so after shunning him for the entire time. I realized that the scripture your reader quoted in 1 Corinthians 5:9-13 may have applied at one point when my brother was initially disfellowshipped, however shunning him forever is just ridiculous. He is living an upright, moral life, none of the things listed in the scripture that was cherry picked to support a heartless, controlling doctrine used to keep the rank and file in order.

I apologized profusely because I realized that rather than love being kind as the scriptures stated, it had been turned into something ugly.  I realized that if I greeted those who were my brother only, I was no different than anyone else like Jesus said. I realized that if God is love, maybe I should represent that and that shunning is psychological torture inflicted on another to manipulated them to coming back. It has nothing to do with making that person return to God, and everything to do with them returning to a man-made organization.

My wife and I disassociated formally from the organization that was our entire lives, the most difficult thing we ever had to do. But life is good now, and my wife and I bask in sweet freedom from an oppressive organization that holds its members captive.  We lost a lot, but we gained even more.

The other JW reader:

Your note resonated with me so much because I am a former Jehovah’s Witness who has been disfellowshipped twice. The first time I was in my early 20s and the second time I was in my late 20s. Both times were because I had engaged in sexual activity and was not married.

The first time, I was in total agreement with the decision of the elders in my congregation. I had recently finished volunteering for the Watchtower Bible and Tract Society a little more than a year or so before and was still actively trying to live my life according to “Jehovah’s standards.”

Even the second time, while the circumstances surrounding that instance was quite different, I agreed in principle to the decision. But it was at that time that I decided that I was not going to make an effort to get reinstated and no longer wanted to be Witness.

My older sister disassociated herself from the organization when I was in my teens and my older brother is disfellowshipped as well. My twin sister is active in the organization and basically has nothing to do with any of her siblings. Recently, at my grandmother’s funeral, she told us all that she really wanted us all “to come back,” meaning back to the organization so that she could have a relationship with us.

What I find interesting is that while the onus is often on those who are disfellowshipped or decide they no longer want to be part of the organization to “repent” so that their loved ones can associate with them again, no one really thinks about the impact that has on those who have to bear the weight of being the cause of family discord because they decided to explore their own options as far as life and spirituality go. We are the bad guys because we have “forced them” into the position of “choosing God or choosing family.”

My mother has had a strained relationship with my older sister for decades and this is mainly due to her wanting to adhere to so called “Bible standards” in relation to disassociated and disfellowshipped family members. Being someone who has served in several capacities within the organization, I know that this “shunning,” as it were, is not consistently applied to all members. There are some that have been disciplined within the congregation for similar, if not more egregious, acts and were not disfellowshipped.

One might even live what is considered a “double life,” and as long as they are not exposed or they do not go and reveal their wrongdoings to the elders, they remain in good standing. In my case, I was admonished by a distant relative, when I faced this the second time, to go to the elders or he would have to.

It has been about eight years and I have barely spoken to my twin sister, or any other members of my family who are Witnesses. There have been times where my sister and others have been in my mother’s house and I was there and they barely spoke, if they spoke at all.

The crazy thing is, when I went to the elders, I was really seeking their guidance in relation to the woman I was seeing because I was, in fact, planning to marry her. It took eight weeks for them to finally meet with me and when they did, they told me there was nothing they could do because they had given me plenty of time to either get married or end the relationship.

While we all must be held responsible for the decisions we make in life, one should not be expected to just except such archaic practices because it is said to be “in the name of” whomever we call God. The truth of the matter is, no loving god would ever subject his creation to rules and principles and discipline such as this. Dealing with this and the discord it has caused within my family has led me to question every single thing I was ever taught about God by Jehovah’s Witnesses.

Thanks again for opening this dialogue, because there are a lot of people suffering due to imperfections and sinful tendencies and being subject to this unfair practice when there are much, much bigger things happening in the world.

If you’re a Jehovah’s Witness and would like to defend the church, or simply talk about your positive experience there, please let us know.