In another situation of accompaniment, I am mindful of yet another sad alienation. After casually checking a reference to disfellowshipped Jehovah’s Witnesses, I was reminded that I blogged a while ago about excommunication. (“Kick them out: voted off the island.“)
Luther appears before Emperor Charles V in 1521.
Ex-communication is the term I know, from Catholic history. Martin Luther was ex-communicated, for example, by Pope Leo X on January 3, 1521. (About eleven years from now we need to schedule a party.) So was the Army of God. To be kicked out maybe puts you in good company.
In a major study on disfellowshipping among the Witnesses a sidebar mentions others, including Mormons, Scientology and the Amish community, who can also be ruthless and thorough in cleaning house.
The hand of Jehovah, wiping practically everybody off the island and out of the Kingdom.
But part of my accompaniment is with a disfellowshipped Jehovah Witness, who after being shunned by his local Los Angeles “Kingdom Hall” has discovered an entire international community of disfellowshipped Witnesses. He’s still not sure of the official reason he was voted off their island: either for being gay, or for “False Worship,” meaning: attending another church (the one where I am pastor) — and either reason is more than a stretch of Christian principles.
This article is an exhaustive and detailed analysis (over 11,000 words) of the Witnesses’ practice and why it is unscriptural and brutal and wrong. In reading through it, I found myself wondering over and over, why don’t people just walk away?
But I am reminded of a conversation I had three decades ago with Howard Erickson, one of the founders of Lutherans Concerned/North America, when I asked him why he didn’t just leave the Lutheran Church for, say, the Metropolitan Community Church? “Because it’s my church!” he said. He is Lutheran to this day, and has always refused to be rejected.
Why? Well, for one thing, people are deeply invested in the religious community from which they eventually may be expelled. One’s identity is deeply rooted. It’s a horrible state of the soul to have loved a community enough to spend a lifetime or significant portion of one’s life in a community and, for any reason, to be expelled from that community. It can lead to despair, self-destructive behaviors, apathy, anger, rebellion, or spiritual death.
Martin Luther lived out the anger and rebellion. Although ex-communicated, he did not go away, let alone go away quietly, and the Roman Church still must face the music on what their forebears did to him nearly 500 years ago.
Not going away quietly, Luther set fire to the Papal bull excommunicating him from the Catholic Church.
Luther, of course, had incredible nerve and resolve. How many tens of thousands of individuals do not have that nerve or resolve, but are deeply hurt or permanently damaged by the rejection of the whole community?
In the case of the Witnesses, it still amazes me that what started as a Bible study and tract society so quickly became a cult which, in order to protect its flanks will ruthlessly mistreat anyone for almost any reason. In the above article, “Disfellowshipping and Shunning,” there is an incredibly thorough list of no-no’s which can earn you permanent expulsion, so that any other members is forbidden to ever speak to you again.
Before you look at the summary list, bear in mind the words of St. Paul, who by comparison seems to be a bleeding-heart liberal about human behavior: “All have sinned and fall short of the glory of God,” Romans 3:23.
But the Jehovah Witnesses have no such “everybody does it” attitude. You may qualify for disfellowshipping if you are found guilty of any of the following: adultery; apostasy; associating with disfellowshipped people; blood and blood transfusions; drug use; drunkenness; dishonest business practices; employment violating Christian principles; false worship; fornication; fraud; gambling or related employment; gluttony; greediness; homosexuality; idolatry; loose conduct; lying; non neutral activities (involvement in politics and the military); military service; obscene speech; parents condoning immorality; political involvement; porneia (a Greek word which would take some lengthy explaining); slander; smoking or selling tobacco; spiritism (including yoga); stealing; subversive activity; uncleanness; violation of secular law [with a] flagrant attitude; violence, including physical abuse, fits of anger; willful non support of family, including endangerment of mate’s spirituality; and worldly celebrations such as Christmas.
Gee, being gay or lesbian seems almost trivial when we see that in the middle of such an exhaustively rejective and punitive list. If eating too much, having a cigarette, voting, or celebrating Christmas are equally damnable, then, well, go ahead!
Clearly these standards are not mere ethical errors which everyone in the community is strongly encouraged to avoid. They are control factors which clearly flag the Witnesses as a genuine cult, using psychological pressure and abuse, brainwashing or mind control, etc.
I know, use of the word “cult” is itself pretty loose and maybe meaningless, but when palpable harm comes to individuals in such a group who cannot freely come or go without vicious reprisal, something is amiss. Frankly, I’ll stand with those sinners who are voted off their island, and I do it in Jesus’ name — the man of God who had no such list, and who said, “I have other sheep that do not belong to this fold. I must bring them also, and they will listen to my voice. So there will be one flock, one shepherd.”(John 10:16). I think if our parish ever gets voted off the denominational island, maybe we should just rename ourselves “Other Sheep Lutheran Church.”
— Pastor Dan Hooper, Los Angeles