Just How Christ-like is “Christian” Shunning?

Invisible Girl

Just last week, I received two phone calls in the same day. Both calls were from Holiness leaders who have personally poured into me, and who I look up and admire as godly role-models. Both calls lasted between 1-2 hours, and both calls were about our doctrinal disagreements (and the disagreements were identical); however, the affects these calls had on me were polar opposites.

On the first call, I was informed that I was forbidden to contact or talk to the children in the family, I was no longer welcome in their home, they would not see me if I traveled to their area, I would no longer hear from them, and when I asked if I would be allowed to visit their church the answer was, “It’s a public place, so I guess I can’t stop you.” The reason given was, “I am Holiness. My family has chosen the Lord, and you have chosen another direction, so we are not in fellowship.” Another direction? Anyone who realizes how deeply my life’s purpose and identity is rooted into my faith in Christ may have an idea how deeply this stung. When I asked if the person would like to write out why they so sharply disagreed with me, and even offered to publish it, the answer was, “I am not the slightest bit interested.” Following this call, I felt unwanted, I felt worthless, I felt shamed.

On the second call, I was asked to explain my views on the infilling of the Holy Spirit. This leader spent nearly two hours walking me through Acts and 1 Corinthians, answering a plethora of my questions in detail, hearing me out, thinking through my points, presenting their views tactfully, bringing attention to where we agreed, and boiling down passages where we disagreed until we could pinpoint our difference. This leader told me they appreciated our conversation because it helped them hammer out their own beliefs, and because “sword sharpens sword.” I was asked to do them “a favor” and let them know if I came across any more significant data or a better case in my study. Following this call, I felt cared for, I felt valuable, I felt respected.

 

Psychological Consequences of Shunning

According to Maslow’s Hierachy of basic human needs, love and belonging are the among the most necessary. In fact, babies that do not receive sufficient affection will actually die-even if every physical need is being met. Denying a person love and belonging could either be on purpose or by neglect, doing such on purpose is the practice of “shunning”. Shunning can take different forms, but it is most commonly a refusal to speak or have any interaction with a given person. Psychology Today describes it as, “an act of control and aggression, with powerful consequences” [1]. Let’s look into their research on these consequences:

Williams has studied ostracism for decades, and has created a game of cyber-ball, in which research participants sit at a computer and toss a ball back and forth with unknown players. When the ball is no longer tossed to them, and they can no longer interact with the unknown players, the results have been remarkably consistent—within minutes of being excluded from the game, feelings of control, belonging, self-esteem and meaningful existence are reduced. This sense of loss holds true across all personality types…

So just how bad is shunning and ostracism? Williams has found that people who are ostracized suffer deeply, including the obvious loss of self-esteem and depression, but also including physiological symptoms such as ulcers, suppression of the immune system, anxiety, psychosis (in prolonged isolation, such as prisoners kept in solitary confinement), and a loss of feeling valued or having any meaningful existence. [1]

Here is a second source, Dr Savin Bapir-Tardy, a counseling psychologist:

Essentially shunning is a form of social shame and humiliation.

More specifically, shunning or ostracising is a form of abuse. It is discrimination and silent bullying…

The psychological consequences of being shunned can best be explained as a social death penalty. The immediate effects are isolation from family and the community. There is an attempt to make sense of why this is happening to them. How could the family have rejected them? The person then starts to attack their sense of self, which is also why shunning is often perceived as the death of personhood. This leads to feelings of helplessness, hopelessness and worthlessness, depression, low self-esteem, suicidal ideations and self-harming behaviours…

Working therapeutically with people who have been shunned is very challenging. All of the negative beliefs that they hold about themselves are often, in the eyes of the victim, reinforced by the act of being shunned. Also, individuals who have been shunned live with psychological agony, often for the rest of their life. In the long term, shunning becomes a long-term psychological torture. [2]

These are severe consequences from a scientific perspective. Unfortunately, I can only add to them personally, as I have heard multiple accounts of migraines, depression, anxiety, and even complete mental break-down, as consequence of shunning, and not just any shunning, but “Christian” shunning. My question, then, is just how Christ-like is this practice?

 

Understanding the Biblical Concept of Disfellowship

Many Christians who practice shunning would claim to do so in accordance with the biblical teaching of disfellowship. This teaching can be found in 1 Corinthians 5:1-5′ 11, 2 Thessalonians 3:6’14-15, Romans 16:17, Matthew 18:15-17, and 2 John 1:7-11.

1 Corinthians 5:1-5 is specifically dealing with an incident within the Corinthian Church where a member was sleeping with his step-mother. Paul is adamant that this must not be tolerated and says,

I wrote unto you in an epistle not to company with fornicators: Yet not altogether with the fornicators of this world, or with the covetous, or extortioners, or with idolaters; for then must ye needs go out of the world. But now I have written unto you not to keep company, if any man that is called a brother be a fornicator, or covetous, or an idolator, or a railer, or a drunkard, or an extortioner; with such an one no not to eat. -1 Corinthians 5:9-11

This passage teaches that any Christian who continues living in gross immorality without repentance, must be disfellowshipped as brother. He should not be allowed to participate in the close-knit fellowship of the believers, because he is no longer living as a believer. Keep in mind that this was in the days when Christians fellowshipped by breaking bread together from house to house, as described in Acts 2:46. Paul continues his instruction to the Corinthians in his second letter:

Sufficient to such a man is this punishment, which was inflicted of many. So that contrariwise ye ought rather to forgive him, and comfort him, lest perhaps such a one should be swallowed up with overmuch sorrow. Wherefore I beseech you that ye would confirm your love toward him.-Corinthians 5:10-11

Paul understood that being excluded from the believer’s activities was a great punishment indeed, and he was clear that it should be kept as short as possible. His teaching should be understood in light of Jesus’ words in Matthew:

Moreover if thy brother shall trespass against thee, go and tell him his fault between thee and him alone: if he shall hear thee, thou hast gained thy brother. But if he will not hear thee, then take with thee one or two more, that in the mouth of two or three witnesses every word may be established. And if he shall neglect to hear them, tell it unto the church: but if he neglect to hear the church, let him be unto thee as an heathen man and a publican. -Matthew 18:15-17

Again, this is dealing with any Christian who is sinning and unrepentant. Only after the 3 step process of dealing with the sin has been completed should the brother be disfellowshipped.  After this, he is to be treated as “an heathen man and a publican.” Stop and think here, how did Jesus treat heathens and publicans?

And it came to pass, as Jesus sat at meat in the house, behold, many publicans and sinners came and sat down with him and his disciples. And when the Pharisees saw it, they said unto his disciples, Why eateth your Master with publicans and sinners? But when Jesus heard that, he said unto them, They that be whole need not a physician, but they that are sick -Matthew 9:10-12

Jesus was known as a friend to sinners, and it was the self-righteous pharisees who hated him for it. Treating someone who was once a brother as a sinner does in no way entail refusal to interact with him.

Besides living in gross immorality, there is one more biblical reason for disfellowship, heretical perversion of the Gospel, and this is what 2 John addresses:

For many deceivers are entered into the world, who confess not that Jesus Christ is come in the flesh. This is a deceiver and an antichrist. Look to yourselves, that we lose not those things which we have wrought, but that we receive a full reward. Whosoever transgresseth, and abideth not in the doctrine of Christ, hath not God. He that abideth in the doctrine of Christ, he hath both the Father and the Son. If there come any unto you, and bring not this doctrine, receive him not into your house, neither bid him God speed: -2 John 1:7-10

2 Thessalonians 3 seems to teach disfellowship for both reasons, heresy, as well as unrepentant sin:

Now we command you, brethren, in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ, that ye withdraw yourselves from every brother that walketh disorderly, and not after the tradition which he received of us…And if any man obey not our word by this epistle, note that man, and have no company with him, that he may be ashamed. Yet count him not as an enemy, but admonish him as a brother. -2 Thessalonians 3:6, 14-15

In summary, the scriptural teaching of disfellowship bears a night and day difference from the modern practice of shunning. First off, disfellowship as a brother/sister in Christ does not require refusing to speak to or acknowledge someone, which is the essence of shunning. Disfellowship is an act of love. Heaven will not be attained by any person who refuses to repent of their sin or who perverts the gospel of Christ, and thus it is imperative to get their attention. The best way to help them is to first follow Christ’s instruction of taking the offense to them directly and privately, but if this is not heeded, then they must be excluded from fellowship as a brother in Christ. Instead, they are to be treated in the same loving manner as sinners are treated, they are to be never counted as an enemy, and they are to be forgiven, comforted and shown an abundant affirmation of love if ever they do repent of their errors.

It is critical to realize that the doctrinal errors which are to be disfellowshipped over are only the extreme ones, the ones which are heretical and detrimental to salvation. The textual example is denying that Jesus has come to earth. This type of error is a far cry from a disagreement over whether or not Christian men have the liberty to grow beards. Church splits over issues such as these are a smack in the face to Christ’s prayer for unity:

Neither pray I for these alone, but for them also which shall believe on me through their word; That they all may be one; as thou, Father, art in me, and I in thee, that they also may be one in us: that the world may believe that thou hast sent me. -John 17:20-21

Unity of the Body of Christ is so dear to the heart of God that those who would threaten it by perverting the gospel are endanger of being disfellowshipped themselves:

Now I beseech you, brethren, mark them which cause divisions and offences contrary to the doctrine which ye have learned; and avoid them. For they that are such serve not our Lord Jesus Christ, but their own belly; and by good words and fair speeches deceive the hearts of the simple. -Romans 16:17

 

Motivations Behind Shunning

Somewhere in America there was a once a young man who went back to visit his childhood home church after 5 years of living out of state. He was still going strong for Christ, and had even been preaching for a couple of years. In his own words, “I was literally stunned by their reaction. I walked in so happy to see everyone. No one would even talk to me. I remember being so confused. At the altar service people were gathered around me praying for me to be saved.” He then describes how that even someone who had been one of his closest friends wouldn’t have anything to do with him. And what gross immorality or perversion of doctrine had granted him this treatment? Back to his own words, “The only major thing that looked different was that I had a beard.” The worst part, he says, was that when he talked to his parents about this their response was, “What did you expect?” Shunning-over a beard-was to be expected.

What are the motivations behind such treatment? According to Psychology Today, the top reasons for shunning include: embarrassment, shame, jealousy, annoyance, racial or cultural bias, poor timing and shyneses [3]. Dr Savin Bapir-Tardy looks at more reasons, specifically within a religious context:

The phenomenon of shunning and ostracising has often been linked to cults. It is a tactic that is used as a form of punishment for those who are perceived to have transgressed, questioned any of the community’s beliefs or who do not share the same collectively held beliefs…

Shunning is often implemented by community leaders. They encourage families to also shun their family members, including their children. Failure to do so implies a loss of honour within the community and families who refuse are likely to be banished as a whole because they have lost their honour within the community and the community as a whole feel that they had been dishonoured…

It is well-documented in research from social psychology that people obey orders that are given from someone in authority. If those in authority are encouraging shunning, people will obey this, regardless of the psychological distress and the damage that it may have on the family.

Adding to this, shunning is a powerful tool for social influence, so leaders use it to ensure that people will obey them, in order to maintain their membership within the community. Let’s not forget, humans are social beings and the prospect of facing social humiliation, shame and rejection are not a prospect that we aim for in fact, we would do anything to avoid it. [2]

Religious shunning is most often a used as a tool for manipulation and control. It is unloving, unkind and uncaring. It is self-centered, and willing to sacrifice a neighbor’s well-being for one’s own reputation and/or power. Religious shunning is the same treatment that the Jews would give to the unclean and the Samaritans. Jesus took a hard stand against this. Remember how he “must needs go through Samaria” in John 4:4? Remember how He sat and talked to the Samaritan woman who had been the wife of five husbands? Remember how he would reach out and touch the lepers (Luke 5:13)? Remember how the hero in his parable of the good Samaritan was exactly that, a Samaritan? [4]

It is human nature to only love those who are like us, especially those who look like us, but the gospel came to turn this racism upside down. Jesus came teaching the greatest commandment to be loving God, and the second greatest loving your neighbor. And who is your neighbor? The Samaritan. The person who your entire culture and society and religious community told you to shun, that’s your neighbor. Go love them. There was one person who, while they were telling me they would no longer have anything to do with me, asked, “Do you know you’re loved?” My answer was a emphatic, “No!” Love languages include giving gifts, physical touch, words of affirmation, quality time and acts of service [5]. You cannot show love in any of these ways while shunning a person. Love and shunning do not mix. Christ taught, “By this shall all men know that ye are my disciples, if ye have love one to another” (John 13:35). Does Christ get any glory at all when the world sees Christians refusing to speak to one another over doctrinal disagreements? Absolutely not. They see adults acting like children.

In contrast to the immaturity of shunning, spiritual maturity can never be attained without perfecting godly, Christ-like love.

And though I have the gift of prophecy, and understand all mysteries, and all knowledge; and though I have all faith, so that I could remove mountains, and have not charity, I am nothing. And though I bestow all my goods to feed the poor, and though I give my body to be burned, and have not charity, it profiteth me nothing. 1 Corinthians 13:2-3

And above all these things put on charity, which is the bond of perfectness. -Colossians 3:14

Furthermore, a definition of holiness is to progressively become more Christ-like. Considering that God is love, it is impossible to have holiness without continually growing in love.

And the Lord make you to increase and abound in love one toward another, and toward all men, even as we do toward you: To the end he may stablish your hearts unblameable in holiness before God, -1 Thessalonians 3:12-13

 

Consequences of Shunning on the Body of Christ

Shunning is a divisive practice and a harmful practice. It is an affront to both Christian unity and Christian love. In the heart of the one shunning, it often represents pride, spite and insecurity, while in the heart of the one being shunned it often breeds hopelessness, worthlessness, rejection, and despair. Beyond these effects, there is one more group which shunning negatively impacts, this group is the bystanders who live in fear of being shunned.

From a biblical standpoint, every human has been created with the need of being truly loved and truly known. These needs must be met simultaneously if they are to be met at all. A person cannot be truly loved without being truly known; and being truly known without being truly loved is not fulfilling. Now imagine this scenario. Imagine you are a young adult who has grown up in a church with very strict standards. As you have studied the Word for yourself, there are several prohibitions which you cannot find in scripture, perhaps these include: beards, manicured nails, short-sleeves, hair-trimming, jewelry, or culottes. You see some of your peers begin to practice a few of these things and hear them called, “rebels,” “backsliders” and “disrespectful.” The ones who will practice these things outside of church, but not at church (in an attempt to be respectful to other’s personal convictions) are called, “struggling,” “deceitful” and “hypocrites.” This labeling is especially dangerous, because it skews your friends’ view of themselves, heaping on undeserved guilt and shame.

Next, you watch your Christian peers lose their reputations, their ministries and their friendships, as they become increasingly shunned. Even you are warned against associating with them. It’s a frightening experience, so you start going above and beyond in your standards, in order to avoid shunning and gain favor. Your plan works. Affirmation is heaped upon you by the leaders you most admire, your spiritual maturity is applauded, and it is you who are asked to fill the ministry positions from which your friends were dismissed. It’s every thing you wanted, yet you’re left feeling empty and duplicitous. The question is haunting, “How would these same leaders who love me so much now, treat me if they really knew me? What if they knew what I really believed?” You’d like to believe as they do, but you just don’t see it-and, forbid it that you ask any questions, that may blow your cover. You, my friend, are trapped inside a miserable facade.

How would I know? I know because I’ve been there. I went above and beyond for many years, believing that this was the most spiritual option. The applause I was looking for was gained, but in one of my steepest life crisis, the shell came crashing down. I had just walked through one of the most stinging rejections a girl could imagine, and I was left craving real love and real approval. More than ever before, I needed my authorities to really know me, so they could really love me. Their love for the girl who I was bending over backwards to pretend to be was no longer sufficient. I took a bold step of honesty, and told them how I actually had come to believe for myself. Their response? I was given a week and a half to be cleaned out and gone, unfollowed on social media, and never asked where I would even sleep until I could find a new place to live. Others, firmly let me know I am no longer welcome to visit them, told me I will no longer hear from them, forbade me from contacting their children, and even ignored texts which state how much I appreciate them and ask if there’s any offense I can make right. I found out exactly how much I was truly loved.

Do you know what effect this has had on my observing peers? They are only that much more afraid to ever be honest about who they really are and what they really believe. Truly, how spiritual is that? Whether or not the strictest beliefs are correct, this tactic of shunning as a way of belief-preservation entirely misses the heart of discipleship and genuine growth. Refusing to allow a person the right to be ‘wrong’ is refusing them the right to be real; there is no acknowledgment of where they actually are in their walk with Christ, and as consequence, very little hope of helping them forward.

 

Conclusion

Shunning is everything that holiness is not. It denies two of the greatest human needs, love and belonging.  This can have severe psychological damage upon the person being shunned, resulting in physical symptoms. Towards the unbeliever, shunning drastically decreases their chances of coming to Christ.  Towards the believer, it splits and divides the Body of Christ. Shunning is most often motivated by pride, spite, anger, bias, insecurity, and a desire for control. Sadly, it is often confused with biblical disfellowship, which only happens on grounds of unrepentant, gross immorality or severe heresy, and never includes snubbing or refusing to speak to someone. Finally, shunning has severe consequences on the observers as it causes them to be afraid of ever speaking of their personal beliefs; they become trapped in a miserable facade, never to be truly known or truly loved.

It would be a disservice to end this article without a huge shout-out to the many Christians, even in the strictest of churches, who fully understand and practice a biblical response to those they differ with doctrinally. In the words of the gentleman from the earlier example, “I have to say, my wife and I know one Holiness family that we have known for years that treats us the same, They are like gold…they don’t treat people like us as outcasts…they treat other people who are Christians (but not Holiness) with dignity and respect.” Now, doesn’t that sound a bit more like Jesus? For all my former friends who are ashamed to associate with me, fearing for their reputation, there are still those who have demonstrated the love, grace, compassion, and freedom in Christ. They have opened up their homes and their hearts, they have fully recognized me as a sister in Christ, they have discussed our doctrinal differences with utmost kindness and respect, and they have been there for me whenever I needed a friend. They have granted me the right to be wrong, rather than trying to force me into agreement. They could care less what men think of them, because they care so much more about being the hands and feet of Christ. This is the Christian love which restores, heals, gives hope, and affirms value. This is the Christian unity which tears down barriers, biases, and useless division. This is the love and this is the unity by which they world will know that, truly, Christ has come and these men are his disciples.

-Natalie Mayo

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Resources:

1. https://www.psychologytoday.com/us/blog/beyond-bullying/201309/the-silence-shunning-conversation-kipling-william

2. http://www.sedaa.org/2016/11/the-practice-of-shunning-and-its-consequences/

3. https://www.psychologytoday.com/us/blog/the-time-cure/201302/shunning-the-ultimate-rejection

4. https://avoidjw.org/en/avoiding-witnesses/disfellowshipping-biblical-teaching/

5. https://www.5lovelanguages.com/5-love-languages/