Shunning (a.k.a. Disfellowshipping)
As humans, we were created to be social. The father created us this way, in his image. Because of this, our social interactions are critical to our mental wellbeing, and our mental wellbeing is directly connected to our physical wellbeing. A person’s survival is dependent upon long lasting relationships and trust. What then happens when it is abruptly taken away, such as the case of shunning?
The need for relationships and community is often used as a way to keep people following or obeying the leaders. When one walks outside of the prescribed norm, the church often uses it as a form of punishment. In the church, when a person speaks out against injustice or abusive behavior, this is used as a way to punish them for not maintain silence. It is also used as a way to keep others from having contact with them due to fear the truth they hold could be revealed, thus resulting in loss of the leaderships control.
Shunning and ostracizing is a form of abuse that has life-long effects to the person shunned. It is discrimination and a silent form of bullying often implement directly and indirectly by the leadership. It is the ultimate form of rejection of an individual, and when done through a religious entity, rises to the level of spiritual abuse as well.
Today we use shunning and ostracism synonymously. However, shunning is actually a form of ostracism. Ostracism comes from the Greek word ‘ostrakismos’ which was used under the ancient Athenians where citizens who posed a threat to the state were banished from Athens for 10 years in an effort to protect the state. It ensured their identity as a collective group, leaving no room for individual thinking or beliefs. It also eliminates the ability to challenge authority or speak out against wrongs committed by those in leadership. It is this type of fear that allowed Hitler’s rise to power. He started with shunning Jews to the holocaust.
It is well-documented in various studies and research 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 person or family.
The phenomenon of shunning and ostracizing has often been linked to cults, but is not exclusive. 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 have spoken out against abuse of power. Those believed to be a threat to the ruling leaders may be shunned as a means to keep the hierarchical order within the organization from collapsing.
Adding to this, shunning is a powerful tool used to socially influence a congregation’s, to membership within the community, or to discredit one who has knowledge that would be considered harmful to the leadership if the congregants knew. Humans are social beings and the prospect of facing social humiliation, shame and rejection are not something we aim for. We would in fact do anything to avoid it.
The shunning of a person can best be explained as a social death penalty. Immediately the effects to the individual are isolation from family and/or the community. They attempt to make sense of why this is happening to them. How could the community have rejected them? How little value did they have to the community? What are they now? The individual then starts attacking their sense of self, which is also why shunning is often perceived as the death of personhood. The shunned individual is left with feelings of helplessness, hopelessness, worthlessness, depression, low self-esteem, suicidal ideations, and in some cases self-harming behaviors.
There is a high prevalence of PTSD among people who have been shunned. To get an idea of the pain that shunning can cause, researchers have also observed that even being a bystander to shunning can have dire psychological consequences. The psychological consequences of being shunned are life-long. Although, externally there may not be any physical wounds, internally the wounds are deep.
Working therapeutically through being shunned is very challenging. All of the negative beliefs held by the victim, are reinforced by the act of being shunned. Also, individuals who have been shunned live with psychological agony, often for the rest of their life. Shunning becomes a long-term psychological torture for the individual who it was perpetrated upon.
Social settings and interaction can become unbearable for fear of being shunned/rejected again. When someone has been shunned by one church, they may have difficulty going into other churches due to a trauma response. Thus, perpetuating the psychological effects of the shunning, as well as possible loss of faith.
One may ask themselves how can God’s people who are meant to show his love, reject a fellow believer? It can create questioning and cause faith deconstruction to the individual. This creates a secondary problem, and hinders the healing process.
Where in the Bible can we find references to shunning? We can read that David shunned Absalom after Absalom killed Amnon. David would not speak to him. He shunned him completely. If we go to II Samuel 14, we then find a woman of Tekoah who the Bible presents as a heroine because she was able to get David away from the ridiculous idea of shunning. This story is obviously not a biblical endorsement for shunning.
The glory of God is not honored in shunning. But it is unchristian behavior. A complete shunning is never called for in the Bible. Many will wrongly cite the verses in I Cor. 5 where the context is the Lord’s Supper and the putting away is in regards to reproaching someone over horrible sin. Even when church discipline must take place, complete shunning is never told to us as something to do to fellow believers by the God. If your brother is in sin, go to him.
Does God cast you away when you err? God is always right, we are not. So, does pushing someone away for a difference of opinion, or confessing a sin seem right when there’s a possibility that we are wrong?
Instead of shunning, should we be holding the shunners accountable. The weight of Scripture is against them as is the guilt of hurting fellow believers, and the body as a whole. We can’t stop shunners from wrongly shunning, but we can avoid shunning someone. We can love and reach out to those who have felt the blows of the heavy hand of shunning, and we can speak out on behalf of those who have been shunned.
Can we bring the lost sheep back by shunning? Can we minister to those who are lost and hurting by rejecting them?
The answer is a resounding no.
We see through not only the psychological effects on the person as a whole, but the biblical effects on the entire body of believers when we do. It is a form of psychological and spiritual abuse. God has created us as social beings, and we must therefore show the love of our father, and love others, because he first loves us.