Disfellowshipping is a term that refers to putting one out of the fellowship, or common group, due to some sin, moral lapse, or unfaithfulness. Although the concept is widely practiced among religious groups of various kinds, this specific term is used in the Church of Christ and the Jehovah’s Witnesses. To be disfellowshipped is to be removed from membership.
Without addressing the doctrinal aberrations of the two groups mentioned above, we can state that the basic concept of disfellowshipping is found in the New Testament. In Matthew 18 Jesus teaches that, if a person who claims to be a believer will not repent of specific sin after several confrontations, that person should be treated as an unbeliever. Paul also addresses church discipline: “I wrote to you in my letter not to associate with sexually immoral people—not at all meaning the people of this world who are immoral, or the greedy and swindlers, or idolaters. In that case you would have to leave this world. But now I am writing to you that you must not associate with anyone who claims to be a brother or sister but is sexually immoral or greedy, an idolater or slanderer, a drunkard or swindler. Do not even eat with such people. What business is it of mine to judge those outside the church? Are you not to judge those inside? God will judge those outside. Expel the wicked person from among you” (1 Corinthians 5:9–13). So, unrepentant sinners within the church are to be removed from the local body. However, Paul reminds the church in 2 Corinthians 2:7–8 to restore and forgive a repentant brother. The ultimate goal of excommunication or disfellowshipping is repentance and the restoration of fellowship.
In evangelical churches, the process of removing one from church membership is often called “church discipline.” In the Catholic Church it is called “excommunication,” which bars the person from partaking of the Eucharist. In Amish circles it is commonly known as “shunning.” The term disfellowshipping is used by Jehovah’s Witnesses and the Church of Christ. When a group member commits some egregious sin as defined by the group in question, and that person refuses to repent after confrontation, then he or she is disfellowshipped, which means that he or she can no longer participate in the activities of the group and that members of the group in good fellowship can no longer have contact with him. In the Jehovah’s Witness organization, maintaining fellowship with a disfellowshipped non-relative is grounds for being disfellowshipped.
Many have complained that disfellowshipping is cruel and unkind. Certainly, any such action can be initiated either in a spirit of love and humility or in a spirit of pride and anger. The primary issue is not the practice of disfellowshipping but the underlying doctrinal purity (or deviance) of the groups involved.