Printer Friendly

Family ostracism in Christianity and counseling.

In the blockbuster movie, Avatar (Landau & Cameron, 2009), a pivotal scene occurs between native Neytiri and her love interest, Jake, when she says "I see you" while embracing him in his human form for the first time. This moment is important because the audience understands this recognition of Jake not only as a member of her alien Na'vi tribe but also as an individual with whom she has a deep, meaningful connection. In her tribe, unsanctioned actions led to the turning away, or shunning, of the individual who no longer exists as a viable member and Neytiri's words represent the love and acceptance that indicates reconciliation and a return to "family" status.

Oftentimes, families who ascribe to a Christian way of life similarly adopt this type of ostracism as a way to cope with unacceptable behavior rather than engage in confrontation. In effect, the action of ostracism results in the rejection of the person as a visible entity, with no opportunity for interaction between that individual and the rest of the family unit. Analysis of the practice of family ostracism as it intersects with Christian teachings and the practice of ethical counseling underscores the importance of eliminating the imposition of counselor values and assisting the client in obtaining an identity as a valued social being.

Christian Community Shunning

Some Christian communities have used shunning as a way to control membership and adhere to biblical teachings. Amish (Clark, 2013), Evangelical (White, 2012), Mormon (Ludlow, 2001), Protestant (Hileman, 2008), and Jehovah's Witness (, 2014) communities understand shunning, or disfellowship, as an action distinct from excommunication which represents two different levels of ostracism. In effect, the first level of shunning has been used by these communities to promote shame intended to bring about the return of the offending member to the community. For example, many Amish communities implement Meidung, or shunning, that would not be expected to continue beyond six weeks (Miller, 2007). At that time, this "ritual of shaming" would involve mediation by a minister to provide the offending member with the opportunity to demonstrate humility and "return to good standing" (p. 488).

The second level of excommunication has traditionally involved the complete rejection, or pseudo "death", of the individual as a member of that community with little or no possibility of return to the fold as a visible entity. For the Amish, excommunication represents the end of all interaction between the church and that member who has refused efforts to conform to the community rules (Clark, 2013). It is important to note that the distinction between shunning, or disfellowship, and excommunication has been clearly defined in Christian communities that use them. Rules for family ostracism, referred to frequently as shunning, tend to be less structured with elements related to individual interpretations of the Bible, family traditions, and personal views about what it means to be a Christian.

Christian Family Ostracism

In contrast to church standards for shunning and excommunication, family ostracism often begins with the intention of producing short-term estrangement that inevitably becomes a prolonged situation that is more difficult to break over time (Fitness, 2005). The shunned member may or may not have full knowledge of what the estrangement is about or understand exactly what the perceived infraction was due to the lack of structured conflict resolution processes and procedures. Some behaviors linked with family ostracism have included: inter-racial marriages (Wightman, 2013), interfaith marriages (Scinico, 2013), substance use (Fitness, 2005), sexual orientation (Etengoff & Daiute, 2014), HIV or AIDS status (Kang, Chin, & Behar, 2011), divorce (, 2012), and other actions that represent a violation of family mores or traditions (Fitness, 2005). These decisions and life style patterns may, or may not, be readily understood as the source of the shunning that the family has interpreted as a direct affront to predetermined sensibilities.

Oftentimes, Christian families resort to shunning as a way to express their disapproval of a member's behavior and refer to biblical passages ordinarily understood as relevant to personal or church membership as a way to support this view. These biblical passages are particularly hurtful because they come with associated mandates that include provisions to: avoid the offending person (2 Thessalonians 3:14), not eat with him or her (1 Corinthians 5:11), or treat him or her "as you would a pagan or a tax collector" (Matthew 18: 17). Other biblical passages associated with the act of family shunning refer to prioritizing the will of God over that of human desires and the Matthew 5:30 commandment to consider cutting off a hand or foot rather than test the limits of hell. Families have interpreted these passages as support for the decision to participate in the "cutting off" of the offending person and prolonged shunning as the best choice in a difficult situation.

Christian Research

Christian perspectives on family ostracism relates to misunderstood biblical interpretations that have been taken out of context and applied without a broader view of Jesus' message of love, forgiveness, and reconciliation (Schultz, 2012). Family interpretations of these messages often result in a "word-for-word" versus "thought-for-thought" application (Stein, 2011) that is more closely aligned with the practice of excommunication than the traditional act of shunning. The pagan, or tax collector referenced in Matthew 18:17, for example, would continue to be engaged by early church members who would recognize these individuals as existing outside the community (Illian, 2010). Further evaluation of the Matthew reading results in an understanding of that scripture as intended for a Jewish community that understood rules of conflict negotiation that included confronting the person about "his or her offense immediately, instead of letting one's anger fester and develop into a lasting grudge" (Illian, 2010, p. 447).

Other biblical passages, such as Jesus's message to "love one another" and to "love others as you love yourself" seem to conflict with the practice of shunning and, as such, represent a breach of Christian ethics (Niebuhr, 2013). So too, does the Leviticus 19:17-18 command that "You shall not hate in your heart anyone of your kin; you shall reprove your neighbor, or you will incur guilt yourself. You shall not take vengeance or bear a grudge against any of your people, but you shall love your neighbor as yourself: I am the LORD" (Illian, 2010, p.446). Cassiday-Shaw and Koenig (2013) point to this tendency to parse out specific lines of scripture to use as reinforcement of harsh discipline as falling outside the broader view of what it means to be a Christian. These researchers note that "a mature Christian walk requires a knowledge of God's entire word, as well as the wisdom to apply it to our lives" (p.10) and that individually determined paths of righteousness should not be applied to expectations of others. These Christian writers provide insight on family ostracism as a misguided attempt to live according to scripture and offer guidance for alternative ways to approach conflict through the practice of love and forgiveness (Cheong & DiBlasio, 2007).

Christianity and Behavioral Health

There is a paucity of Christian research that specifically addresses the topic of family ostracism yet the intersection of faith and behavioral health management has brought several articles to fruition. In one of these writings, DeKraai, Bulling, Shank, and Tomkins (2011) found that faith community resources can provide much needed assistance for individuals and families who suffer from emotional issues that would be associated with family ostracism. Specifically, these researchers found that communities of faith can be instrumental in reducing the stigma of secular counseling, provide opportunities for coalitions that can reach more people, and act as a gateway to professional behavioral health treatment. These findings indicate that Christian communities can be of service in moving families toward professional counseling when communication has failed and work as an instrumental partner in guiding members of the congregation toward alternative ways of handling family conflict.

In consideration of family ostracism in the case of HIV, Kang, Chin, and Behar (2011) argued for a theologically-oriented program that would cross formidable barriers of stigma for conservative immigrant Chinese churches in New York City. These researchers presented that the Christian tenet to provide compassion and care for those who are ill overrides "exclusionary dictates" of the church despite an inclination to alienate members when lifestyle choices conflict with the church's perceived moral standing and authority (p. 269). In addition to the perceived need to ostracize others who violate church dictates, these Chinese Christian congregants also viewed sexual immorality of homosexuality, HIV infection, and premarital sex as violations of scriptural teaching that bring shame and humiliation to one's family.

This culturally-informed view of specific behaviors as sinful and shaming often led Chinese Christian parents to ostracize their children as the "right" thing to do. Paradoxically, this effort to rear children with a strong moral background through ostracism conflicted greatly with the Chinese Christian desire for family harmony and the maintenance of shared socio-ethical values. As a result, many Chinese Christian families reported experiencing great distress as a result of ostracism and HIV clients reporting a fear of rejection as a primary stressor when coping with their illness.

As a result of this research, Kang et al. (2011) argue that a faith-based HIV initiative of compassion and awareness would assist these individuals and their families in moving beyond estrangement as the only Christian choice in these circumstances. They report that one way to accomplish this would be to introduce workshops and education sessions that would assist pastors and congregations to focus on the value of compassion and help teach the community how to love one another unconditionally. Another idea presented by these researchers would be to introduce Volf's (1996) "embrace" concept that challenges Christians to seek their shared humanity with others to promote engagement on common ground.

Counseling Research

The bulk of ostracism research conducted in the field of counseling refers to workplace, or social shunning that is understood as another form of bullying. Social ostracism has been linked to severe negative outcomes such as depression and mortality (Williams, 2001) as well as aggression from the targeted member who will resort to drastic measures in order to be "seen" (Williams & Wesselmann, 2011). Sword (2013) phrases this as the Ultimate Rejection that comes about due to feelings of embarrassment, shame, jealousy, annoyance, racial or cultural bias, poor timing, or even shyness. In contrast to this type of shunning, family ostracism tends to be related to the breaking of "unforgiveable" rules associated with interpersonal roles such as parent, child, or sibling (Fitness, 2005). Actions of rejection or sexual taboo that represent the violation of trust forged in these close family relationships are then noted as the reason behind family ostracism. In effect, the offending individuals have, "through their own appalling behavior, forfeit[ed] their right to family membership" (Fitness, 2005, p. 11).

Also of interest is the possible connection between birth order and family ostracism that has found middleborn children more likely targets of rejection due to perceived disfavoritism over firstborns or lastborn siblings (Sulloway, 1996). These children often have a tendency to balk at family mores in what may be interpreted as a rebellious manner and are just as likely to reject the family as they are to be rejected. Regardless of the reason for this type of shunning, the client is likely to experience emotional pain and suffering that can lead to the need for counseling. Sadness and anger are likely to emerge as a consequence of chronic ostracism (Williams, 2009) that has been identified as a three stage process of reflexive, reflective, and resignation type of responses (Carter-Sowell, 2010). It could be helpful to consider how these emotional states may be addressed in session and contribute to a diagnosis of psychopathology.

Counselor Considerations

Christian counselors who have an understanding of these potential religious and/or spiritual factors need to have ethical training to avoid imposing beliefs and values that are not that of the client being shunned (American Counseling Association, 2014). This training and practice would include the identification of the counselor's religious and/or spiritual beliefs and values that may impact the counseling relationship and bracket these elements effectively when assisting the client in session (Cashwell & Young, 2011). Consideration of Volf's (1996) concept to "embrace" the shared humanity of the shunned or shunning client could be helpful for the Christian counselor who may struggle with empathy or unconditional positive regard for this person. Alternately, personal prayer, consultation, and self-reflection exercises can also be of assistance in navigating negative counter-transference (Cashwell & Young, 2011).

Psychospiritual Interventions

Psychospiritual interventions that would attend to the client's religious and/or spiritual beliefs and values as well as the psychological pain of shunning are recommended (Wesselmann & Williams, 2010). Coping strategies that help the client to adapt to the current situation and prevent the progression into the third stage of resignation may also be helpful (Williams, 2009). Psychospiritual interventions of this type may include letter writing, journaling, anger processing (McGinnis, 2008), creative role-play (Nelson & Trepper, 1993), or prayer (Martinez, Smith, & Barlow, 2007) that could help the client discuss thoughts and emotions related to ostracism.

Another suggestion would be to consider ways for the client to begin communication with the estranged family member. Virtual engagement at this level may involve preliminary contact through reframing of sadness or anger using the Gestalt "empty chair" technique (Narkiss-Guez, Enav Zichor, Guez, & Diamond, 2014) or customized guided imagery and metaphor that could engage the client in future possibilities of family interaction (Sherman & Fredman, 2013). These interventions may also include elements of forgiveness within the context of the client's worldview to move from pain and punishment to an orientation of peace and reconciliation relevant to both Christianity and professional counseling (Cheong & DiBlasio, 2007; Hargrave, 2013). Finally, clients may find reconnection with his or her religious or spiritual community healing and reassuring (Wesselmann & Williams, 2010) and referral to, or consultation with, a leader within his or her faith tradition may also be helpful (Cashwell & Young, 2011; Martinez et al., 2007).


American Counseling Association (2014). ACA code of ethics. Alexandria, VA Author.

Carter-Sowell, A. R. (2010). Salting a wound, building a callous, or throwing in the towel? The measurement and effects of chronic ostracism experiences. (Unpublished Doctoral Dissertation). Purdue University, IN.

Cashwell, C., & Young, S. J. (Eds.) (2011). Integrating spirituality and religion into counseling: A guide to competent practice. Alexandria, VA American Counseling Association.

Cassiday-Shaw, A. K., & Koenig, H. G. (2013). Family abuse and the Bible: The scriptural perspective. New York, NY: Routledge.

Cheong, R., & DiBlasio, F.A. (2007). Christ-like love and forgiveness: A biblical foundation for counseling practice. Journal of Psychology and Christianity, 26, 14-25. (July 25, 2012). Being shunned by your dysfunctional family? You must be the normal one! Message posted to 36P jIfX4 w you.html

Clark, M. S. (2013). Plain answers about the Amish life. Eugene, OR: Harvest House Publishers.

DeKraai, M. B., Bulling, D. J., Shank, N., & Tomkins, A. J. (2011). Faith-based organizations in a system of behavioral health care. Journal of Psychology and Theology, 39, 255-267.

Etengoff, C. & Daiute, C. (2014). Family members' uses of religion in post-coming-out conflicts with their gay relative. Psychology of Religion and Spirituality, 6, 33-43. doi: 10.1037/a0035198

Fitness, J. (2005). Bye bye, black sheep: The causes and consequences of rejection in family relationships. In K. D.Williams, J. P. Forgas, & W. von Hippel, (Eds.) The social outcast: Ostracism, social exclusion,? rejection, and bullying (pp. 263-276). New York, NY: Psychology Press.

Hargrave, T. (2013). Families and forgiveness: Healing wounds in the intergenerational family. Levittown, PA: Brunner/Mazel, Inc.

Hileman, L. (2008). The unique needs of Protestant clergy families: Implications for marriage and family counseling. Journal of Spirituality in Mental Health, 10, 119-144. doi: 10.1080/19349630802081152

Illian, B. (2010). Church discipline and forgiveness in Matthew 18:15-35. Currents in Theology and Mission, 37, 444-450. (2014). Do Jehovah's Witnesses Shun Former Members of Their Religion? Retrieved from

Kang, E., Chin, J. J., & Behar, E. (2011). Faith-based HIV care and prevention in Chinese immigrant communities: Rhetoric or reality? Journal of Psychology and Theology, 39, 268-279.

Landau, J. & Cameron, J. (Producers). Cameron, J. (Director). (2009). Avatar [Motion picture]. United States: Twentieth Century Fox.

Ludlow, D. H. (2001). Disciplinary procedures. Encyclopedia of Mormonism. Brigham Young University. Retrieved from

Martinez, J. S., Smith, T. B., & Barlow, S. H. (2007). Spiritual interventions in psychotherapy: Evaluations by highly religious clients. Journal of Clinical Psychology, 63(10), 943-960.

McGinnis, C. Z. A. (2008). Using anger productively: "Amazon" warrior theory. Psychology Journal, 5 (2), 73-91.

Miller, W. F. (2007). Negotiating with modernity: Amish dispute resolution. Ohio State Journal on Dispute Resolution, 22 , 477.

Narkiss-Guez, T., Enav Zichor, Y., Guez, J., & Diamond, G. M. (2014). Intensifying attachment-related sadness and decreasing anger intensity among individuals suffering from unresolved anger: The role of relational reframe followed by empty-chair interventions. Counselling Psychology Quarterly. Advance online publication. doi:10.1080/09515070.2014.924480

Nelson, T. S., & Trepper, T. S. (1993). 101 interventions in family therapy. New York, NY: Routledge.

Niebuhr, R. (2013). An interpretation of Christian ethics. Louisville, KY: Westminster John Knox Press.

Schultz, R. (2012). Out of context: How to avoid misinterpreting the Bible. Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Books.

Scinico, F. (June 2013). Should Christians Shun a Believer for Dating an Unbeliever? [Web log comment] Retrieved from

Sherman, R., & Fredman, N. (2013). Handbook of structured techniques in marriage and family therapy. Levittown, PA: Brunner/Mazel, Inc.

Stein, R. H. (2011). A basic guide to interpreting the Bible: Playing by the rules. Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic.

Sulloway, F. (1996). Born to rebel: Birth order, family dynamics, and creative lives. New York, NY: Pantheon.

Sword, R.K.M. (2013). Shunning--The Ultimate Rejection. Psychology Today. [Web log comment]. Retrieved from

Volf, M. (1996). Exclusion and embrace: A theological exploration of identity, otherness, and reconciliation. Nashville, TN: Abingdon Press.

Wesselmann, E. D., & Williams, K. D. (2010). The potential balm of religion and spirituality for recovering from ostracism. Journal of Management, Spirituality, and Religion, 7, 29-45.

White, C. J. (2012). An accommodating and shunning culture: Evaluating the cultural context of the Evangelical Theological Society in the United States. Scottish Journal of Theology, 65, 192-211. doi:10.1017/S0036930612000051.

Wightman, F. (October 18, 2013) Shunned by her family over an interracial marriage [Video]. The Province. Retrieved from ly+over+interracial+/9054254/story.html Williams, K. D. (2001). Ostracism: The power of silence. New York, NY: Guilford Press.

Williams, K. D. (2009). Ostracism: Effects of being excluded and ignored. In M. Zanna (Ed.), Advances in experimental social psychology (pp. 275-314). New York, NY: Academic Press.

Williams, K. D., & Wesselmann, E. D. (2011). The link between ostracism and aggression. In J. P. Forgas, A. W. Kruglanski, and K. D. Williams, (Eds.), The psychology of social conflict and aggression (pp. 37-51). New York, NY: Psychology Press.

Carol Z.A. McGinnis

Messiah College


Carol Z. A. McGinnis Ph.D., LCPC, NCC is Assistant Professor and Pastoral Counselor in the Graduate Counseling Department at Messiah College in Mechanicsburg, PA. She is currently Track Coordinator for the Clinical Mental Health program, an ACA Awards Committee member (2012-2015), and Director of the AWI @ Fairview UM Church Counseling Center in Phoenix, Maryland. Research interests and publications have included a theory for anger processing and counseling of clients who participate in online home console videogaming.

Correspondence regarding this article should be sent to Carol Z. A. McGinnis, Ph.D., Messiah College, One College Way, Mechanicsburg, PA 17055;
COPYRIGHT 2015 CAPS International (Christian Association for Psychological Studies)
No portion of this article can be reproduced without the express written permission from the copyright holder.
Copyright 2015 Gale, Cengage Learning. All rights reserved.

Article Details
Printer friendly Cite/link Email Feedback
Title Annotation:Research Into Practice
Author:McGinnis, Carol Z.A.
Publication:Journal of Psychology and Christianity
Geographic Code:1USA
Date:Mar 22, 2015
Previous Article:Engaging in social justice practices: the role of Christian clinicians.
Next Article:Addressing spiritual struggles using spiritually oriented trauma-focused cognitive behavioral therapy : an international case study.

Terms of use | Privacy policy | Copyright © 2019 Farlex, Inc. | Feedback | For webmasters