The problem with boundaries

The body of Christ is not immune to the issues surrounding boundaries.

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Most of us think of boundaries as a necessary evil. They protect us from danger, but they also seem to stop us or hold us back when we disagree with them. This is a misunderstanding of the role and function of boundaries. They are actually crucial for true freedom and even life.

Think about it. A boundary-less state equals death. Space is a void with no confines, but also no life. If you lost your skin—the margin of your body—you would die. Even cancer is cells that do not respect their limits and expand where they shouldn’t.

The work we see God doing in Genesis’ origin story is the work of creating boundaries. From the chaos, the “without form and void”, the tempestuous waters, God delineates boundaries: between light and darkness, day and night, land and water, flora and fauna of all kinds, man and woman—even work and rest.

The original lie tested the boundaries God had established. The tree of knowledge of good and evil was a boundary that actually provided freedom of choice. The enemy questioned that freedom and painted boundaries (between trees, and God and man) as negative, reframing the conversation and creating the conditions of suspicion and rebellion. Humans have had a troubled relationship with boundaries ever since.

The body of Christ is not immune from these issues around boundaries. And a lack of clear and healthy boundaries works against God’s intentions.

Unfortunately, it is often seen as a mark of heroism not to have boundaries in church work. Pastors, elders and ministry leaders are often expected to be available 24/7, otherwise they are seen as uncommitted. Christian relationships must be founded on love, respect and sacrificial service, but giving all the time, giving beyond our means, is spending someone else’s coin—it is dangerous. Those who have a hard time saying no become burned out and resentful of others and the Church. Those who are controlling (not accepting “no”) often have power in church boards or influence among the congregation as no-one wants to make waves by standing up to them. This can create numerous problems at a local church level.

"We enforce external boundaries on those with whom we have not established interpersonal borders."

Adventists have dietary restrictions and behavioural boundaries that place limits on external things. These restrictions protect us and in many cases are positive. They also show who’s in or out or on the margins. Sadly, they are easy to enforce on others and often give us a false sense of achieving something, or being in a right relationship with God because we remain within these behavioural boundaries. This is works.

Yet we struggle with relational boundaries. We shy away from interpersonal conflict, are afraid to place restrictions on controlling or manipulative rogue elements (for fear of being unloving) and often mistake the call of being makers of the peace with being keepers of the peace. The problem is that we suffer when we don’t enforce our own personal boundaries: we lack moderation, self-care, private spiritual disciplines. We focus on the external to the loss of the internal and inter-personal. We enforce external boundaries on those with whom we have not established interpersonal borders.

Jesus left the crowds (Luke 4:30-32; 9:18). He created boundaries around His work. When Moses was burning out, his father-in-law recommended some delegation or boundaries being set for someone who had trouble saying no (Exodus 18:17–23).

Peter took Jesus aside to “correct his course”—he had a different idea how things should work and wanted to control Jesus. He was overstepping his boundaries. Jesus rebuked him—and reminded him that his domain was within human concerns, whereas Jesus was working within different boundaries (Matthew 16:22,23).

Boundaries are a huge blind spot for us. I pray we can learn from the example of Jesus, Moses and other biblical leaders, as well as engage in our own personal reflection and self-analysis about where our boundary problems might lie. Hopefully we can then become a Church filled with well-adjusted, healthy, loving individuals.