by Debbie Dewart
An increasingly popular “buzzword” among psychologists (and their followers) is “boundaries.” This one concept is used to explain and correct a huge range of human behavior. Many popular psychology books have employed this term in recent years. The concept needs to be examined with biblical discernment. A review of the book Boundaries is an opportunity to do so, as the authors, Henry Cloud and John Townsend, thoroughly explain what is meant by “boundaries,” and how psychologists apply the term to various human relationships.
The task before us is not easy. These authors profess faith in Christ, and they address some very real problems. Their writing is permeated with Scripture references. Sometimes their recommendations appear to be correct on the surface, although the underlying reasoning is questionable. Some of the basic problems encountered can be summarized as follows:
Terminology: The term “boundaries” is one normally applied to political or geographical territories; this is the sole biblical use of the word. It is inappropriate to apply such terminology to personal relationships.
Control: The cover of Boundaries counsels you to take control of your life, rather than to submit control of your life to the sovereign Lord.
Responsibility: “Boundaries” are intended to sort out responsibilities, for oneself and to others. However, all human beings are responsible to God. Biblically, there are often mutual responsibilities. The geographical terminology of “boundaries” does not adequately account for this biblical overlapping of responsibilities.
Persecution for Christ: The Christian is exhorted to be willing to endure hardship and persecution for the sake of the Lord Jesus Christ. Although these authors occasionally mention sacrificial love for others, nowhere do they acknowledge the requirement that the believer be ready to joyfully endure suffering for God’s kingdom.
Sin vs. “Psychological” Problem: Just about every conceivable problem in human behavior or attitude seems capable of being explained as some type of “boundary” problem. In every case, sin is more basic when the issue is examined biblically. The sin of the human heart is greatly obscured when life’s problems are sorted out according to this psychologically contrived category.
Sinner vs. Victim: In looking at “boundary” problems and their development in childhood, the person is viewed as more fundamentally a victim than a sinner. This is a typical error of psychological counseling theories and methods.
Motives: The authors do make some attempts to look biblically at the motives underlying the behaviors that they have defined as “boundary” problems. However, their general focus encourages the inherent self-centered tendencies of the human heart.
Focus on Feelings: Typical of psychology books, these authors place an unbiblical emphasis on emotions.
Forgiveness and Reconciliation: The view of forgiveness and reconciliation presented in this book differs from what the Bible teaches.
Biblical Exegesis: The “boundary” concept is read into the Scriptures that the authors cite in support of their theories. Often, the passages cited have nothing to do with “boundaries” as defined by psychology.
Creator/creature Distinction: “Boundary” theories are applied to God in a way that blurs the clear biblical distinction between the Creator and His creatures. The results are absurd at best.
Each of these objections is covered in my critique of Boundaries titled “Boundaries: Political or Personal?” I end the critique with the following conclusions.
The concept of “boundaries,” contrary to the claims of Drs. Cloud and Townsend, is not a biblical one. A few of the most serious objections need to be summarized in our concluding remarks.
We have noted the authors’ claim that “setting boundaries” is designed ultimately to make possible the love of God and others. However, there is absolutely nothing about the necessity for the believer to be willing to endure hardship and persecution for the cause of Christ.
The whole mentality of “boundary” setting cries against the willingness to joyfully face such trials. Instead, “setting boundaries” feeds into the inherent self-focus of the human heart. Man naturally protects, loves, nourishes, and cherishes himself and his own interests. Man has turned from the glory of God to seek his own glory. What he needs to learn is not how to “set boundaries” and protect himself, but how to die to self and serve Christ without reservation.
Biblically, the word “boundaries” refers to political or geographical borders, not to personal relationships. Such territories do not overlap and are quite impersonal. Biblical responsibilities, however, often do overlap, even though each person is ultimately responsible before God for his own sin. For example, if one person sins against another, each person has a responsibility to initiate reconciliation. If both fulfill their duties before God, they ought to meet halfway. Also, Christians have responsibilities to assist in restoring one another when one falls into sin. This sense of mutual responsibility has no place in the psychological teaching of “boundaries.”
The counsel on the cover of Boundaries, “to take control of your life,” fails to acknowledge the necessity of absolute trust in God. We are not called to protect ourselves and to focus on getting our own “needs” met. Rather, we are called to a radical trust in God, just as Christ entrusted Himself to the One who judges justly, even in the face of the most unjust, severe persecution in history.
The Bible does teach separation at times, but this is a concept far removed from “boundaries.” We are taught to flee temptations (2 Timothy 2:22, 1 Corinthians 6:18), in order to avoid falling into sin and thus dishonoring God. We are to separate from false doctrine and those who cause division in the body of Christ (Romans 16:17-18, Titus 3:10), but again, the focus is on the honor of God and the care of others who may be easily deceived. Believers are holy, “set apart,” consecrated to God. Yet even as we are called out of the world in this sense and are no longer of the world, we must be the salt and light of the earth, ambassadors for Christ. There are times to discipline a fallen brother or sister, but always for his ultimate restoration and salvation (Matthew 18:15-20, 1 Corinthians 5). None of this reflects the basically self-focused teaching of “boundaries.” The idea must be rejected as unbiblical, and we must return to biblical categories for understanding and correcting sinful behavior, and for loving God and others.
PAL V9N6 (November-December 2001)