Boundaries UnScriptural Foundation

Boundaries, by Cloud and Townsend bases it's principles on these 3 passages from Scripture. Are their claim legit?

Just because a teaching is labeled "Christian" and is embraced by many Christians, does not mean it's actually biblical. I have found that to be the case with the Boundaries teaching by Henry Cloud and John Townsend. Boundaries has become a thriving business with a series of books, paid online counseling services, and paid subscriptions. It's incredibly popular. 

However, I'm personally aware of Christian families damaged by Boundaries teachings, and after reading their materials, I can understand why. 

Let's look at the "biblical" foundation Boundaries uses to justify their methods, i.e. giving people (especially family members) ultimatums about their behavior and/or marginalizing them in our lives. In the introductory chapters of the Boundaries book as well as online, they use multiple Scriptures, but these three are consistently used to lay the ground work: Genesis 1:28, Proverbs 4:23, and Matthew 18:17-18. 

1. Genesis 1:28 

Genesis 1:28: “God blessed them [Adam and Eve] and said to them, "Be fruitful and increase in number; fill the earth and subdue it. Rule over the fish in the sea and the birds in the sky and over every living creature that moves on the ground." 

Boundaries (page 26) explains Genesis 1:28 this way: “Made in the image of God, we were created to take responsibility for certain tasks. Part of taking responsibility, or ownership, is knowing what is our job and what isn’t.” (underlining mine)

The authors go on to explain that this passage supports their view that "Any confusion of responsibility or ownership in our lives is a problem of boundaries." (page 27)

But that has nothing to do with Genesis 1:28. Genesis 1:28 introduces man's purpose and responsibility to God, to procreate and rule over a creation fully “owned” by God (Psalm 24:1). Responsibility is not synonymous with ownership. Nor does this passage have anything to say about choosing what's our job and what isn't our job. God defines our job. 

Most importantly, Boundaries uses this verse to introduce their claim that we must set up boundaries in relationships, but this verse in Genesis has nothing to do with human relationships. This is not a mandate to “rule” over our interaction with family members, coworkers, or friends. None of those principles are found in Genesis 1:28. This passage has nothing to do with fencing ourselves off from people we find annoying or difficult.

One of the problems with Boundaries is that they include tidbits of biblical advice mixed in with the error. For example, they talk about teaching our children to take responsibility which is a good thing, but they also talk about relating to our spouse, parents, and coworkers in ways that are not biblical.

Boundaries, by Cloud and Townsend bases it's principles on these 3 passages from Scripture. Are their claim legit?
2. Proverbs 4:23

Proverbs 4:23: Above all else, guard your heart, for everything you do flows from it. 

Boundaries (page 33): “Boundaries help us to distinguish our property so that we can take care of it. They help us guard our heart ‘with all diligence’ (Prov.4:23). We need to keep things that will nurture us inside our fences and keep things that harm us outside.” 

No. Distinguishing our property is not the message of Proverbs 4:23. Instead, it warns us to avoid influences that tempt us to do the wrong things. It sometimes applies to relationships. For example, Christian singles guard their hearts by refusing to date non-Christians and refusing to get involved in sexual relationships. 

It's not about protecting ourselves from conflict, disagreements, hardships, or annoying people. Instead, Scripture commands us to deal humbly and biblically with difficult relationships (Matthew 5:23-24; Romans 12:14-21). 

3. Matthew 18:15-20

Matthew 18:15-20: “If your brother or sister sins, go and point out their fault, just between the two of you. If they listen to you, you have won them over. But if they will not listen, take one or two others along, so that ‘every matter may be established by the testimony of two or three witnesses.’ If they still refuse to listen, tell it to the church; and if they refuse to listen even to the church, treat them as you would a pagan or a tax collector.  “Truly I tell you, whatever you bind on earth will be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth will be loosed in heaven.  “Again, truly I tell you that if two of you on earth agree about anything they ask for, it will be done for them by my Father in heaven. For where two or three gather in my name, there am I with them.” 

Boundaries (page 36): “Many passages of Scripture urge us to say no to others’ sinful treatment of us (Matthew 18:15-20).” 

In an online article, Cloud says Matthew 18:15-17 instructs us to confront people with their sins and if they don’t listen, “you throw them out of the house. That’s right in the Bible, right there. It’s all the way through the Bible. The psychological term for this was boundaries or limits, however you want to look at it” (source). 

No. None of these explanations are found in this passage. 

This passage is about church discipline for unrepentant church members involved in serious moral sins. For example, if you know a church member is involved in some kind of fraud, you might confront them about it. If they fail to listen, you take several other church members with you to confront them again. Then, if they refuse to repent, the church leadership gets involved. If they remain unrepentant, the church tells them they are no longer welcome in the church unless they repent.

This is not about personal relationships with difficult people, especially not a method of dealing with family problems. Saying that it means we should throw people out of the house is wrong on so many levels. The truest part of Cloud's statements is when he admits boundaries is a "psychological term" because it's not a biblical one.

But perhaps the most inaccurate aspect of the Boundaries teachings is a principle that is prevalent throughout their books and online teachings: using multiple Scripture references to claim that God sets boundaries so He doesn't have to deal with difficult people:

Boundaries (page 45): “God limits his exposure to evil, unrepentant people, as should we. Scripture is full of admonitions to separate ourselves from people who act in destructive ways (Matt.18:15-17; 1 Cor.5:9-13). We are not being unloving. Separating ourselves protects love, because we are taking a stand against things that destroy love.”  

Not true! Jesus is fully God and perfectly loving, and He gave up His rights and took punishment for your sins and mine. He didn't limit His exposure to evil, unrepentant people. He went to the worst of the worst at great personal sacrifice, facing injustice, mistreatment, mockery, and pain. He denied Himself and He tells us to deny ourselves (Philippians 2:1-11; Luke 15:1; Mark 8:34). 

Their use of 1 Corinthians 5:9-13 in their explanation is especially ironic. Like Matthew 18:15-17, it's a passage about church discipline for those who call themselves Christians but are "sexually immoral or greedy, an idolater or slanderer, a drunkard or swindler." But it specifically tells us that we are not supposed to apply the same restrictions to those "outside the church." If one of your family members has been disciplined by the church for serious moral sins, then it's appropriate to place boundaries on them. Otherwise, this passage refutes the teachings of Boundaries

There are some times when we can set up rules in relationships: for example, when dealing with minor children or adult children living at home, physically abusive people, criminals, alcoholics, and drug addicts. We should also refuse to do things that enable others to sin (e.g. giving them money when they refuse to work), and we have every right to maintain reasonable rules for those living in our home. 

Scripture says bad company corrupts good character (1 Corinthians 15:33), and we have a responsibility to choose godly close friends. In addition, if a Christian is involved in serious unrepentant sin after being confronted by the church, we should avoid them. But we are not supposed to avoid sinful people in general, especially not those whom God has placed in our family (1 Corinthians 5:9-12).

Perhaps the most sinful application of Boundaries teachings is when adult children use grandchildren as pawns in their disagreements. Just as a parent has "power" to abuse a minor child, adult children have "power" to abuse their children's grandparents. 

Offering ultimatums and marginalizing family members, as Boundaries recommends, is not biblical. It's not "our job." It keeps us from growing up in our faith, and often the boundary-makers become the most "toxic" people in a family, selfishly seeing everything from their perspective without sympathy, understanding, or empathy. 

Boundaries often presents situations as if there are only two options: passive acceptance or taking control. The Bible offers many options and multiple principles for improving bad relationships (James 3:13-18).

God wants us to forgive, seek reconciliation, seek peace, return good for evil, and repent of our sins (Matthew 5:23-24Romans 12:14-21). Many difficult relationships improve when we do these things. If they don't improve, at least we have not taken the immature, easy way out. We can still rejoice that we are learning perseverance and allowing God to refine our faith (1 Peter 1:6-7James 1:2-5) 

For a collection of helpful articles about specific Boundaries errors in their teachings about marriage, family, and church relationships, see Are Boundaries Biblical Collection.

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