Are Henry Cloud's "Boundaries" Teachings Biblical?

The Boundaries Teaching of Cloud and Townsend purports to be Christian. This article examines that claim.


Since the 1990's the "Boundaries" teachings of Henry Cloud and Dr. John Townsend have had growing appeal among Christians. But have Christians carefully examined the teaching? Has it led to better family relationships? Does it produce healthy reconciliation and humble self-examination? 

I'm not asking if there are any biblical principles in the teaching. Of course there are. But I'm asking if the overall teaching is biblically sound.

Cloud believes traditional Christian answers to emotional problems have failed. He compares them to the ungodly answers of Job's friends.

"Faced with this kind of help, sufferers either learn to fake healing to remain in the church, or leave the church, deciding that their faith provides little solace for their emotional pain.… Looking for answers that work, and not finding them in the church, they turn to psychology. Often psychological methods succeed, and hurting people find relief." ~ Henry Cloud (source)

Are there "boundaries" in Scripture?

While the Bible never uses the word "boundaries" as Cloud does, it goes without saying that we must protect ourselves from physical abuse and criminal behavior (Ephesians 5:29; 1 Corinthians 6:19). We also may need to set up "rules" for mature discussions if someone is especially volatile (Romans 14:19). And we should never enable someone's addictions or irresponsible behavior (Ephesians 5:11).

Regarding friendships: we are free to choose our friends and should avoid bad companions and believers living immoral lifestyles. See 4 Types of People God Tells Us To Avoid.

But Boundaries teachings go far beyond these biblical warnings and reasonable "rules of engagement." They typically involve limiting or cutting off contact with difficult family members, especially parents.

Did Cloud base Boundaries on biblical principles?

“A huge amount of Scripture is quoted throughout Boundaries, and thus it appears to the undiscerning reader that the conclusions of the authors are biblically sound. Unfortunately, interpretations of Scripture are bent to fit preconceived psychological theories.” Christian Discernment 

To read specific examples of Scripture misused by Boundaries, please see Boundaries Unscriptural Foundation.

The Boundaries Teaching of Cloud and Townsend purports to be Christian. This article examines that claim.
Nor does the Boundaries site qualify as a Christian site in the true sense. 

Some of the articles contain Scripture—many do not—but the main concepts are based in psychology. The website caters to both Christians and non-Christians. In fact, some articles address “significant others” as a legitimate category even though the Bible forbids non-married intimate relationships (example). 

Henry Cloud's 500-word About page speaks of his special interest in two Freudian psychological theories: "clinical psychodynamic ego psychology" and "Object Relations theory."(1)  But it never mentions his faith, the Bible, or God. 

Cloud and Townsend have created a trendy vocabulary, explaining that most relationship problems are based on our failure to take "ownership" of our lives by creating “boundaries” and staying “safe.” They easily and liberally apply the labels “toxic” and abusive to difficult or annoying family members. 

“Boundaries define us. They define what is me and what is not me. A boundary shows me where i end and someone else begins, leading me to a sense of ownership. Knowing what I am to own and take responsibility for gives me freedom. Taking responsibility for my life opens up many different options. Boundaries help us keep the good in and the bad out. Setting boundaries inevitably involves taking responsibility for your choices. You are the one who makes them. You are the one who must live with their consequences. And you are the one who may be keeping yourself from making the choices you could be happy with. We must own our own thoughts and clarify distorted thinking.”  ~  The Boundaries book

"Baptizing" psychological principles so they seem "Christian"

Sometimes Cloud uses Proverbs 4:23 as the basis for Boundaries teachings (source). But that isn't a legitimate claim, considering his definition of boundaries.

Proverbs 4:23 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. But, as I said, the Boundaries website addresses some of their articles to "significant others," so that doesn't seem to be their focus. The focus of Boundaries is more about avoiding difficult people, which isn't the message of Proverbs 4:23. 

Cloud also claims Matthew 18:15-17 is the basis for his Boundaries teachings, explaining that we should confront people who've sinned against us and have an "intervention" if they don't listen. Then “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)

This is another misuse of Scripture. Matthew 18:15-17 is about church discipline, not about setting up boundaries in families or throwing people out of the house.

How do we mature in the Lord?

According to Boundaries teachings, our strength and maturity come by avoiding conflict and difficulties and placing boundaries around family members whom we've judged "toxic" or "controlling."

According to Scripture, our strength and maturity come from

✔ Denying ourselves (Mark 8:34).

Going the second mile (Matthew 5:41).

Humbly putting others above ourselves (Philippians 2:3-5).

✔ Making reconciliation a priority (Matthew 5:23-24).

✔ Persevering and even rejoicing in difficulties (James 1:2-3; James 1:12).

How Christians handle relationships

The Boundaries Teaching of Cloud and Townsend purports to be Christian. This article examines that claim.
Relationships are often messy and difficult, but we have God's Spirit within us.

Colossians 3:12-14: "Therefore, as God’s chosen people, holy and dearly loved, clothe yourselves with compassion, kindness, humility, gentleness and patience. Bear with each other and forgive one another if any of you has a grievance against someone. Forgive as the Lord forgave you. And over all these virtues put on love, which binds them all together in perfect unity."

Have Christians failed?

Cloud believes he has succeeded where most churches have failed: "The help offered to Christians in emotional pain over the years has done untold damage." (source) 

In Does God or psychology provide the cure to emotional problems?, Cloud explains: “As a Christian, a psychologist, and a fellow struggler, I have stood on both side [sic] of this fence. I have tried the 'standard' Christian answers for others, and myself and have come to Job’s conclusion: they are worthless medicine. I have also tried 'baptizing' psychological insights so that they would somehow feel 'Christian.' This didn’t work either.(2)

Cloud goes on to say that he prayed and he believes God gave him answers that have eluded Christians for years. God showed him that the "solutions" are found in "understanding certain basic developmental tasks." This actually has more to do with his Freudian beliefs than his biblical beliefs.(1)

Sadly, because Cloud's "solutions" help us avoid the hard and messy work of reconciliation, they've become incredibly popular.

For example, his article I Want You to Frustrate People encourages readers to sign up for paid counseling services, get the answers to their problems, and "be in charge" of their lives.

While there may be some biblical elements in the Boundaries teaching, it's largely based on human philosophies. And Scripture places those teachings outside the "boundaries" for Christians:

"See to it that no one takes you captive through hollow and deceptive philosophy, which depends on human tradition and the elemental spiritual forces of this world rather than on Christ." Colossians 2:8
 
Notes:
For a collection of helpful articles about specific Boundaries errors in their teachings about marriage, family, and church relationships, see Are Boundaries Biblical Collection.

(1) The psychodynamic theory: "The psychodynamic theory is a psychological theory Sigmund Freud (1856-1939) and his later followers applied to explain the origins of human behavior. The psychodynamic approach includes all the theories in psychology that see human functioning based upon the interaction of drives and forces within the person, particularly unconscious, and between the different structures of the personality.… Psychodynamic theory is strongly determinist as it views our behavior as caused entirely by unconscious factors over which we have no control." (source

"The Object Relations theory is a variation of psychoanalytic theory that diverges from Sigmund Freud’s belief that humans are motivated by sexual and aggressive drives, suggesting instead that humans are primarily motivated by the need for contact with others—the need to form relationships.… Object relations theorists stress the importance of early family interactions, primarily the mother-infant relationship, in personality development." (source)

Underlining mine.

(2) Job's friends do not represent traditional Christian answers. Their beliefs most closely resemble Hindu "karma." They believed that if something went wrong in a person's life, it was always due to sin. So they blamed Job for the accidental death of his children, for the loss of his material goods, and for his health problems. Are there Christians who do this? Yes. In fact I've written about them here: Job's Judgmental Friends. But they are a small minority and do not represent "the 'standard' Christian answers" as Cloud claims. Taking the worst examples to define Christians as a whole is no different than taking the worst examples to define an ethnic or racial group.

Bible Love Notes

8 comments:

  1. I read a book:'When to Walk Away' by Gary Thomas a few months ago. Gail, have you read it? If so, I'd love to know what your view is on this currently 'popular' book that many are now reading. To some degree, I did find it beneficial. But so much psychology permeates the church these days, that I'm not certain about it. I'm uncomfortable with labeling others as 'toxic'. Admittedly though, I have always wrestled with 'boundaries'. Thoughts? TY!

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    1. Hi Jude,
      I am not familiar with that book, so I couldn't comment about it specifically.

      I've studied the Boundaries teachings in both books and online, so I feel comfortable explaining that with a few exceptions, the Boundaries teaching is not biblical and in many areas it directly contradicts the teachings of Scripture.

      For the Christian, the only biblical reason we have to end a family relationship is when the other party cuts us off and refuses to reconcile. Obviously, we should not put ourselves or our family in situations of actual physical abuse. But most people who cut off relationship do it for what they term "verbal abuse" and they usually have not humbly and earnestly tried to deal with this abuse in constructive ways. Furthermore, I think the term "verbal abuse" is used mostly as an excuse to cut off contact with people who are negative, critical, or difficult, not really verbally abusive. If we can't take an occasional negative comment, how small is our faith. God doesn't call us to the easy path and He is the one who gave us our family.

      However, when it comes to friendships, we are free to choose friends who encourage our faith and avoid bad influences.

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  2. TY, Gail. I appreciate your insights, they are well tempered.

    There have been times when I have been criticized for not distancing myself from family members, specifically adult children, when they have 'lashed out' at me for this or that. The new 'in' word seems to be 'toxic'. However, God is Love and when I look at all the times He has shown me Grace when I have thrown 'temper tantrums', well...

    I agree that sometimes we dismiss others too easily for what is quickly termed 'verbal abuse'. Yes, perhaps some things said in a 'heated moment' are abusive. But if God dismissed His children for such, no one (with few exceptions) would ever see Heaven. It's truly a fine line, at times. God continues to love us through so much. His great Love gently wooes us back and I, for one, am very grateful that He never quits on me.

    In thinking about the message of that book, I can see how it may encourage some to too easily brand another as 'toxic', giving them the excuse to simply cut a loved one out of their life. Detachment and/or separation for a time may be called for, but too quickly dismissing them as 'toxic' seems a bit rash to me. The Author of that book sees 'toxic people' as anyone who interferes with 'our ministry', placing 'our ministry' as priority over the person. Perhaps, the one who easily does such branding and dismissing, is in reality the one who is behaving abusively. ???

    Thankfully, Jesus does not give up on us easily.

    Perhaps, it's a sign of the times. The modern lingo of 'ghosting' and 'toxic' are too easily accomplished in this 'push a button' world. Before this modern world of tech, when families had to work the farm for all to survive, such would not have been possible. They were almost forced to find a way to 'get along', even though it was costly and even painful to do so. In a world in which 'the love of many shall wax cold', 'ghosting' and labeling one as 'toxic' can be, as you say, an excuse for simply not wanting to go that extra mile.

    TY! again. This has helped me put a better and clearer perspective on some things. (((HUGS)))

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  3. Hi Gail. I really appreciate your efforts on this site. I’m thankful that you were raised in a much different environment than myself and those like me. I was born into an abusive dysfunctional family and I never learned any boundaries. I was taught to be self sacrificing and never modeled nor learned how to take care of myself to love myself or that I was even allowed to set boundaries of any kind. The first chapter of the Boundaries book is a mild version of what my life has been and is aptly named “a day in a boundary-less life”. I am an intelligent woman who was raised by abusive parents who modeled their own parents behaviors. I am breaking the cycle of generational trauma abuse and neglect. I respect that you and others were raised differently and I wanted to share these few thoughts as someone who benefits GREATLY from Christian lessons on boundaries. In fact there’s a 12 step support group for people like me called Adult Children of Alcoholics and Dysfunctional Families and your love notes about boundaries being unbiblical as well as the lack of understanding for people suffering from abusive households do harm to the undiscerning reader. I would just ask that perhaps you look at things from a loving and more rounded viewpoint than to talk to or about things you don’t yet understand. I would like to invite you and encourage you to do some more research before making claims or instructing readers about things such as this. There are for sure readers who can use your very firm stance on things but there are also people who could use more love and encouragement rather than judgment and condemnation.

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    1. Hi Jules

      You are the second person who has suggested that I am writing from a background of healthy family relationships (I got a similar comment on another Boundaries post).

      I don’t discuss negative aspects of my family life on my blog because I don’t want to publicly embarrass family members. But I can assure you that I have experienced and continue to experience deeply troubling, painful, and even cruel situations in my family. In fact, I started writing Bible Love Notes to bring myself out of a depression over a family situation that has grown worse during my 10 years of writing Bible Love Notes.

      If I had followed the Boundaries teachings in my life, I might have avoided some difficulty, but I'd never have seen how God could turn my bitterness into sympathy and even love for people who had hurt me. I think I'd have held on to my pain instead of releasing it. And it's an ongoing process for me, but I've seen the results of building bridges instead of boundaries. Don't get me wrong. I'm not saying everything is good. It's not. What I've done hasn't changed others. It's changed me.

      I’m sorry about your upbringing, and I pray that you will continue to heal from it. And I’m sorry that you feel my articles show “judgment and condemnation” rather than love and encouragement.

      But I do not apologize for what I’ve written. I have carefully studied the Boundaries teachings, both online and by purchasing two of their books. In addition, I am personally aware of several families suffering from mistreatment from family members following the Boundaries teachings.

      The fact that Cloud and Townsend misrepresent Scripture in the majority of their teachings is reason enough to warn people about their advice. But seeing the results of their advice further confirms that we must avoid any teaching that is based on worldly ideas instead of biblical truths.

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  4. I've been seeking the Lord on this topic of 'boundaries', and need to continue to do so. Because of my upbringing, I was not equipped with the ability to know when, or when not, to distance myself from someone who is abusive. On one end of the spectrum, I was undoubtedly abused by some members of my family. At the other end, because my dad was an officer, I was also overly protected which deprived me of the necessary tools which otherwise may have developed by learning to protect myself.

    The Lord, I believe, addresses the issue of boundaries in His Word. He has drawn my attention to Mt. 18:15 “Moreover if your brother sins against you, go and tell him his fault between you and him alone. If he hears you, you have gained your brother. 16 But if he will not hear, take with you one or two more, that ‘by the mouth of two or three witnesses every word may be established.’ 17 And if he refuses to hear them, tell it to the church. But if he refuses even to hear the church, let him be to you like a heathen and a tax collector.

    I'm simply a student here, seeking my Teacher's instruction. Everyone's situation differs, and every relationship within that situation differs, as well. Perhaps these verses in Jude are also applicable: 20 But you, beloved, building yourselves up on your most holy faith, praying in the Holy Spirit, 21 keep yourselves in the love of God, looking for the mercy of our Lord Jesus Christ unto eternal life.
    22 And on some have compassion, making a distinction; 23 but others save with fear, pulling them out of the fire, hating even the garment defiled by the flesh.

    In all situations, we must seek our Lord's Wisdom and trust Him to direct our steps. Temperance, in all things, is important. We are not called to be doormats or punching bags, nor are we to be quick to label another as 'toxic' and abruptly cut them off all in the name of 'boundaries'. Whatever we do, we ought to seek out what actions bring Glory to God. There are no black and white answers to such matters, as we no longer live under the Law. It is prudent in each matter, each relationship, to prayerfully seek our Lord's guidance and dive deeper into His Word for His guidance and instructions which most assuredly are there.

    Jules mentioned ACA. In the 80's, after a time of great personal turmoil in my earthly family, I attended eight 12 step meetings (all types) every week (twice on Sunday). I was desperate for answers like a drowning man grasping for straws to survive. In many ways, I did find them helpful. One Sunday, as I was driving home from my morning COSA meeting, I looked up and it was as if the clouds suddenly parted. In my heart, I heard the Lord tell me that He hadn't caused all the things that had recently occurred in my life (spouse's affairs, adopted son raped, brother-in-law's death by suicide), but He was with me to get me through them. Then, just as suddenly, the clouds regathered and I was driving again. Gradually, my attendance at all those meetings waned, as they became less and less necessary.

    Where, when, how we draw the line in all matters will be revealed as we diligently seek our Lord. He is always faith-ful even when we are faith-less.

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    1. Hi Jude,
      First off, let me say that I am so very sorry for the things you've had to face. This sound very serious and no Christian should expect us to bounce back from such hardships without healing.

      Secondly, I appreciate your thoughtful comments.

      I'm glad you mentioned Matthew 18. This is actually a passage that the Boundaries books use as a major foundation for Boundaries teaching. But it's completely misapplied.

      I address this in the post linked at the beginning of this post: "Boundaries Unscriptural Foundation." Here's an excerpt from that post:

      "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) ... 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 a mockery of the passage. The truest part of Cloud's statements is when he admits boundaries is a 'psychological term' because it's certainly not a biblical one."

      The passages that Cloud claims are the biblical foundation of Boundaries are all misapplied. And misapplying Scripture always leads us away from the biblical solutions, comfort, and truths that heal. It often is the quick fix but it unravels in the long run. I admit that in some situations certain aspects of Cloud's methods may be helpful. But finding those principles in a Boundaries book is like looking for healthy food in the trash pile.

      It's much wiser to seek answers in Scripture and in books and teachings that are solidly biblical. I actually believe that Cloud's teachings delay our healing and interfere with reconciliation. And it's not strictly an academic issue. I see huge errors (unbiblical errors) in the teaching, but I've also seen the destruction it has caused in several families.

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    2. TY! Gail for your clarification. Yes, this is a 'format' for dealing with such things within the Church and with 'believers' that have strayed from the Truth. If Jesus dismissed everyone that was choosing to live in sin, what Hope would exist for any of us? With each individual that Jesus met up with, He addressed on an individual basis. There were some that Jesus chose to not engage with, some that were healed, some that were delivered from evil spirits. There is no 'law' except for the 'law' of His Love. Romans 13:8 Owe no one anything except to love one another, for he who loves another has fulfilled the law. 9 For the commandments, "You shall not commit adultery," "You shall not murder," "You shall not steal," "You shall not bear false witness," "You shall not covet," and if there is any other commandment, are all summed up in this saying, namely, "You shall love your neighbor as yourself." 10 Love does no harm to a neighbor; therefore love is the fulfillment of the law.

      Sometimes, we are called to endure difficult relationships. Sometimes, we are called to separate ourselves.

      As long as we are seeking our Lord's direction, and our heart's desire is that God receives the Glory, we can be at peace and confident in the Lord that it will all work out for our good in the end.

      When another repeatedly 'attacks' me, I have learned to close the door, but not to lock it. There is always Hope. (((HUGS)))

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