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 multiple examples of misused Scriptures, click the link beneath the quote.

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
For reviews of specific teachings, see the Are Boundaries Biblical? Collection. 

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.

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