Boundaries Versus Guidelines

Many teachings recommend "boundaries" for relationship problems. The Bible offers a more constructive answer.

“Therefore, if you are offering your gift at the altar and there remember that your brother or sister has something against you, leave your gift there in front of the altar. First go and be reconciled to them; then come and offer your gift.Matthew 5:23-24

Reconciliation is important to our Lord. Sadly, the word “boundaries” has replaced the word “reconciliation” for a growing number of Christians. 

Despite the fact that Boundaries teachings are labeled “Christian,” author Henry Cloud explains that his counseling has been most influenced by Freudian beliefs (source). 

Cloud's teachings include some wise and biblical principles, but these are deeply entangled with secular principles that reinforce selfishness and blame-shifting.

Christians will recognize many biblical errors in Boundaries books and online materials (source). 

Boundaries teaches: The real problems in life come from our inability to set up boundaries in our relationships, especially regarding family members. If we want to be healthy and happy, we need to take control of our lives and protect ourselves from people who are not treating us as we believe we should be treated.

To confirm this summary, please read these articles: Is Your Family Dysfunctional?, When to End a Bad Relationship, Are There Really Three Kinds of People, and Blame your Mom.

The Bible teaches: pray, forgive, persevere, return good for evil, examine your actions, deny yourself, humble yourself, and be considerate of the needs of others, honoring your parents out of respect for God. You benefit from difficulties if you allow God to use them to refine your faith. 

Does that mean we let family members control and manipulate us? Of course not. We may need guidelines in our relationships, but guidelines “cut off” behaviors, not people.

Many teachings recommend "boundaries" for relationship problems. The Bible offers a more constructive answer.

For example, we might give family members these guidelines:

1. We’ll always be willing to discuss problems, but not when you’re angry. 

2. You can have our children (your grandchildren) for visits as long as you don’t make racist remarks in their presence. 

3. You’re welcome in our home, but if you start berating another family member, you will have to leave. 

4. As long as you are using drugs, you cannot come to our home. We will meet you in a public place. 

5. We will no longer help you financially because you are not actively looking for a job. 

Boundaries teachings include guidelines, but they go far beyond them. They also encourage cutting off people in ways that end or limit discussion, contact, and reconciliation. And they always assume that the person reading their books is the good person in relationships.

If we are dealing with physically abusive or criminal family members, we might need actual “Boundaries.” But even in those situations we can make allowances for safe contact like email or phone conversations if the other person is interested. Our input in their lives might actually lead them to the Lord.

You would think physical abuse is the focus of Boundaries teachings because they label people toxic, manipulative, unsafe, abusive, evil, and unworthy. But they use these descriptions for people who are difficult, annoying, and non-affirming. See What is a Toxic Person?

Some people may be able to discern the good from the bad and benefit from Boundaries' teachings, but the books and website have also created a cult following of people who severely judge their families without honestly judging themselves (Matthew 7:1-5). 

Selfishness and blame-shifting will always be more popular than the hard and humbling work of reconciliation.

Instead of learning to deal with relationship problems biblically, Boundaries tends to focus on avoiding people who don't respect us properly. They stress forgiveness, but some of their methods promote resentment instead of reconciliation.  

When a family member makes our lives difficult, we can listen carefully to their concerns, carefully share our concerns, and refuse to get angry (James 1:19). We can look out for their interests, not just our own (Philippians 2:4). We can forgive them repeatedly (Matthew 18:21-22). We can bear with their failures and flaws (Romans 15:1). We can make sure we're doing our best to bring peace in the relationship and act "holy" in our relationships  (Hebrews 12:14).

This doesn’t mean we let ourselves be manipulated or mistreated, but it means that we do the hard work of reconciliation. And even when we don't feel like doing it for the other person in the relationship, we do it for our Lord.

If you are interested in more specifics about Boundaries errors, see the Boundaries Collection.

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