The word “boundary” immediately sounds restrictive and unfriendly. So why would Christians entertain such a cold possibility?
Although boundaries are sometimes necessary, I suspect they are frequently and easily substituted for conflict resolution. On one hand, we need to restrict unsafe or undesirable elements from our lives. On the other, we may impose boundaries instead of addressing and resolving issues.
Unfortunately, when we view something as too difficult, too intense or threatening to reach an unacceptable level of vulnerability, the temptation arises to quickly declare “boundaries” without considering their effect or aftermath.
Scriptural instruction supports both perspectives, so mature spiritual discernment and guidance from the Holy Spirit are paramount in determining which to choose and when.
Biblical Support for Setting Boundaries
In support of boundaries, consider Psalm 1:1: “Blessed is the man who walks not in the counsel of the ungodly, nor stands in the path of sinners, nor sits in the seat of the scornful.”
It identifies those with whom we should not walk, stand or sit—meaning association or partnership. Proverbs 1:10 is similarly restrictive: “If sinful men entice you, do not give in to them.”
The Apostle John warns against having fellowship with the world (1 John 2:15-16), and the prophet Amos asks how two individuals can walk together unless they agree (Amos 3:3).
Additionally, Paul encourages separation from believers who are “disorderly” (2 Thessalonians 3:6) and who “cause divisions” (Romans 6:17). Even Paul and Barnabas experienced conflict and parted ways for a period of time (Acts 15:36-40).
Separation between believers and unbelievers or believers and worldly influences is easy to see and understand — although we may, at times, struggle with actually erecting that boundary. However, strong guidance and encouragement toward reconciliation prevail within the body of Christ.
Biblical Support for Reconciliation Instead of Boundaries
Jesus gave several examples of attempts at restoring unity between believers.
“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. 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.’ 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.” –Matthew 18:15-17
“If your brother or sister sins against you, rebuke them; and if they repent, forgive them. Even if they sin against you seven times in a day and seven times come back to you saying ‘I repent,’ you must forgive them.” –Luke 17:3-4
Paul also encouraged several attempts at reconciliation, after which — if a person remains divisive, rebellious, and sinful — rejection (boundary) is necessary (Titus 3:10-11).
Although Scripture supports placing boundaries when necessary, the ultimate goal of reconciliation remains intact. Boundaries are not tools of punishment or conflict-avoidance mechanisms. Instead, they are an effective means to prompt reconciliation. To be clear, forgiving someone does not imply immediately trusting him or her or making myself implicitly vulnerable again. Reconciliation resolves the issue at hand; however, prudence dictates we be “wise as serpents and harmless as doves” (Matthew 10:16). Trust is earned, not simply granted; restoring broken trust takes longer and may never happen.
To clarify when boundaries may be necessary and when to pursue reconciliation, consider the what, why, who and when.
WHAT – DEFINING BOUNDARIES
A broad description may be emotional, mental or physical restrictions placed on people deemed personally harmful or offensive. If someone is verbally, emotionally, mentally or physically abusive, then removal and distance are necessary to provide the desired safe zone. This also applies to a rebellious, backsliding believer who refuses all attempts at correction, repentance or reconciliation.
WHY – REASONS FOR BOUNDARIES
When establishing such restrictions, first determine why such measures are necessary. Is it a time-management issue for someone who monopolizes my time? Is it an unhealthy, dependent or abusive relationship I need to exit? Should I separate myself from someone or something to allow sufficient quiet time for meditation, reflection, worship or Bible study? Could conflict possibly be due to inaccurate perceptions on my part? Or is it an escape mechanism fueled by fear, uncertainty or inadequacy about something I need to address or resolve?
Identifying the underlying reason(s) for considering boundaries helps determine whether or not the issue warrants them or calls for some other resolution.
Stay tuned for the second part of this 2-part series later this week.