Thinking Theologically About Boundaries

Healthy boundaries have become a hot bottom topic in many of the ministry conversations I've had in the last few years. If the term "boundaries" aren't part of your vocabulary when you start working in ministry, especially church ministry, chances are it will be before long. A person's boundaries in ministry is a common enough barometer for judging their personal and familial health. But for some of us, the word alone carries a negative connotation, especially from an ideological or theological perspective.

Boundaries can imply social distinctions or a rugged individualism that are counter to the values of the kingdom of God. It brings images of walls and curtains and barriers and, at their worst, that's exactly what boundaries can create. At their worst, boundaries are simply a justification for keeping a distance and a refusal to be wholly, transparently, and communally involved and invested in the lives of others. If koinonia--the community that reflects the God revealed in Jesus Christ--is about sharing, embracing, suffering, affirming and loving, then boundaries can become the anti-koinonia.

But I think that there's a better and more appropriate perspective if we allow ourselves to really think theologically about boundaries. The truth is, we have boundaries all over the place in our lives. They're not only socially accepted but socially expected. If I don't want to be raped and I expect people to respect that desire, then I have boundaries in relationships. We all have them, we might as well be intentional about them. And as followers of Christ, we may as well think theologically about them. Perhaps that's what's missing in the conversation.

At their best, boundaries are a practice in escatological vision, springing from a robust and thouroughly biblical theological anthropology. They are less about creating walls and more about creating space, open and life-giving space. They are about creating freedom by way of embracing difference.

What we are really talking about here are relationships, so why not start with the Trinity? Perhaps it's not the first place you'd think to look in a conversation about boundaries in relationships, but it is a proper starting point since the ways in which people are created to interact are a reflection of the image of the God who created them. The Trinity, as such, is merely a training-wheel for us to conceptualize the ways in which God exists in reality (reality referring not only to what we experience but also to the backdrop of our experience). The heart of trinitarian theology is not the modes of God's interaction with people. It's not just about learning how to identify the Father in in distinction from the Son and the Spirit. Trinitarian theology points to the nature of God's existence and, perhaps more significantly, to what God is like. God is not an isolated static idea or floating orb of transcendence. The Trinitarian God, the God of the Scriptures, is a God in community--totally intimate and totally faithful in and of Godself. The Father, Son, and Spirit are wholly invested in community with one another. Their very identity is shared among them and love is the adhesive which weaves this community together, deeming the phrase, "God is love," an accurate statement.

But Trinitarian theology is also about embracing difference. In our culture of inclusivity and pluralism, I'm afraid we are losing our grip on the particularity and distinctiveness that is inherent in humanity. Although it is a positive and necessary cultural shift toward peace and understanding, our need to find common ground and to celebrate commonality has stripped us of our ability to recognize our differences. Understanding does not come from ignorance of disagreement or universality of perspective. True understanding recognizes that we are in fact distinct from one another and that we are in fact making exclusive and particular claims concerning reality. Community, therefore, is not primarily a unity of thought but an ability to share identity in the midst of the reality of our difference. This is, at least in principal, the nature of the Trinity, exclusively distinct yet wholly unified in identity and love. God does not forfeit freedom in this community, rather, God's freedom springs from God's particularity. In this, God is free to love and free to forgive. God is free to reveal Godself particularly in God's work of liberation and in God's incarnation in Jesus Christ.

Theological anthropology is the articulation and conceptualization of true humanity in light of the creativity and reality of God. In other words, it seeks to describe who we really are. The essential and foundational claim of biblical theological anthropology is that humankind has been made in the image of God. In Genesis 1, we are told that God created humans in God's own image--"male and female God created them." The implication here is that it is not just that people look like God and it's not just that individuals are created in God's image but people, in how they interact with one another, are a reflection of who God is. This makes sure sense in light of the communal triune nature of God. While we are to share identity with one another, love one another, and engage honestly with one another, we are also distinct from one another. Just as God does not forfeit freedom in this community and embrace of difference, so it is with us. When we are free in distinction, we are free in community--free to be fully ourselves so that we may fully offer ourselves in community. Healthy boundaries in relationships create space for this distinction. By making clear decisions about how we can relate with one another responsibly, we reflect the image of God.

The examination of theological anthropology is the foundation for eschatological vision. It's for good reason that the author of Revelation uses images of Eden as the primary image for the restored world, the object of eschatological hope. Eschatology examines the end of which God's work of salvation and renewal are the means. That's actually a rather crass description of an otherwise transcendent and illuminating theological discipline (even the term "discipline," I'm afraid, doesn't cut it). When we look toward the hope that is the wellspring of our faith, it makes some sense to look to the beginning. The world to come, while in all ways profoundly unique from the world as it is, is not to be understood essentially as a different world. The world to come is this world made new, restored, healed. When God's work of salvation is fully and climatically implemented, it will be in profound continuity with the world we call home. Eschatological vision looks to a resurrected reality, a true revelation of the world as it should be, made true among us. So if our true humanity is a reflection of a community of difference, our ability to live in community here and now is a signpost of a healed world. If my humanity is imposed on by another or if I impose on that of another, we reflect only the curse that infects the world as we know it. Our actions now should be a clear image of the community for which we hope.

Boundaries should be seen primarily as a spiritual discipline, creating fresh space for the creativity of God. When we engage properly in spiritual disciplines, we are living into the identity given to us in Christ. When we open ourselves to the Spirit of God through prayer, solitude, silence, or devotional time, we open ourselves to God's hand to form us into the truth of who we are in Christ. It is a practical way of conditioning ourselves to be like Christ and thus to be more fully ourselves. Desire alone doesn't get us very far. I'm sure many desire to be physically fit, but only those who act on that desire actually become fit people. Spiritual disciplines are the art of becoming. They flow out of a clear vision of God's dream for you and for the world (eschatology) and out of an examination of who we are created to be (anthropology). Boundaries are about acting on an understanding what community should look like in light of God's communal nature and a vision of a healed community. It is understanding the breadth of our deprevity--that healing does not come naturally but by grace alone. We take real and practical steps toward reflecting, in our difference, the community we are made to embody. A community of trust and love has clear and fair expectations and shares authority in such a way that freedom can be expressed. Structure gives way to freedom, boundaries give way to community.

When we understand that we are created in the image of God, commissioned to bear that image, and invited to embody the healed world in our relationships, only then can we engage in a community that is not haphazard but thoroughly intentional. Boundaries are an action of the desire to be a community that reflects these theological realities. When the social realities of sexuality, family, politics, race, gender and church enter the conversation, the disciplines are necessarily contextually constructed.