Wifey Wednesday: Are Boundaries Biblical?

Setting Healthy Boundaries is Biblical
Setting healthy boundaries: Is that biblical? Or is it modern psychology given a Christian-sounding twist?

That’s a question that’s been asked a lot on this blog lately when I’ve talked about the importance of setting healthy boundaries in marriage and in our extended families. I’ve had several commenters say that boundaries are not biblical, a position that I find a little bit strange. If boundaries aren’t biblical, what is the alternative?

This is the launch week for my book To Love, Honor and Vacuum (the revised & expanded edition), and in it I talk at length about the importance of maintaining healthy boundaries. And so I thought today it might be worth going over why boundaries are so crucial in our relationships.

Boundaries tell us what is our responsibility and what is someone else’s responsibility

Here’s Galatians 6:2-7, which talks about boundaries:

Carry each other’s burdens, and in this way you will fulfill the law of Christ. If anyone thinks they are something when they are not, they deceive themselves. Each one should test their own actions. Then they can take pride in themselves alone, without comparing themselves to someone else, for each one should carry their own load. Nevertheless, the one who receives instruction in the word should share all good things with their instructor. Do not be deceived: God cannot be mocked. A man reaps what he sows.

We’re supposed to carry each other’s burdens, but we’re also supposed to carry our own loads. Think of a load as something which is manageable–your daily to-do list. But when something out of the blue hits someone that they can’t handle themselves, then we’re supposed to help them. We aren’t supposed to carry each other’s loads–only their burdens. And you won’t be able to help someone with their burdens if you’re simultaneously trying to carry your family’s loads.

Here’s something else about boundaries: we’re not supposed to compare ourselves to others, and we’re not supposed to worry about other’s opinions. We need to test our own actions, and only rely on God. And finally, and perhaps most importantly,

A man reaps what he sows.

God set up the world so that our actions have consequences, and we are supposed to bear those consequences. If you take responsibility for things that aren’t yours–by not having boundaries, for instance–you put a roadblock into one of God’s best teaching instruments He has for His children. Let’s say your husband is prone to rages. He’s sowing discord and anger. But if you and the kids walk on tiptoes around him, trying to placate him, and then when he does yell, you apologize and try to repair the relationship, you’re the ones who are reaping that discord, not him.

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We aren’t to carry each other’s loads, and we’re supposed to let people bear the consequences of their actions. We are each responsible for our own stuff.

Boundaries tell us our limits

In Exodus 18:14-23, we read this interaction between Moses and his father-in-law Jethro:

14 When his father-in-law saw all that Moses was doing for the people, he said, “What is this you are doing for the people? Why do you alone sit as judge, while all these people stand around you from morning till evening?”

15 Moses answered him, “Because the people come to me to seek God’s will. 16 Whenever they have a dispute, it is brought to me, and I decide between the parties and inform them of God’s decrees and instructions.”

17 Moses’ father-in-law replied, “What you are doing is not good. 18 You and these people who come to you will only wear yourselves out. The work is too heavy for you; you cannot handle it alone. 19 Listen now to me and I will give you some advice, and may God be with you. You must be the people’s representative before God and bring their disputes to him. 20 Teach them his decrees and instructions, and show them the way they are to live and how they are to behave. 21 But select capable men from all the people—men who fear God, trustworthy men who hate dishonest gain—and appoint them as officials over thousands, hundreds, fifties and tens. 22 Have them serve as judges for the people at all times, but have them bring every difficult case to you; the simple cases they can decide themselves. That will make your load lighter, because they will share it with you. 23 If you do this and God so commands, you will be able to stand the strain, and all these people will go home satisfied.”

I love what Jethro says: “what you are doing is not good…You and these people who come to you will only wear yourselves out.” You cannot do everything.

Similarly, Jesus set limits on Himself. He didn’t heal everyone all the time; often He left areas where there were still people who needed His help because it was time to move to the next place. He carved out time to pray, away from His disciples, to spend time with God. He carved out time away from the masses, just with His disciples, to train and minister to them.

If Jesus had let His schedule be determined by what people needed Him to do rather than by what He was called to do and what He was able to do, His ministry would not have been as effective. He needed time alone to rejuvenate and time alone with God, and He took it. He knew that He couldn’t do everything–even if other people needed Him. He had His limits.

Boundaries show us where the moral line is

Boundaries are also necessary to show us where we have transgressed. Indeed, the word “trans-gression” literally means to “cross” a limit.

Moral boundaries allow us to make judgments about what is right and what is wrong. They let us say, “what you are doing is not right and we need to deal with it.”

If we have no moral boundaries–let’s say because we believe in a mistaken idea of submission where we must obey our husbands completely–then we will follow them into sin, or we will end up enabling sin. On the other hand, Matthew 18 clearly tells us that if someone sins against us (and that could be your husband, or your friend, or your mother), you’re supposed to go to them and tell them that they have crossed a boundary. If they refuse to repent, then you’re supposed to go and get one or two others involved. The Bible is clear that we don’t ignore moral transgressions of those close to us. We confront them and we urge them on to more godly behaviour. As James 5:19-20 and says,

19 My brothers and sisters, if one of you should wander from the truth and someone should bring that person back, 20 remember this: Whoever turns a sinner from the error of their way will save them from death and cover over a multitude of sins.

It is neither emotionally healthy nor moral to live without boundaries.

When we do that, we push ourselves too hard and often exhaust ourselves. We allow wrong behaviour to continue. And we enable people to act selfishly by becoming a cover for their actions.

When people join Al Anon, or the support groups for other family members of those suffering from other addictions, one of the first things they are told is that you can only change yourself, and you must not take responsibility for changing another person. But at the same time, you must also allow that other person to reap the natural consequences of their actions, or they will not have impetus to change. You must stop enabling bad behaviour.

To Love, Honor and VacuumAl Anon gets it–and they aren’t even Christian (though the founder was). Why is it that Christians now think that being a pushover, or letting others get away with wrong behaviour, is Christlike? It isn’t. In Romans 8:29, Paul wrote,

29 For those God foreknew he also predestined to be conformed to the image of his Son, that he might be the firstborn among many brothers and sisters.

God’s will is that we look more and more like Christ.

And so I want to challenge you today: In your family, are your actions encouraging others to look more and more like Christ, or are they covering up and enabling others to look more and more unChristlike? If you aren’t setting healthy boundaries of responsibility, then it’s quite likely that others will be looking less and less like Christ, rather than more and more like Him.

That’s the message of To Love, Honor and Vacuum (the book), though it is of this blog, too! And if you’ve really struggled with this, I encourage you to check out the book, where I help you see how we can live out God’s design that all of us look more and more like Christ–not that we serve so much so that we give others cover to act poorly. And remember–the ebook version is just $2.99 until Sunday! So pick it up today.

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Comments

  1. I definitely think boundaries are needed but I think when setting them we need to look long and hard at our motives. Especially in the case of helping extended family with something like age. It is most certainly is a western idea that we cannot care for aging parents and in-laws as well as our own immediate family. We get mixed up priorities sometimes in setting boundaries and it becomes an excuse not to be inconvenienced.

    • happywife says:

      Haley, I agree with everything you say here. We must examine our motives for our “boundary setting.” And yes, it is a western idea to put our parents in homes to be cared for. And in the case of caring for our elderly, yes, we do need to step it up and be more willing to sacrifice. HOWEVER, we can’t use another cultures “norm” or family expectations to be our moral compass. Doing things because it’s expected of us is not walking in obedience to God, it’s walking in obedience to traditions, family expectations or cultural norms. Asking God what He is asking of us in a certain situation should be our first step. If God asks me to give every weekend to care for an elderly relative, then I certainly need to be obedient to that. But I don’t do it because my sister asks me to. Maybe my sister need to take it to God and ask what He is calling her to do, rather than decide for herself how each family member is supposed to contribute. That is I believe what Sheila was trying to communicate in that particular post.
      And I do believe that as we learn to set healthy boundaries, we actually become more free to be generous with our time and resources because we begin to give out of the goodness of our heart rather than the guilt of our head. I love to help people out, but I don’t want to do it out of obligation, I want to do it out of love and generosity… and I truly believe that’s what God desires for us as well.

      • Really good points here from both Hailey and happywife. We do need to step up to the plate more in our culture, in general, to care for our extended families. But on an individual level, as happywife says, it has to be because it’s a calling from God, not from tradition.

        I also believe happywife’s last paragraph is so true, and let me elaborate on something I said.

        I truly believe that one of the reasons that the Christian church is not being as effective as it could be in changing this culture is that the women are just plain worn out because we’re carrying each other’s “loads”, and because we are piling too much on our plate that we were never meant to do. If we expected others to act responsibly, and if we stopped overscheduling ourselves, we would have more energy to do ministry; we’d have more time to listen to God and to hear from God; and we’d have more natural opportunities to make a difference. We would be more generous with our time, as you said. So true!

        • Yes! Love this Sheila! One of the reasons I keep my kids extra-curricular activities to a minimum is so that we are home in the evenings to show hospitality to others in our church should we need to. Just one example – I’m sure there are heaps of others, but I think this sort of prioritising is soooo important!

  2. Thank you for writing about this.
    When I was in an abusive marriage I read the book Boundaries by Townsend/Cloud and a woman I knew who led a women’s bible study told me that boundaries were not biblical and I had not right to try and set boundaries especially in a marriage.
    Being a new Christian, I struggled with that for years to come as I stayed in that marriage out of fear of leaving.

    I was definitely the one who reaped the consequences of my abusive ex’s choices because I carried the responsibility for both him and I. As a Christian wife I was taught to just submit and respect him in ALL things and eventually he would change, but honestly, how does one ever get the chance to change if someone else is always taking responsibility for what you do?
    As you say, there are natural consequences in life and that is part of our growing process.

    Good article!
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  3. One more thought on this. I think we are generally coming from opposite sides of the spectrum. Our belief is generally that people, including women, are too selfish and have too much control over their own lives. Your general idea seems to be that women are too unselfish and have too little control of their own lives. Yes, there is some organization & lack of personal discipline that you are filing under the category of boundaries, but by and large what I’m hearing is that.

    I’ll stick with my original thesis- that this comes down to our opposition in views of authority and in general what we think of folks being selfish & how much control they have of their lives.
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  4. happywife says:

    Here’s the thing. Everyone has some sort of boundaries. Everyone. Even those people crying that boundaries aren’t biblical. We lock our cars and homes. That is a boundary. It says that we aren’t willing to allow others to help themselves to our things. We (hopefully) don’t allow our children to speak rudely to us or physically hurt us. We certainly set boundaries on behalf of our children. Just let that bully bother my kid and you’ll see some boundary setting!
    My (recovering) alcoholic husband would be the first to say “set those boundaries! If I choose to drink, you don’t have to allow me to come home. Make me face the reality of my choices.” In fact, in AA they say “It takes what it takes.” What that means is, each alcoholic has to travel their own path to lead them to the realization that they need to deal with their problem. How will they reach this realization if we rescue them from their choice to continue to drink? No, we can’t control their choice to drink, but we can say, “I am choosing to not let your choices affect my own serenity.” Those are boundaries.. it’s not controlling another persons choices, but it is taking control over how you will let the other person’s choices affect you.

    • I love that you used this example. I’ve had to set very tough boundaries on my mother because of alcoholism that she refuses to acknowledge. (It’s a long story, and my decision came after years and much prayer. )Many Christians have scolded me for my boundaries and said I am being unchristian because boundaries are unloving. I’m not convinced a loving Christian equates to a doormat.

      • Actually, Julie, I’m quite convinced that a loving Christian DOESN’T equate to a doormat. :) Good for you!

        • I have a feeling the sellers in the temple wouldn’t equate Christ with “doormat” when he was wielding that whip! ;) (yes yes I know it was a specific situation and a specific reason but still)

  5. Amen, Sheila. I think you did a good job of explaining different aspects of boundaries – the carrying our own load, and reaping what we sow. I think the reason you get such a reaction from the “submission-all-the-time, boundaries-are-sinful” crowd is that they interpret boundaries as being selfish. And I suppose it can be expressed wrongly and selfishly, but that’s not what you or the book suggests.

    Keep up the good work :D

    Julie
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  6. Kate Lantry says:

    I completely agree that boundaries are biblical and necessary. I love how you separate loads from burdens. My question is this: how should we respond when someone acts as our “moral judge” in all matters? When a good friend offers advice on how you “should” be living your life. I don’t want to hurt anyone’s feelings, but I feel as though I have to walk on eggshells whenever I’m around people like that because I’m afraid I’m going to say or do the wrong thing and get “corrected”.

    • Great question, and I hope others chime in and give you some ideas, too! I’d say two quick things: It’s okay to not hang out with people like that. And it’s also okay, if they try to correct you, to say, “thank you for your thoughts, but in the future I’d feel more comfortable if you asked me first if I would like advice before offering it.” That takes guts to say, and it feels totally rude and uncomfortable, but it’s not really rude at all–it’s just out of the norm. It’s stating your preference graciously, and it’s asking them to respect what is a healthy boundary. If they choose not to abide by that, that is their choice; but you have also made your preference clear.

      • I agree with Sheila on this. I’m amazed when people think they have the right to offer all sorts of advice or even judgment on other people’s lives. No, they don’t have that right, and it isn’t rude for any of us to indicate that we have not asked for their opinion. I’m not talking about husbands and wives discussing these kinds of things, but rather about “friends,” co-workers and extended family members who frequently offer unsolicited advice or commentary on our lives.
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      • Oooo! I have family like this… I exhausted myself for years trying to keep them happy until I finally figured out that I was responsible before God only for the ‘loads’ he had given me to carry (eg. my babies… my home… certain things he had called me to do in our church…). Now, it’s either a direct “No” if it’s something I can’t do, or just listen politely and respond with “We’ll think about it/pray about it”. There is also constant judgement passed on anything and everything we do. That’s ok – It is God’s assessment of us that counts, not theirs. I am very aware of my accountability to God and that usually gives me clarity to form convictions and live by them.

        • Thank you for this article Sheila! I can relate to Mary as I have challenging in-laws. Often times I feel like the bad guy because “everyone else gets along with them.” In reality, everyone else just puts up with them.

          This has often made me really feel like a rotten person and un-Christ-like. Your piece reminds me that respectfully sticking up for myself and my family when unreasonable requests are made on our time and energy does align with Christ’s teachings.

          That said, sometimes I sure wish Jesus was married because I would appreciate a lesson or two on how he handled his in-laws!

  7. I as a husband my marriage was sent into turmoil when my wife decide to use boundries as an exsuse for avoiding correction in her behavior. This correction was coming from me, pastors, family and friends.
    Like all things “;boundaries” can be used well or abused.

    • I think maybe that’s an example of setting Unhealthy boundaries… or maybe an outright misunderstanding of the concept! A healthy boundary is something like, “I expect you to bring up your concerns and corrections with a tone of respect and without yelling”, unhealthy would be “You don’t get to tell me anything I don’t want to hear”!

      Boundaries are for setting a positive tone and restricting negative influences in our life, not for giving them a safe place to hide.

      The remedy to this, I think, is not to throw out the concept that people have any boundaries whatsoever, but talk about setting healthy ones.

  8. Sheila I love reading your posts.
    1.It always has scripture to back it up.
    2.I can see christ reflecting on your writing.

    I loved this post very much we often excuse bad behaviour in the name of showing love like christ.But Christ was also disciplinarian

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  9. We also need to be careful not to poison God’s guidance to give up rights and lay lives down by calling it “being a doormat.” 1 Peter 2 has some pretty strong stuff about suffering unjustly. 1 Peter 3:1 directly ties a wife’s submission back to this theme. It’s easy to allow our humanistic (selfish) filters to reinterpret God’s word into something ungodly. We have to be very careful about what is a Godly boundary and what is just humanistic posturing.

    • Very true. But here’s the key thing: when we are called to suffer, we are called to by God. But not ALL suffering is from God. I wrote a longer post on that here. Suffering is only godly when it serves God’s purposes, and very often suffering does not. That’s why we simply must always be seeking God’s will and God’s perspective.

    • I’m pretty sure 1 Peter 2 is talking about external circumstancesover which they had no control – such as a slave with an abusive master, or persecution arising from their faith in Christ. And the passage on wives’ submission is about cultivating and displaying Godly character to win an unbelieving husband for Christ or to glorify God alongside her believing husband (example is given of Sarah). In this passage it seems to me that the thought of a ‘submissive’ spirit is the opposite of an argumentative, abrasive, inflammatory spirit!
      I would say that these passages are dealing with quite a different subject than Sheila’s article.

  10. Boundaries are so hard for me (and most American women) to set. We still have too much of the Puritan work ethic pounded into us at an early age. We are constantly told not only CAN you do everything, but you SHOULD do everything! Be a wife, mother, spouse, workaholic, best friend, good neighbor, charity volunteer, etc. Characters in the Bible are often known for setting boundaries so strict that they restrict themselves—they are THAT passionate for whatever they feel is their true calling.

    I feel like women, more than men, especially adopt this “do everything” mentality. Not only should we fulfill many roles, but we must constantly be happy and beautiful fulfilling them. It’s just not realistic. I’m a Type-A person, and God is constantly reminding me he only requires two things: for me to love him, and love others. Everything else is just details, but it’s hard to remember that.
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  11. I have a question about the implementation and consequences of setting boundaries. My husband and I have a boundary problem with his parents. We have come to the conclusion it’s better not to rock the boat, and it runs us ragged. But the alternative is this: if I were to come to my mother in law and tell her I feel like she has wronged me (in whatever small insignificant or large important way), she would take it offensively. Instead of being a moment to grow together and heal, it would turn into drama, or worse, passive aggressive behavior that would surface later down the road. How should we stand up for ourselves and not be a doormat when we know it will not be constructive? I would love some advice if you have any

  12. I love, love, love talking about boundaries. My observation is that many families suffer from dysfunction because of “forced political correctness” versus individual needs. An example of this would be children who are taught that they have no rights and no opinions because they are not adults. These same children grow up to be adults who are “doormats” because they do not know how to express discomfort or when they feel disrespected.

    Healthy boundaries are an essential part of healthy relationships. And healthy boundaries are motivated by a love for self AND others; as well as an understanding of one’s own limitations. Tend the garden that God has given you and don’t try to take care of everyone else’s yards as well.
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