Boundaries

God accomplished creation by using boundaries, separating the land from the water, the light from the darkness, between kinds of creatures, and between humans being male and female (Genesis 1:1-31). Likewise, boundaries were set at Sinai (Exodus 19:12, 23), protecting people from death and distinguishing between God and humanity.

Virtually every person and entity has boundaries.

Identity is established by difference, by recognizing what we are and what we are not, and that is based on boundaries, whether geographical, social, religious, occupational, or other. I am me, not you. I am human, not God. Identifying others or oneself is a means of differentiation, and at the boundary between what we are and what we are not we know who we are (Klyne Snodgrass, Who God Says You Are: A Christian Understanding of Identity, Eerdmans, 2018, 176–177).

We live in a time when many vilify and think of boundaries as a form of oppression. In the zealous contemporary pursuit of rejecting boundaries, we run the danger of “falling into the abyss of non-order in which the struggle against exclusion implodes on itself because, in the absence of all boundaries, we are unable to name what is excluded or why it ought not to be excluded” (Miroslav Volf, Exclusion and Embrace: A Theological Exploration of Identity, Otherness, and Reconciliation, Abingdon, 2010).

According to Volf, “The absence of boundaries creates non-order, and non-order is not the end of exclusion but the end of life” (ibid.). The lack of boundaries results in a lack of purpose, clarity, and identity. No boundaries mean no distinctions. “Boundaries are part of the creative process of differentiation” (ibid.).

A recent student walkout and protest at a private educational institution in the Denver metropolitan area concerning the dismissal of two people on its faculty for their chosen lifestyles demonstrates this kind of cavalier attitude about not having boundaries. Although this academic entity has a “Statement of Beliefs” that all staff, faculty, and volunteers must adhere to, these students think those boundaries are oppressive and unloving.

The Bible itself has boundaries because some documents were included, and many documents were excluded. The Bible is filled with boundaries and discloses God as a God who makes boundaries. The revelation that God makes distinctions (Exod. 9:4; 11:7) and calls on His people to make distinctions (Lev. 11:47) inherently contains the idea of boundaries.

“A Christian understanding of boundaries involves both boundaries of inclusion and boundaries of exclusion. Some things must be embraced … and some things must be excluded” (Snodgrass, 181). Thus, Paul sharply demarcated the churches that he planted from other entities that have alternative narratives.

They are the insiders in contrast to “those outside” (hoi exō, 1 Cor. 5:12–13; 1 Thess. 4:12) or to “the rest” (hoi loipoi, 1 Thess. 4:13; 5:6). As the “children of light in the midst of a crooked and perverse generation” (Phil. 2:15; cf. 1 Thess. 5:5–8), they have their citizenship (politeuma) in heaven (Phil. 3:20). They are being saved (sōzomenoi, 1 Cor. 1:18; 2 Cor. 2:15) in contrast to those who are perishing (apollymenoi, 1 Cor. 1:18; 2 Cor. 2:15). They are “the believers” (1 Cor. 14:22; 1 Thess. 1:7; 2:10) in contrast to the “unbelievers” (1 Cor. 7:12; 10:27; 14:22–23). Like Diaspora Jews who live as minority communities with a sharply defined identity separating them from their environment, Paul’s communities learn to think of themselves in terms of the group identity that separates them from others (James Thompson, Moral Formation according to Paul: The Context and Coherence of Pauline Ethics, Baker, 2011, 46).

Paul calls for a “radical separation” from one’s former non-Christian identity (1 Cor. 6:11) and strict maintenance of boundaries from the surrounding community (Ibid.).

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