Imagine that you just moved into a neighborhood and, as you get acquainted with one of your new neighbors, you discover that the two of you share a commitment to community engagement. The new acquaintance invites you to join a nearby small group that studies, discusses, and strategizes about this very concern. You gladly accept, feeling both excitement and relief at the prospect of finding friends and participating in the community in your new home. At your first time attending, you learn that the group has been meeting regularly for a while and have well-established relationships. They warmly greet you and help you to feel welcomed.
As the discussions progress, however, you begin to realize that you hold significantly different views than the ones most voiced. In time, it dawns on you that you appear to be the only person among the members with such convictions. As the weeks pass, you occasionally hear someone make critical and sometimes disparaging or dismissive remarks about people like you. It becomes evident that you don’t fit this group. You are not truly one of them.
This experience is not hypothetical for many people, whether they identify as traditional and conservative or liberal and progressive. Name any label and someone identifying with it has felt the consternation of finding her- or himself in this position. Sociologists talk about in-groups and out-groups. If I identify with and belong to group A, then members of Group A are my in-group. To us, people in Group B are the “other.” They are the out-group. To them, I am the “other” and members of Group A, the out-group. This empirical observation seems unavoidable to me and it has practical consequences.
Let me continue, therefore, to play out the logic of groups and boundaries. Groups police their boundaries, if the purpose of the group – its reason to exist – is sufficiently important to its members. That “if” is crucial. The reason people form a group is to accomplish something together, whatever that something is. Again, if the purpose represents something valuable, then any weakening of (or resistance to) commitment to that purpose must receive scrutiny and response, either by formal correction and discipline or informal pressure.
Highly organized groups have formal mechanisms of discipline and boundary-maintenance. To become a member of such a group involves some kind of ritualized commitment, a signing on the dotted line, so to speak. The group member promises to uphold the purpose of the group. Mechanisms of discipline are formal and bureaucratic, as they should be. It doesn’t matter who the offender is, the group has an important purpose and membership matters.
Obviously, I’m still thinking about The United Methodist Church. I recently had an exchange with a person who takes strong issue with my views. He insisted that, no matter how wrong, offensive, and tending-to-injustice my opinions might be, I would always be included in his version of church. It’s a wonderful sentiment, but I don’t think it’s feasible, or even possible and I wonder more if it’s desirable. I thus risk the annoyance of being the fly buzzing around the cow’s backside. Wherever we draw the line, the drawing of the line must be done. Otherwise, the group has no identity, no purpose, no integrity.
Our formal mechanisms of boundary maintenance often get characterized as cruel, uncaring, unloving, unjust. But at least they are no respecter of persons, if done properly (I know, a big if, but what are the alternatives?). In an organization that has integrity, it doesn’t matter who you are or how well-liked, how generous, or how popular and influential you might be. If you show that you no longer align with the group’s mission and values (beliefs), if you offend the boundaries, then duly-constituted authorities must act. Either you come back into alignment with the group’s mission or you face established procedures for discipline. The mission matters. If you’re not on board with the group’s basic identity and mission, if you persistently transgress its values, then you effectively show that you are no longer a member of the group and formal removal follows, as it should.
The cold, bureaucratic feel of these procedures has received harsh criticism from a number of quarters. But again, what are the alternatives? If an organization does not have formal boundary-maintenance procedures, then the only other alternatives are informal, because, remember, a group with a valuable purpose and mission will have boundaries. Go back to my opening example. One informal action is for me to “self-select” out of the group. (I could keep my thoughts to myself, of course, and remain in the group, but for what purpose?) I’ll stop attending and find some way to beg off when the invitation comes again. Or I can make my convictions known and start arguing with people. They may tolerate me and this conflict for a while, but sooner or later, the more influential members – the ones regarded as leaders – will (and must) speak to me about the frictions I am causing and the negative impact I am having on the group. The group will find some informal means of getting me back in line or helping me find a way out.
If a group’s reason to exist has value, then constant disagreement and prolonged friction eventually endanger the group’s life, even its very existence. Something must give. People will move, one way or another, either to get the offending member back into compliance with the group’s ethos or to marginalize that member or excise her or him from the group, lest other members grow increasingly discouraged or disenchanted and abandon the group. In the worst case scenario, the group dies altogether.
I maintain, then, that, formally or informally, any group with a valuable and valued mission must have (and will have) boundaries and must (and will) police them. The boundaries can be formal and clear to all, or they can be informal and, therefore, to some degree hidden. The policing of informal boundaries is left to people with influence (power), which raises all kinds of other questions. How they handle their power depends on a number of personal qualities, for good and ill.
I have written on more than one occasion in this blog about the inevitability of orthodoxy, if a group is to have any integrity at all. Orthodoxy clearly has to do with boundaries. Orthodoxy is a formal term that can be filled with different contents. A group’s orthodoxy appears in whatever dominant views and practices the group decides are true, right, and good, thus representative of the group. A group’s orthodoxy can change. We can find any number of examples of such change, but that a group has such boundaries still seems to me to be beyond dispute.
I wish our leaders admitted more openly that, no matter how much we value inclusion (and we do!), we have boundaries. We should have boundaries. We must have boundaries, if we want a church that matters. The question becomes, then, not that we have boundaries, but what they are and how we establish and maintain them. All of us who disagree about specific topics must accept this unbending fact. If we did, we could then re-set the terms of disagreement and argue with one another more productively. This remains my hope.