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.

Boundary Questions Refuse to Go Away

9 thoughts on “Boundary Questions Refuse to Go Away

  • April 7, 2021 at 2:00 pm

    Steve, I have been reading your articles with a deepening sense of regret at what is happening to our church. And your questions are absolutely valid: we are so caught up in the issues of the day that we have lost sight of the larger picture of who we are as Christians. My sister has a similar problem with her church in Houston that I have with my church in Dallas. Both of us feel that the UMC is quickly leaving us, and we have nowhere to go. But on Easter we both came to a revelation from our brother that is true no matter what happens: the foundation of our entire lives is not Methodism. It is the Word of God, which is unchanging. Everything else is literally a box we put around it. So our box is moving around, we have no idea how big or small it is, but I’m very grateful fo you for asking the questions about what that box will look like.

    • April 7, 2021 at 4:59 pm

      Thank you, Kathryn. Jesus, the risen and reigning Son of God, will not fail us. May we also, by his grace, not fail him!

  • April 7, 2021 at 3:36 pm

    As we “police” the boundaries of our organizations we must constantly identify what is essential to our identity & mission and what isn’t. Because so much of our boundary policing over the centuries has not focused on our mission, the whole idea of policing boundaries has become disreputable; well, at least to talk about. As you note, we still do it, we just aren’t willing to call it that.

    • April 7, 2021 at 4:57 pm

      Thank you, Richard. Indeed, talk of policing boundaries sounds very undesirable.

  • April 7, 2021 at 5:27 pm

    There are two types of social groups. Those that make up a bounded set, and which therefore require boundaries, and those which make up a centered set, and require only a relationship to an agreed center – however distant from that center members may be. One way to understand what is at stake in United Methodism is the ecclesiological question of whether the Church is a bounded set or a centered set, or perhaps a centered set with a boundary. It will always appear to proponents of a centered set that they are welcoming of those who believe in a bounded set, precisely because they have no fixed boundaries. But this misunderstands the nature of the problem; which isn’t who is or is not included, but the very definition of what makes up the set, or in this case the Church. Bounded sets and centered sets are different kinds of sets and thus cannot include (or for that matter exclude) each other. They live in different domains. They thus inevitably need to live in different institutions.

    • April 10, 2021 at 11:26 am

      Robert, you and I don’t understand centered sets the same way, but perhaps it may surprise you that I am the most interested in the centered set approach to the church. I’ve never been interested in kicking people out of The United Methodist Church. I have been keenly interested to figure out if there is anything at the core that truly unites us as a church.

      I’m convinced that a centered set still has boundaries. It has been a long time since I read Paul Hiebert’s work (and then only an article or two), I’ll admit. But I also heard him lecture on this point and I think he would be very surprised at the notion that a center set has no fixed boundaries. For centered set thinking, the question is, where am I in relation to the center? In bounded sets, the question is where am I in relation to the boundary?

      I’m not sure what word to use besides “boundary” to get at what I think we need to address.

  • April 7, 2021 at 8:55 pm

    ” boundary maintenance often get characterized as cruel, uncaring, unloving, unjust” and “We should have boundaries. We must have boundaries, if we want a church that matters.” These are two very powerful statements. In the first, I find that if I accept these boundaries, I am automatically lumped in with bigots and whatever “phobe” that is in the current discussion. How do we have any dialog if there is disagreement on where I want to stand on the issue? There is none, as my point is invalidated by the, can we say hatred, by the fact that I don’t agree with the outside the boundaries of their position. On the second statement, I completely agree with you Steve. If we want to have a church that matters, we can’t just stand for something. We have to stand for the Thing. As has been mentioned, the unerring, infallible word of God. Thanks for sharing and encouraging the discussion.

  • April 8, 2021 at 10:26 am

    I would echo the viewpoint of your conversation partner. I will never agree with your interpretation or implementation of GLBTQi inclusion, but I do deeply care about you as a person and am glad that God has granted us the chance to serve the church around the same time. As I reflect, I’m especially thankful for the part that each of us played in helping a congregation shattered by pastoral misconduct find their way forward. You love Jesus with a Wesleyan spirit and there is always room for you in a church I serve.

    But I wonder if the summation of your post couldn’t be found in a non-expressed response to the person with which you were discussing this issue.
    The issue isn’t that they would include you.
    The issue is that you don’t want to include them.

    I feel able to speak to this because I have lived on the other side of a policed boundary that is partly your creation and maintained by your legacy. I have suffered as colleagues who believe in their right to police the boundaries of their community according to their preferences have pretended I didn’t exist even though we are part of the same church and worked in the same place. I can pinpoint the exact month that it was decided that I was “the other”. The experience has left me hurt and demoralized with a form of spiritual PTSD that makes it difficult for me to live into the catholic spirit of Wesley. This is because I believe that “othering” a person against their knowledge or will is spiritual violence.

    I say this, not to shame or blame or claim some sort of moral high ground, but to speak as one of many left behind, cast aside and uninvited to the table in a pursuit of doctrinal and community purity. This pursuit has never been a bloodless one, and I suppose I should be grateful that I live in an age where shunning is the preferred tool rather than the options employed by those in ages past. If you truly believe that you and the church you wish to serve are better off without me then I can respect that, and I wish you well as you depart.

    For me, I prefer a UMC with you in it, even if that common work together might be a little messier or a little more uncomfortable.

  • April 9, 2021 at 2:45 pm

    Thank you Dr. Rankin. This is wholly evident as we read scripture. God set boundaries and we need to obey them, without them we become our own “god” and that shall never work out in our favor.


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