Boundaries & Structure

Thesis Statement: Boundaries and structure provide a safe environment for people who have been broken by addiction and abuse.

Unlike most of my posts, which I write off-the-cuff, this post will include a couple of external sources and have a more academic feel to it. I will begin by presenting a couple of concepts or scenarios that are commonly regarded as being without structure. I will then narrow the focus to groups such as churches or Bible studies and the impact that a lack of structure has on them. Finally, I will discuss why boundaries and structure in a social scenario, such as a church or Bible study is essential to creating a safe place where the likelihood of abuse is diminished or denied. 

Anarchy can be defined as: the absence or denial of any authority or established order (Merriam-Webster). Many people confuse anarchy with chaos, which is a state of confusion, or disorder. Anarchy is the absence of authority, such as law, government, a legal system, or rules. According to this definition, any rule or condition that binds human behavior would be seen as evil or corrupt. The ultimate goal of anarchy would be freedom, the ability to act or speak in any manner without boundary or limits. I will argue that this is a mirage, an illusion, which cannot exist in any human collectivity of any size. 

The state of nature, which is a social political term can be defined as: the real or hypothetical condition of human beings before or without political association (Encyclopedia Britannica). There are two dominant theories about what the state of nature would be like. Thomas Hobbes believed that the state of nature would be warlike with “war with every man against every man” (The Leviathan). John Locke believed that it would be peaceful and equated it with reason. As the state of nature has never actually existed in recorded history, it is up to the individual’s beliefs in the inherent nature of humankind to determine or conclude whether it would be warlike or peaceful. I tend to believe that it would be more warlike than peaceful, but as human beings we tend to crave peace, the state of nature would not last long as we would quickly move toward order. 

Living in a country with no government, no laws, no constitution, no courts, no police or armed forces might sound like a utopian experience because you could do whatever you wanted any time you wanted, but there is always a flipside to everything. While your state of nature might be peaceful and plentiful, another person’s concept of it might be lawless and violent. Imagine living in a state where you want to live in peace but your neighbor believes the strong survive and the weak die. Hence, whenever he or she may want something, they take it. If you try to recover what was taken, they can use deadly force to stop you. Imagine if everyone in your society was grouped into these two camps. Which camp would eventually win? I am hoping that humanity never finds out.

What would a church look like if there was no structure, no boundaries, no rules, nothing to establish any sense of order? What if there was no hierarchy in the church, no established leadership, no governing body to maintain order of any kind? God is way ahead of us on this because He did establish order in the church. God put trustworthy people in charge to be pastors and teachers, elders, and leaders who could maintain order. This was not to suffocate creativity and our ability to enjoy worship, but to ensure that everyone can worship within reasonable boundaries of behavior. Yes, there are limits in every church, but there are limits in workplaces and schools, and in public places as well.

But didn’t Jesus come to do away with the law? No, He came to fulfill the law and tear down religions which imposed suffocating rules on people. These rules prevent people from experiencing the real freedom and liberty God wants them to enjoy. Jesus did not come to dismantle human government. In fact, He instructed his followers to pay their taxes. Anyone who follows Jesus belongs to the Kingdom of God first, then to a human government second. Being a follower of Jesus does not give us license to live above or beyond the realm of law, boundary or structure. It means we are in a relationship with the One who can enable us to obey God. 

There is a simple, but flawed logic. Without law, there is no sin. Without sin, there is no such thing as disobedience. If there is no law, then there is nothing to disobey. It sounds good, right, but it is flawed. Before Adam sinned in the Garden in Eden, he and Eve enjoyed perfect peace with God. Once Adam sinned, though, and sin entered the human race, so did the ability to abuse everything that God provided. In order to prevent humankind from abuse there had to be laws, rules, boundaries, and structure. 

So, what about people with addictions? One of the hallmarks of both addiction and abuse is the destruction of all boundaries, limits, taboos, rules, and structure. This allows people who are addicts and those who abuse others to indulge without any limits whatsoever. I am both a survivor of abuse and an addict. One part of me craves an environment in which there are no boundaries or limits. The delusion is that it is real freedom because there are no pesky rules to inhibit whatever I want to do. Being addicted to junk food, I would love to be at a party where I could eat as much sugary stuff as I wanted with no limits. Being both a survivor of abuse and one who abused many people verbally and emotionally over the years, an environment in which I could say anything I wanted without limits is the most dangerous place on earth for me. Both situations appear to be freedom, but in fact they are prisons without bars. 

I have been to Bible studies where boundaries and structure is virtually nonexistent. For addicts and survivors of abuse, environments like these can be dangerous and insecure places. Leaders sometimes strive to maintain these groups without any internal order or structure, believing it would limit or inhibit people sharing about their lives. They very well may be right, but it also creates a scenario where unintentional or accidental abuse can run rampant. Most of the time, abuse is quite intentional, even when the abuser doesn’t see it as abuse. Unintentional or accidental abuse occurs in an environment of anarchy where authority or order is denied or rejected. No one intends to abuse another person, but because of the lack of order or structure, people are offended, insulted, mistreated, hence abused. It may not be intentional, but it is still wrong. 

Boundaries and structure do not have to be suffocating or feel like handcuffs. Most 12 Step groups have clearly stated boundaries of conduct that keep all participants safe. Leaders are facilitators trained to be gentle guides and maintain a sense of order without being legalistic or harsh. This creates a safe place for someone like me. I know the boundaries, the rules, what is and is not appropriate, and I can live within those boundaries and feel safe. 

In conclusion, I am not writing about anyone in particular. I have experienced a number of Bible study groups over the years that have been characterized by a lack of structure. I have not fared well in any of them. Structure and routine are very important elements in my life because without them I tend to drift into very dark places that do not turn out well for me.