On the Need for Boundary Markers

A passage from the Old Testament which I read this morning has dovetailed nicely with a discussion on another posting, so it is worth trying to tie the two together here. The text in question is Hosea 5:10: “Judah’s leaders are like those who move boundary stones. I will pour out my wrath on them like a flood of water.”

This verse is part of a lengthy denunciation of a sinful and wayward Israel. It is not fully clear if this was an actual move, or a rhetoric one. Either way it had earned the wrath of Yahweh. J. Andrew Dearman offers the background on this particular offence:

“The moving of a family or clan’s boundary marker is a crime in the Deuteronomic code and resides under a collective curse (Deut. 19:14; 27:17). The wisdom tradition likewise regards the practice as heinous (Prov. 22:28; 23:10; cf. Job 24:2). It is an affront to the ancestors, a threat to the inheritance and livelihood of a family, and strikes at the heart of a community’s life.”

But I wish here to move on from the primary interpretation of this text and make a secondary application of it. I want to deal with other biblical boundaries found in the New Testament – that is, some of the core beliefs and parameters which believers are to adhere to.

And this ties in with a recent post of mine on church membership and discipline and the comments that followed from it. I knew it would stir up no small debate since the world’s values of non-commitment, tolerance falsely so-called, laissez faire attitudes to most things, and a fear of judgment, have well and truly permeated most churches.

Contributing to all this is so much of the thinking coming from the emerging church folks. While they talk a lot about community, what they mostly tend to be on about is pushing an anti-authority, anti-institution, anti-commitment, and anti-doctrine agenda.

Thus most believers today have never heard, nor seen examples, of church discipline. And the idea of church membership leaves many believers cold as well. We are averse to making any deep and long-term commitments. We are not keen on being told what to do. And accountability is certainly not our strong suit.

We want everything to simply go our own way, with no challenges to how we live or how we believe. We do not want any list of beliefs or practices to be waved in front of our faces, and we want to be free to take or leave whatever we hear or see in church.

Now we are not to just blindly accept whatever goes on in a church of course. But there is a legitimate place for theological and behavioural boundary markers, which we are not free to pick up and move around at our whim. The New Testament is in fact full of such boundary markers.

But we seem to think we can just ignore them or rearrange them to our liking. Indeed, the emergents and others don’t like the concepts of boundaries and markers. They think the faith is much more fluid and malleable, with no clear parameters and no clear lines drawn. The faith is a very minimalist thing for them.

Consider a remark of Frank Viola from his Reimagining Church – it is clearly minimalist and patently unbiblical: “If a group of Christians demands anything beyond a person’s acceptance of Christ before admitting that person into fellowship, then that church is not a Church in the biblical sense of the word. It’s a sect” (p. 119).

Oh yeah? “Acceptance of Christ”? That’s it? That is of course absurd. So the new member can deny the Trinity and still be in? He can say that Jesus was just one of many saviours, and still be in? He can be a practicing Muslim who “accepts Christ” and still be in? He can be living in a blatant adulterous relationship and still be in? He can be a practicing homosexual and still be in? He can be a regular bank robber and still be in?

Viola does go on to say this: “The exception is if a Christian is wilfully sinning and refuses to repent.” So now he does acknowledge at least a moral component to discipleship, and some lines or boundaries have therefore been drawn. But no doctrinal markers whatsoever? Just accept Jesus – whatever that means – and beliefs be damned?

(BTW, another one of his popular books, Pagan Christianity, co-authored by George Barna, was equally quite unhelpful and misleading. A terrific critique of that 2008 volume by New Testament scholar Ben Witherington can be found here – it is really well worth reading: benwitherington.blogspot.com.au/2008/06/pagan-christianty-by-george-barna-and.html )

There are plenty of New Testament tests for what constitutes a real follower of Christ: there are numerous doctrinal tests and there are numerous behaviour tests. Indeed, why did Paul and other church leaders so often have to discipline and even expel church members? They all may well have “accepted Christ” but obviously that is not all there is, and it is only just the beginning.

There is a set of core beliefs which a Christian must affirm to call himself a Christian. And there are all kinds of lifestyle markers of a true follower of Christ. I can’t believe anyone actually reading the NT could in fact make as reckless and as silly a statement as Viola has.

The NT is full of clearly bounded indicators of both right belief and right behaviour. Orthodoxy and orthopraxis, in other words, really do matter. As to doctrinal beliefs which all believers were expected to adhere to, they go back to the very earliest days of the church.

Consider 1 Corinthians 15:1-8 for example. As almost all NT scholars agree, this was one of the earliest creedal affirmations of Christianity. It was obviously in existence well before Paul wrote this epistle (around the mid-50s), so it goes back to just years from the death of Christ.

Thus a clearly delineated core set of basic beliefs was already making the rounds at this very early stage of Christianity. Call it a statement of faith if you like. It was a boundary marker, distinguishing those who were in from those who were out. Belief in these basic doctrines was an indication of whether one was a real follower of Jesus or not.

Of course mere mental assent to doctrine alone has never been all that matters. A life that reflected these beliefs also has to be in evidence. Those who claimed to be real followers of Jesus needed to show some evidence of a transformed life. If only the old sinful lifestyle manifested itself, then the early church leaders were quite happy to pass judgment on their reality of conversion – or lack thereof.

Church membership and church discipline are two sides of the same coin. A real member of the body of Christ – and a local fellowship of believers – will seek to be accountable and committed. When obvious sin and rebellion is found in the camp, it must be dealt with. A very clear example of this is found in 1 Corinthians 5 where an immoral brother had to be expelled from the fellowship.

A very obvious moral boundary marker was crossed, and this unrepentant brother had to be dealt with firmly and swiftly. Indeed, Paul is amazed that they had taken so long to deal with him. Harsh measures must be taken: he is to be barred from church fellowship. Excommunication we would say today. But serious measures had to be taken to snap this wayward believer back to his senses, if possible.

Another very decisive case of boundary marking concerns the Lord’s Supper. As Paul establishes in 1 Cor. 11:27-32, this table is not for everyone, and needs to be fenced off. It is only for believers and only those believers who are walking right with their Lord. Those who are not face serious consequences if they partake:

“So then, whoever eats the bread or drinks the cup of the Lord in an unworthy manner will be guilty of sinning against the body and blood of the Lord. Everyone ought to examine themselves before they eat of the bread and drink from the cup. For those who eat and drink without discerning the body of Christ eat and drink judgment on themselves. That is why many among you are weak and sick, and a number of you have fallen asleep. But if we were more discerning with regard to ourselves, we would not come under such judgment. Nevertheless, when we are judged in this way by the Lord, we are being disciplined so that we will not be finally condemned with the world.”

Boundaries are vitally important in the Christian life and experience. To move or remove these boundary markers is to do harm to our faith, do damage to the church, reject Scripture, and bring dishonour unto God. We dare not be lax and careless about these matters. As Jonathan Leeman says in his very important volume, The Church and the Surprising Offense of God’s Love (Crossway, 2010):

“God calls the church to draw boundaries, boundaries which mark off these people from those people, boundaries which prevent some individuals from joining while excluding other individuals after they have joined. Not only that, God intends that the church use these boundary markers in order to help define for the world what exactly love is” (p. 34).


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