Boundary Maintenance!

The charge is sometimes made by those who are more in the emerging church mindset that apologetics/discernment ministries are not “missional” or do not embrace the new mission paradigm. I was reminded of this recently while reading an exchange between Rob Bowman, Paul Owen and John Morehead on  STRAIGHT ANSWERS TO FOX’S 21 QUESTIONS ABOUT THE MORMON CHURCH (comments 25, 28&29). When asked what that accusation means or if one should request a description on how we would actually be doing things differently the accuser falls back to “You are just involved in Boundary Maintenance.” It rolls off the tongue like a swear word and may feel like a slap in the face. The effect is similar to when the media talks about a religious group they have disdain for and say they are “fundamentalist.” These terms serve as a way to slap back or silence questioners without actually being defined. After all who wants to be regarded as a knuckle dragging non-missional fundamentalist? Sounds like a very bad disease.

I did a media interview a while back and the reporter mentioned that the group in question was “fundamentalist.” I asked if that is bad and was assured that it was. I thought I might have a bit of fun and asked if it was bad because fundamentalism is bad or the fundamentals they believed in were bad. The reporter was a little confused at that point, having not thought this through, and after a bit of hesitation asserted, “Fundamentalism is bad.” I pressed it a bit further and asked if the reporter wanted their employer to be a fundamentalist in math as it pertains to their pay check or if they thought fundamental math should be adhered to? Or should drivers be required to understand and act on the fundamentals of traffic signals or just make it up as they go? As we talked they came to realize that in most areas of life they really did want those around them to be fundamentalists provided the fundamentals in each area was sound. We then had a good working definition to discuss the group in question. It wasn’t that they were fundamentalists that was the problem. It was the fundamentals they held to that was the problem.

We have the same difficulty with the accusation of boundary maintenance. Is boundary maintenance a bad thing? Shepherds are continually doing boundary maintenance in order to prevent sheep from straying. After all sheep are not bright and tend to graze, graze, graze and wander away from the flock. Perhaps they even fall in to a pit or down a ravine. Boundary maintenance also guards them from predators that would sneak in among and harm them. That seems to me to be a good thing for the sheep.

Do the Scriptures speak to the issue of boundary maintenance? The answer is an unequivocal yes! In Acts 20:28-31 we read of Paul charging the Ephesian Elders with the responsibility of boundary maintenance:

Take heed therefore unto yourselves, and to all the flock, over which the Holy Ghost hath made you overseers, to feed the church of God, which he hath purchased with his own blood. For I know this, that after my departing shall grievous wolves enter in among you, not sparing the flock. Also of your own selves shall men arise, speaking perverse things, to draw away disciples after them. Therefore watch, and remember, that by the space of three years I ceased not to warn every one night and day with tears.

They were to guard the boundaries from predators on the outside and inside in the same way they had observed Paul doing. To the young pastor Timothy the Apostle wrote:

As I besought thee to abide still at Ephesus, when I went into Macedonia, that thou mightest charge some that they teach no other doctrine

The whole of 1 Timothy is written on this subject. Even Jesus was concerned about this and said:

Beware of false prophets, which come to you in sheep’s clothing, but inwardly they are ravening wolves. (Matthew 7:15)

Boundary Maintenance is a good work and there is a fair amount of the Bible which mandates it. If that is all we were doing that would be God honoring and applying the biblical teachings in our individual and corporate ministry. However, many us are missionaries or ambassadors for Christ (2 Corinthians 5:20). This is a high holy calling. An ambassador is a citizen of one nation who represents his or her nation in and to other nations. They are “missional” in helping those of other cultures understand the country that the ambassador is representing. The ambassador also instructs their constituency how to best communicate and not unduly offend those of this foreign nation. The ambassador also attempts to protect those of his or her nation who are traveling where he or she is serving. In other words, a good ambassador is by definition both a missionary and one who does boundary maintenance.

As I reflect on this I am honored to be able to serve with MCOI but also with the men and women of the member ministries of EMNR who model this so well. In a little over a month we will be gathering together in Kansas City, MO for the 2008 EMNR KANSAS CITY CONFERENCE ON BIBLICAL DISCERNMENT. This year’s theme is APOLOGETICS IN MISSIONS: THE LANGUAGE OF HOPE . We would love to have you join us


Boundary Maintenance! — 10 Comments

  1. Thank you for addressing an important issue with this post. As I read it a few thoughts came to mind that are offered in the interests of balance.

    First, I recognize the necessity and importance of boundary maintenance for both religious groups and their members. Christianity is no exception to this, and you have referenced some of the biblical material that emphasizes the importance of defining, and at times, defending this boundary.

    Second, what I and other colleagues have noted in our writings is that boundary maintenance is not the only or primary activity that Christians should be involved in as they engage new religions. Beyond discussing where our faith begins and ends in distinction from that of the “religious other,” we should also be concerned with communicating our faith in ways which resonate within a religious culture or subculture. In order to accomplish this we must draw from disciplines beyond theology and apologetics, to include cross-cultural missiology and a process of contextualization. The cross-cultural communication of the gospel (at times also including a contextualized apologetic) in a form of contextualization has been done for centuries in the Christian church, and those advocating a different model for approach new religions are suggesting that the missions approaches used for world and tribal religions also have relevance for new religious movements.

    Third, with these distinctions and clarifications in mind, hopefully your readers will recognize that I and others are advocating both boundary maintenance and missional contextualization as appropriate in differing contexts. We have never advocated an either/or type of approach.

    Fourth, in terms of further clarification, readers might note that I have never used the terms “boundary maintenance” or “fundamentalist” as pejorative terms, but rather as descriptive.

    Finally, while I am frequently referred to and dismissed as being part of the emerging church, it is inaccurate to place me in this movement. While I am sympathetic to many of their concerns I am not involved in an emerging church and I have concerns about some of their theologies and methods of praxis as well.

    Perhaps those utilizing apologetic or “heresy-rationalist” forms of understanding and engaging new religions, and those utilizing a missiological approach, can seek to better understand each other which will lend itself to more careful and nuanced statemets of their views and critiques of other models.

    Thanks again for raising this issue.

  2. John said, “We have never advocated an either/or type of approach” and then stated, “Perhaps those utilizing apologetic or “heresy-rationalist” forms of understanding and engaging new religions, and those utilizing a missiological approach, can seek to better understand each other which will lend itself to more careful and nuanced statemets of their views and critiques of other models.”

    If both are needed, and I agree that they are, I would like to see an example of John using the boundary maintenance method… currently.

  3. Don, in your recollection, who else in the emerging church movement has said “boundary maintenance” as a dismissive retort?

    Off to check with Google . . .

  4. In response to the comment from Evidence Ministries, as I said in my post above, differing approaches must be used depending upon differing contexts. Many times a boundary maintenance approach is most appropriate within the church when contrast between essential Christianity and the new religions, particularly those that claim some connection with Christianity. In this context it would be more appropriate to contrast the practices and teachings of each religious group, while also recognizing the place of such contrasts in an overall plan of understanding and engagement.

    Outside of the church, when one is engaging “religious others” and seeking not only to define and defend Christian theological boundaries, but also to communicate the gospel message in ways that communicate within the framework of a new relgion, a contextualized missions approach is required. Once again, the point is differing contexts require differing approaches, and perhaps we have equated a boundary maintenance approach with evangelism where the new religions are concerned.

    As to an example of my using the former, I utilize and have provided several such examples in my ministry and writings. For example, the Bridges and Grounded resources designed to help Christian adults and youth understand Mormonism and share their faith as they understand it as traditional Christians, these resources provide important boundary maintenance considerations, and then build upon this to include important cultural considerations.

    Thanks for the chance to provide further clarification and illustration of my views and approach.

  5. The warnings from Scripture are terribly important. However, I believe it is moving a step beyond the text to argue that boundary maintenance is what is called for. I believe Scripture calls for intense discipleship patterned after Christ. Creating and maintaining boundaries for others takes the focus off of this intense discipleship. Paul’s letters to churches struggling with a variety issues models how we should continually direct people to Christ and a life patterned after him.

  6. Regarding comment 5, Paul’s letters also dealt extensively with false teaching, as does I John. Don provided good quotes in the main article, so I’m not going to add to them, but there are lots more where that came from.

    Both boundary maintenance, and a life patterned after Christ (Philippians 2) are taught in Paul’s letters, and there is nothing mutually exclusive about these two facets of Christian teaching. They go together, and I do not see in Don’s article where he was arguing that boundary maintenance is the ONLY thing that is called for.

    But getting past this . . . I can’t find any quotes about these new emerging buzz words “boundary maintenance.” And I have read quotes from commenters above about arguing for cultural relevance and the importance of giving the message with the context of culture in mind, and had this thought . . .

    This is nothing new with the Emerging Church movement. You speak with many Wycliffe Bible translators (I personally know some), or read a now many years old book by Don Richardson called Peace Child (see also Eternity In Their Hearts) and you will know that many key evangelicals in missions have understood about God reaching people within the contexts of their unique cultures for YEARS. When we are dealing with Bible translation especially, this kind of issue is foisted on Western translaters whether they want it or not. Their job is to translate, and often there is not the vocabulary to do so, so they must make the most accurate dynamic equivalents they can make, and in order to do this, they MUST have the best help from those who speak the language and live in the culture thereof. And that takes a lot of time and a lot of painstaking work, which includes intimate familiarity with the culture they are trying to reach with the Bible.

    Hence, if I WERE to find where Emerging writers are talking about boundary maintenance vs. cultural considerations and the importance of context, I think I would yawn. Or else ask where they get off thinking that this is some new idea or paradigm shift they have come up with.

    But I haven’t been able to locate a lot of sources from emerging writers and what they have to say about the problems of the evangelical church’s emphasis on boundary maintenance, and I would like to know if there are any resources on the internet to peruse.

  7. It is difficult to understand how your use of “boundary maintenance” or “fundamentalist” are not pejorative. Of course I cannot know your motives, heart or intentions. I can only deal with what you say or don’t say. When you use the term “heresy-rationalist” there are definite definitions and therefore implications:


    From Easton’s 1897 Bible Dictionary:

    “from a Greek word signifying (1) a choice, (2) the opinion chosen, and (3) the sect holding the opinion. In the Acts of the Apostles (5:17; 15:5; 24:5, 14; 26:5) it denotes a sect, without reference to its character. Elsewhere, however, in the New Testament it has a different meaning attached to it. Paul ranks “heresies” with crimes and seditions (Gal. 5:20). This word also denotes divisions or schisms in the church (1 Cor. 11:19). In Titus 3:10 a “heretical person” is one who follows his own self-willed “questions,” and who is to be avoided. Heresies thus came to signify self-chosen doctrines not emanating from God (2 Pet. 2:1).”


    1. opinion or doctrine at variance with the orthodox or accepted doctrine, esp. of a church or religious system.
    2. the maintaining of such an opinion or doctrine.
    3. Roman Catholic Church. the willful and persistent rejection of any article of faith by a baptized member of the church.
    4. any belief or theory that is strongly at variance with established beliefs, customs, etc.

    The simple form is that heresy is false doctrine or teaching.

    Rationalist (rationalism) from

    1. the principle or habit of accepting reason as the supreme authority in matters of opinion, belief, or conduct.
    2. Philosophy.
    a) the doctrine that reason alone is a source of knowledge and is independent of experience.
    b) (in the philosophies of Descartes, Spinoza, etc.) the doctrine that all knowledge is expressible in self-evident propositions or their consequences.
    3. Theology. the doctrine that human reason, unaided by divine revelation, is an adequate or the sole guide to all attainable religious truth.

    And so by definition your accusation is that those involved in “boundary maintenance” are attacking false teaching using their reason alone as the source of all knowledge apart from the written word of God. Aside from that being untrue I am not sure how it is not pejorative.

    Now since I don’t get my undies in a bundle over name calling this brings me back to the very same question I have asked you on numerous occasion face to face as well as in email which you have never answered. What would I or MCOI be doing differently tomorrow than we are doing today if we adopt your paradigm?

    As far as Michael’s comments, I understand how it can be perceived that guarding the flock (boundary maintenance) as we read in Acts 20:28 and following is distracting from discipling believers but both are mandated in Scripture.

  8. Once again, I appreciate that this issue has been raised and that profitable discussion has ensued, especially in that this has taken place on a countercult blog, and one connected to EMNR. Perhaps this indicates that profitable discussion can take place between those divided on these issues.

    A few thoughts in response to Lynn:

    First, we are still associating a cross-cultural misisons approach to new religions with an Emergent or Emerging Church approach. This is an inaccurate label. Neither I nor anyone in my network of scholars and practitioners are a part of the Emerging Church. So in this context the label “Emergent” appears to be both inaccurate and may function as a pejorative label for those who wish to casually dismiss missions approaches.

    Second, I did not state that in this post that Don was arguing only for boundary maintenance. What I have argued elsewhere is that frequently countercult apologetic approaches function and result in boundary maintenance function and that this is then equated with evangelism. We need to move beyond defining and defending the church’s boundaries to engage religious cultures and subcultures in ways that contextualizes the gospel in their framework. A missions approach involves living a Christian lifestyle but it also goes beyond this and requires interaction with the history of Christian mission and cross-cultural missiology so that the lessons in these venues can be applied to new religions in the West.

    Third, Lynn is correct that a cross-cultural missions model is not new. What is new is its application to new religions in the West. For those interested in exploring I would recommend the 2004 Lausanne issue group paper on this topic, which interacts with the earlier 1980 paper on “mystics and cultists,” and then makes a case supported with case studies for a missions approach to new religions. This paper can be downloaded at no cost at:

    I appreciate Don’s comments as well, and I offer a few response thoughts to him as well:

    First, I want to re-emphasize that my use of “fundamentalist” and “boundary maintenance” in my writings have never been intended or used in a pejorative fashion. Don is correct that he cannot know my motivations. Instead, they were intended as descriptive terms to describe a situation that I believe exists among various parties using particular approaches. As to the phrase “heresy-rationalist,” this originates with Philip Johnson of Australia, in an article he wrote for a journal a few years ago. This phrase and the model it refers to can be found in discussion in the first edition of Sacred Tribes Journal (, the Lausanne issue group paper referenced above, and in my concluding chapter of Encountering New Religious Movements: A Holistic Evangelical Approach (Kregel Academic & Professional, 2004). I would direct interested readers to these sources for a further discussion of heresy-rationalist approaches to new religions in the countercult community. These primary sources where the unique phrase need to be consulted in order to adequately understand and respond to the term and the concept it conveys. You have not consulted these sources and therefore your understanding of my views is inaccurate.

    Second, as to what you or others in MCO might do differently with a paradigm shift, the space limitations of a blog comment preclude appropriate discussion of this. I would refer Don and other interested readers to the sources I have referenced above, particularly the case studies of mission approaches to new religions such as Mormonism, Christadelphianism, LaVeyan Satanism, the New Spirituality, and Wicca. With these case studies you can see what others are doing with missional approaches and assess its appropriateness and relevance in your own ministries.

  9. I have chosen to respond here as I have noticed that from time to time the posts by those who disagree with you seem to inexplicably vanish from your site.

    In my blog I noted some of the biblical passages which mandate church leadership to do boundary maintenance. If I have misrepresented the biblical teaching on this it seems that it would be good for you to show that such work is unbiblical and unnecessary. Whether or not your intent for your use of the expression “boundary maintenance” is to come across as a swear word or not, it does. As far as the accusation of using the “heresy-rationalist” approach, I gave the commonly accepted definitions of these terms which I, MCOI and the members of EMNR do not fit. Of course, if you take a postmodern view of language and give it any old meaning that suits you is not something I can really address.

    How I approach and interact with non-believers, whether JWs, Mormons, Wiccans or “religious other” of many more belief systems is the area on which you are the most vague. You come across with regularity that MCOI and the other EMNR membership are little more than unfeeling, scalp hunting, back yard apologetic hacks. That is fine. In order to have clarity on the issues I have asked you repeatedly what I would do differently tomorrow than I am doing today if I adopted your paradigm. In all of these years that question has been met either with silence or in this latest exchange a “figure it out for yourself” response. Unless and until you can answer the question simply, your accusations and mud slinging have no credibility.

  10. Don, thanks for sharing your response. Although you don’t mention me by name, I assume you are responding to me.

    It is unfortunate that you begin your post on such a hostile note, and one that is simply not true. Comments on my blog do not simply disappear. Your comment smacks of conspiracy or fear of critique, and neither are true. I do moderate comments on my blog because many of the comments from the countercult are unfortunately hostile, personal attacks, and not very well thought out. My blog is reserved for serious critical discussion of important issues. Those comments that meet my criteria are posted and interacted with. Please don’t continue to misrepresent the situation on my blog.

    Beyond this initial concern, if you reread my comments here and on my blog you will see that I acknowledge the biblical teaching and need for appropriate forms of boundary maintenance and defnition. My concern is with those apologetic approaches utilize such methods as evangelistic approaches, and which unfortunately often result in the creation of an “us vs. them” mentality among evangelicals in relation to adherents of new religions.

    As to terms like “boundary maintenance” and “fundamentalist,” I reiterate that they are used by me as descriptive terms, not pejorative, even though you interpret them that was a reader. But here is an instructive lesson for us: perhaps evangelicals who use the term “cult” in theological and not pejorative senses should consider how adherents of new religions interpret and react to this label. If you are arguing that my terminology should not be used because you find it offensive, what does that say about evangelical fondness for using “cult”?

    Third, I do not take a postmodern view of language, but instead, draw upon a common usage of language where unique terms are defined in the way they are used in the primary sources that coin new nomenclature. If you want to understand what “heresy-rationalist paradigm” means then you need to access the sources where this term is defined and explained. If you do this you will see that the concept does apply to what is going on in countercult circles.

    Finally, as to my alleged vagueness on what a missional model of engagement with new religions involves in contrast to apologetic approaches, I have pointed you toward several sources which go into great detail on exactly what this looks like, and I have invited you to consider these practical examples. It is unfortunate that you somehow equate this with mud slinging. If you are going to raise critique concerning my views and approach it is indeed fair for me to ask you to accurately understand what you say you disagree with, and to reach this understanding after reading the sources where these views are developed. It appears that you haven’t done that. I will leave it to readers to make up their own minds about crediblity.

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