Book Review: Boundaries, by Henry Cloud & John Townsend


Henry Cloud and John Townsend, Boundaries: When to Say Yes, How to Say No to Take Control of Your Life. Zondervan, 2017. 352 pages.


This site does not generally review New York Times bestsellers. But Boundaries is not only popular in the culture to some degree; it has a Christian tone to it that has made it rather influential to many believers. Can something this popular be truly as life changing as it claims?

Boundaries was originally published over thirty years ago and has since been updated and expanded. The influence of this book is evident from the millions of copies sold, the multiple resources spawned from it (workbooks and curriculums for dating, marriage, parenting, etc.), and how common it is to hear people talk about establishing healthy boundaries. The book has clearly pressed into a sensitive and practical issue for many.

Boundaries has three parts:

  1. Defining a boundary and identifying ten laws of boundaries
  2. Applying this to family, friends, marriage, family, work . . . and even God
  3. Developing healthy boundaries

What are boundaries? The authors define them as “personal property lines that define who you are and who you are not, and they influence all areas of your life—physically, mentally, emotionally, and spiritually.” This book claims that by “unpacking the ten laws of boundaries [the authors] show you how to bring new happiness and health to your relationships. You’ll discover firsthand how sound boundaries give you the freedom to walk as the loving, giving, and fulfilled individual God created you to be” (taken from the jacket cover).

That’s a tall claim. Is it true? In short: no. Boundaries is off-center and, in the end, has limited value for a believer. What I found was a mixture of common grace, common sense, and unbiblical confusion. The book doesn’t take our depravity seriously nor does it celebrate the power of the gospel to change us from the inside out.

Here’s the bottom-line up-front: Boundaries does not go deep enough. Establishing healthy boundaries is presented as the key to life instead of the centrality of the gospel.


Here is what I appreciate:

The authors clearly want to help people-pleasers fight the unsustainable pressure of making others happy. They rightfully identify the negative consequences of living “the on-call life” and have counseled many through the years and draw upon examples to illustrate their claims. I also appreciate that they appeal to the Bible as a source of wisdom and see the benefit of the local church in helping people who are seeking to address issues in life.

I thought Chapter 4 had several good nuggets. They warn parents about acting as if their child is responsible for their emotional health. They warn of parents who overcontrol and don’t allow their children to experience failure. They rightfully point out that the “heart of God seems to beat especially close to the victim of trauma” (83).

Because of these strengths, it’s possible that some people in your church have read Boundaries and addressed some of their people-pleasing desires. They may even recommend the book. For such folks, criticism of it may not be received well. But can you affirm the good while helping them to be a bit more discerning? I think so.


Boundaries on God

While Boundaries has some helpful counsel, its application soon embodies the old adage “if you give a boy a hammer, the whole world becomes a nail.” In other words, Boundaries offers an unstainable hermeneutic for the human experience.

Nowhere does that get more destructive than when applying the concept of boundaries to God himself. For example, when laying down Boundary Law #9, The Law of Activity, they write, “God will match our effort, but he will never do our work for us. That would be an invasion of our boundaries” (101). However, Paul lays down no such boundary between God’s work and his work when he writes, “For this I toil, struggling with all his energy that he powerfully works within me” (Col. 1:29, emphasis added).

Elsewhere, the book claims that “God has no interest in violating our boundaries so that he can relate to us. He understands that this would cause injuries of trust” (55).

Paul’s experience on the Damascus Road is the complete opposite of this claim, as was Lot’s angelic escape from Sodom (Gen. 19:16). Unless God had invaded our boundaries, we would never know the gospel. And yet, because “boundaries” becomes a hermeneutic for how to view all of Scripture, all of Scripture is up for grabs to bolster its project.

To support the claim that “[God] respects our no,” readers are pointed to the prodigal son, the rich young ruler, and Joshua’s Israel (229). Do these stories illustrate that God “respects” our no—or that he beckons bitter older brothers (Luke 15:31–32) and warns his disciples of dangerous snares (Mark 10:23)? The authors appeal to Scripture to support their points, but the points they make miss the point.

Boundaries on Neighbors

Well-meaning Christians are desperate enough to read a 352-page book about boundaries because relationships with sinners are hard. They’re looking for help, and Boundaries offers some. However, when Boundaries doubles as a blueprint to apply to all relationships, biblical community gets lost.

In Chapter 5, the 10 Laws of Boundaries try to be something they aren’t. The authors come up with these laws, some of which are clear biblical principles, and try to make everything fit into them. And the reader gets the sense that following these laws is the key to life, instead of following Jesus.

Biblical counselor Ed Welch of CCEF offers a helpful critique of relational boundaries:

Boundaries . . . are not intended to be a dominant, life-guiding metaphor for relationships. Instead, breaking relational boundaries is fundamental to life in Christ. Christians consider how we move toward others and surprise them with love. We reconcile, forgive, cover offenses. We repent of the personal boundaries we instinctively erect, and we pray for deeper insight into our oneness, as we are one body with Christ as the head. The zeal for unity and the tearing down of interpersonal boundaries are distinguishing marks of the church.1

Welch isn’t arguing for an approach to relationships that never says no, but that when we do say no, Scripture reveals to us a different blueprint. That blueprint: wise love.

Wise love. Not air-headed love—not “just love your abuser like Jesus, already” love—but a love that prayerfully uses a mind renewed by the whole counsel of God. When relational difficulties had surfaced among the saints in Philippi (4:2), this was Paul’s prayer for them: “that your love may abound more and more, with knowledge and all discernment, so that you may approve what is excellent” (Phil. 1:9–10, emphasis added).

Paul prayed to God that he would grant the Philippians a discerning love. Not even an apostle would presume to have the advice they needed to squash their disunity. They needed divine intervention.

Here’s some bad news: there are no book-length fixes to our broken relationships. Every circumstance is unique and requires fresh discernment about how we’re supposed to “love our neighbor.” Ten laws aren’t enough.

Here’s some good news: the Fountain of all wisdom is our Father, and he wants to give some to his children (James 1:5).

Wise love wants what’s best for another, which is always union and communion with God. But sometimes, wise love will look like separation and prayer. Other times—much of the time—wise love will look like drawing near and feel like carrying a cross. After all, at its most beautiful, that’s what Perfect Love looked like.


My daughter-in-law Taylor is the happy mom of five children ages eight and under. Her life is not her own.

Recently, Taylor said,

Today’s moms are being told that they deserve a given amount of time, a self-care day, or a me-day where there are no interruptions; they can just be free from all responsibilities. But instead of it being healthy for the mom, it’s breeding a feeling of discontentment and dissatisfaction that is not only destructive to the mom’s own mental and spiritual health; it is destructive of her family.

All deep relationships with sinners in a broken world require cross-carrying. The question is simple, yet difficult: do we trust that God is good, that painful obedience leads to life, and that pain-free disobedience leads to death?

Boundaries seeks to identify some of the reasons people do (or don’t do) the things they do relationally. But again, it simply doesn’t go deep enough. While there is some good counsel, a boundary-centered life is not the same as a Christ-centered and gospel-centered life.

What I would recommend:

I have used with great profit the work by Ed Welch When People are Big and God is Small. This work is also over thirty years old and was just updated and re-released. Welch’s book is gospel-centered, theologically consistent, heart-exposing, grace-applying, and shorter!

* * * * *

[1] Ed Welch, “Boundaries in Relationships”. Journal of Biblical Counseling 22:3, 2004. Page 19.

Bob Johnson

Bob Johnson is the senior pastor of Cornerstone Baptist Church in Roseville, Michigan.

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