Get Along to Get Along: Why Boundaries Matter

Have you ever been in one of those churches where, during the “stand and greet one another” time, everyone hugs each other? I’ve been in those churches on occasion as a visitor, and as a member. I often feel pressured to give in to the hugs, to touch people I didn’t know before this moment, to essentially be physically intimate with people I wouldn’t give a second look in the line at the grocery store.

In some ways, this encourages us to look at each directly and consider our mutual humanity. But in many other ways, this encourages us to treat all relationships between people who share the same faith as equally intimate and without boundaries. If one refuses the handshake or hug, one is subtly, quietly, seen as “different,” someone who is “hard to get along with.” There is peer pressure to be someone everyone can get along with.

Unfortunately, in the modern American evangelical church and even in post-evangelical progressivism, we try to make “everyone gets along!” the highest of all potential virtues. If everyone’s friendly and getting along, we can have UNITY. Or something resembling it. And I think a lot of this philosophy is bred directly into how we teach about the incarnated Body of Christ as the Church.

I’ve spoken before about how the church encourages a false form of intimacy – an intimacy that requires revelation of secrets without the emotional closeness to actually keep them safe. I remember in one class in college, we had reading/study groups that were also prayer groups (that comes with being a theology major at a small Christian college). These were classmates, many of whom I’d known for maybe six weeks, and we were asked to share prayer requests with our groups in an effort to … you know what, I’m not even sure what the point of it was. I just remember sitting there awkwardly as people I barely knew shared how they and their partner were struggling with sexual sin, how someone I didn’t know from Adam was having trouble with his parents, how another person didn’t know how to approach a difficult situation in her life.

The idea is that if we are the Body, if we are Christ’s movement on earth, then we should be parts of each other’s lives, boundaries shouldn’t exist between the heirs of Christ.

In class, we accepted it at the time because it was Christian education and in those environments, the lines between educational environment and church often blur. But, these blurred lines (no Robin Thicke jokes, please) often result in a confusion of what intimacy between brothers and friends can and should look like, which is can be emotionally confusing for people who are just beginning to figure out who they are.

This idea that sharing a common faith meant sharing everything, regardless of levels of intimacy, often bleeds into the idea that we should be able to get along with everyone who claims the faith (or the feminism, depending on where you’re at). This idea that we are all one big family who loves each other erases that very real fact that, for no reason whatsoever, some people just don’t like each other.

It took me a long time to learn the basic lesson that sometimes people just don’t like each other and that’s OKAY. You don’t have to get along with everyone. Indeed, you most certainly won’t. What you can do is know yourself well enough to know when that’s happening, and minimize damage. But that sort of outlook accepts, as its basis, that “not getting along” is not devastating, it is not drama-making. It’s just simply a fact of life. 

However, the recognition of the fact that people have reasons for their boundaries is antithetical to the false intimacy the church demands. If you’re not “getting along,” there is something wrong with you. You’re somehow bitter, unforgiving, ungracious, not fully letting go in God.

What this means in practice is that boundaries are an affront to the Body of Christ. “Getting along” with some people would mean sacrifice my personal sense of safety in order to present a happy front. “Getting along” often means ignoring major problems when they occur.

A world where “why can’t we all just get along” is a compelling argument is also a world where every offense and every slight carries the exact same weight and the exact same pain. If I offend someone by making a mistake, and they offend me by denying my agency, the offenses are the same in “why can’t we all just get along” world. This is because, in that world, everyone shares the same privileges, everyone has the same struggles, everyone has the same experiences. “Why can’t we all just get along” is, notably, often stated by white people who are made uncomfortable by POC calling out racism, by cis people being called out by trans* and non-binary people, by able-bodied people being called out by people with disabilities..

“Why can’t we all just get along” is the rallying cry of the privileged, demanding that marginalized simply pretend not to be so that all may “get along” and “be unified.”

We must always be aware of how privilege intersects in our relationships and how we discuss our experiences. Asking marginalized people to “get along” with their oppressors is asking them to set aside their pain so that you don’t feel weird about it. It also ignores the basic humanity of people who simply don’t get along – forcing someone to be friends with or interact with someone they simply don’t like crosses boundaries and puts pressure on them.

Part of learning to respect other people’s boundaries is recognizing that being Christian or sharing an experience doesn’t automatically make you friends. Friendship is a learned thing, that requires work, and corresponding levels of intimacy. This is why I struggle with small group Bible studies, with church mixers, with anything that requires I divulge large parts of my life experience before I feel safe in doing so.

We in the church need to take a step back and recognize that boundaries are okay, that even within the Body of Christ, conflict is going to happen, and that conflict isn’t the end of the world. People who call attention to discrepancies and disparities aren’t “trying to cause drama” and they aren’t (often) being purposefully contrarian. Often, they love the church just as much as you do and they want it to be a safe space for everyone, not just for the privileged.