When we started the “Walk Away” series, we highlighted the 41 citations in the Gospels where Jesus walked away from someone or let someone walk away from him. Last week, we looked at numerous examples from the life of Paul.
This week we’re picking up another deleted (for space) chapter excerpt from When to Walk Away to explore how the other apostles took the example and words of Jesus to heart, and how later, throughout church history, leaders have sought to apply them.
Let’s begin with the scathing words of Peter who calls out the toxic people who preyed on the early followers of Christ. He begins by warning his readers “there will be false teachers among you.” And he’s not worried about hurting those feelings: “They are like unreasoning animals, creatures of instinct, born only to be caught and destroyed, and like animals they too will perish. They will be paid back with harm for the harm they have done.” He even refers to them as “blots” and “blemishes” (v. 13).
It’s particularly interesting that in Peter’s view, these toxic teachers were once “among them”: “It would have been better for them not to have known the way of righteousness, than to have known it and then to turn their backs on the sacred command that was passed on to them.”
What this tells us, for our purposes, is that the organized church isn’t always a safe refuge from toxic people. But we knew that already, didn’t we?
Even John, the “apostle of love,” warned Gaius and an entire church to watch out for a specific toxic individual: “I wrote to the church, but Diotrephes, who loves to be first, will not welcome us. So when I come, I will call attention to what he is doing, spreading malicious nonsense about us.”
According to Irenaeus, who was discipled by Polycarp (and who, in turn was discipled by none other than the apostle John himself), John so opposed another toxic person, Cerinthus, that if Cerinthus walked into a bathhouse, John ran out. He didn’t even want to be seen to be in the same place. Polycarp said John shouted, “Let us fly, lest even the bath-house fall down, because Cerinthus, the enemy of the truth, is inside!”
Jesus, Paul, Peter and John all understood the concept of a toxic opponent and they all, accordingly, talked about walking (or even running) away.
Following the In the Footsteps of the Apostles
Richard Baxter, a beloved Puritan pastor from the seventeenth century, warned young pastors that when it comes to toxic people, “Your first responsibility is to preserve the church from such people.” Notice, it’s not to “save” the toxic person. It’s to protect the other people from the toxic person’s corruption. He seems to think that “converting” them is a lost cause: “If you try to correct them of their false ways, they will only turn to some other error.”
When I’ve seen ministries try to accommodate toxicity rather than confront it, the head woman or man usually goes. The situation becomes so messy and chaotic that the leader feels she or he has to assume responsibility and resign. Toxic people will murder their boss’ jobs if they’re not dealt with. Baxter understood this: “When a fire is kindled, try to stamp it out from its inception. Do not even allow the smallest spark to blaze before you snuff it out. So go at once to all persons that you suspect of being infected. Counsel with them until you are sure that they have recovered from their bad spirit.”
This is Baxter’s way of saying to walk away from the toxic person, and then invest your time in the reliable people. Spend more time caring for the infected than the infector.
Baxter also suggests, as we have, to not make it a personal vendetta against the toxic people. That just riles them up. “See that you do not preach against them from the pulpit. It is wise not to name them specifically…in general such people will be sensitive, proud, passionate, and rash. They will hate and fly upon you as an enemy and accuse you of un-Christian railing. So instead of naming them, state clearly those truths which fully refute the errors they are teaching. If you do your work effectively, the error will collapse under its own weight.”
Baxter’s final words on the subject are the most difficult to apply. The best way to demonstrate the toxicity of toxic people is to pursue and model the holiness of God ourselves. Instead of becoming fixated on how evil they are, we must set our hearts on who Christ is in us: “Be loath to let the dividers outdo you in the practice of a righteous and holy life, any more than you let them outdo you in sound, diligent teaching. Let us be lovers of all, and especially of all saints. Do good to all as we have power. Let us be more just than they, more merciful, humbler, meeker, and more patient. ‘For this is the will of God that by well-doing we may put to silence the ignorance of foolish men’ (1 Peter 2:15).”
You’re Just One Among Many
When it comes to ministry, I’ve been in maybe a dozen situations in various ministries with people I’d call truly toxic. If you can think of a hundred such people, you might be defining “toxic” too broadly. Toxic doesn’t mean merely “difficult” and it certainly doesn’t mean “different.” Toxic is a mean, anti-God (though they may claim to be God’s), controlling and murderous kind of spirit of someone who wants to hurt you and bring you down.
Following my blogpost “Enough is Enough,” a male-oriented blog launched an attack (I actually got attacked from both sides on that one, but that’s another story for another day) where I was likened to female genitalia, ridiculed for being bald (which proves, in their minds, that something is wrong with my head), and even had my sexual orientation questioned. That kind of language—even if their point was correct—has no place in God’s Kingdom, and we can pretty much drown out such drivel without feeling like we need to engage with it.
I fared much better with a more recent toxic person I faced than I did with the prior ones because I was more experienced and had better counsel. In the latter case, two wise brothers told me, “Gary, do not engage him.” This guy was clearly enthralled with everything Paul and Peter tell Christians to shun: anger, rage, slander, malice, filthy language and lying (Colossians 3:8ff.; Ephesians 4:31; 1 Peter 2:1).
If you’re a leader, you should take action against the toxic person and thus must engage him or her. But if the authority above you doesn’t and it’s not your place to correct it (and if your advice wouldn’t be welcomed), you’re going to have to work around it. Only engage the toxic person when you must and to the extent you must. Keep it professional and pray that God would open the leader’s eyes to the vortex of chaos the toxic person is spreading in the office.
For me, my best defense was praying for the toxic people. It’s what Jesus calls us to do: “Bless those who curse you, pray for those who mistreat you.” I prayed that God would convict them. I prayed that they would be so overwhelmed with God’s presence that they’d thirst after love and grace instead of anger and malice. I also prayed that they’d learn how much more satisfying it is to encourage, serve and build up instead of gossip, demean, and tear down. We should all pray for more workers! Jesus asks us to (Luke 10:12). Even better than seeing a toxic person defeated, humiliated and dismantled is to see them transformed into a loving servant of Christ. For the Kingdom’s sake we should hope for one more faithful worker rather than one less enemy.
I’m not advocating that we hate toxic people or stop caring about their souls. Stepping away from them is a strategy, not an act of spite. Walking away isn’t the same as “writing off.”
I have also prayed, on behalf of the ministries involved, that if the toxic person’s soul remained resistant, God would open up the leader’s eyes to what’s really going on and, for the sake of the work, remove the toxic offender. That’s not a selfish prayer, because if they are attacking you, I guarantee you they’re attacking others. So feel free to pray for the toxic person, “God, please change their heart or change their platform.”
Remember, Paul expressed a rather shocking “wish” for one toxic group when he told the Galatians, “As for those agitators, I wish they would go the whole way and emasculate themselves!” There comes a moment when being “nice” to the toxic people is to be cruel to their victims. It’s not gossip or mean-spiritedness to actively warn potential victims that they are being preyed upon.
Here’s what you need to know about the psychology and spirituality of toxic people: they like conflict. It feeds them. And they have a voracious appetite for it. Sin rots the fruit of the Spirit, including self-control. Toxic people feed off increasing conflict, causing more trouble, and attacking more victims. They get a taste and become more rabid. They live for division in the same way a true believer delights in peace.
Engaging them only riles them up and puts their focus on you. What I’ve found is that when you stop playing along, when you’re willing to walk away, they have to find another victim. They can’t stop being toxic, so they’ll find someone else to engage. I guarantee you this: if you’re being assaulted by a toxic person, you are not the first victim. There are probably dozens. One woman who I had to block on Twitter bragged on Facebook about how many ministries and “well-known” Christians had blocked her. It was a point of pride to her.
It might sound selfish to suggest that you should let them go attack someone else, but the fact that they are attacking others isn’t your fault. You’re not forcing them to attack, and it’s not like they’ll stop attacking others if they can also attack you. It doesn’t work that way. You might merely serve as their dessert. By walking away, you’re just being faithful and focused on fulfilling the important work God has called you to do. And it’s just possible that your walking away may be one way they learn they have to eventually change their ways. Allender and Longman counsel, “One of the greatest gifts one can give a person inclined to evil is the strength to frustrate their attempts to dominate.”
As far as it depends on you, don’t let toxicity succeed. Confront it when you can if you’re the leader. Walk away when you must. But don’t let it take you down. The more you understand the psychology and spiritual bent of a toxic person, the quicker you’ll be to disengage and, by your silence, let them move on to someone else. Just like Jesus, Paul, Peter and John, learn how to play defense and walk away.
 The New International Version. (2011). (3 Jn 9–10). Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan.
 The New International Version. (2011). (Lk 6:28). Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan.
 The New International Version. (2011). (Ga 5:12). Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan.