The apostle Paul was about as zealous as any person has ever been in spreading the message of Jesus, but when he faced stubborn resistance, he did what Jesus did: he walked away.
He didn’t run away at the first sign of resistance. He reasoned and pled with many inquirers. He even seems to put up with toxic people for a while. But usually, when the situation became abusive or clearly pointless, he got out of there.
Let’s just follow Paul’s travelogue, shall we?
In Damascus, Paul’s opponents were so vigilant to kill him that the church had to get creative in order to save his life: “His followers took him by night and lowered him in a basket through an opening in the wall.” Paul’s opponents were determined and clever in their murderous plans. Paul and his followers were more determined and cleverer in finding ways to keep Paul alive.
Paul’s very next stop was Jerusalem, this time working primarily among Grecian Jews. The Grecian Jews couldn’t win the debate so “they tried to kill him. When the believers learned of this, they took him down to Caesarea and sent him off to Tarsus.”
Noticing a pattern yet?
In Pisidian Antioch, Paul demonstrates his passion to find the reliable people he later told Timothy to focus on. From his writings to the Romans, it’s clear that Paul yearned earnestly for his fellow Jews to embrace the Way of Jesus. In fact, he went so far as to say that he’d damn himself if his damnation could result in their salvation.[i] From perhaps the only man who had a front row seat to what life after life is truly like (when he was caught up into the “third heaven”[ii]), this is a remarkable statement. Yet even while bearing a passion that burned white hot for his Jewish brothers, when they resisted the message of Jesus Paul was willing to walk away in his pursuit of reliable men: “Then Paul and Barnabas answered them boldly: ‘We had to speak the word of God to you first. Since you reject it and do not consider yourselves worthy of eternal life, we now turn to the Gentiles.’”
Paul didn’t allow personal affinity—who he naturally liked or didn’t like, who he naturally cared for more or less—to impact the focus and extent of his ministry.
At Iconium, Paul and Barnabas were fierce in their preaching and God confirmed their words with “miraculous signs and wonders.” Yet, ultimately, this “miracle working team” still had to flee: “There was a plot afoot among both Gentiles and Jews, together with their leaders, to mistreat them and stone them. But they found out about it and fled to the Lycaonian cities of Lystra and Derbe…”
Supernatural anointing didn’t excuse them from exercising natural wisdom and walking away from trouble.
Unfortunately, similar trouble followed them into Thessalonica, including angry mobs. Once again, Paul walked away. “As soon as it was night, the believers sent Paul and Silas away to Berea.” Some of the Thessalonians followed Paul to Berea, “agitating the crowds and stirring them up.”
Guess what happened?
“The believers immediately sent Paul to the coast.”
We know that decades later Paul would willingly die in Rome, but notice that he chose not to offer himself up to death in Thessalonica, Berea, Iconium, Damascus or Jerusalem. In fact Paul, like Jesus, spent a good bit of his life walking away from violent opposition. If you think “anointed” ministry results only in people being changed and not in many people being violently agitated in opposition, you’re placing yourself above both Jesus and Paul.
Paul left other places not just to save his life, but also to save his time. He learned the difference between earnest debate and toxic resistance. After weeks of vigorous discussion with religious leaders in Corinth, Paul felt that enough was enough. In Acts 18:6 we read, “But when they opposed Paul and became abusive, he shook out his clothes in protest and said to them, ‘Your blood be on your own heads! I am innocent of it. From now on I will go to the Gentiles.’”
The same pattern repeated itself in Ephesus: “But some of them became obstinate; they refused to believe and publicly maligned the Way. So Paul left them.”
Paul was there to find reliable followers and future teachers. He was patient but not stubborn. If the message was rejected, Paul left to search elsewhere for more accommodating hearts. And notice that when others became abusive, Paul, like Jesus, walked away.
Have Nothing To Do With Them
Paul gives a rather extensive description of toxicity in 2 Timothy 3: “People will be lovers of themselves, lovers of money, boastful, proud, abusive, disobedient to their parents, ungrateful, unholy, without love, unforgiving, slanderous, without self-control, brutal, not lovers of the good, treacherous, rash, conceited, lovers of pleasure rather than lovers of God—having a form of godliness but denying its power” (2 Timothy 3:2-5).
That’s his description of what we are calling “toxic.” Now, notice what he says next. He doesn’t tell Timothy (a young pastor he is mentoring and teaching to be effective in ministry), “Spend all your time being the hero who can break through to them.” He doesn’t say, “They should be your focus of attention.” No. He’s writing to a young pastor, helping him have the most impact, and here’s what he says:
“Have nothing to do with such people” (2 Tim. 3:5).
In other words, Timothy, walk away. Find the reliable people. Invest your time with them.
Just to be sure that Timothy doesn’t lose something in applying this, Paul explains why it’s not worth his time to intellectually wrestle with such people. “They are the kind who…are loaded down with sins and are swayed by all kinds of evil desires, always learning but never able to come to a knowledge of the truth” (vv. 6-7).
You can teach them all you want. You can provide the very best arguments, so persuasive that all of heaven’s inhabitants will nod their heads in agreement. But these toxic people are “always learning but never able to come to a knowledge of the truth.” So you’re wasting your time.
Paul very directly told Timothy to avoid specific evil people: “Alexander the metalworker did me a great deal of harm. The Lord will repay him for what he has done. You too should be on your guard against him…”
Here we have an example of the great apostle specifically telling a young acolyte, “This man is toxic. He hurt me. Watch out for him. Protect yourself from him.”
Paul said things very similar to Titus—as if he goes out of his way to urge young pastors to play “defense.” He describes the “circumcision group” to Titus as “detestable, disobedient and unfit for doing anything good.” This isn’t “playing nice.” It’s protecting a fellow worker, a less experienced worker, from toxic people who Paul says must be opposed.
He then tells Titus to give what we’re calling toxic people a chance—but not too many chances. “Warn a divisive person once, and then warn them a second time. After that, have nothing to do with them. You may be sure that such people are warped and sinful; they are self-condemned.”
Paul didn’t just tell individuals—Timothy and Titus—to avoid toxic people. He also told an entire church (in Rome) to do the same: “I urge you, brothers and sisters, to watch out for those who cause divisions and put obstacles in your way that are contrary to the teaching you have learned. Keep away from them. For such people are not serving our Lord Christ, but their own appetites. By smooth talk and flattery they deceive the minds of naive people. Everyone has heard about your obedience, so I rejoice because of you; but I want you to be wise about what is good, and innocent about what is evil.”
Notice the same language: “Keep away from them.” This is a gracious, insightful explanation of the need to be thoughtful about how we interact with toxic people. This reveals Paul’s pastoral heart. Paul doesn’t place the mantle or expectation on everyday believers to break through to toxic people. He’s more concerned about losing the believers. He’s not willing to sacrifice daughters and sons of the faith who might be destroyed by toxic opposition. So he tells the church, “Best to just stay away.”
In his commentary on Romans, N.T. Wright explains “Shrewdness without innocence becomes serpentine; innocence without shrewdness becomes naiveté. The laudable desire to think well of everyone needs to be tempered with the recognition that some are indeed out for their own ends and are merely giving the appearance of friendliness and piety by their skill at smooth talking. Unless this is spotted early on and confronted, trouble is stored up for later, as an untreated sore is allowed to fester.”[iii]
Paul “commands” (his word) the Thessalonians to “keep away” from “disruptive” people (2 Thess. 3:6) and later built on this practice with these words: “Take special note of anyone who does not obey our instruction in this letter. Do not associate with them, in order that they may feel ashamed.” Paul tells us the Thessalonians to “walk away” for the sake of the toxic person, hoping that will eventually bring the offending brother or sister back.
Paul also warned the Philippians, “Watch out for those dogs, those evildoers, those mutilators of the flesh.”
While urging us to be active in love and even sacrificial in love (i.e., to play vigorous offense), Paul understood we live in an evil world and also need to occasionally play defense. There are so many glorious passages from Paul’s pen about the need to love like Jesus taught us to, but Paul also urged the early church to be careful and watch out for toxic people. It’s easy to understand why. The last word you’d use to describe Paul is naïve. Five different times Paul received the vicious “forty lashes minus one.” Each lash was engineered to literally rip away a bit of flesh from the person’s back. Each lash left a mark. Count it up and Paul’s back bore 195 scars. When a Roman soldier took Paul’s shirt off to beat him for the fifth time, there wasn’t a single “clean” spot on Paul’s back to hit. The soldier would re-open scars with every lash.
A man like Paul who lives with a back like that could never forget we live in an evil world with toxic people. And it makes sense that he would want to protect his followers, as much as they could be protected, telling them to be on their guard and to walk away.
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 The New International Version. (2011). (Ac 9:29–30). Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan.
 The New International Version. (2011). (Ac 13:46). Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan.
 The New International Version. (2011). (Ac 14:5–6). Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan.
 The New International Version. (2011). (Ac 17:10). Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan.
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 The New International Version. (2011). (Ac 18:6). Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan.
 The New International Version. (2011). (Ac 19:9). Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan.
 The New International Version. (2011). (2 Ti 4:14–15). Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan.
 The New International Version. (2011). (Ro 16:17–19). Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan.
 The New International Version. (2011). (2 Th 3:14). Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan.
 The New International Version. (2011). (Php 3:2). Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan.
[i] C.f. Romans 9:1-3.
[ii] C.f. 2 Corinthians 12:1-10.
[iii] N.T. Wright, (Romans, pg. 767).