November 12, 2019

Walk Away Paul

Gary Thomas — 

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.”[1] 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.”[2]

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.’”[3]

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…”[4]

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.”[5] 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.”[6]

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.’”[7]

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.”[8]

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…”[9]

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.”[10] 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.”[11]

Stay Away

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.”[12]

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.”[13] 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.”[14]

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.

[1] The New International Version. (2011). (Ac 9:24–25). Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan.

[2] The New International Version. (2011). (Ac 9:29–30). Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan.

[3] The New International Version. (2011). (Ac 13:46). Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan.

[4] The New International Version. (2011). (Ac 14:5–6). Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan.

[5] The New International Version. (2011). (Ac 17:10). Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan.

[6] The New International Version. (2011). (Ac 17:13–14). Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan.

[7] The New International Version. (2011). (Ac 18:6). Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan.

[8] The New International Version. (2011). (Ac 19:9). Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan.

[9] The New International Version. (2011). (2 Ti 4:14–15). Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan.

[10] The New International Version. (2011). (Tt 1:16). Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan.

[11] The New International Version. (2011). (Tt 3:10–11). Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan.

[12] The New International Version. (2011). (Ro 16:17–19). Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan.

[13] The New International Version. (2011). (2 Th 3:14). Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan.

[14] 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).

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16 responses to Walk Away Paul

  1. Sarah Vanderneck November 13, 2019 at 3:08 am

    Thank you, Mr. Thomas, for the insights and biblical backing to your statements. Before anything can be assessed it must be named. I believe the boldness of naming is something we as Christians lack due to our misunderstandings of what it means to truly “love one another”. You use four words in your book that were a point of enlightenment for me leading to wise counsel, in “no conviction, no counsel”. The first makes a world of difference in the latter, and it also it humbled me as to my role in the conviction portion of another’s heart (referencing Matthew 7:3). Your most recent book fell into my lap with what i can only state as divine timing. I sincerely appreciate your in depth analysis of the toxicity of behavior we all have in ourselves and the situations being used against us to distract and discourage. You have a way of introducing a hard topic, giving the biblical references and allowing the space for your readers to be moved by the Holy Spirit. By this method you have actually shown me how i rarely give God space to work. What a marvelous blessing it has been to step back and watch Him move. Im certain the opposition is fierce, but you have a gift. Please continue to write. 2 Timothy 2:2

  2. I loved the Boundless Podcast and I’ve sent it to some healthy people to hear. Going to listen to Love and Relationships podcast too. It’s definitely a game changer to find biblical examples on when to walk away. I’ve had to do it to friends and I’ve had friends walk away from me. I’m struggling with dealing with a specific person I can’t go into detail about. Seeking God’s wisdom and grateful you’ve addressed this sticky subject.

  3. Gary I have followed your teaching and books for years. Can you tell me if your recent blog post on Walk Away Paul applies toxic marriages when a spouse has been enduring for 7 years with the same patterns happening? I can say that counseling and all the right things have been sought. I’d really like your counsel on this. For someone who has sought to please God in every way and seek His favor and who takes marriage vows seriously, this can be confusing on how to apply to a marriage situation. I’m from (Church name removed for confidentiality) though in a different State now. I’m sure you remember (Pastor name removed for confidentiality) who teaches commitment to marriage no matter what.

    • Donna,

      Applying this truth to marriage was painful for me and the book was written the fear of God and seeking the counsel of wise women and men who have a deep love for Scripture and practical wisdom for relationships. It’s such a sticky situation to apply this to marriages, and it takes me several chapters in the book to lay it all out.

      The short answer is, yes, I do think there are situations in marriage where this teaching can be and should be applied. But there are caveats and much discussion of biblical principles and priorities that led me to that place. In the first “marriage” chapter in When to Walk Away, I urge people who turn there first to go back and read the other chapters before they start in.so that the conclusions make sense.

      We (I’m not accusing you, just speaking of people in general) often want easy, clear-cut answers to complex questions. That’s one of the biggest challenges in accurately applying this truth to practical situations in life. it wouldn’t be wise (and could even be dangerous) for me to summarize it with pithy, un-nuanced, or general observations.

      I do pray that God will grant you great wisdom, discernment and Spirit-inspired counsel as you seek His will. That’s always so important–that we seek God’s will even above our own.

  4. Dear Gary Thomas,
    Thank you so much for another superb article to give us much food for thought!
    Your give powerful arguments straight from Sacred Scripture.
    What an eye-opening new view of our role as true followers of Our Lord Jesus Christ!
    Having the strength and courage to fight.
    Having the strength and courage to walk away.
    Having the discernment and wisdom to bravely do the right one. 
    May God continue to bless you with such valuable, profound insights that are so helpful for all of us.

  5. I am glad you made this portion of the chapter available on your blog, since you said it was not selected for inclusion. Our book club is reading When To Walk Away, and I’m anxious to hear the discussion later this month. You have written an extraordinary book. I am grateful and more insightful.

  6. Gary this is SOOO encouraging. As Christians we get fed the false line that we’ve just got to keep on taking it no matter how long it takes. And for some, that may be God’s call in a specific situation. Like you said, Paul eventually laid down his life. But the times he moved on, and the times he warned others about toxic people are so often overlooked and neglected in Christian circles today. I’m twice through WTWA and LOVED this addition to it, and the list of characteristics in 2Timothy 3. Wow! Thanks for the GOOD word from God’s word brother! AMEN!

    • Harry, I’ve said before that the best compliment you can give an author is to mention you’re going through a book TWICE. Thank you! And the more I interact with this material, the more surprised I get at how I didn’t see it before, and how I was held back so much false guilt…

  7. So good to read this and to understand that self protection in certain situations is not wrong. This alleviates the guilt about what real love is! Sometimes the choice to walk away is the right decision for all involved.

  8. There is just too much to state here in reply, but this notion of people being “toxic” as defined by the author is really nothing other than SIN! It’s been part of our fallen nature since Adam and Eve sinned. God sent His only Son into this toxic world to save ALL. Jesus Christ ran toward them, eating with the murderers, prostitutes, tax collectors etc to save the “sick” whom today we label “toxic”. It seems like worldly psychology is bent on twisting God’s Word to fit worldly views, giving many people “Biblical license” to simply walk away from difficult people. Again, so many scriptures stand in contradiction to what’s being presented here. here’s just one:

    Matthew 10:16 Behold, I send you out as sheep in the midst of wolves. Therefore be wise as serpents and harmless[f] as doves. 17But beware of men, for they will deliver you up to councils and scourge you in their synagogues. 18You will be brought before governors and kings for My sake, as a testimony to them and to the Gentiles. 19But when they deliver you up, do not worry about how or what you should speak. For it will be given to you in that hour what you should speak; 20for it is not you who speak, but the Spirit of your Father who speaks in you.

    • Chris, it seems to me you haven’t read the book or you’d know it’s based on Scriptural applications, not psychology (not that I have a problem with psychology per se, but you seem to). I document how many times Jesus walked away from toxic people, and this post documents, biblically, how many times Paul did the same and urged us to do likewise. The passage you share undercuts your entire argument–Jesus is warning us to keep our eyes open for the wolves. I don’t see how the rest of it supports what you’re saying at all. Especially when the blog post has numerous passages and examples that seem to support what you call “worldly psychology.”

      All toxic people are difficult, but not all difficult people are toxic. A “toxic” person is one who is intent on hurting you and in most cases, I believe the strongest SCRIPTURAL argument can be made to walk away. There IS a difference between sin and toxicity that we need to discuss for the sake of outreach, mission, and confrontation within the body of Christ. There’s too much to say here in a reply, but it’s covered pretty extensively in the book you haven’t read and have so quickly dismissed. But thanks for reading and having the courage to respond.

      • Chris D & Gary,

        When people are stubborn and refuse to listen to sound council, we can walk away. We can stomp our feet and shake the dust off our sandals. Or we can size up the situation and ask ourselves what is God’s plan here? Think of Jesus and Simon Peter. When Peter was being so toxic, Jesus turned to him and said, Get behind me Satan. Jesus could have walked away. Jesus didn’t. Jesus stuck to God’s plan. Jesus had faith in God’s plan and knew Simon would heed God’s Word and lift up the Cross of Jesus (Mk 15:21) and cherish her. Gary, I have read your book Cherish, I haven’t read Walk Away Paul. But I too share Chris’ concerns with the idea of walking away from toxic people. Toxic people end up sleeping under viaducts or in alleys beside garbage bins. Lashing people to our backs and taking their insults and worries weakens us. It delays us and keeps us down here on the ground. We can walk away…and create more division, something that Paul was against, but promoted for the sake of the infant church. And when we are mature enough, we can lash ourselves to toxic people and cherish them and redeem their toxic natures. Think of C02…people have found a way to capture and recycle and reuse C02 and other toxic Greenhouse gases produced from the burning of Coal and Oil to make things that people need. (see my Blog Eco-Colonialism or Redemption or Innovation on my website).

        • Thanks for taking the time to engage with this, Linda, but when you say “Jesus could have walked away. Jesus didn’t” that’s simply not true. I’ve got an appendix with 41 biblical citations where he did just that–and many teaching passages (Matt. 7:6 among others) where he urges us to do the same. But I don’t want to argue, because I make the longer case in the book and don’t see the point of rehashing that here. If people are interested, they can look for the passages there, or even the ones in the life of Paul above. Other than that, I don’t know what else to say.

        • Peter’s defense of Jesus (“Despite what you’ve said about suffering and dying, I’ll never let it happen to you!”) was not “toxic,” it was a childish lack of faith, and I personally believe that Jesus was actually addressing Satan — who may have been standing directly behind Peter, prompting him to cast doubt into the mind of our Savior over whether suffering and dying was really God’s perfect will.

          Gary goes to great lengths to define “toxic” and does NOT encourage people to toss the word around for an easy escape route from the normal sacrifice required in partnering with brothers and sisters in Christ and the unsaved.

          Read the book! (It’s When To Walk Away, not Walk Away Paul.)

          In my experience, toxic people DON’T end up homeless as you suggested. They are wolves in sheep’s clothing who manipulate, deceive, and use people for their own benefit without any sense of shame or empathy. They are malignant narcissists, black holes who only take and take and take, until the people giving to them are emotionally bankrupt themselves.

          There is a HUGE distinction between hurting, sinful people (which we all are and have been) and toxic people who have no desire to change but who are willing to string others along to serve their own selfish purposes.

          Read the book!

        • Hi Linda,
          I’ve listened to the book from beginning to end and I recommend that you read it! Every time I thought “but Gary, what about….” he took that up in the next chapter! For example, after talking about walking away from a toxic marriage partner, I thought “yeah, but what if we are both, in some way, toxic?” The next chapter was all about getting rid of toxicity to save a marriage.

          You say that toxic people end up living under bridges and in alleys. You’re probably right about that, sadly. In the book, Gary doesn’t encourage us to poison others against the people that are toxic to us. Just because you can’t deal with a person doesn’t mean that that person is generally toxic to everyone and beyond salvation. Only God knows. You just may not be the person called to help him or her, and letting that person go means that he or she might finally face that they need real help. Fact is, we might be standing in the way of a toxic person being saved from their destructive ways because we are allowing them to destroy us.
          Read the book. It’s worth it!