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How Paul Dealt with Toxic People in Ministry

How Paul Dealt with Toxic People in Ministry

The apostle Paul was 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 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 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 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. 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.

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. 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.

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.”

That’s his description of what we are calling “toxic.” Now, notice what he says next.

“Have nothing to do with such people.”

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.”

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 directly told Titus to avoid specific evil people—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.”

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.

— Gary Thomas

How to Use This Study

Don’t let toxic people undermine your God-given calling. In the When to Walk Away video curriculum, author and pastor Gary Thomas draws from biblical and modern stories to equip you with practical insights to overcome the opposition of toxic people in your life and ministry. Your life’s calling is too important to let toxic people take it away. Learn more at here. You can also watch his free 30-minute webinar, When to Walk Away from Toxic People here.