The modern tendency to label a person or relationship group as toxic can easily lead to non-biblical attitudes toward people who are just as sinful as we are. As Christians, we are called to love both brothers and sisters in the faith (1 John 3:10) as well as enemies (Matthew 5:44).
The Bible gives a few examples of people and relationships that may be deemed in modern terms as “toxic.” Although the Bible does not specifically use the term, the Apostle Paul speaks at times about people and relationships that can breed destruction and should be ended with love and gentleness.
There are certainly dangers, however, to taking the specific examples from Scripture and applying the principle more generally, even as some seek to be biblical in their interactions with others.
- Who Are Toxic People?
- People we disagree with?
- People who hold beliefs that are opposed to our own?
- People who sin against us?
- How are followers of Christ to rightly love those whom we believe to be “toxic”?
Given the missional call of Scripture to make disciples of all people and love brothers and sisters who are in Christ, in the vast majority of situations, categorizing people as “toxic” is not the biblical ideal or disposition Christians should have toward others.
In some situations, however, certain people and relationships may be deemed toxic, such that pursuing such ones would be physically or spiritually dangerous. In those cases, it is necessary for Christians to approach the situation with prayer, love, compassion, and a spirit of gentleness (Galatians 6:1). Such difficult decisions should always be made under the guidance of pastors or church elders.
In each of the following passages, all written by the Apostle Paul, there are three important interpretive principles that should cause us to slow down and take caution before applying these verses indiscriminately to people we think are “toxic”:
- Paul is writing about specific situations where, due to the infancy of the church, such false teaching could wreak havoc not only in the local church but in the entire region where the gospel is only beginning to take root
- In each of these passages, there is an unmistakable intentionality on the part of the “toxic” person to make a shipwreck of the faith of others.
- The broader context reveals much about the ways in which Paul expects his readers to interact with such people, often highlighting love, grace, and gentleness rather than cold ostracization.
Although Paul tells the Thessalonian Christians to “have no company” with such a person, he nonetheless says such a one is not an enemy but one who should be warned or instructed as a brother. Such disciplinary action should be conducted in love and in the heart of “doing good” (2 Thessalonians 3:13), rather than ruthless disassociation.
Paul’s words against Hymenaeus and Alexander are certainly severe (though the exact nature of “handing over to Satan” is unknown). In the verses that come after, however, Paul tells Timothy: “I exhort therefore, that, first of all, supplications, prayers, intercessions, and giving of thanks, be made for all men.” Timothy is expected to pray and intercede and give thanks even for those who may be considered “toxic.”
Paul writes as a leader in the church to Timothy, whom Paul had left in Ephesus to lead the church and correct false teaching. As he leads, Timothy is elsewhere commanded by Paul to correct the actions of others, seriously warn, urge, appeal, encourage (4:2); he is told to endure evil with patience (2:24), and correct with gentleness (2:25). In telling Timothy to avoid those who openly deny God’s power and lead others to resist the truth as set forth clearly in Scripture, Paul is warning Timothy of the dangers such persons can be to Timothy, the church, and the witness of the gospel in the region.
In speaking to the leader of the church in Crete, Paul tells Titus to avoid someone who “stirs up division” (ESV). As a form of church discipline, we may assume that Jesus’ words in Matthew 18:15–20 would begin such a process, whereby a person is confronted in stages and given numerous opportunities to repent.
Certainly applying this verse will look different from one situation to the next, and one cannot expect Paul to know the ins and outs of every family situation. The heart of the text, however, cannot be denied: Paul expects believers to look to their own families with love, grace, compassion, mercy, and genuine concern. Arriving at this point may be extremely more difficult for some than for others, and help from the Holy Spirit is needed.
If family members should fall into the category of those who are knowingly antagonistic toward the gospel, seeking to unmoor the faith of others, it would be wise to talk with pastors or church elders about whether dissociating regular interactions with such family members would be good or right.
Just as the Bible expects believers to care for family members, so in-laws would fall into the same category. However, just as believers may need to temporarily cut ties with some family members to stay safe from physical, emotional, or even spiritual harm, so too might in-laws become so dangerous that disfellowship may be necessary. Again, such decisions should only be made through the counsel of pastors or church elders.
While many in the first century may have classified “tax collectors and sinners” and Samaritans as toxic people, Jesus is called the “friend of tax collectors and sinners” (Matthew 11:19) and showed mercy and compassion to despised Samaritans (Luke 10:33; 17:16-19; John 4).
Moreover, Proverbs teaches God’s people the wisdom of having friendships that displease or even provoke us at times:
Even so, there is also biblical wisdom in removing oneself from regular interaction with friends who lead us into strong temptation or who are intentionally seeking to uproot our faith.
It is important to remember that the Bible never uses terms quite like “toxic” to describe people. Moreover, it is likely that most people have a slightly nuanced meaning when they describe a relationship as being “toxic.”
Here, toxic people are taken to be those who deliberately threaten to bring harm to the covenant community of faith through willful disobedience or obstinate neglect of God’s revealed will in Scripture.
- Hophni and Phinehas (1 Samuel 2:12): These sons of Eli were priests of the Lord, but their flagrant disobedience led to their deaths (1 Samuel 3:12-14; 4:11)
- Jezebel (1 Kings 16:31; 18:4-19: Jezebel is one of the prime examples in the Old Testament of someone who leads the people to disobey the Lord (1 Kings 21:25). Her responsibility in leading the nation of Israel astray leads to her name becoming symbolic in the book of Revelation for blatant disregard for obedience to the law of God (Revelation 2:20).
- Jannes and Jambres (2 Timothy 3:8): Nothing is recorded in the Bible about these two individuals apart from their being mentioned by Paul in his letter to Timothy. (Their names are also mentioned in a Jewish document that gives an interpretation of Exodus 7:11, but this document was probably composed much later than Paul’s writings.) Assuming these men are the servants of Pharaoh mentioned in Exodus 7:11, they would certainly be good examples of people who are completely at odds with God.
- Hymenaeus and Alexander (1 Timothy 1:20): Little is known about these individuals other than Paul’s declaration that they have “rejected” (a willful repudiation) “faith and a good conscience,” thereby making “shipwreck of their faith” (1:19).