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Bruised Reeds, Second Chances and Finishing Well Part 11: When People Become Toxic

But now I am writing to you that you must not associate with anyone who claims to be a brother or sister but is sexually immoral or greedy, an idolater or slanderer, a drunkard or swindler. Do not even eat with such people. 1 Corinthians 5:11 (NIV)

Several years ago I stopped associating with someone. I had been his pastor. He had come to me for counsel…except he did not take it. He was involved in an adulterous relationship even while he was leading an outreach ministry. He liked me and knew that my counsel to end the relationship was right. For a while he even stopped seeing the other woman. But I came to realize that this was an attempt to manage his sin rather than fully surrendering to God’s reign over his life. Before long the relationship was going again full blast. I made the decision that I could no longer associate with him. No appeal from him has changed my mind. I said ‘no’ to offers of a Facebook friendship or a LinkedIn association. I have watched from afar with grief as he has continued on his destructive path.

I love the bruised reeds that belong to Jesus. I want them to get well, to surrender the stuff that is destroying their lives and I want them to be made whole. I pursue them because I know how Jesus’ sacrifice has made and is continuing to make me whole. But there is something inside all of us that wars against surrendering to him. We call it the ‘flesh.’ Our flesh offers us deadly sins to comfort the pain we have experienced in life. Deadly sin is powerful. When we choose it, we become blinded to what God has given us in Christ.

When lust appears, God disappears, goes the old, but true warning. But the Fall has made a broader impact on us that just lust. We could just as earnestly warn that, “When greed appears, God disappears.” …or when envy appears…or anger…appetite…sloth…pride appears, God disappears. Our personal attachment to a deadly sin can literally block God out of our minds while we indulge in it. Guilt and shame will not stop us. All of us need to realize that we can be so addicted to deadly sin that we become toxic to those around us.

You might think that toxicity is obvious and easily dealt with. Tell that to the Corinth church. In 1 Corinthians 5, Paul addresses a shocking situation that the church’s leaders aren’t recognizing as a problem. A young man is sleeping with his step-mother and publicly bringing her to the church on his arm. Even the pagans are shocked.

Paul steps into the gap on the basis of the authority God gave him as their spiritual father and as an apostle. Expel him, Paul commands.

Why? Isn’t he a bruised reed? Shouldn’t they seek to restore him? Reading what Paul says, you see that the leaders are not just tolerating this coupling. They have been boasting about it, as if tolerance is a sign of the church’s maturity. Unlike them, Paul knows that this situation is toxic. Allowing the young man to continue his course is not only destroying him, it will eventually destroy the whole church.

What do I mean by the word ‘toxic’? Toxic describes behavior that is blind to the destruction of oneself and others. Toxic is not merely disagreeing about points of doctrine or biblical interpretation. It is about being so addicted to sin that awareness of God fades.  At the same time, other believers become spiritually susceptible to mimicking the destructive behavior, especially those who are young in the faith.

I have watched what toxicity does to a church. A slanderer destroyed one witnessing church with his tongue. His toxic behavior won the applause of certain people in the church. But the outcome was the destruction of many young believers, including one who became the town’s most flagrant prostitutes.

Paul goes on to name certain behaviors that are so toxic that we cannot allow our compassion to blind us to what will happen if their behavior is left unchecked inside our congregations. People who are ‘sexually immoral or greedy, an idolater or slanderer, a drunkard or swindler’—do not even have table fellowship with them.

Here’s a caution: There, but for the grace of God, go I. I always keep this in mind when I deal with bruised reeds, because there is no sin to which I couldn’t become addicted and, by which my life could be destroyed. This thought keeps me from becoming hard towards people who are messing up to the extent they need to be rebuked and excluded. Let me encourage you to explore how deeply you believe the truth of this statement for yourself. Why? …Because if you do not see yourself as one of the sinners, you will not be able to grieve over the brokenness of others, especially those who have totally lost their way.


-Steve Smith