“Toxic”. It’s a word that has invaded Christian speech, but could I suggest a moratorium on this adjective, please?
For two reasons:
Firstly, “toxic” is a lazy image. It’s like the word “nice”. I know it’s attempting to describe a situation as “dangerous” in an invisible way, but it leaves the nature of that danger unclear; all it really tells me is that you didn’t like a situation e.g. that church was “toxic”. That person was “toxic”. That marriage was “toxic”.
Doesn’t the Bible give us a bigger vocabulary for sin? Paul has various lists in which he catalogues different species of sin (e.g. Rom 1:29-31; 1 Cor 6:9-10; Gal 5:19-21; 1 Tim 1:9-10; 2 Tim 3:2-4). Why not use them more? Why not say: “those church leaders were domineering and bullying?”. “He failed to forgive”. “She’s a gossip”. “She’s a false witness”. “He’s a slanderer”. “My colleague was really malicious”. “That church was full of dissensions and rivalries”. Calling a situation “toxic” tends to shut down analysis; it obscures the specific form sin has taken. After all, as the saying goes: “If all you have is a hammer, everything looks like a nail”. The Bible offers greater moral clarification of sin than my strong dislike of a situation.
Secondly, the way I see the “toxic” image being used tends to short-circuit the gospel. It’s worth noticing what the image is doing. It often functions as a relationship-stopper. It’s used to justify why I headed for the exit in a situation; it explains why I no longer have anything to do with such and such a person, e.g. “I had to get out of that toxic relationship”.
Now, of course, sin is toxic. While the OT prophets don’t use that precise image, they use plenty of vivid, shocking images for sin – a putrid sore (Isa 1:6), a dirty menstrual cloth (Isa 64:6), a clutch of adders’ eggs (Isa 64:5). Had Isaiah had more experience of chemistry, I can well imagine him describing sin’s “toxicity”. But why does the Bible use these vivid images for sin? It’s not to end relationships, but to heal them, by calling sinners to repentance. Sin’s toxicity is described in order that its damaging pollution might be forgiven. Jesus Christ has come to heal our poisonous behaviour. No one is too “toxic” for Christ. No church is too “toxic” for Christ. There’s no amount of poison that has come out of you that cannot be forgiven!
Yes, the Bible does recognise certain situations where the godly thing to do is to extract yourself from a relationship, or to sever ties with a sinful person. Jesus says not to cast pearls before swine (Matt 7:6). In one place, Paul says: “have nothing to do with him” (2 Thess 3:14). The “scoffer” in Proverbs is to be driven out (Prov 22:10). If not, he’ll set a whole city on fire (Prov 29:8). Sometimes not engaging with a fool is the right thing to do (Prov 26:4). I can think of a number of times where I’ve judged this to be the right thing to do pastorally; we have to shake the dust off our feet (Acts 13:51). When used carefully, I think this is the issue Christians are trying to verbalise when they use the word “toxic”. But importantly, this character is revealed at the end of a process where Jesus’ good news of repentance has first been announced.
The trouble with describing a person or group as “toxic” is that it easily skips out this critical step in which someone’s sin is directly challenged by the rule of Christ. It can fail to apply the gospel of Christ to a situation. It can hide a distrust in Jesus Christ to deal with sin’s “toxicity”.
So, next time you want to reach for this adjective, pause, and ask yourself: is there a more biblical way I can describe the sin I’m talking about? And am I using this language to excuse running from a situation, in to which I haven’t yet faithfully spoken Christ’s gospel of repentance? Have I headed for the escape hatch, where Jesus still calls me (maybe with the help of others) to lovingly persist in faithfully calling a person or group to recognise his lordship?