We are all familiar with the proverbial story of the boy watching sheep who cried “Wolf!” falsely a few times for fun. He then paid the price when a wolf actually did show up and begin attacking the flock. The townspeople, the objects of his earlier mockery, ignored his cries when they were truly needed.
To avoid this error, here at Gentle Reformation we have made a commitment not to be alarmists. We do not want to use the blog like a cyber megaphone and call out every heretic, be it one truly, perceived, or otherwise. This commitment is even found in our mission statement. Though we do not shy away on occasion from pointing out heretical teaching (see here for an example then here for recent confirmation by our friends at TGC), our primary focus is on truth and its practical application rather than on falsehood and its awful perpetrators.
However, we must equip God’s people to recognize wolves in sheep’s clothing. As the Lord told us, God’s people are to be able to determine who they are.
Beware of the false prophets, who come to you in sheep’s clothing, but inwardly are ravenous wolves. You will know them by their fruits. Grapes are not gathered from thorn bushes nor figs from thistles, are they? So every good tree bears good fruit, but the bad tree bears bad fruit. A good tree cannot produce bad fruit, nor can a bad tree produce good fruit. Every tree that does not bear good fruit is cut down and thrown into the fire. So then, you will know them by their fruits.” (Matthew 7:15-20)
Years ago, as a student in seminary, my New Testament professor, Dr. Renwick Wright, had us read all 27 books of the New Testament and log, section-by-section, the primary doctrine taught there. One of my discoveries doing that exercise is that every one of the books in the New Testament contain warnings about false prophets. Clearly, the church is to be on the alert for wolves in its midst.
So what are the fruits – or the attitudes and behaviors they exhibit – that we are to know them by? Because these wolves can be very clever, appear to be nice in certain settings, and often act very zealous for the kingdom of God, they can easily fool the flock. Here then are five primary traits they have.
They feed off the sheep rather than feed the sheep. Surely this is what Jesus meant above when he called them ravenous wolves. In Ezekiel, as the Lord chastised the false shepherds of Israel, he said, “You eat the fat and clothe yourselves with the wool, you slaughter the fat sheep without feeding the flock” (Ezek. 34:3). Thus, these are men and women who use the church and the people of God to bolster their own pride, positions, and purses. Often they sound as if supporting their ministry is promoting the cause of Christ, when in reality it is simply a ploy for promoting themselves instead. Consider whether a leader appears to be sacrificing for the church or is rather asking the church to sacrifice for him.
They put their practices in areas of Christian freedom above the freedom of the gospel. Christian leaders are to be Christ-centered, not issue-driven. In the early church, one prime example of such wolves were the Judaizers. Though claiming to be Christians, they valued circumcision, a sign of the old covenant, as necessary for gospel faith. The apostles taught, however, that though believers were free to practice circumcision privately, it was not to be regarded necessary for entering the church (compare Acts 15 with Acts 16:1-3). So Paul called these promoters of circumcision such things as dogs and evil workers (Phil. 3:2). In other words, wolves. They had moved off-center from the gospel.
It is easy to do. As Paul told the Colossians, the mottos of pseudo-Christianity are “Do not handle! Do not taste! Do not touch!” (Col. 2:21). A leader in the church can begin to live and preach as his views regarding such things as food, clothing, holidays, schooling, etc., are as important as the gospel though they would never say such a thing. In so doing, they put harmful stumbling blocks in the believer’s way (Rom. 16:17). Even Reformed men, who may rightly ridicule the pope for his false traditions, can fall into the same trap on a lesser, but no less damaging, scale. These men can have the appearance of deep spirituality or, as Paul says, of wisdom (Col. 2:23). But ultimately they live and act as if Christianity is a religion of right practices that ends up being a works-based faith rather than a grace-based one. A good question to ask about leaders is this one: When I see them coming, do I see Christ or an issue approaching me?
They intimidate the sheep rather than protect them. As we have pointed out recently, leaders can become bullies. Rather than fulfill their chief duty as shepherds of the church by feeding their sheep with the gospel and protecting them, they put their care for their pet practices and projects above their care for protecting the sheep. That does not mean they do not sound good. They have “smooth and flattering speech which deceives the hearts of the unsuspecting,” Paul told the Colossians (2:18). They can appear as “servants of righteousness” just as Satan can appear as an “angel of light” (2 Cor. 11:13-15). But when people do not step in line with their agenda, they are harassed and threatened.
If you have ever watched a nature show on lions, you have been given a picture of this phenomenon in operation. The pride of lions sneaks up through the bush grass toward the herd of antelope, and then at the appropriate moment they charge. The purpose of their charge is to cause confusion in the herd, so as to separate its members from one another. As the antelope run in different directions, usually the weaker members of the herd are first separated, then surrounded, and finally put to death by the lions. Satan, that roaring lion seeking whom he may devour, often uses as his teeth and claws men who harass the people of God.
They become their own authority rather than submitting to the Lord’s authority. Jude warned that such wolves “reject authority” (Jude 8). As such, they “are grumblers, finding fault, following after their own lusts; they speak arrogantly, flattering people for the sake of gaining an advantage” (Jude 16). Men like this are always complaining and finding fault with leadership in the church. Because they want to be in power, they complain about the decisions of elders or church courts as they look to gather a hearing and a following. Like Rehoboam’s friends, they often mock older viewpoints and feel the former generation is out of touch with the issues of the church today. They become wise in their own eyes as their opinion becomes law as far as they are concerned.
They divide the church rather than preserving the unity of the Spirit.
Paul spoke of this tendency to the church at Rome:
I urge you, brethren, keep your eye on those who cause dissensions and hindrances contrary to the teaching which you learned, and turn away from them. For such men are slaves, not of our Lord Christ but of their own appetites; and by their smooth and flattering speech they deceive the hearts of the unsuspecting.” (Rom. 16:17-18)
Wolves struggle with the varied nature of the church, with its many unique members who have different levels of maturity and giftedness. Wanting everyone to conform with their understanding of what every Christian should be, they cause division in the church rather than being patient with believers who may struggle with bad habits, weak minds, and differing convictions. They can stir up one group in the church against others with their talk.
What are the sheep to do when wolves are present? Go to the true shepherds, show them the bad fruit of these men, and ask for help. It is the elder’s duty to protect Christ’s flock from such men (Acts 20:28-32).