Someone asked me,
When the Bible talks about wolves in sheep’s clothing, is that referring to a common occurrence? That in our everyday churches, there would be people there who may be well respected but are there to deceive and destroy?
How does one recognize a vicious wolf, if he looks like a harmless sheep?
So . . . I went to the Bible.
Jesus in the Sermon on the Mount
In the Sermon on the Mount (Matthew 7:15), Jesus said,
Beware of false prophets. They come to you disguised as sheep, but in their hearts they are vicious wolves.
Jesus later sent the 70 out to preach the Kingdom of Heaven—described in Matthew 10 and Luke 10—and told them He was sending them out as lambs in the midst of wolves. The context indicates they were going to people who didn’t want to hear the message of the Kingdom of God. This is different from finding wolves in our midst among the people of God.
Jesus made it clear to His listeners that false prophets—that is, those claiming to have a word from the Lord for you—would come into the flock of God. Not just wolves, but vicious wolves.
(That Greek word translated “vicious” in some versions is also translated as “extortion” in some other verses. Extortion can be defined as using one’s position or power to obtain money, property, or patronage. Hmmm.)
That means the people of God are supposed to be watching out for them.
Ezekiel about the rulers of Israel
Back in the Old Testament, Ezekiel had received some dire words about the leaders of the nation of Israel. Not only the dire words about the false shepherds in chapter 34, but some words about “ravening” (or vicious) beasts in chapter 22. These are the prophets, priests, rulers . . . and more.
It’s a sad day when some words applied to the Old Testament physical people of God seem to apply altogether too closely to the modern day church, the ones who are supposed to have transformed hearts. Here it is:
A plot by her prophets is in her midst, like a roaring lion tearing the prey. They have devoured souls; they have taken the treasure and precious things; they multiplied her many widows in her midst.
Her priests have broken My Law and have defiled My holy things. They have put no difference between the holy and the common, and have not taught between the unclean and the clean, and have hidden their eyes from My sabbaths, and I am defiled among them.
Her rulers in her midst are like wolves tearing the prey, to shed blood and to destroy souls, to get unjust gain. . . .
The people of the land have used oppression and practiced robbery, and they have troubled the poor and needy. Yea, they have oppressed the stranger without right.
What groups of people are described in Ezekiel 22?
The leaders—the priests, rulers, and (false) prophets, described variously as roaring lions, devourers, robbers, murderers, defilers of holy things, wolves tearing prey, soul destroyers, false prophets, vain liars getting unjust gain.
The “people,” not the upper echelon of church leaders (today read “not those in administration or on payroll”), but what some today would call the “laity,” who followed the examples of the leaders in abusing, described as oppressors, robbers, “troublers” of the poor and needy.
The oppressed, described variously as torn prey, souls that are devoured and destroyed, widows, poor and needy, and the foreigners in their midst—those who had come from outside of physical Israel because they wanted to worship the true God—whom God had told them, along with orphans and widows, especially to care for.
And there’s an unmentioned group here, I believe. The ones who were neither oppressors or oppressed. The ones who were going about their lives and ignoring the problem. The ones who this blog post references as “possums.”
In that same chapter of Ezekiel, God Himself bemoans the lack of even one “protector” in Israel. Ezekiel himself appeared to have been the only true prophet of that time.
There’s a lot to learn from the passage in Ezekiel.
The ancient physical people group of Israel consisted of far more unbelievers than believers, so it’s not surprising that wolves would proliferate.
And to our horror, some of us are watching these things happen again before our eyes, within the walls of the church that claims to belong to Jesus Christ. How easy it has become for the wolves to walk right in and set up shop among the sheep!
Paul to the Ephesians
When Paul left the Ephesian elders for the last time (Acts 20:27-32), he gave them grave warnings, to watch out for themselves and for all the flock. He said:
For I know this, that after my departing, grievous wolves shall enter in among you, not sparing the flock. Also from among your own selves, men shall arise, speaking perverse things to draw away disciples after themselves.
How could that be? How could false teachers and wolves arise within the flock, the very flock Paul had helped to nurture?
Till they day he died, Paul fought tooth and nail against the Judaizers, those rule-makers wanted to infiltrate the Church of Jesus Christ, and take over (because “we know how worship should be done”).
In his commentary on this verse, Adam Clarke referred to
Judaizing Christians who, instead of feeding the flock, would feed themselves, even to the oppression and ruin of the Church.
An interesting allusion to the “shepherds” of Ezekiel.
Seems like we’ve seen more than a few of those in the modern-day church.
What will make a church more susceptible to wolves?
In the modern-day Western church there appear to be a few ways a church can become more susceptible to wolves, vicious wolves who tear their prey . . . and, remember, it is all while looking like sheep.
Here are two possibilities of several. I’d be interested in hearing more ideas in the comments.
The list-keeping wolf
A church might as well hang a “Wolves Welcome” sign over the doorway if they focus on “looking good” and “acting right” and “sounding right” (in public, of course)—the Christian life as a life lived by rules instead of a life lived by the direction of the Holy Spirit. Then the ones who are the best at keeping the rules, whatever they may be, are the ones who make the best impression of being “good Christians.”
It’s pretty easy to appear righteous if your righteousness is found by keeping a certain self-made list.
It’s important, of course, for the private and secret life of the wolf never to be substantially questioned or investigated, and in the case of elders, it’s important for certain Biblical requirements of elders in Titus and 1 Timothy to be more or less ignored.
The charismatic (that is, attractive and appealing) wolf
Another way a church can open itself to wolves, I believe, is by focusing on church as a business in need of business-model-type thinking (instead of as a ministry that needs faith, prayer, and guidance by the Holy Spirit). The “human resources” focus, then, will be on those who are “visionaries” and “leaders” and strong administrators and motivating managers and wealthy donors and compelling speakers and good speech writers. Here is a post about that.
A wolf can enter by this means because he or she will be respected for these abilities. The life of the spirit, in these cases, is optional by default.
How does this affect a church’s response to wolves?
After listening to scores of stories, I believe if one who has been accused as a wolf is highly respected, and especially if he or she is in a position of authority and power . . .
. . . it may be fear that motivates them—fear of losing their own position and income and reputation—or it may be something more sinister, but the majority of church elders appear to be far more inclined to protect the sheep-looking wolf who has prestige, wealth, and above all, power, and more inclined to excommunicate the ones who point out the wolves.
That is, the torn prey, the poor and needy, the widows and orphans.
Riddle: How does one recognize a vicious wolf, if he looks like a harmless sheep?
Answer: You have to listen to the ones who have been harmed by him.
If you can’t or won’t do that, you can expect more and more wolves to be attracted by that invisible “Wolves Welcome” sign over the door.
The original question a reader asked me (above) asked if wolves in the church are a phenomenon we should expect as a common occurrence.
I believe it will be common as long as . . .
- Church leaders are unwilling or feel unable to take action against powerful wolves.
- Christians are asleep to the problem.
- Fingers are being pointed in the wrong direction.
The Gospel Coalition’s “Broken Wolves” blog post
A couple of years ago The Gospel Coalition presented us with a blog post called “Beware of Broken Wolves.” In essence, it appeared that the author sought to make a case that people who have been harmed by wolves in our churches are themselves the wolves. (I’ve seen this argument a few times, and even though it doesn’t make any sense, it actually works more than you might expect.)
That notorious post garnered over 300 comments, one of which was from me, which you can read here, back in a day when TGC allowed comments on their blog. Now, though, all those comments have been removed, perhaps because most of them were saying, “What in the world are you talking about. Where does the Bible describe broken wolves. That’s not who the real wolves are. The real wolves are in your very own midst, looking like sheep.”
In spite of how problematic hundreds of people were pointing out this article to be, The Gospel Coalition thought it was good enough to repost again a year later.
The problem of abuse in the church by leaders with power, those who, remember, look like sheep, is such a very serious one that when a leader points in the wrong direction, it seems sinister to me.
Is it a common occurrence?
So my answer to the questioner at the top of this blog post is that I don’t know if wolves in the fold was a common occurrence in days gone by, but I believe it’s a common occurrence now. I believe there is significant danger in the evangelical churches of which I am still a part, and the false teachings—maybe not the ones The Gospel Coalition fears, but ones every bit as detrimental—are in their very midst, right there in their very own churches. I write about them all the time.
There are Christians—a few of those who trust and love the Lord Jesus Christ—who are willing to be shepherds who look out for the sheep. I pray that more Christians will be willing to read books on how to recognize the breathtakingly hypocritical predators and how to listen to those who have been harmed and how to understand dissociation and how to gently lead wounded people to Jesus instead of bludgeoning them over the head with “truth” when they’ve been wounded by a wolf?
When Jesus said to His disciples, “The harvest truly is plenteous, but the laborers are few” (John 4), He was referring to the spiritually hungry, needy hearts all around them. Oh, friends the same is true now. The hungry, needy hearts are all around us. There are those who are desperate to know that God is a good and loving God and is Not. Like. Those. Wolves. He wants to rescue, heal, and deliver.
Lord Jesus, send forth laborers into Your harvest. And expose the wolves (and the wolf protectors) in our midst.