Wolves in the Church
AUGUST 23, 2023
Jesus said, “Beware of false prophets, who come to you in sheep’s clothing but inwardly are ravenous wolves” (Matthew 7:15).
There are wolves in our midst. They are not the unbelievers who hate the church or the sinners whose disobedience hurts the reputation of the church. Those wolves aren’t the heretics either or those who get their theology wrong. All of those people can create problems, but the wolves I’m talking about are those who have the reputation of godliness and, unfortunately, have believed their own PR. That alone is bad enough, but they don’t stop there. They fleece the lambs of God (that would be us), looking down their long spiritual noses with their peacock feathers flying in the breeze and saying things like, “After all that Jesus has done for you, one would think you would [you can fill in the blank]. You bring shame on the name of Christ. Jesus said that our works should indicate who we are, but your works for him leave much to be desired. Have you considered that you may not be saved?”
Then if you are “building an empire for Jesus,” you take up a collection.
In the book of Acts, when Paul was on his way to Rome, where he would face some major trials and a good possibility that he would be executed, he asked the leaders of his beloved church in Ephesus to meet him on the dock at the harbor in Miletus. Everybody was aware that this could very well be the last time they would meet together and there are lots of tears. Paul said to those leaders, “Pay careful attention to yourselves and to all the flock, in which the Holy Spirit has made you overseers, to care for the church of God, which he obtained with his own blood. I know that after my departure fierce wolves will come in among you, not sparing the flock; and from among your own selves will arise men speaking twisted things, to draw away the disciples after them. Therefore be alert” (Acts 20:28-31).
Who were the “fierce wolves” Paul spoke about? They’re not who you think they are.
When we read Paul’s words to those leaders from Ephesus and listen to his warning about the wolves, we have to be careful not to read what he said in our own cultural context and through the lens of our biases. Depending on who we are and what we do, wolves take on all kinds of personae. For Reformed people, it’s those who aren’t Reformed. For Pentecostal folks, it can be those cold, dead Christians who haven’t been baptized in the Spirit. For Anglicans and Catholics, it could be those cretins who don’t understand the importance of the liturgy and the power of the sacraments. For the legalists, it’s the people who are using their liberty as license. For liberals, it’s conservatives; and for conservatives, it’s liberals. Those who are orthodox are sure that the wolves are the heretics and the less orthodox are sure that fundamentalists are. Most of us think that the wolves are people who have compromised the theological and moral standards that have always been a part of the “faith once delivered to the saints” (Jude 1:3).
As a matter of fact, that’s not the wolves Paul is speaking about at all. Who are the wolves? If you want to know, all you have to do is to flip over to the book of Galatians, where Paul is dealing with wolves. Paul’s fear for his beloved friends at Ephesus was a fear grounded in hard experience. He had been there, done that, and had a closet full of bloodied, wolf-torn T-shirts. Paul didn’t like sin or bad theology, he hated divisions, and he was worried about all kinds of institutional problems . . . but the wolves were different and far scarier. The wolves were those who would pervert the gospel. And at the same time, they were (and are) often those who seem to be the most obedient, the most godly and the most spiritual.
The book of Galatians is often called the Magna Carta of Christian Liberty. Its writing was occasioned by the coming of some very religious, very uptight, and very wrong believers who were scandalized with the message of the gospel.
Paul was shocked, and we should be too. He wrote, “I am astonished that you are so quickly deserting him who called you in the grace of Christ and are turning to a different gospel” (Galatians 1:6). Paul was earthy in his opposition to the wolves, and we should be too. He said, “I wish those who unsettle you would emasculate themselves!” (Galatians 5:12). (Now that’s strong!) Paul spared no one in his defense of the gospel, and we shouldn’t either. He even pointed out that Peter was a hypocrite in these matters (see Galatians 2:13). Paul refused to join hands and sing “Kumbaya” around the campfire with those who compromised the gospel of grace. And we should avoid that too. Paul said, “Even if we or an angel from heaven should preach to you a gospel contrary to the one we preached to you, let him be accursed” (Galatians 1:8).
Now let’s study Wolfology 101 and look at its destructive power. The basic textbook for the course is Galatians with ancillary readings in a number of other biblical sources. There are four basic truths about wolves that you ought to know.
When you see any of these things happening, run.
No, don’t run. Fight. Paul said that we should “stand firm” and not “submit” (Galatians 5:1).
Wolves distort the good news.
First, you should be aware of the MO of the wolves—their disguised, subtle, and manipulative pressure. Paul said that they worked to “distort” the good news of Christ (Galatians 1:7) and that they even manipulated Peter and Barnabas into sharing their hypocrisy (see Galatians 2:11-14). Paul wrote, “Yet because of false brothers secretly brought in—who slipped in to spy out our freedom that we have in Christ Jesus, so that they might bring us into slavery—to them we did not yield in submission even for a moment, so that the truth of the gospel might be preserved for you” (Galatians 2:4-5).
Wolves have hidden agendas.
There is more that you need to know about wolves. You must also be constantly aware of the hidden agendas of wolves. Paul wrote, “They make much of you, but for no good purpose. They want to shut you out, that you may make much of them” (Galatians 4:17).
There is money in religion! And if you do it right, you can get power and prestige too. I have a friend who says that if you make your living at religion, you are going to lose one or the other.
If we’re saying something biblical, true, and helpful, it’s a good thing that people listen. The problem happens when we find that we can parlay their listening into power, prestige, and money. It is a short trip from being told that one is very close to God to the feeling that one speaks from Sinai. Empires have been built on far less.
When the wolves start laying burdens on the sheep, it’s always wise for the sheep to ask: “What’s in it for him or her? Where is the payback? Am I funding a leader’s dream, or is it God’s dream? Do I worship at a guru’s altar, or at God’s? Am I being set free, or put under a burden of guilt and condemnation in order to make him or her feel better?”
Wolves impose heavy burdens on sheep.
Paul described what was happening in Galatia as an effort on the part of the wolves to impose a “yoke of slavery” on the sheep (Galatians 5:1). Slaves are not free; their job is to maintain the freedom and the power of the slave owners.
That bothered Jesus too. Matthew 23 is enough to make any leader of God’s people wince. Every time I read that chapter, it scares the spit out of me—“hypocrites,” “whitewashed tombs,” “blind,” “killers” of prophets. And the thing that’s scary about Jesus’ words is that they were addressed to the most religious, most committed, and most godly people around. If you’re a leader of other Christians and that doesn’t scare you, you’re dead.
But for our purpose here, listen to one of the things Jesus said: “They tie up heavy burdens, hard to bear, and lay them on people’s shoulders, but they themselves are not willing to move them with their finger” (v. 4). You can determine the “wolfness” of a Christian wolf by noticing how guilty, tired, and condemned you feel in his or her presence.
Religion will make you weird. Do you know why? Because God is such a central part of our DNA.
Someone has said that we southerners get away with saying anything, no matter how hurtful or critical, by prefacing what we say with “Bless your heart . . .” Well, Christians can lay on the guilt, rob the sheep of their freedom, send them on a crusade to impact the world, and “turn the tide for God,” all with a prophetic “Thus says the Lord.” That’s why, when new Christians come into the church, we put saddles on them and ride them until they die. And the great tragedy is that our neurotic DNA makes us think we’re doing it for him.
Wolves lie about God.
Finally, be careful to note the God the wolves would have you worship. They lie about God and sometimes even for what are laudable reasons. Their God becomes a monster and a child abuser. They will preach about his wrath and his jealousy. They tell you he will take away your salvation if you tell a lie (or pick your sin of choice) and don’t repent of it before you die. They will make God into a celestial policeman who is looking for ways to catch you doing something wrong or something that displeases him, and if he does, will break your legs. And the wolves will go absolutely ballistic when someone suggests that you have free sins.
Paul was having none of it. In fact, he countered the lies with the truth. He said that he had been crucified with Christ (not a command but a fact for every believer) “and the life I now live in the flesh I live by faith in the Son of God, who loved me and gave himself for me” (Galatians 2:20). “But when the fullness of time had come, God sent forth his Son, born of woman, born under the law, to redeem those who were under the law, so that we might receive adoption as sons. And because you are sons, God has sent the Spirit of his Son into our hearts, crying, ‘Abba! [“daddy” or “papa”!] Father!’ So you are no longer a slave, but a son, and if a son, then an heir through God” (Galatians 4:4-7).
They will make you feel like an orphan! The wolves will say that God’s patience is such that, if you continue in your sin, he will say, “That’s it! I’ve had it with you.” God never says that!
If you’re still with me, you know the truth that no profound relationship can be established with God until you come to him with nothing to offer but your sin. You also know that the relationship with him is not maintained by your obedience and righteousness but by his grace and Christ’s righteousness. You know, too, that power comes from living an ongoing life of repentance (knowing who you are, who God is, what you’ve done, and then “putting the ball in God’s court” by telling him). Further, you know that until we recognize and proclaim that to our brothers and sisters in Christ and to those who aren’t a part of our family, we will remain in the concrete of our self-righteousness and the hardness of our prison cells.
Anybody who tells you differently is a wolf.
Adapted from Steve’s book, Three Free Sins.