On Wolves and Sheep

“Beware of false prophets, who come to you in sheep’s clothing but inwardly are ravenous wolves.” (Jesus in Matthew 7:15)

“Keep watch over yourselves and over all the flock, of which the Holy Spirit had made you overseers, to shepherd the church of God that he obtained with the blood of his own Son. I know that after I have gone, savage wolves will come in among you, not sparing the flock. Some even from your own group will come distorting the truth in order to entice the disciples to follow them.” (Paul in Acts 20:28-30)

One of the most common images the Bible uses for believers is sheep. The Psalms describe us as sheep under his pasture (Psalm 103:3) and the flock under his care (Psalm 95:7), Isaiah likens the way we have gone astray to the way sheep wander off (Isaiah 53:6), and Jesus uses the image of a shepherd finding a lost sheep to describe the salvation of sinners (Luke 15:3-7). Just as sheep know the voice of the shepherd, so disciples recognise the voice of Jesus (John 10:27). Jesus himself is the good shepherd (John 10:11), picking up the theme of Ezekiel 34 where abusive ‘shepherds’ of the day are called out for exploiting and harming the sheep for their own gain. In this same chapter, the promise is made that God himself will shepherd his people (Ezekiel 34:12). The task of Christian leaders is one of shepherding the flock, while recognising that the chief shepherd is Jesus himself (1 Peter 5:2-4).

Not everybody in our churches are sheep.

In the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus warned his disciples to be wary of wolves. Paul gave a similar warning to the Ephesian elders in Acts 20. Both of these warnings point out that these wolves might not be easy to identify as they will disguise themselves as sheep and will arise from within the Christian community. A wolf in wolf’s clothing would be easy to spot and deal with, but a wolf in sheep’s clothing is something altogether more insidious.

Wolves are not misguided sheep who are going through a few struggles but whose hearts are generally in the right place. Wolves are sinister predators who are seeking opportunity to do harm. They are ‘ravenous’ according to Jesus, and ‘savage’ according to Paul, and they will not spare the flock.

These warnings are strong and should be troubling to Christian leaders. It is no small thing that Jesus and Paul both felt it important to put the leaders of God’s people on notice that there will be some who look like disciples but are not, and who are seeking opportunities to deceive, abuse, destroy and devour those in our churches. One of the key responsibilities of those of us called to shepherd God’s people is to keep watch for these wolves and protect the flock from them. 

No shepherd would treat a wolf the same way they would treat their sheep. The guidance that is given in the New Testament on how wolves are to be treated in the church is very different to how sheep are to be treated. Sheep are to be tended, guided, cared for, protected and fed. Wolves are to be confronted, opposed and defeated, in order to protect the flock from them. This is often at cost to the shepherd who may face the brunt of the wolf’s attacks. As Jesus says, “the good shepherd lays down his life for the sheep.” (John 10:11)

We must treat sheep like sheep, and treat wolves like wolves.

Treating sheep as though they are wolves can have devastating consequences, and this is the dynamic behind a lot of spiritual abuse. People who are struggling with sin are shamed and condemned rather than helped and gently restored. Second-order theological issues are turned into weapons to beat people with. Good-hearted people who see things differently to church leaders can be attacked, shunned and cast out. Those who speak truth to power are silenced and destroyed. Bruised reeds are broken, and smoldering wicks are quenched.

The consequences of treating wolves as though they are sheep can be just as devastating. If we allow an individual who is seeking to harm people to operate unchallenged in the church, it will be vulnerable people who suffer. If we turn a blind eye to those who would abuse and destroy the people entrusted to us and act as though the wolf is well-meaning but misguided, it will lead to real hurt being done to real people. This is why the biblical warnings against wolves are so stark.

The challenge in dealing with wolves is that it is not obvious from the outside who is a wolf and who is a sheep. The wolves are wearing sheep’s clothing, and so will look like everybody else. They will join our churches, get involved, talk in Christian ways, sing the songs, volunteer, give, et cetera, et cetera. And yet the facade cannot last forever. The tell that Jesus equips his disciples with for spotting wolves is this: “you will know them by their fruits”. In other words, there will be red flags in the way a person behaves that reveal their true wolf-like nature. Leaders must be discerning in paying attention to these red flags. They usually do not take the form of isolated stumbles, but persistent patterns of manipulation, deception, control and other behaviours designed to give the wolf increased access to vulnerable members of the flock to devour. Many of the behaviours that Jesus confronted the Pharisees about are present in wolves today.

A lot of the time, the red flags that point to a person being a wolf may be known to some members of the church and not others. Not everything is appropriate to share with everybody, and because of this it can seem disorientating when a wolf is confronted. Having the right people in leadership roles is crucial. People who are wise, courageous, tender and godly are entrusted with discerning on the behalf of the flock where the wolves are found. There needs to be trust from those who do not see the whole picture for those who do, and those who are in such roles must act with integrity and trustworthiness. Collective responsibility from a variety of decision makers including elders, trustees and other relevant stakeholders protects against some of the issues that arise when such decisions rest on the shoulders of a single individual.

Challenging wolves is not unloving. Sometimes we can view love as little more than ‘niceness’ or ‘politeness’, and see difficult conversations as contravening this. There is nothing loving about being too timid to confront one who poses a danger to the flock. The shepherd who loves the sheep will lay down his or her life to protect them. Being on guard for wolves and confronting them for the sake of the flock is the most loving thing we can do for the sheep entrusted to us. It is also the most loving thing we can do for the wolf. May it be that it will lead them to repentance and the salvation of their spirit (1 Cor 5:5).

“The hired hand, who is not the shepherd and does not own the sheep, sees the wolf coming and leaves the sheep and runs away – and the wolf snatches them and scatters them. The hired hand runs away because a hired hand does not care for the sheep.” (Jesus in John 10:12-13)