In the life of the church, danger is reality. And while enemies are not in short supply, perhaps the most damaging are those whose destruction goes unnoticed…until it’s too late. In the metaphors of Scripture, the church is a flock of sheep, its pastors are shepherds, and its enemies are wolves. Because wolves rarely attack the flock openly, because they often come in sheep’s clothing or even in the guise of a shepherd, it is necessary for the people of God to be able to identify them before their bloody work is begun.
Last week, I offered a definition of a wolf from the description of Acts 20:28-30. I said: “A wolf is one who uses his or her words to influence church members and draw them away from the Pastor(s) whom the Holy Spirit has placed over them.”
This week, I want to give a fuller description of what this looks like, and to do this, I’m going to borrow from the work of the 17th century pastor, William Gurnall. In his The Christian in Complete Armor of 1662, which is rapidly becoming one of my favorite books, he describes these instruments of Satan.
They’re usually pretty smart
According to Gurnall, Satan makes best use of intelligent men and women, especially those who can relate well to their listeners. Of course, that is not to diminish intelligence or education! However, it is often the more educated who have little use for the things of God, while at the same time, the people of God are often impressed by those whose wit is both quick and entertaining. (Read 1 Corinthians 1 and 2 for examples.) And when such fine minds are made the devil’s tools, the results are often predictable.
They attack the reputation of God’s servants
First, these wolves – these intelligent, well-read wolves – seek to undermine the reputation of God’s true shepherds. If they could call Moses into question and discredit Paul, then the godliest pastor today is not invulnerable to their attacks. Sometimes they will challenge the pastor openly and directly; other times, they will drop mere hints in their conversation with other church members, raising suspicion about the pastor’s fitness to lead and to teach. They may do this by magnifying one of the pastor’s mistakes, or they may compare him unfavorably to other pastors and teachers, whom the church only know by reputation and not experience. The goal is to drive a wedge between the sheep and the shepherd to the point where the sheep wonder if they might be better off without him and become thankful to the wolf (!) for alerting them.
They cover their lies with truth
However, wolves never announce themselves as false teachers. They bring in their errors under the cloak of truth. The heretics that did the most damage in history were not those who were so wrong that a child could recognize them. Even the Pharisees did not get everything wrong! This is why Jesus warned against their leaven and not their loaves. And why Gurnall notes that it is enough to plant a poisonous weed among the grass that the sheep are already eating.
The point for the church is not that one truth makes a godly shepherd but that one error can identify a wolf. Some of the worst wolves have been those who have taught from a thoroughly biblical Sunday School curriculum but scattered their unorthodox personal interpretations throughout the lesson.
They encourage personal indulgence in…
And the most common kind of wolfish teaching is that which appeals to the ungodly desires of the sheep. It is easy to follow a man or woman who encourages you to do what you already want to do, and by encouraging the sheep to indulge their fleshly lusts, the wolf works in tandem with the devil, who is already tempting them to do so.
What lusts? Things like drunkenness and sexual immorality would be noticed too quickly. So, the wolf encourages things like human reason, pride, and personal indulgence. His teaching is not Scriptural, but that which “makes sense.” Everyone loves to think that they have inside track on some new idea, or that they have come up with the idea themselves. Or even that they have now discovered something that everyone should have seen all along. Wolves encourage this, so long as they can keep people from searching the Scriptures for themselves. Oh, they may offer a proof-text here or there – a Bible verse pulled from its context and superficially quoted to support whatever “makes sense” – but never in-depth study, using sound principles of interpretation and comparing one verse’s teaching with that of the rest of the Bible.
Pride, too, is encouraged by the wolf. Anything that exalts a man or woman’s opinion of herself and her natural abilities. The Scriptural doctrines of man’s depravity and sinfulness and the necessity of God’s sovereign grace are offensive to the wolf, and he or she will often be found talking about things like “free will” or “the power of choice” or “what God needs from you” or “fairness.” Even that old line about “God helps those who help themselves” and the idea that we do our part and God does his – these too are wolfish offerings.
…and a license to sin
Finally, another favorite word of the wolf: “liberty.” Gurnall notes that whoever sells something cheapest will have the most customers, though they will only end up with something cheap. And while Christ calls his disciples to a life of self-denial and holiness, the wolf offers a cheap “grace” that promises heaven but demands nothing. A shepherd who faithfully calls his flock to die to themselves and yield to the Holy Spirit, to repent of sinful words and attitudes, and to obey Christ’s commission to spread the Gospel to the world will be opposed by a wolf who calls such Scriptural teaching “legalism.” In its place, the wolf offers “Christian” as a label and comfort as a lifestyle. Because he finds holiness unpalatable in his prey, the wolf will encourage the sheep to indulge themselves to the fattening of their flesh.
Wolves are everywhere. They’re in our pulpits and in our pews, and both preachers and church members must beware. These are intelligent men and women who thrive on questioning God’s appointed servants, mixing their errors with commonly accepted truth, and offering a life without a cross, a life of pleasure, self-confidence, and their fellow man’s approval.
Let God’s people beware!