Are wolves proliferating in the churches?

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?

Riddle:

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 went on to explain that you would know these wolves by their fruits, the meaning of which I want to eventually address in a different blog post.

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.)

Beware.

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.

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Quietrunner
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Quietrunner

The wolf on the right was obvious… but the one on the left, looked so much like a sheep… i almost missed him. We must watch closely.

Cindy Burrell
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Those who are disguised as sheep… So many within the body feel some obligation to ignore the wolves – or even support them – because they present an image that somehow benefits the church. But it is image without substance. The charismatic wolf attracts an audience, uses all the right words and it is presumed that, in spite of his true character, he is leading people to the Lord, bringing glory to God (or bringing in money). And when the image cracks and the wolf that was there all the time can be clearly seen, many rise to defend the wolf because exposing him “makes the church look bad.”

We have been wisely instructed to guard against such people, yet instead we invite them in.

Norma Brumbaugh
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Lots of misunderstanding regarding this subject. I think it is loosely applied when it shouldn’t be, and is not seriously applied when it really should be. Good question, great answer. Thanks.

TS00
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TS00

I wept through this entire post, as it touches on so many still fresh wounds. You are far less cynical than I, as I suspect that which we call ‘The Church’ today was, from the very outset established by, or very early on appropriated by the wolves who have long been in charge.

Where are the ‘churches’ that look anything like what Jesus describes? Where are the shepherds who view their role as literally leading, serving, protecting and, if need be, dying for the sheep?

Instead we have man-made institutions, claiming to be ‘The Church’, but which, it seems to me, have very little to do with the Body of Christ – except for deceiving and manipulating genuine believers to put their trust in the institutions and the men who serve them.

I know that sounds pretty cynical, and few would go that far, but I’m afraid it is where my journey has led me to. Were it not for the fact that the vast majority of the true children of God are tangled up in these institutions, I would write them off all together. But my heart aches for the many who have suffered or are suffering under the abusive, authoritarian manipulation of narcissistic false teachers. And most have no idea what is wrong.

Perhaps the wolves oversaw much of modern translation of scripture, but we appear to have missed the warnings regarding wolves in shepherd’s clothing. Naïve, trusting believers tend to have too much trust in anyone with a ‘Christian’ label slapped on, but they are especially susceptible to the charismatic, clever, well-spoken wolves who dress like shepherds. They don’t realize they do not act anything like shepherds, because the institution cleverly rewrote the description.

We now believe that shepherds simply exist to give a thirty or forty minute pep talk once a week: ‘Here ya go sheep, feast on this and be careful out there!” If it is entertaining enough, most are willing to follow wherever these wolves lead, and enrich them with their hard-earned dollars. We have been led to overlook the genuine tasks a shepherd once undertook, such as searching out healthy new pastures, providing shelter and balm for the weak and wounded, seeking out and scaring off any lurking predators and simply enjoying the presence of his sheep, who he knows by name and dearly loves.

Lest I seem too harsh, I do believe that there are genuine followers of Christ who, having been known nothing but the established system, simply cannot imagine doing things any other way. I believe there are godly men and women, with hearts for God and his children, who enter the ministry desiring to serve God and others. Unfortunately, nearly all go to the seminaries – which were co-opted by the wolves long ago. (That’s my personal opinion, based in part on the experiences of a very close friend who has taught at two seminaries.)

Few are able or willing to abandon the institutional church and seek out or establish something that looks more like what Jesus described. I understand. I am still struggling to figure out how to fill the need for fellowship with other believers apart from an organized church. It isn’t easy when all you have known your entire life is church.

I would add that I see very similar parallels between wolves in the church and wolves running the nations of this world. I believe we have the very same issues of narcissistic manipulators who deceive and control the masses for the personal enrichment of the elite few. The cries of the countless wounded sheep, and their spilled blood, echo around the world.

Jane
Guest

TSOO
I have followed a number of your posts. I know that you have been wronged and wounded by the Church. I have been a Southern Baptist for decades… the denomination was a good fit for me, or so I thought. We now have a “young, restless, and reformed” pastor who (through a number of email exchanges with me) feels that nonbelievers are “nothing,” and self-worth is a dirty word – in other word, you’re stealing God’s glory if you think you have any value or worth.
We are looking for a new church; we plan to take our time. Surely there must be good churches out there! From your experience, what are some things to be aware of?

Note: I did not grow up in the Church; I fell in love with Christ at the age of 17. I grew up with an abusive father and was so depressed by the time I hit my teen, I could hardly put one foot in front of the other. I simply asked Jesus to help me, and He filled me up with His love… so pure and beautiful… and healed my broken heart. The ministry of Young Life (a para-church group for teens) was where I landed… and I am so glad. Their message is simple: the Gospel is for every kid because God loves every kid.

TS00
Guest
TS00

Jane, I am sorry that you have also experienced these struggles. I take it by your reference to the YRR pastor that you would agree that Calvinism is one of the major things you are seeking to avoid in a church. And for that I applaud you. I was indeed deeply involved in a Calvinist church for over a decade, and finally realized that all of the people cycling through the church were leaving more wounded and needy than when they arrived. Even though I had studied Calvinism for several years, I felt deceived by a pastor who I felt was not honest or consistent in confessing his beliefs.

I was recently asked this same question by another woman who had recently left a church which had been taken over by a Calvinist pastor. I responded by mentioning that references to 9Marks, TGC or White Horse Inn are red flags. They rarely mention Calvinism, but will refer to the Westminster Confession, Covenant Theology or complementarianism. Membership covenants, elder rule and church discipline would send me running. Along with Grudem, look out for references to Piper, Sproul, Mohler, Chandler and other celebrity Calvinists. Lifeway or TGC materials for Sunday School or bible study are nearly always Calvinistic, and excessive use of the words ‘sovereignty’ and ‘decree’ are warning signs that Calvinism is lurking. Strong signs of male authority and females as an second class persons are also common.

I am not sure if I will ever find a church I feel comfortable with. It would have to have a very humble pastor who did not view himself as the authority or expert in all things, and who invited input and questions. I am personally opposed to the concept of one man giving his own opinions to all others week after week, and am more likely to be comfortable in a bible study or home worship setting in which various persons share in leading the study or conversation.

I pray that you will find fellowship an support, and that you will continue to grow in grace, wisdom and Christlikeness, which God desires to help us accomplish. Believe it or not, there really is life after church, and there are a lot of believers – in increasing numbers – who are ‘Done’ with church, but not with God.

Jane
Guest

I really do appreciate your input, TSOO; and I pray the same for you! I am so glad that you can separate “who He is” from those that follow Him, or pretend to. Not everyone can make that distinction… they see the hypocrisy in the Church, become disillusioned, and turn their backs on God. When that thought crosses my mind, I ask myself, “To whom would I go?” No one has ever loved me like Jesus, and I know that no one ever will, or even can.
Honestly, the Calvinism-thing has rattled me. After hearing my (former) pastor quote John Piper over and over again, I looked Piper up on the net… and came across the DG site. After reading a number of articles (some of which Rebecca has addressed), I started to feel confused, and really sad.

The radical, extravagant, and very personal love of God that I experienced as a teen, is not found on Piper’s site… not that I could find anyway. I plan to start re-reading the Gospels, as an antidote to what I read on the DG site. .. paying careful attention to the character of Jesus Christ… after all, He is the exact representation of God. What is He really like? I have a feeling, I won’t be disappointed… I have a feeling that I will encounter again, the matchless, tender, and beautiful love of God that reached down and rescued me as a teenage:)
Have you read Austin Fischer’s book, “Young, Restless, and no longer Reformed?” Below is a quote from his book that completely captures what I am trying to say… (I sent this to my former pastor.)

“…the silhouette of the crucified God of Golgotha is an image chiseled into my heart. When sin within rises, chaos without descends, confusion all around lays waste to any semblance of comprehension—when I don’t feel like I understand a damn thing—I look up there and I understand enough to say thank you. I understand enough to call it love. And I watch as it casts sparks of light into previously darkened corners. So when someone messes with this picture, adding a cryptic backdrop that threatens to stain the whole thing, I’m against the backdrop only because I’m for the picture I think the backdrop ruins. I’m not against the Calvinist picture of God so much as I am grieved by what that picture does to the picture I love…
I don’t know the timeline or mechanics of how it all works, but I wouldn’t be too surprised if death sends us on a journey to the center of the universe. And what will we find there? Who will we find there? Infinite inward energy or infinite outward energy? An infinite inward collapse on Self or an infinite giving away of Self? A Being who glorifies himself at all costs or loves at all costs? A black hole or a mangled Lamb? At the center of the universe, I think there’s a Creator with holes in his hands, drenching the cosmos in a gratuitous downpour of love. He doesn’t have to—he just wants to. It’s who he is…”

Ann
Guest
Ann

TSOO, this is so good and you’ve written so eloquently my own struggle and confusion (disillusionment?) of the modern church. I too struggle not wanting to give up on something Jesus died for but while I know there has to be true believers in these institutions, they don’t feel safe, they don’t feel like the early church described in scripture, and they don’t seem to reflect the heart of Jesus as a general rule. I’ll admit there are some exceptions only because others tell me they’ve found them, but it very hard for someone so devastated by these people and teachings to even try again. I too come from a Calvinistic background that was proceeded by a Gothard upbringing and now find myself starting from scratch trying to figure our what is truth. This is incredibly painful and difficult when my lens of scripture itself is saturated by the these teachings and I fight….fight to find Jesus there. Thank you for your honesty and humility in response here and thank you, Rebecca for continuing to shed light on this tangle and yet so courageously try and untangle it as well. You’ve been such a huge part of my spiritual journey back to faith.

Jane
Guest

Ann, don’t give up! It’s relatively easy to reject the lies the world spews… they are obvious. It’s those lies that are mixed with a little bit of truth that are harder to dispel… they twist us into knots! Keep praying and keep searching for the Real Jesus… He is there in pages of scriptures… He is true, He is good, and He loves you more than you could ever imagine. Don’t let anyone tell you what to believe. Search the Scriptures for yourself… let the Scripture interpret Scripture. A doctrine that is built on one or two verses… and you have to ignore scores of other verses to accept… is likely NOT a good doctrine! My best to you, Ann!

TS00
Guest
TS00

Ann, I will pray for your comfort, peace and sense of God’s surrounding and guiding presence. It is hard to start from scratch, but it is also a very positive thing in the long run. When we throw out all that we have been spoonfed and allow ourselves the chance to study and follow the leading of the Holy Spirit, we begin a wonderful journey of discovering the heart of God. I am sorry that it so often seems to take a traumatic experience to get us on this road. Give yourself plenty of time and space to heal and don’t feel pressured to arrive – just allow yourself to be and to know God as he wants to be known.

bunkababy
Guest
bunkababy

I just wanted to note that it says “their hearts they are vicious wolves” doesn’t the Bible also say that “out of the mouth the heart speaks”?

I think we should be learning how to speak wolf. We need to understand their language.

If the Bible says we will know his disciples by their love it might also give a clue. Who does that wolf love more? Himself or others? Does everything he does point to him? Does everything they do make them look good?

“speaking perverse things to draw away disciples after themselves.”

it seems to me the tongue gives away the wolf.

I think we so easily dismiss how or what gets said by wolves and we want to dismiss it until it is too late and they have bared their teeth and ripped up the sheep.

We need to know the language of manipulation, coercion, false humility.

And we need to desperately understand what love looks like in Christians. And the fruit….of the spirit.

These are just my quick thoughts. And if anybody fits the criteria of speaking wolf , run, don’t even hesitate.

Peach
Guest
Peach

Thank you, Rebecca, for another fine article. Many of us remain in our dysfunctional churches because we treasure (what’s left of) our community. The hour of post-church fellowship is sweet enough to make it worth coming on Sundays.