Each Sunday before our morning revved up a few of us gathered to pray. I would always pray about visitors, asking God to help us be more than friendly; to make friends. And I would pray that God would keep the wolves away from our door.
When Paul bid farewell to the Ephesian elders, knowing he’d never see them again, he warned them,
I know that after I leave, savage wolves will come in among you and will not spare the flock. Even from your own number men will arise and distort the truth in order to draw away disciples after them. So be on your guard! Remember that for three years I never stopped warning each of you night and day with tears (Acts 20:29-31).
The prospect of savage wolves circling my flock just beyond my sight or perhaps right under my nose unnerved me, like hearing a footfall somewhere in our house at 3 a.m.
Over the years, we’ve all known some difficult and even dangerous troublemakers in our congregations but wolves are rare, at least in my experience. As Paul intimates, they tend to emerge from church leadership—pastors, elders, or teachers—people positioned to lead others astray. We ourselves are not immune. You or I could become our own worst enemy.
Wolves aren’t merely contrary or critical people (not that such people don’t do damage). Wolves “distort the truth in order to draw away disciples after them.” One pastor told me of a colleague who began teaching something akin to purgatory and, when challenged, left with his new little flock. He eventually descended to teaching polygamy, at which point even the gullible left! (Who could make this stuff up!) Wolfish shepherds lead people to barren boondocks and dry creek beds.
Wolves take a gospel truth, twist it from its orthodox ligaments, choke off the life-breath of the Spirit, and then proclaim it with diabolical effect. Flannery O’Conner was on to this folly when she wrote in her novel, Wise Blood, about a charlatan who renamed himself Onnie Jay Holy and had the audacity to form the “Holy Church of Christ without Christ.” Wolves distort Christian virtues, smothering grace in legalism or untethering it from holiness with license till Jesus becomes unrecognizable.
Personally, I’m kind of a fraidy cat when I think about predators stalking my people. But pastors and elders need to buck up and take our cues from another shepherd, David. Remember when he sought Saul’s permission to go after Goliath? He said, “When a lion or a bear came and carried off a sheep from the flock, I went after it, struck it and rescued the sheep from its mouth. … The Lord who rescued me from the paw of the lion and paw of the bear will rescue me from the hand of this Philistine” (1 Samuel 17:35, 37). There’s our model.
Do you wonder what happened to that church in Ephesus? When Jesus addressed them years later in Revelation 2:2, he said, “I know that you cannot tolerate wicked people, that you have tested those who claim to be apostles but are not, and have found them false.” They had other faults but they had protected their flock from the wolves.
“For three years I never stopped warning each of you night and day with tears.” He warned them of their own vulnerability. “If you think you are standing firm, be careful that you don’t fall!” He drilled them in gospel doctrine. Handling the truth over and over gave them a feel for fakery. He instilled in them the life-and-death urgency of guarding the precious flock of God. The stakes had often brought him to tears.