I went deer hunting. Once. It’s not as easy as it sounds. Before I tried it I always thought, “It can’t be that hard.” Deer are docile and non-threatening and honestly they seem a little… slow. Not slow as in they can’t run fast (because I know they can) but more like they’re not real quick on the uptake. I mean, they see headlights from an oncoming vehicle and just stand there. How smart can they be? And so I figured finding one and shooting one shouldn’t be that tough. I was wrong.
I went hunting with my father in law, who is such an accomplished deer hunter I am quite certain that at halloween many of the teenage deer dress up like him in much the same manner teens in the human world dress up like Jason from the “Friday the 13th” franchise. I figured being with him afforded me an advantage. And to a degree I was right as I found two deer.
The first one I found while sitting in a tree stand alone and since I couldn’t get a good shot, and he was a little ways off, I jumped down to try to get closer. As I approached him he started to run. I started to chase him. Not surprisingly he won. This is how I know they’re not slow.
The second deer I found provided me a much better opportunity. My father in law brought me to a clearing that was about 180 yards across, surrounded completely by trees and full of clover. We settled down amongst the brush and waited to see if a deer would venture out into the clearing where we could get a good shot. Sure enough, in no time a small buck tentatively worked his way out to the edge of the clearing and provided me an inviting target. I lined up the shot and pulled the trigger. The crack of the gun echoed through the forest and, as my shot was high by about 3 feet, it simply scared the deer back into the woods. We figured he would be long gone and so I thought it might be time to pack it in but in just a few moments he began to work his way back out of the woods and into the clearing. He was tentative but continued into the open. I lined up my shot. I figured I had to compensate for going high the last time and so as I pulled the trigger I felt confident that this time it would hit the mark. I was wrong. I came up about 4 ft short and the deer scurried to the edge of the woods and, to my surprise, stopped. He looked around and then worked his way back to the the clover. I took another shot and missed right. The young buck flinched and jumped back but didn’t head for the woods. He ate more clover. I took another shot and this time he just lifted up his head and then went back to eating. There is nothing quite as emasculating as standing there with a high powered rifle and knowing a deer doesn’t fear you because your shots are so far off the mark that he’s not convinced you’re even trying to hit him.
I tell you this story because hunting in general isn’t always easy and when hunting “wolves” the challenge appears even greater. Think for a moment about Christ’s description in Matthew:
“Beware of false prophets, who come to you in sheep's clothing but inwardly are ravenous wolves.”
He is telling us that those who are the greatest threat to the well being of the sheep will look like the sheep. That it will be difficult to distinguish the ravenous wolves from those that we cherish and call family. That creates a unique challenge. As difficult as it was for me to hunt deer at least I could identify what a deer looked like. And I am certain, even if the deer attempted to hide amongst my children, my family and those that I cherish, I would be able to make the distinction. Because I know how to identify deer. I know their characteristics, I know what they look like, I know how they behave.
If we are going to work to eliminate the threat of wolves in the kingdom of God we are going to have to know how to identify them. Fortunately, there is much in God’s word that reveals the characteristics of ravenous wolves.
As I stated in my first post in this series the identity of wolves seems to always be that of those in leadership (elders, pastors, teachers, prophets) and as such one of the first identifiers is their teaching. Christ, in the Matthew passage, says there will be prophets and therefore the implication is that they will make declarations, they will teach ideas. This concept is reinforced by Peter:
But false prophets also arose among the people, just as there will be false teachers among you, who will secretly bring in destructive heresies… (2 Peter 2:1)
And in Romans Paul says:
I appeal to you, brothers, to watch out for those who cause divisions and create obstacles contrary to the doctrine that you have been taught; (Romans 16:17)
In this passage you see the divisions and obstacles are created by wrong doctrinal teaching. Again, it seems he’s not talking about divisions created by “unruly” sheep but by the purveyors of false teaching. In 1 Timothy 4, following his teaching on overseers and deacons, Paul warns:
Now the Spirit expressly says that in later times some will depart from the faith by devoting themselves to deceitful spirits and teachings of demons, through the insincerity of liars whose consciences are seared… (1 Timothy 4:1-2)
And in 2 Timothy he says:
For the time is coming when people will not endure sound teaching, but having itching ears they will accumulate for themselves teachers to suit their own passions… (2 Timothy 4:3)
It is clear that the first (but not only) way to identify wolves is by what they teach. So what do they teach that marks them as wolves? I think the easiest way to categorize false teaching is any teaching that is contrary to the Gospel.
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—not that there is another one, but there are some who trouble you and want to distort the gospel of Christ. But 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. As we have said before, so now I say again: If anyone is preaching to you a gospel contrary to the one you received, let him be accursed. (Galatians 1:6-9)
What a strong admonition. If you don’t teach the Gospel of Christ, Paul says, you should be cursed. This is why understanding what the Gospel is is so important.
Now I know this might seem elementary. Your response may be “who doesn’t know the Gospel, especially teachers in the church.” But the truth is, unfortunately, many don’t. Many are fixated on the Gospel as simply the means of conversion. When asked, “what is the Gospel?” many pastors and teachers respond with, “Jesus Christ died on the cross for our sin, rose again and if we believe on Him you will be saved” and although this is central and important to the Gospel message it is not ultimately THE Gospel message. Again, notice I said it’s CENTRAL to the Gospel message. I am not meaning to diminish the great truth of Christ’s work and how it is a gift to us but we need to understand that the Gospel message moves beyond our conversion experience to our entire Christian experience.
Far too often what is taught is the Gospel as the means of salvation and then it is put on a shelf in exchange for “good advice”. The Gospel is meant to encompass the entire life, teaching, work, death, resurrection and glorification of Jesus Christ. It is on the image, the message, the ministry of Christ which all sound teaching is supposed to be focused. When we move away from the nature of Christ embodied in His existence and proclaimed in His preaching we begin to exchange the Truth of Christ for the ideas of man. This is Paul’s warning in Colossians:
My goal is that they may be encouraged in heart and united in love, so that they may have the full riches of complete understanding, in order that they may know the mystery of God, namely, Christ, in whom are hidden all the treasures of wisdom and knowledge. I tell you this so that no one may deceive you by fine-sounding arguments…. So then, just as you received Christ Jesus as Lord, continue to live your lives in him, rooted and built up in him, strengthened in the faith as you were taught, and overflowing with thankfulness. See to it that no one takes you captive through hollow and deceptive philosophy, which depends on human tradition and the elemental spiritual forces of this world rather than on Christ. For in Christ all the fullness of the Deity lives in bodily form, and in Christ you have been brought to fullness. (Colossians 2:2-4, 6-9)
Sound doctrine, the Gospel, that builds up the church and believer is not “fine sounding arguments” and “deceptive philosophy” but it is the full riches of completely understanding God’s mystery, which is Christ. It’s why when there is division in the church Paul doesn’t call for a “mediation session” but he points to the image of Christ and says emulate His humility:
Let each of you look not only to his own interests, but also to the interests of others. Have this mind among yourselves, which is yours in Christ Jesus, who, though he was in the form of God, did not count equality with God a thing to be grasped, but emptied himself, by taking the form of a servant, being born in the likeness of men. And being found in human form, he humbled himself by becoming obedient to the point of death, even death on a cross. (Philippians 2:4-8)
When Paul offers marriage advice he doesn’t turn to “7 Steps to Happy Husbandry” he simply looks to the work of Jesus and says imitate His Gospel work:
Husbands, love your wives, as Christ loved the church and gave himself up for her, that he might sanctify her, having cleansed her by the washing of water with the word, so that he might present the church to himself in splendor, without spot or wrinkle or any such thing, that she might be holy and without blemish. In the same way husbands should love their wives as their own bodies. He who loves his wife loves himself. (Ephesians 5:25-28)
It’s why we are told to forgive as He forgave, love as He loved, sacrifice as He sacrificed, serve as He served, suffer as He suffered. The sound doctrine of Gospel teaching leads us to Christ’s example of humility, Christ’s example of love, Christ’s example of sacrifice, Christ’s example of mercy, Christ’s example of holiness, Christ’s example of community, Christ’s example of truth and on and on and on. What this leaves us with is any teaching that does not reflect His nature is simply not sound teaching.
This is why we get pastors that espouse ideas like “we don’t have to practice unconditional love” or we should should stop “walking with turkeys ‘cause otherwise we won’t be able to fly like eagles” or “God wants you to have comfort and prosperity in this life” or “leaders need to be make tough decisions and sometimes that means removing people who aren’t pulling their weight” All of these are teachings I have heard from “reputable” teachers and they are all counter to the Gospel and they are all false teachings. These may (or may not) be good advice but they are absent the Gospel. Christ exhibited unconditional love, Christ “walked with turkeys”, Christ didn’t seek nor find comfort and prosperity in this life and he never “removed” people that didn’t unify behind some vision, he cared for them and ultimately sacrificed for them, providing a way for them. Any teaching that does not reveal the nature of Christ is not a teaching that reflects the Gospel.
This is the first identifying marker of wolves but it is not the only one. In fact the first marker most often will/must be combined with the second to truly produce the biblical image of a wolf.