As I have been writing this blog series I am keenly aware of how rare it is that I have ever been taught or even heard this topic addressed in all my years of church attendance. Despite the fact that there are two prominent passages quoting both Christ and Paul on the topic of wolves and despite the fact that there are dozens of passages warning us against false teachers, rarely, if ever, do I remember a sermon dedicated to these warnings. And even more rare is the message on what to do if and when we do come upon a wolf. It is truly fascinating to me when I consider that it seems one of the only passages on the topic I have heard taught, or should I say mis-taught (more on that later), is taken from Philippians 1 where Paul makes the declaration,
The former proclaim Christ out of selfish ambition… What then? Only that in every way, whether in pretense or in truth, Christ is proclaimed, and in that I rejoice. (Philippians 1:17-18)
I know I have been taught repeatedly something along the lines of “well, as long as they are preaching Jesus, let it go.”
When I think about this reality I can’t help but be reminded of the popular series of commercials from Chik-fil-a where the cows are ardent advocates for the consumption of chicken. Some how it feels like there might be a “hidden” agenda. Doesn’t it seem odd that most in the church are well versed on the couple of times in the New Testament that deal with the tithe but don’t seem to know what to do when confronted with wolves? This is true despite the fact that there are more then a dozen passages that address this threat to Christ’s church. The problem seems to be If the wolves we are warned against are most likely teachers in the church (and I think the Bible reveals this to be true) where will the flock go to learn about how to avoid and eliminate the wolves that threaten them? This is one of the reasons, I believe, Paul in particular is so adamant in his condemnation of wolves. Wolves are a very real and insidious threat. The very people the church turns to for teaching on what the bible says about spiritual matters are the people using their position to take advantage of the church. As a result it is important to look to God’s word, inspired and illuminated by the Holy Spirit, as the source of our direction when dealing with the existential threat to our spiritual well-being. Doesn’t that seem to be exactly what John is saying in 1 John 2:
I write these things to you about those who are trying to deceive you. But the anointing that you received from him abides in you, and you have no need that anyone should teach you. But as his anointing teaches you about everything, and is true, and is no lie—just as it has taught you, abide in him. (1 John 2:26)
He’s not eliminating the need for teachers but he’s saying when these teachers are trying to deceive you the ultimate source of teaching is the Holy Spirit and obviously by extension the Holy Spirit inspired Word of God. This practice reflects the noble practice of the Bereans in Acts 17:
Now these Jews were more noble than those in Thessalonica; they received the word with all eagerness, examining the Scriptures daily to see if these things were so. (Acts 17:11)
Diligently studying God’s word and in concert being led by the Holy Spirit will always be the starting point when getting prepared to face down the wolves that threaten the flock.
I’ve discovered in my years of church experience that quite often before we can learn what God’s word is calling us to do we have to unlearn what God is not calling us to do and if ever there was a case that this was needed it’s in this case. I referenced earlier the passage in Philippians that is used far too often in a way that the verse does not allow and in a way that provides cover to false teachers. When you look at the full passage and it’s context you discover that Paul is not saying that the way to deal with wolves/false teachers is to simply say “as long as they preach Jesus let it go”.
Some indeed preach Christ from envy and rivalry, but others from good will. The latter do it out of love, knowing that I am put here for the defense of the gospel. The former proclaim Christ out of selfish ambition, not sincerely but thinking to afflict me in my imprisonment. What then? Only that in every way, whether in pretense or in truth, Christ is proclaimed, and in that I rejoice. (Philippians 1:15-18)
The first reason that this interpretation, or teaching, from this passage is false is that when you read this you discover there is a very specific type of conflict with which Paul is dealing. The conflict is about personal rivalry with fellow ministers who are taking a position that is critical of Paul himself. Paul identifies two preaching factions and their motivations; one faction preaches from envy and rivalry and the other from goodwill. The determining factor for both is their view on Paul’s imprisonment. “The latter do it out of love, knowing that I AM here for the defense of the Gospel” and “the former proclaim Christ… not sincerely but thinking to afflict ME in my imprisonment”.
The people Paul has issue with are not wolves, they are simply brothers who have found a point of contention with Paul himself. D.A. Carson explains it like this:
They think that Paul has done damage to the Christian cause by getting himself arrested. Probably they magnify their own ministry by putting Paul down. We can imagine their pompous reflections: “It really is sad that so great a man as Paul has frittered away his gospel opportunities simply because he is so inflexible. After all, I and many others manage to remain at large and preach the gospel. One must assume that Paul has a deep character flaw that puts him in the path of trouble. My ministry is being blessed, while he languishes in prison.”
Paul’s expression here is an example of how ministers need to behave when they personally come under criticism, when they personally are being criticized for issues that are not biblically supported. Paul is simply maintaining the position that he has always had, acknowledging he as messenger is irrelevant in light of the message (1 Corinthians 3:5-9). Paul was saying he was not going to create division over his position or ministry. He was not saying that when a minister’s lifestyle and message are counter to the Gospel don’t oppose them as long they “preach Jesus”. This position is incompatible with the context of the passage and incompatible with everything else we see about Paul’s life and teachings.
And that ultimately is the second reason this is a wrong interpretation of this passage, everything we see from Paul reveals a man who is not afraid to confront publicly and emphatically those who live and teach counter to the Gospel.
People don’t seem to realize there are many passages in which Paul, Peter, John, James are specifically critical of the integrity and message brought by other teachers, other leaders, and they are not vague and they’re not hidden and they’re not even private. Just in Paul’s writings to Timothy there are about twelve incidences where he calls out a warning about false teachers and teachings and on 2 two of these occasions he names them:
Some have rejected these (faith and good conscience) and so have shipwrecked their faith. Among them are Hymanaeus and Alexander, whom I have handed over to Satan to be taught not to blaspheme... (I Timothy 1:19-20)
and again in 2 Timothy 2:
Do your best to present yourself to God as one approved, a workman who does not need to be ashamed and who correctly handles the word of truth. But avoid irreverent babble, for it will lead people into more and more ungodliness, and their talk will spread like gangrene. Among them are Hymenaeus and Philetus, who have swerved from the truth, saying that the resurrection has already happened. They are upsetting the faith of some. (2 Timothy 2:15-18)
He’s confronting by NAME false teachers and there are at least a half dozen other places in scripture where dozens of names are mentioned. And think about this; How do we know that there was a conflict/confrontation between Peter and Paul? We know because we can read in it in a passage of scripture written by Paul:
But when Cephas (Peter) came to Antioch, I opposed him to his face, because he stood condemned. For before certain men came from James, he was eating with the Gentiles; but when they came he drew back and separated himself, fearing the circumcision party. And the rest of the Jews acted hypocritically along with him, so that even Barnabas was led astray by their hypocrisy. But when I saw that their conduct was not in step with the truth of the gospel, I said to (Peter) before them all, “If you, though a Jew, live like a Gentile and not like a Jew, how can you force the Gentiles to live like Jews?” (Galatians 2:11-14)
He calls him a hypocrite, publicly, in a letter that is going to be passed from church meeting to church meeting, where it would be read aloud and that, by the inspiration of the Holy Spirit, was included in the canon of scripture and would be read for generations. When Paul saw Peter behaving in a manner that was inconsistent with the message of Jesus Christ he called him out, publicly. Does anyone doubt that Peter was “preaching Jesus”? No, of course not, but Paul saw an inconsistency with the Gospel in his public behavior and out of compassion for both the people being led astray and for Peter himself he publicly brought correction.
And so in this we begin to see an indication of one of the patterns for response to those who may be wolves. We can not be afraid of identifying and responding to false teachers.*
I believe there are two reasonable responses to the threat of a wolf and each is dictated by the role we have in God’s kingdom.
The first is the least glamorous and the most effective; flee. It seems reasonable to assume the best thing for sheep to do when confronted by a wolf is run. As “cowardly” as that might seem it appears to be the best advice for the preservation of the flock and the neutering of the wolf. This approach does seem to carry with it a natural logic. It is probably the rare occasion in the animal kingdom when some “ninja sheep” finds the courage to stand his ground and fight the marauding wolf and my assumption is even when that happens the outcome is probably not what the lamb was looking for.
As in the animal kingdom, it appears fleeing is the first prescription in the church world. In Romans 16 Paul instructs the church to “avoid” those who “do not serve our Lord Christ, but their own appetites” who “by smooth talk and flattery… deceive the hearts of the naive.” In Colossians 2 he tells us to make sure “no one takes you captive by philosophy and empty deceit” and in 1 Timothy Paul extensively describes the mark of false teachers and then gives a simple instruction in regards to our response:
If anyone teaches a different doctrine and does not agree with the sound words of our Lord Jesus Christ and the teaching that accords with godliness, he is puffed up with conceit and understands nothing. He has an unhealthy craving for controversy and for quarrels about words, which produce envy, dissension, slander, evil suspicions, and constant friction among people who are depraved in mind and deprived of the truth, imagining that godliness is a means of gain. But godliness with contentment is great gain, for we brought nothing into the world, and we cannot take anything out of the world. But if we have food and clothing, with these we will be content. But those who desire to be rich fall into temptation, into a snare, into many senseless and harmful desires that plunge people into ruin and destruction. For the love of money is a root of all kinds of evils. It is through this craving that some have wandered away from the faith and pierced themselves with many pangs. But as for you, O man of God, FLEE these things. (1 Timothy 6:3-11)
And all of these admonishments reflect Christ’s own statement in John 10;
“But he who enters by the door is the shepherd of the sheep. To him the gatekeeper opens. The sheep hear his voice, and he calls his own sheep by name and leads them out. When he has brought out all his own, he goes before them, and the sheep follow him, for they know his voice. A stranger they will not follow, but they will flee from him, for they do not know the voice of strangers.” (John 10:2-5)
When leaders speak in a “voice” other than that of Christ Himself the reasonable response from the flock is to flee.
Beyond the obvious analogous image of sheep fleeing wolves the truth is that this response by members of God’s community will most efficiently eliminate the threat of wolves to the church. When you understand that the primary focus of the wolf is to satisfy his ravenous hunger with the blood of the sheep it becomes clear that when the wolf lacks access to the sheep he will ultimately die. A false teacher will not deceive with un-Christlike teaching where there is no audience and he will not have his greed satisfied where there are no offerings. A church populated by vigilant people committed to a Gospel message and Gospel leadership, who are willing to walk away when it becomes clear that the teaching and lifestyle of “pastors” do not match the pattern of Christ will effectively remove the power of false teachers to profit from peddling the Gospel and from victimizing the flock.
Secondarily the Bible calls pastors in their role as (under)shepherds to fight against wolves for the protection of the flock. Again the analogy of sheep, (under) shepherds and wolves lends itself towards the concept of pastors engaging the fight for the good of the flock, but additionally, the Bible charges pastors with this responsibility as a part of their pastoral function. Read Paul’s instruction the the elders, pastors, of Ephesus in Acts 20. Before he warns them of the threat of wolves he provides them this instruction:
Pay careful attention to yourselves and to all the flock, in which the Holy Spirit has made you overseers, to care for the church of God, which he obtained with his own blood. I know that after my departure fierce wolves will come in among you, not sparing the flock and from among your own selves will arise men speaking twisted things, to draw away the disciples after them. Therefore be alert.. (Acts 20:28-31a)
The call to the elders is to protect the flock from wolves.
In 1 Timothy 4 we see Paul encouraging Timothy to expose the fallacies being taught by in the church:
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... If you put these things before the brothers, you will be a good servant of Christ Jesus, being trained in the words of the faith and of the good doctrine that you have followed. (1 Timothy 4:1-2, 6)
Notice he says “if you put these things before the brothers, you will be a good servant of Christ Jesus.” It seems clear it is the role of a good (under)shepherd to make it clear to the church when there is error being taught. But this tactic of protection reaches it’s fullest potential when the pastor couples it with a commitment to sound teaching:
I charge you in the presence of God and of Christ Jesus, who is to judge the living and the dead, and by his appearing and his kingdom: preach the word; be ready in season and out of season; reprove, rebuke, and exhort, with complete patience and teaching. 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, and will turn away from listening to the truth and wander off into myths. As for you, always be sober-minded, endure suffering, do the work of an evangelist, fulfill your ministry. (2 Timothy 4:1-5)
The role of an effective pastor is not simply to attack wolves but to diligently feed your flock. It’s in this principle that I fear too often well intentioned “wolf hunters” get into trouble. The truth is I don’t see a biblical role for a “wolf hunter.” I only see faithful (under)shepherds, who in the context of their duties, are required, on occasion, to set their sights on wolves. We see in the modern church culture a proliferation of guys who feel it is their responsibility to take shots at every perceived wolf on the radar screen. Anybody with a blog and bad attitude can be on the attack. I’m not sure this is helpful or beneficial. I tend to think this is a problem because it is disconnected from what I believe is the proper church function that has been established by God in His word for the Church’s fight against wolves. He hasn’t left us defenseless. If we as the Church do what he is instructing us to do we won’t need the individual disconnected from the ecclesiastical structure stepping into the ring of conflict.
If sheep flee, as a result of their diligent examination of God’s word and the leading of the Holy Spirit when they observe pastors who are not living and teaching as a reflection of Christ’s Gospel but their own greed, and if true pastors teach their congregation the pure Gospel of Jesus Christ that courageously exposes wolves within their sphere of responsibility, there will be sufficient defense to keep the church pure.
Unfortunately, this is not happening nearly as much as it should. Lay people are too willing to accept teachings and lifestyles exhibited by pastors because it is more convenient and self serving. They sit and watch fellow christians being mistreated and devoured, they observe their pastors living in luxury and teaching a message that accommodates their greed because they like the comfort of their community and the approval of their own self serving lifestyle. Too often pastors are unwilling to call out the wolves in our midst because it is difficult and not without consequence. Many will refrain because of a misguided sense of fraternity with anyone who claims the mantle of Christ, while others realize that in doing so it might highlight their own failings, empowering people to confront them, and might even prevent them from some day building their own self serving kingdom.
This is a dangerous game the church is playing. When we permit the “peddling of the Word of God for profit,” abiding the prostitution of the Gospel for the purpose of self aggrandizement we are collectively leading the church down a destructive path. If God judges this nation it will not be because our society has tolerated gay marriage as much as it will be because our churches have tolerated pimps masquerading as pastors.
*Note: I am not calling Peter a wolf here. The marks of a wolf I clearly dealt with in the last 2 blog posts and Peter doesn’t rise to the level on either point. What I am saying is, if Paul is willing to confront those who are in the wrong, even someone as “right” as Peter, how can we be unwilling to confront those who are wolves.