Wolves In Sheep's Clothing
Paul's farewell discourse to the Ephesian elders is one of the crown jewels of the book of Acts. There is so much meat packed into these twenty-two verses. What is interesting to me is that of all of the different tidbits that he could have chosen to leave them with, his primary concern was for the inevitable rise of false teachers (vs. 29-30). The structure of the passage makes this the focal point. First, Paul establishes his credibility by reminding them of his ministry amongst them. Then he informs them of his impending departure for Jerusalem (which he knows will end badly for him). At this point, knowing this will be his last opportunity to invest in instructing them, he warns them of the dangerous wolves that will come in among them. If these are to be his final words to them, he wants them to remember them. Finally, in light of the danger he has predicted will befall them, he encourages them to remain faithful, entrusts them into God's care, and prays for their well-being. So, why the focus on the false teachers? I think that is the question we should ask of this passage.
There is an important reason that I believe Paul decided to spend his final moments with the Ephesian elders discussing this topic. I believe this is the same reason why this is such an important topic for us today as well. It is this: wolves grow inside of the Church.
We often think that our greatest threats come from outside of the community of Christ. If you asked a believer to list those things (groups, movements, ideas, etc.) that are a danger to the Christian faith, they would likely point to things like religious zealots, political dictators, liberal extremists, the rising tide of atheism, postmodernism, etc. But, in fact, the greatest risk to our faith is actually birthed and nurtured within our churches...right under our noses. Paul says it is from among themselves that these wolves will come (vs. 30).
Wolves typically are raised among the sheep. They learn from the sheep, study God's word with the sheep, earn the trust of the sheep, and eventually obtain a platform or a pulpit to lead the sheep. They have been trained and equipped to look like sheep. In fact, the most dangerous false teaching closely resembles good teaching. It's in the nuances and finer points where heresy takes root.
If a wolf is making outlandish claims that drastically depart from orthodoxy, even the most immature believer will likely easily spot them. Wolves are often much more cunning than that. In fact, I believe many wolves have even convinced themselves they are actually sheep. They probably didn't initially set out to become wolves, but over time, their failure to hold fast to sound doctrine in favor of being novel or attractional has led them out of bounds.
True indeed, the most viscous wolves expertly prey on the flock for their own selfish gain. Their fleecing of the flock is cold and calculated. But, many more are simply enticed by the lure of popularity, success, and wealth. Ultimately it is their own pride, their desire to make much of themselves, that ultimately leads them to lay aside sound teaching, the well-being of God's people, and the glory of God.
So, if many so-called "wolves" don't necessarily intend to harm the flock, and perhaps don't even know that they are, is it fair for us to label them as such? Isn't that term better saved for the blatant blasphemer and heretic? What actually makes someone a wolf? Where is the line of demarcation? These are all valid questions and I'll do my best to answer them, not from my own opinions, but rather from God's word.
What makes a wolf a wolf? Does a pastor/leader/teacher have to be a full-blown heretic to be a wolf? Who decides? I guess, ultimately, Christ will decide. In Matthew chapter 7 (one of my most often referenced sections of scripture), Jesus teaches the following:
"Not everyone who says to me, 'Lord, Lord,' will enter the kingdom of heaven, but the one who does the will of my Father who is in heaven. On that day many will say to me, 'Lord, Lord, did we not prophesy in your name, and cast out demons in your name, and do many mighty works in your name?' And then will I declare to them, 'I never knew you; depart from me, you workers of lawlessness'" (Matthew 7:21-23).
What Jesus is saying is that there is a right way and a wrong way to do ministry...and the stakes are highest for pastors and teachers of God's word (James 3:1). At the final judgement ("on that day"), everyone will need to give an account for their works, both "good" and "bad." I believe it is ultimately the motives of the heart behind the work that determine how our deeds are judged. In other words, sin is more about what lies under our actions than our actions themselves. This is why a Buddhist monk who spends his life working for peace and harmony among men, an atheist doctor who devotes his life to curing cancer, and a billionaire philanthropist who has always been too busy conquering the business world to devote much thought to the eternal questions of God and salvation, will all be condemned to Hell apart from saving faith in Jesus Christ. By worldly standards, these are "good" people who have spent their lives doing "good." However, we aren't judged by the standard of man, but by the perfect standard of God.
Scripture makes it abundantly clear that we were created to glorify God by living in obedience to his commands. Sin has fractured that primary relationship and has rewired our hearts to desire only that which is contrary to God. The good news is that through the power of the Gospel, our hearts are remade anew. This means that we are redeemed by the blood of Christ to walk in obedience to God, through the power of the Holy Spirit for the renown of his name (Ephesians 2:10, James 2:26, John 15:4, Matthew 5:16, etc.). If our motivation is anything else...even if it is 99.9% Christ's glory, and only 0.1% about us...we are failing to fulfill the purpose for which we were called into saving faith. This may seem like I am being extreme, but when the Bible says, "whatever you do, do all to the glory of God" (1 Corinthians 10:31), I tend to want to believe we should take that at face value.
So, to tie this back to identifying a wolf, I believe it is safe to say that, at minimum, if for any reason - be it laziness in study; a fear of, or the longing for the approval of men; or some other self-serving desire - a pastor or teacher of God's word that shrinks back from proclaiming the truth of scripture, or twists and/or disfigures its teaching to suit his/her own purposes, is in danger of finding themselves counted among the "workers of lawlessness" on judgement day. Worse yet, they may also be guilty of leading others astray as well.
I want to be careful not to come across as being arrogant here. As a teacher of God's word, I take great care to handle it with the utmost respect. That being said, I know that my doctrine is imperfect, and that my understanding can be wrong. I know that I may have even been guilty of speaking incorrectly about God at some point. My hope and my trust is in the grace of God and the loving sacrifice of Christ to cover the multitude of my sins (1 Peter 4:8)...past, present, and future. At the same time, I recognize that God has given me an analytical mind that craves knowledge and understanding about even the most minute details of a topic...and that may not be how he has wired some other people. Salvation is by grace alone through faith alone in Christ alone and that is it. It isn't through your theological or doctrinal knowledge. Likewise, it isn't through your ministry service...your good works. Our works simply serve to provide a tangible, visible evidence to ourselves and the watching world that Christ has been and is continuing to work in our lives.
I believe in our approach to ministry at The Journey, which is why I have invested my time and resources into going through the eldership process, and now serving the church in pastoral ministry. However, I recognize that our approach to ministry is A way and not THE way. Therefore, when I speak or write critically about things I see within church culture, it isn't because I think we are better than others, but rather because I believe that allowing them to continue unchallenged can and will damage the well-being of the church that I have been called to shepherd and the Church as a whole. Thus it is my duty and my calling from Christ to stand in opposition...not because my viewpoint or preferences are of great importance, but rather because the glory of Christ and the message of his Gospel is!
As Cody mentioned in his sermon, when you speak boldly and don't shrink back, you will inevitably step on some toes and ruffle some feathers. We are sinful creatures and we don't like to be confronted with our wrong ways of thinking or acting. I'm as guilty of this as anyone. Yet, as born-again believers, we are called to walk in love...love for Christ and love for our fellow man. It is most unloving to see someone living in sin and error and to simply turn a blind eye to it. Especially if we believe Jesus' teaching in Matthew 7.
Wolves come in numerous shapes and sizes. In churches all around the world, there are wolves growing up among us. Some wolves may be feeding on thousands. Some may only be harming a few. At the end of the day, even one sheep that is lost to a wolf is too many. We must be vigilant as we seek to guard our fellow Christians from these dangerous predators. At the same time, when we spot a wolf, we must be diligent to identify him as such so that he is prevented from harming others. This isn't something we should enjoy, nor should it feed our ego and cause us to become puffed up. Additionally, knowing what is good and true and what is potentially harmful requires a great deal of care and discernment. If you aren't yourself a devoted student of scripture, you are ill-equipped for the task at hand. Knowing what is true of God's word requires that you actually know God's word. That seems reasonable enough.
My prayer is that we would first have an unquenchable desire for the knowledge of God's word fueled by our love for him as our Lord and Savior. Second, I pray that we would be bold in fighting for truth. Finally, I'm asking God to protect us from anyone or anything that seeks to draw our affections from him or that distracts us from our mission of heralding his glory and the hope of his Gospel in our community and to the ends of the earth!
If you missed this week's sermon (or just want to listen again), follow the link below to listen. Or subscribe to our podcast in iTunes.
Part 47 - The Heart Of A Shepherd
Questions discussed in this sermon:
1. Why did Paul gather elders together?
2. Why did Paul not avoid trials and afflictions if he knew they were coming?
3. Why did Paul never shrink back from preaching truth?
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