How to Spot a Wolf

Rutledge Etheridge III:

The Bible commands Christians, “Have confidence in your leaders and submit to their authority, because they keep watch over you as those who must give an account” (Heb. 13:17, NIV). But God’s Word also tells of times when we shouldn’t trust and submit to leaders. What are the circumstances when honoring God means disobeying, fleeing, or even calling out those who minister in his name?

Paul warned the Ephesians elders of wolves who would come and not spare God’s flock (Acts 20:29). The apostle borrows the image of the wolf directly from Jesus (John 10:12Matt. 7:15). As patterns of abuse come to light in the church, we urgently need this biblical warning that shows us the difference between a godly shepherd and one who preys upon the sheep.

False teaching—preaching “a different gospel” (Gal. 1:6–7)—is a primary way a wolf reveals his true nature, but what are some other ways to tell a true shepherd from a wolf in sheep’s clothing?

Anatomy of a Wolf

Identifying wolves is difficult because the marks of a dangerous soul seldom manifest in physical appearance. Even more, false teachers are people made in God’s image. A wolf shows his humanity in his seemingly healthy relationships. His personal charisma and the genuine good his ministry accomplishes can further hide his true nature from others, and even from the wolf himself.

But the Bible teaches us that a wolf’s ignorance of his own identity does not excuse his behavior. False prophets may come in sheep’s clothing (Matt. 7:15), but there are clear signs that reveal wolves for who they really are.

1. Wolves emphasize gifting over character.

When the biblical authors write about the qualifications for church leadership, they emphasize moral graces over ministerial gifts. The apostles repeatedly insist that elders be “above reproach.” They pit the self-control, gentleness, and humility that should characterize true pastoral ministry against the harshness, disrespect of civil authorities, and abuse of church authority that characterizes wolves (Titus 11 Tim. 32 Pet. 2).

At the final judgment, there will be some who stubbornly insist upon the sincerity of their Christian life but whom Christ will declare that he never knew (Matt. 7:21–23). As proof of their faith, these false teachers will appeal to the mighty works they’ve done in the Lord’s name, including prophecy and even exorcisms! But Jesus considers this evidence inadmissible. He condemns the wolves as “workers of lawlessness” (v. 23).

Wolves justify themselves by their powerful ministries, but the Shepherd judges them based on God’s moral precepts. And he finds them lacking.

2. Wolves avoid accountability.

James warns that teachers are subject to stricter judgment (James 3:1), but wolves reject scrutiny of their ministries. They want autonomy, not accountability. They “shepherd themselves” (Jude 12). If a wolf’s preferred peers contradict him, he’ll leave for a purer pack or go alone to start a new one. When a wolf’s conduct proves too egregious to avoid confrontation, he’ll rationalize rather than repent.

Theologically sophisticated wolves are devilishly adept at twisting Scripture to support their behavior (Jude 4). Yet even as they studiously avoid accountability to Christ’s flock, wolves cannot completely suppress their unacknowledged hatred for the Shepherd. Their enmity reveals itself in a special disdain for those to whom the Savior’s heart is especially drawn. When someone comes close to Jesus in a way that threatens their authority and prestige, wolves become viciously territorial (John 12:1–8).

3. Wolves hunger for power.

Jesus warned his disciples against a wolflike lust for power. As they jockeyed for standing in the kingdom, Jesus held forth children  as those to whom the kingdom belongs and as models for how to receive it (Matt. 18:1–5). He welcomed and blessed them when the disciples would have prevented it (Matt. 19:13–15), and he warned, in the severest way, that his Father would hold anyone accountable who involved little ones in scandalous, sinful activity (Matt. 18:7–9). To secure personal standing in the church, wolves are willing to sacrifice Christ’s lambs. Their disregard for “the least of these” among Christ’s followers is a despising of Jesus himself (Matt. 25:45–46).

4. Wolves lack gentleness.

If pastors are bullies in the pulpit, chances are they behave brutally behind the scenes. Immediately after James warns that most believers shouldn’t desire to be teachers, he forbids dehumanizing speech, comparing the tongue to a fire (James 3:1–12).

Wolves revile those who challenge them. They use pious words to cloak their malice and then blame their agitation on their victims. When called to account, false teachers may leave the scene of their crimes fully convinced of their own faithfulness and the justness of their cause. But a wolf’s true nature is revealed in the carnage he leaves behind, in the tears and scars of the sheep upon whom he’s preyed.

Scripture promises that wolves’ condemnation is coming (2 Pet. 2:1–3), but for now, it’s vital we remember Paul’s warning. He told the Ephesian elders wolves would come and that “from among your own selves will arise men speaking twisted things, to draw away the disciples after them” (Acts 20:30). He warned them to “be alert” (v. 31).

Being biblically alert means spotting the wolves before they pounce. When courageous lambs who’ve already been wounded speak out, we must listen and alert other church authorities. When wolves behave not only immorally but illegally, we must alert civil authorities immediately. We should leave or never join Christian organizations led by wolves, and we must have plans in place to lead others toward physical and spiritual safety. It’s also crucial that church leaders recognize and repent of wolflike tendencies in our own hearts and refuse to tolerate such traits among our peers and those training for ministry. Wolves might persist in self-deceit, but their ignorance of their true nature is inexcusable. In our day especially, so is ours.

Peter serves as a pastor-teacher, at home and abroad, resourcing gospel-centred communities.