Watch out for wolves

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This is the bit we don’t really like to talk about because we don’t like to be personal. But your church will face attacks from wolves.  Paul makes it clear that not only might happen but that it will happen.

“after my departure fierce wolves will come in among you, not sparing the flock; 30 and from among your own selves will arise men speaking twisted things, to draw away the disciples after them”[1]

Now, it is one thing when those “wolves” are people from outside of our particular tribe or even time, examples of historic heretics, specific cults and sects that come round knocking on doors. It’s not too hard to confront and warn about such dangers. However, Paul says that some of these “fierce wolves” will come from among our own. This will include prominent, highly thought of, well loved platform speakers, pastors and writers from within your own particular movement or network. It may even include people from within your own church and in your own leadership team. This means that we must be ready to confront, warn about and remove from eldership and membership people that we once considered close friends.

One thing that saddened me a few years back was that when a prominent evangelical leader began to promote particular nasty false teaching, other prominent Christians prefaced their responses by insisting “of course I consider so-and-so a good friend.”  They said these things even as the person attacked our saviour, the Gospel and their brothers and sisters. What statement did they make by clinging to their friendship with the wolf about their relationship to their brothers and sisters?

Now, one very specific way in which we guard against wolves is by being alert to false teaching. This means that we need to know our Bibles well, to know our theology well. Whilst not everyone has the time or money to go to Theological Seminary, I would encourage all elders to invest in some form of theological training. This might mean committing to studying books and issues together or it might mean that a group of churches club together to put on training for elders and other leaders.

However, as well as bringing in false teaching, wolves do damage by how they behave as well. In recent years, the big danger hasn’t been from immediately obvious heterodox teaching (though I think this was a factor even in those cases.  Rather, it has been about predators getting into positions of power and influence within churches and parachurch organisations then exploiting their position to abuse others – physically, emotionally, sexually, spiritually – for their own personal gratification.  Later we will talk specifically about how narcissistic bullies operate in order to both abuse and to fend off challenge and criticism. At this stage though I want to highlight both dangers of false teaching and abusive/sinful practice so that we can watch out for them.

So what can we do to protect the church against wolves?  Well, one crucial thing is to keep going back to the standards required of elders and deacons.  We should check that our leaders meet the criteria set out in Scripture.  Have a look at 1 Timothy 3. Elders need to be able to teach. So we should first of all test them theologically, do they know the truth and can they communicate it. At the same time, Paul talks in terms of their character. Is their life marked by self-control, godly relationships, a good reputation and faithfulness?  How are they with their wife, their children, their work colleagues, with money? 

It is important to emphasise here that this is not just about passing a one off test in order to get the elder’s badge. Rather, these characteristics should be true of your leaders as time goes by.  If questions are raised about any of these matters then an elder should be required to step down and if they are checked out to be true then they should not continue in office. Now, there may be some areas in which we say that they’ve failed at a given time but there is a way back but we must also be ready for the possibility that in some situations the disqualification from office is permanent.

We guard against wolves by spotting early where problems might arise. We guard by appointing godly leaders who share a commitment to love, provide for and protect the flock.

Questions for discussion and reflection

  1. What process do you follow when choosing new leaders?
  2. How often do you teach your church members about what qualities and gifting to look for in leaders?
  3. Have a look at the qualities and characteristics in 1 Timothy 3. How do you as an individual and as a team measure up?

[1] Acts 20:29-30.

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