How to Watch for Wolves
Three Signs of False Teachers
When a wolf looks at sheep, what does he see? Food. His motivation for getting close to sheep is not to care for their needs or protect them from danger; it’s to feed on them. But in order to get close to sheep, a wolf employs deceptive tactics to keep the sheep from discerning his dangerous presence before he can achieve his aims.
That’s why Paul called false teachers in the church “fierce wolves” who don’t spare the flock (Acts 20:29), a metaphor he likely adapted from Jesus, who described false prophets as leaders “who come to you in sheep’s clothing but inwardly are ravenous wolves” (Matthew 7:15). What makes these leaders false is not merely that they teach false doctrines, but that they have false aims. Their aim is not “love that issues from a pure heart and a good conscience and a sincere faith” (1 Timothy 1:5) but something else. It’s an aim they hide from the sheep, an aim that causes them to view the sheep as a means of satisfying some ungodly appetite.
Jesus, switching to a tree metaphor, said, “You will recognize them by their fruits” (Matthew 7:16). And Paul labored to help sheep spot the “fruits” of disguised “wolves” infiltrating the flock. Let’s look at three of these fruits as described by Paul in 2 Timothy 3, where Paul offers a description of the “opponents” Timothy can expect to meet in his ministry (2 Timothy 2:24–26).
The first characteristic of a wolfish leader Paul describes is someone who “[has] the appearance of godliness, but [denies] its power” (2 Timothy 3:5). It’s worth looking at his full description:
Understand this, that in the last days there will come times of difficulty. For people will be lovers of self, lovers of money, proud, arrogant, abusive, disobedient to their parents, ungrateful, unholy, heartless, unappeasable, slanderous, without self-control, brutal, not loving good, treacherous, reckless, swollen with conceit, lovers of pleasure rather than lovers of God, having the appearance of godliness, but denying its power. Avoid such people. (2 Timothy 3:1–5)
We can summarize such leaders this way:
- Their Wolfish Aim: self-indulgence
- Their Sheeplike Clothing: “the appearance of godliness”
- Their Recognizable Fruit: a lack of personal holiness (“denying its power”)
“Wolves can be very good at concealing their motives from sheep.”
Now, just by reading Paul’s list of these leaders’ selfish pursuits, you’d think they’d be easy to spot. But frequently they’re not, because wolves can be very good at concealing their motives from sheep. They move into positions of leadership because their guise of “godliness” is convincing, at first. But then their influence begins to cause a decline in the spiritual health of a church.
One such leader I worked with a few decades ago was in a pastoral position for years before he was discovered. I remember feeling a growing intuitive uneasiness around him before I saw any clear evidence. It was hard to put a finger on what was wrong, but something seemed off, and not only to me. There was a deficit of spiritual authenticity. His teaching and example seemed to lack power. Then the disguise began to slip, and other discerning leaders pressed until his secret, selfish, immoral pursuits were exposed.
I’m not suggesting that our every uneasy intuition is accurate. Fruit becomes apparent over time, so watch for patterns. Watch for a permissive application of “grace” and an orientation toward worldliness and self-indulgence. Watch the way a leader handles money. Watch for subtle signs of laxness regarding sexual ethics. Note other spiritually discerning people’s uneasiness regarding the leader. Watch for a leader’s defensiveness, condescension, and lack of transparency when challenged. And if a culture of manipulation and fear develops around a Christian leader, that’s cause for concern, since a wolf tends to appear godly but loves badly.
Another characteristic of a wolfish leader is someone who “oppose[s] the truth” (2 Timothy 3:8). This is what we expect from a wolf, since they’re false teachers. And again, we might assume they’d be easy to spot right away. But often they’re not. Their influence, at least at first, is usually more insidious and ambiguous than we expect. Paul describes them like this:
Among them are those who creep into households and capture weak women, burdened with sins and led astray by various passions, always learning and never able to arrive at a knowledge of the truth. Just as Jannes and Jambres opposed Moses, so these men also oppose the truth, men corrupted in mind and disqualified regarding the faith. But they will not get very far, for their folly will be plain to all, as was that of those two men. (2 Timothy 3:6–9)
One way to summarize such leaders is this:
- Their Wolfish Aim: self-promotion (selfish ambition)
- Their Sheeplike Clothing: an image of spiritual power and/or theological erudition
- Their Recognizable Fruit: manipulation of susceptible people, impressive appearance of spiritual power accompanied by advocacy for doctrines that undermine the gospel, opposition to godly leaders
Though Paul isn’t necessarily describing wolfish leaders’ strategic progression in these verses, it’s often the case that such leaders are sneaky to begin with, and only later become more openly oppositional, when they’ve consolidated a critical mass of influence.
False teachers tend to creep in. When Paul says they “capture weak women,” we might be tempted to interpret this through a #MeToo grid, but he’s not referring to their preying on women sexually (though some, no doubt, did). He means these wolves single out those who, for various reasons, are particularly susceptible to deception, and convince them that they can be part of something new God is doing, something more powerful and spiritually important than whatever the church’s faithful, humble, godly leaders are teaching.
What makes these false teachers compelling is that they are able to demonstrate an appearance of whatever spiritual power impresses the Christian community they’ve crept into. In a continuationist context, they may appear to possess impressive gifts of the Holy Spirit, while in a cessationist context, they may appear to possess impressive theological and spiritual knowledge. These gifts or knowledge can confuse even godly leaders at first, since the sheeplike clothing can appear legitimate even if something seems off.
Showing Their Teeth
But eventually, wolves begin to show their teeth. That’s why Paul says such teachers in the church are like “Jannes and Jambres,” the names Hebrew tradition gave to the Egyptian sorcerers who wielded impressive magical power in their opposition to Moses (Exodus 7:10–12). Paul calls them “corrupt,” because their wrong teaching isn’t coming from a mere and sincere misunderstanding of the Scriptures, but from an intent to use the Scriptures to advance or protect their personal image of power and importance. When true gospel doctrine, either publicly taught or personally applied, threatens or thwarts the social (and usually financial) capital they covet, they aggressively and ruthlessly “oppose the truth,” and their folly becomes plain.
Watch for a pattern of pursuing church leadership positions that seems unhealthy. Watch for a charming charismatic personality that in the past has left a disproportionate number of disillusioned and wounded people in its wake. Watch for claims to and apparent demonstrations of the kinds of spiritual power valued in the church, but which encourage a troubling dependency on and loyalty to the leader(s). Watch for a group forming around a leader, noticeably comprised of susceptible, spiritually weak members, that begins to manifest distrust in godly church leaders. Watch for a pattern of conflicts with godly leaders and resistance to submit to leaders in general.
The third characteristic of a wolfish leader is someone who avoids “persecutions and sufferings” for the sake of Christ and his gospel (2 Timothy 3:11). This characteristic is implicit when Paul writes to Timothy,
You, however, have followed my teaching, my conduct, my aim in life, my faith, my patience, my love, my steadfastness, my persecutions and sufferings that happened to me at Antioch, at Iconium, and at Lystra — which persecutions I endured; yet from them all the Lord rescued me. Indeed, all who desire to live a godly life in Christ Jesus will be persecuted, while evil people and impostors will go on from bad to worse, deceiving and being deceived. (2 Timothy 3:10–13)
Here’s how I would summarize such leaders:
- Their Wolfish Aim: self-preservation
- Their Sheeplike Clothing: “confident assertions” (1 Timothy 1:7) and controlling leadership that give the appearance of courage
- Their Recognizable Fruit: avoidance of personal sacrifice and public persecution for the sake of preserving reputation, status, wealth, and comfort
A wolflike leader might project a very confident image, he might rationalize domineering and manipulative behaviors as characteristics of a “strong leader,” and he might point to numerous strenuous performances that he asserts are “sacrifices.” But his confidence, his leadership, and his “sacrifices,” when examined carefully and honestly, tend to benefit him more than those he “serves.”
That’s why here, as elsewhere, Paul refers to his persecutions and sufferings as a fruit of a true Christlike leader. Paul isn’t pointing out his personal greatness when he speaks of enduring “far greater labors, far more imprisonments [than the false teachers], with countless beatings, and often near death” (2 Corinthians 11:23). He’s contrasting the fruits.
“True Christlike leaders bear fruits that evidence a willingness to sacrifice for Christ and his people.”
In the United States in particular, Christians suffer few of the kinds of persecutions and sufferings that Paul and the Christians of his day endured. So a wolflike leader can meld in much easier. But still, true Christlike leaders bear fruits that evidence a willingness to sacrifice reputation, status, wealth, and comfort for Christ and his people that stands in contrast to the self-promoting, self-enriching, self-indulgent aims of wolflike leaders. Pay careful attention, and you’ll see them.
Pay Careful Attention
That’s exactly what Paul said to the Ephesian elders in his parting words to them before heading to certain imprisonment and probable death for the sake of Jesus:
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. (Acts 20:28–30)
Careful attention would have to be paid because those “fierce wolves” would be wearing sheeplike clothing. Their emergence would be subtle — they would even infiltrate the team of elders (like Judas among the disciples). They’d have an appearance of godliness, seem to possess impressive spiritual power, and exude an image of confidence and courage. Many of the sheep would find themselves swayed. The elders would need to remind themselves and their flock of what Jesus had said: “You will recognize them by their fruits.”
And if they paid careful attention, the fruits would point to this: a wolflike leader preying on the sheep to satisfy his own ungodly appetites.