I received a phone call one day from a local church planter. The gist of the conversation went something like this: “Hi Juan. I hope you’re well. Look, I just met with a guy. He will either be a great future elder or shepherd, or he’s a wolf. I’m not sure which one, so I’m sending him your way.”
I understood his unwillingness to take that gamble. The church was still in its infancy, so, as you can imagine, still fragile. As a more established church with processes to identify future elders, we were in a better position to withstand the possible destabilization of a lone wolf. Thankfully, that phone call was enough to alert us to be on guard.
We won’t always receive such preemptive warnings. So, how should we confront the problem of wolves in the church? At times, we must protect the sheep by whacking the wolves with the shepherd’s rod. Lest we be quick to whack them, though, let’s take our cues on handling wolves from the apostle Paul.
Pay Careful Attention to Yourselves (Acts 20:28)
Wolves tend to emerge among those recognized as teachers in the church. Paul acknowledged as much when he warned the Ephesian elders that “from among your own selves will arise men speaking twisted things, to draw away disciples after them” (Acts 20:30). Sadly, by the time Paul wrote 1 and 2 Timothy, it appears his concerns had materialized (1 Tim. 1:3–7).
There are any number of reasons why wolves emerge: love of money (1 Tim. 6:2–10); doctrinal confusion leading either to legalism or license (1 Tim. 4:1–5); power to draw away disciples after themselves (Acts 20:30). Because every pastor faces these same temptations, Paul called the Ephesian elders to “pay careful attention to yourselves” (Acts 20:28).
If we are to protect the sheep from wolves, we must guard our own hearts and pay attention to our own doctrine (1 Tim. 4:16). The pattern in the New Testament of a plurality of elders in local congregations is both biblical and wise. It helps us guard one another’s hearts and watch one another’s doctrine.
Brothers, what steps are you taking to pay careful attention to yourselves?
Pay Careful Attention to All the Flock (Acts 20:28)
We must also pay careful attention to the flock. That’s the job! The Holy Spirit set us apart to care for (shepherd) God’s church (Acts 20:28). While there are many ways in which we protect the flock from wolves, let me highlight just three: identify the sheep, identify the pastors, and identify the wolves.
One of the most important ways we protect the church from wolves is to identify the sheep. And one of the ways we can identify the sheep is through a meaningful membership process. Equally important, though, is identifying the pastors. After all, if wolves tend to emerge from teachers in the church, we must be careful about whom we present to the church as teachers and elders. Brothers, does your church have a process for identifying regenerate members? And does it have a process for identifying faithful men who are able to teach others also (2 Tim. 2:2)—a process that is biblical and careful, where elder candidates are observed over time (1 Tim. 5:19–25)?
Be Alert (Acts 20:31)
Even with such processes, though, wolves will try to sneak into the flock. Consequently, we must be alert. We must also equip the sheep to be alert by leading them to feed on the green pastures of God’s Word as it shows the truth and beauty of Christ and his gospel (Acts 20:27, 31). Once sheep have tasted and seen that the Lord is good, they will not want to feed on the “twisted things” offered up by demonic wolves (Acts 20:30). A faithful expositional ministry will protect the flock from wolves both inside and outside the church.
As shepherds, it’s also our responsibility to identify the wolves. Again, Paul is a helpful guide. Writing to Timothy, he encouraged him to be kind rather than quarrelsome, “correcting his opponents with gentleness” (2 Tim. 2:24–25). Paul knew that sometimes sheep can be ensnared by the devil and look like wolves (2 Tim. 2:26). So as not to shoot such sheep, Paul encouraged Timothy to confront opponents with hope for repentance (2 Tim. 2:25–26).
But not all repent, do they? So, to identify the dangerous opponents, Paul outlined some of their characteristics (2 Tim. 3:1–7). One key difference between ensnared sheep and dangerous wolves is that God grants sheep “repentance leading to a knowledge of the truth” (2 Tim. 2:25), whereas wolves are “always learning and never able to arrive at a knowledge of the truth” (2 Tim. 3:5, 7). Wolves are unteachable. They refuse to repent of their false doctrine. Paul warns, “avoid such people” (2 Tim. 3:5).
Whack the Wolves or Avoid Such People (2 Tim. 3:5)!
I take Paul’s charge to “avoid such people” to be an exhortation to excommunicate the wolves. After all, how do you avoid such people in the church? You remove them. That’s what it means to whack the wolves.
Take Hymenaeus and Alexander. They “made shipwreck of their faith,” so Paul handed them over to Satan “that they may not blaspheme” (1 Tim. 1:20). That’s the language of church discipline (1 Cor. 5:5). Hymenaeus is again named in 2 Timothy 2:17, this time with Philetus. Invoking the language of Korah’s rebellion, Paul exhorted Timothy to “depart from iniquity” (2 Tim. 2:19). That meant Timothy was to separate himself from these wolves so as not to get swept up in God’s judgment of them.
Brothers, if we want to be useful vessels in God’s house, we will cleanse ourselves by fleeing youthful passions and pursuing righteousness, faith, love, and peace (2 Tim. 2:20–22). And when we identify unrepentant, unteachable wolves in our midst, we are to protect the flock by separating the sheep from them through excommunication that they may be delivered to the realm of Satan as they await God’s final judgment.