False believers and leaders can cause incredible damage to us, so how do we identify and escape these toxic individuals?
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If only it were so easy to spot counterfeit Christians and toxic individuals in our churches. “Put them under the light, and they glow red!” Alas, detecting a wolf in church is rarely so easy.
The problem is that many destructive believers may not even realize themselves that they are a ‘wolf’ in the flock. Many have been deeply hurt in the past and are unable to see in the moment how their pain is damaging others. Many, if they were willing to accept correction, could heal, find a better way of living in community and would no longer be wolves.
How do we spot the wolves in our church communities? What are the warning signs? More troubling still, how do we recognize if we might be the one who’s a wolf?
Spotting a Spiritual Predator
In his sermon Wolves I Have Known, Pastor Carter Conlon shared, “I was a speaker at a convention dinner one time, and I was sitting at the head table. I was sitting there, and the fellow next to me never stop talking the whole meal. He was telling me who he is and what he does and the ministry he has.
“And of course, he had a word for my life the moment he met me. Most wolves do. So he shared his word, and then he started talking about the things that he does and what God's designed him to do and all of the ministries.
“If it's conceivable to have a man who picked up every foolish doctrine that was floating in the church, this man had it all, and everything just came out of his mouth. Then he finally ends up telling me, ‘I'm a prophet. I'm sent to straighten out the church.’
“I hadn't spoken the whole time. I was just nodding at him and eating my dinner. He finally turned to me and said, ‘What’s your specialty?’
“I looked him right in the eye and said, ‘Goat kicking and wolf bashing.’ He was all of a sudden very quiet. He says, ‘That so?’ and then just started eating and didn’t say any more.”
Pastor Conlon directed his listeners to the book of Acts. “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, ESV).
We are warned that wolves will enter the church. It’s all too easy to let them slip by; it’s all too easy to be cornered by them; it’s all too easy to not realize we’re surrounded until we’re wounded and help seems so far out of reach.
Paul’s choice of words is noteworthy, though: “Pay careful attention to yourselves and to all the flock…” It may be all too easy to not realize that we are the one with blood on our teeth as we justify how we have wounded another Christian.
Have we found ourselves among wolves? Are we the wolf? How do we know?
Three Ways to Ward Off Wolves
Several ways to avoid finding ourselves in the company of wolves and to prevent becoming a wolf are readily available to us.
First, we must be willing to submit ourselves entirely to God. This sounds simple at first blush, but it’s a lifelong struggle. We will not always succeed. Healthy sheep, though, acknowledge failures, submit to God and move forward in grace.
“Wolves, in the majority of cases, are people with deep personal sin in their own lives that they won't deal with,” Pastor Conlon explained. “The ones that I have had occasion to deal with have been bound by the sin of bitterness, another by rebellion, one by pride and another with gross immorality in his life.”
He added, “Others have counted the cost of following Jesus and that cost is too high. Somewhere down the line they have said no to God.
“God has asked something of them, he's tried to take them through the bitter places, and they've said no to God. ‘This is as far as I'm going to go.’…so now they have to create their own salvation by destroying the standard of God, a spirit of delusion is upon them, and they're trying to lead others along with them.”
The second way to ward off wolves or a wolf-nature in ourselves is found in Hebrews. “Obey your leaders and submit to them, for they are keeping watch over your souls, as those who will have to give an account. Let them do this with joy and not with groaning, for that would be of no advantage to you” (Hebrews 13:17).
A church leader does not have the right to control our lives. Ultimately, we bear the responsibility to choose to obey God and how that will look for us and our household. However, genuine spiritual leaders will direct us to scripture and help us understand how biblical instruction should inform our lives. They will do so with gentleness and respect, honoring healthy relationship boundaries, but they will still speak the truth, even if it stings.
No pastor or leader will be perfect, but we are commanded by the Bible to submit ourselves to spiritual oversight anyway, even if we’re also a church leader.
Third, stay well away from complaining, gossip or too much ‘exclusive’ news. Don’t listen to it or dish it out. Nothing destroys community faster than backstabbing words, disparaging talk or ‘prayer requests’ full of salacious information.
“For lack of wood the fire goes out, and where there is no whisperer, quarreling ceases. As charcoal to hot embers and wood to fire, so is a quarrelsome man for kindling strife. The words of a whisperer are like delicious morsels; they go down into the inner parts of the body” (Proverbs 26:20-22).
We can quickly evaluate the talk we hear from others or that is coming from our own mouths by asking ourselves, “Why is someone telling me this? Why am I sharing this? Where did this information come from? Is it the truth? Is it about a person who is not present? Would the details being shared or the tone of this conversation change if that person were present?”
Odds are good that if we’re at all uncomfortable with the answer to any of those questions, the conversation we’re in is one that we should leave.
Recognizing the Heart’s Fruit
Recognizing that we have wolves in our midst is frightening. Realizing that we might be a wolf in others’ lives is mortifying.
“There was a youth pastor, after he heard this teaching, he came under incredible conviction,” Pastor Conlon shared. “He had allowed things to come into his life, and he allowed the enemy to get access to his life. Instead of a catalyst for pushing the flock forward, he’d became a catalyst for destroying the anointing of God….
“His ministry was coming to absolutely nothing, and he came under conviction. He said, ‘My God’ — and these are his own words — ‘I'm a wolf’… He had the courage to repent of the things that he had been doing; and this day, I can stand and tell you that God is blessing his ministry and restoring to him what the moth and cankerworm had eaten.”
God is entirely able and willing to heal wounded hearts and transform wolves.
If we realize that we have allowed ourselves to become a damaging influence, we can repent in the knowledge that Christ wants to restore what has been lost. If we recognize someone else has a toxic presence, we must put a stop to it with compassion, understanding that they need restoration but that sometimes this only happens after punitive discipline (see Matthew 18:15-20 and 1 Corinthians 5:1-13).
As we evaluate ourselves and others that we allow into our lives, we ought to keep in mind Christ’s instructions to his disciples.
“Beware of false prophets, who come to you in sheep's clothing but inwardly are ravenous wolves. You will recognize them by their fruits. Are grapes gathered from thornbushes, or figs from thistles? So, every healthy tree bears good fruit, but the diseased tree bears bad fruit. A healthy tree cannot bear bad fruit, nor can a diseased tree bear good fruit. Every tree that does not bear good fruit is cut down and thrown into the fire. Thus you will recognize them by their fruits” (Matthew 7:15-20).
Examine the fruit of your heart in your willingness to submit to God’s instruction through both the Bible and other spiritual leaders. Examine the fruit of your talk with others. Examine other believers’ fruit in their relationships and conversations. Walk wisely and carefully as we anticipate the return of our great shepherd and Savior.