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wolf and sheepLast week Joe Carter (not that Joe Carter) published an insightful article on the allure of broken wolves. It got me thinking about false teachers in the history of the church.

And by “false teacher” or “wolf” I don’t mean everyone who disagrees with me on a point of theology. As a Presbyterian, I think Baptists and Methodists and Pentecostals are wrong about some important things, but deviating from Westminster Confession of Faith does not make you another Arius or Pelagius. A false teacher or a wolf is someone who snatches up sheep (John 10:12), draws disciples away from the gospel (Acts 20:28), opposes the truth (2 Tim. 3:8), and leads people to make shipwreck of the faith and embrace ungodliness (1 Tim. 1:19-20; 2 Tim. 2:16-17).

Several years ago I did a series on heresies and heretics. Preparing the messages helped me understand church history better and more carefully articulate the orthodox faith. It also helped me notice some patterns (and non-patterns) related to false teachers. I discovered that church history can teach us a lot about wolves.

1. Wolves don’t usually know they’re wolves.

While some false teachers are knowing hypocrites who borrow religious language to fleece the flock, most errors in church history have been promoted by those who sincerely thought they were doing the work of God. As far as we can tell, Pelagius was not a big jerk. The Donatists were entirely earnest about the faith. We shouldn’t think that wolvish teachers and bloggers are trying to lead the sheep astray. People can be entirely sincere and still genuinely mistaken.

2. Wolves can quote the Bible.

It’s hard to know for sure what ancient heretics were like because most of what we know about them comes from the orthodox opponents writing against them. And yet, judging by the controversies left behind, we can assume that Arius knew his Bible. The Trinitarian and Christological debates of the early church, not to mention the soteriological controversies of the Reformation, involved people on both sides quoting Scripture. That doesn’t mean every viewpoint was right. It means that theology can come with Bible verses and still be wrong.

3. Wolves tend to be imbalanced.

Imbalanced may not be the right word. I’m not suggesting truth is always the golden mean between obvious extremes. What I mean is that false teachers have a tendency to let the big themes of Scripture silence specific verses. Wolves ignore the whole counsel of God. They like to take themes like love or justice or hospitality or law or grace and then round off all the edges of Scripture to fit this one big idea. The problem is not in trumpeting this glorious truths. The problem is that their understanding of the truth gets truncated, and the application of the truth gets one-dimensional. This often leads to unbiblical conclusions that can sound biblical. Such as: If God is love, then we can't have hell or moral demands that make me (or my friends) feel uncomfortable or unfulfilled. If Jesus ate with sinners, then we should not be overly concerned about sin. If God is sovereign over all things, then we shouldn’t evangelize. General truths pressed through to unbiblical conclusions.

4. Wolves are impatient with demands for verbal clarity.

False teaching thrives on ambiguity. It eschews careful attention to words and definitions. The Arians were willing to live with doctrinal imprecision. It was Athanasius and the orthodox party that insisted on defining terms. And they insisted on saying not just what was right but what was wrong. Good shepherds are willing to define and delimit. Don’t trust teachers who love to emote more than they love to be clear.

5. Wolves come in different shapes and sizes.

There is no one-size-fits-all approach to settling theological disputes. We will not be discerning if we imagine that false teachers are always Pharisees or always libertines. Or if we assume they are always too rigid or always too loose. Sometimes the truth is either/or: there is only one God, salvation is by faith alone, there is no other name under heaven. But sometimes the truth is both/and: one God in three persons, fully God and fully man, divine sovereignty and human responsibility. Sometimes error comes because we pay insufficient attention to an important issue. At other times, the problem is wasting time on "foolish controversies."

We can't solve all our problems the same way. We can't always assume the more conservative answer is the best, or that the liberal answer is always true.  If we are flexible in some places, it doesn't mean we should be flexible in every place. If we are rigid over there, it doesn't mean we need to be just as rigid with this issue over here. Wolves and false teachers don't know how to use wisdom to settle different disputes in different ways.

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20 thoughts on “What Can Church History Teach Us About Wolves?”

  1. In the same vein as Kevin writes I suggest what can breed false teachers should be considered. If you can nip their source in the bud then you are less likely to encounter them. For example in is plenty of information on what can breed false teachers, summarised it seems to stem from 3 main attributes (there are others) that can breed false teaching
    1. Isolation or isolationism. Ie Movements that rarely learn from or engage with those outside their beliefs. This can then breed people who won’t ask hard questions and seek diverse answers. The Christian faith is meant to be lived out each day and not just an intellectual experience.
    2. Tribalism which can occur within a group to protect insiders while combating those on the outside who don’t agree with them.
    3. Self-Centeredness where sovereignty, salvation and atonement can grow egos which can lead people to believe they can better understand God and be in more tune with him.

    Food for thought

  2. Reading Joe Carter and Kevin DeYoung’s thoughts on broken wolves made me wonder if they aren’t talking about broken sheep. Growing up, I tended sheep; a broken sheep sometimes calls to attention other sheep. And this makes the sheep the heeds the call vulnerable to wolves. A good shepherd looks after the broken sheep lest it attracts wolves.

  3. David Crumplar says:

    Great article. As an aside, that youtube clip is very painful for any Philadelphia sports fan.

  4. Jeff Sylvester says:

    Did the wolves that Paul was referring to really not know that they were wolves? It seems from his language that they very much intended to deceive and lead people away from Christ toward their own ends. It seems to me someone who is misguided and leading people toward Jesus in the wrong way is something else (not necessarily good, but not really a “wolf”).

  5. Melody says:

    Number 4 jumped out at me.

    When my husband and I attended a membership class at our most recent church a lot of questions about doctrinal specifics were met with really vague answers. I spent the 10 years previous at a church that’s really careful and precise in how they word things – and I remember how intimidating that was at first, so I try to not jump to conclusions when people aren’t that precise. Sometimes people just don’t know the right words to express themselves or realize that there’s another way their words could be taken.

    But, one answer, about a culturally polarizing issue, was so confusing and unhelpful that I emailed the pastor to ask about it. He said he could write a seminary essay for me on the topic, but it would probably be better to meet in person with me and my husband. I agreed, but I couldn’t help thinking that the pastors at my old church wouldn’t have needed to write an essay. They could have answered in a sentence with some supporting bible verses.
    The meeting never got set-up. He was always busy.

    And, as time has gone on it’s become clear why he couldn’t give me a simple answer and we’ve had to move on.

  6. Christoph says:

    You make a strong assumption that the “wolves” are “false teachers.” If I question your (wrong) assumption your whole article falls apart. When Jesus told the 70 or 72 disciples (Luke 10), did Jesus had in mind “false teachers?”

  7. Dan Phillips says:

    Good word — except that, to me, Joe Carter is “that Joe Carter.”

  8. Dean says:

    You have to allow people to make mistakes & learn too, even ministers. And modern trends in worship tend to be emotive. I like to blog & stick to various subjects because that is better than getting into stuff I don’t really get.

    Having stated that, the church leadership is charged with an awesome responsibility & is instructed to provide good teaching, admonition & discipline with proper order. And yet “If I have the gift of prophecy and can fathom all mysteries and all knowledge, and if I have a faith that can move mountains, but do not have love, I am nothing.1 Cor 13:2.

    I get the broken sheep/wolf in a congregation that can lead others astray & that is where nuance & caveats (good explanations) on teaching comparisons & differences is so helpful. That’s what I like about Martin Lloyd Jones & good sermons that go the extra mile. Painful in some ways but worth the effort & enabling for growth in wisdom & discernment.

  9. Brad says:

    Do you ever wonder if you are a Pharisee, Kevin? Or at least are you willing to discuss any Phariseeism you might struggle with?

    Honest question that comes out of seeing many talk about how “others” are Pharisees, wolves, false teachers, etc., but few are willing to share their personal struggle (a struggle some have said all people struggle with).

  10. Jim Nelson says:

    I have found that one breed of wolves who are centrally about power and their own glory are pretty common. They are personally very diligent in public ministry and often in leadership. In Asia where I live, they are often leaders of “Christian” businesses. These kinds of wolves like being in the church as it makes them appear more holy. They habitually deceive and their top management often leave in disgust. They like to swindle other Christian businesses, and these businesses will never cry “Wolf!” as it is seen as bad behavior. Then the wolf goes on to get some other unsuspecting victim. One common theological point they seem to all share is they say that after you confront someone in private then when you go to confront them in a group of 2 or 3 that the wolf gets to approve or disapprove who comes in the group to confront him/her.

    When you say you cannot work with them because of ethics, they will say that we have a philosophical disagreement.

  11. Hi Kevin, I do agree with this assessment insofar as it covers theological wolfery. But if we are to be honest with our selves over the past few years, particularly in our strain of reformed evangelicalism, it is not the theological wolf that has been our primary problem, but the relational wolf – the dude who has a particular taste for sheep. Hence I worked alongside someone who ticked all the right boxes theologically and who got plenty of platforms in which to espouse this, but the toxicity level that resulted in so many leaders leaving, and so many sheep getting devoured was appalling. And we are therefore guilty of thinking that if his theology is right (and it’s always a “his”) then he must be doing ok with everything else. Experience is surely proving that not to be the case.

  12. George says:

    While I agree with much of this post, I tend to think that all comments are characteristic of people, not wolves. Simply clarifying the patterns of people as characteristic of wolves does not do. The difficulty will seem to me to be most apparent in terms of the core teachings of grace and works. In fact, unless I am mistaken, we are allowed to disagree on many issues of doctrine, but when we disagree on grace and works, one of us is a wolf.

  13. Michael Lennon says:

    Great article about Calvinists.

  14. Serving Kids in Japan says:

    4. Wolves are impatient with demands for verbal clarity.

    False teaching thrives on ambiguity. It eschews careful attention to words and definitions.

    You’re kidding, right, DeYoung? This description fits Joe Carter’s article to a ‘T’. So many readers had little to no idea what kind of prominent people he thinks of as “broken wolves”; getting him to give concrete examples was like pulling teeth.

    3. Wolves tend to be imbalanced.

    …. What I mean is that false teachers have a tendency to let the big themes of Scripture silence specific verses.

    Still chugging the CBMW Kool-Aid, Kevin?

    Imma just leave this here. (It was penned by another commenter on a different site, but I think it encapsulates wonderfully how I feel on this matter.)

    “Don’t let the fact that the bible focuses on love a million times keep you from being unloving, because there was that one verse that says women should submit!

    That’s what I’m getting from this.”

  15. JJ says:

    “Wolves don’t usually know they’re wolves.” – Something you guys might want to keep in mind. Just a thought. ;)

  16. JJ says:

    Also, I’ll leave this comment here instead of on Joe Carter’s blog, since I’ve been banned from commenting there (which kinda goes against your lofty words about engaging your opponents, but hey): Joe, why don’t you offer a mea culpa or an apology for completely misappropriating Leslie Vernick’s words and casting aspersions on other people’s reading comprehension in the process? You were entirely too smug in your belief that you had it right and that others didn’t. I notice that even now you work to downplay the merits of other people’s complaints with your weasel words & how you dismiss them as LGBT advocates who are simply promoting the evil gay agenda. I respect the WW, but they absolutely are not LGBT advocates. And I don’t know how anyone can say with a straight face that Janet Mefferd is pro-gay. You are simply painting them as such because it is easier to brush off that to your conservative audience than to brush off advocates and activists against child and spousal abuse. It is transparent and disingenuous. You want to talk about wolves in sheep’s clothing? Perhaps you should think about taking out the plank in your own eye first.

  17. You say “sometimes the truth is both/and” and list out “divine sovereignty and human responsibility” as an example of such. Do you believe that eternal salvation is a function of both divine sovereignty and human responsibility? If eternal salvation is a monergistic act of God, which it undeniably is, how does human responsibility play any instrumental role in it? The doctrine of total spiritual depravity is nothing if not the affirmation of total spiritual irresponsibility.

    God bless,

  18. Gladtobefree says:

    I suspect that your list was not intented to be exhaustive in nature. It is interesting to see the correlation between the various warnings about wolves/false teachers and knowing truth. The truth will guard and protect.

  19. Martin says:

    “big themes of Scripture silence specific verses” … my experience is just the opposite – wolves tend to use specific verses to distort the bigger themes of Scripture. I guess that is also consistent with #2 and #5.

  20. What would happen if you take a bunch of people (in a setting like Azusa Street) and tell them to receive a “special” or “double” or “supernatural” baptism in the Holy Spirit – a special end times work of God – bringing back the Acts gifts to save multitudes before the judgment day? And you begin telling everyone that receives this special annointing (evidenced by speaking in tongues or ability to perform miracle signs and wonders) that they are to run around making disciples at all cost? Because of this special supernatural annointing “Deceiving and being deceived” is not even an issue for these spiritual giants. Being questioned by an average, weak and insignificant Christian is offensive, he must be a legalistic pharisee, and have a spirit of condemnation and all the other “dead theological” terms I’ve heard.

    Wouldn’t this just throw open the doors of the Church to a whole bunch of Simon the Magicians of Acts 8 to wreak havoc on Christianity? Take it a little further and you see them join the Hippie movement and form the Jesus Freaks and all kinds of unthinkable error. Today the madness of guys like Kenneth Hagan barking like dogs and hissing like snakes “under the influence of the Holy Spirit” has ceased, and they have learned to at least study some Theology and quote many mighty Scriptures, but it is still a breeding ground for error and deception. All in the name of HYPER EVANGELISM – just get people saved, no matter what.

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Kevin DeYoung

Kevin DeYoung is the senior pastor at Christ Covenant Church in Matthews, North Carolina. He is chairman of the board of The Gospel Coalition, assistant professor of systematic theology at Reformed Theological Seminary (Charlotte), and a PhD candidate at the University of Leicester. Kevin and his wife, Trisha, have seven children. You can follow him on Twitter.

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