The New Testament warns that savage wolves will attempt to deceive us and do damage to the Church. How can we be on guard against such deception? Marcus Honeysett, who has authored a book on “when church leadership goes wrong”, shares his insights


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The Bible is replete with examples of good leaders and teachers. I particularly like Timothy and Epaphroditus in Philippians 2. Timothy, we are told takes a genuine interest in the welfare of others and has consistently proved himself faithful in the work of the gospel. While Epaphroditus is so full of affection for the Christians in Philippi that he was distressed because they were worried that he was ill. We are told to welcome and honour people like him (Philippians 2:29).

But Philippians also mentions people who, though real Christians, are spiteful teachers, preaching Christ out of a spirit of envy or rivalry to make trouble for the Apostle Paul while he is in prison. Yet he doesn’t warn people against them as he does wolves, despite their bad behaviour.

And then there are savage wolves. People who look like faithful leaders but who worm their way in, in order to deceive. They distort the truth and lead disciples away after them (Acts 20:29). The great danger of wolves, however, is that they don’t come looking wolfish. They’re deceptive. Just as Satan masquerades as an angel of light, wolves arrive looking attractive and winsome. Sometimes they even disguise themselves as shepherds.

And that’s a problem. How can we distinguish between real leaders and cunningly disguised wolves? It’s hard. And harder still to discern when genuine shepherds can muck things up, as everyone does from time to time. How can we discern between authentic leaders who have led poorly in some matter, or who have hurt us, or who have sinned, and those wolves who invariably present as charming, approachable and unimpeachable? Wolves who, unlike genuine shepherds, also have the advantage of having allies they groom by not being wolfish to them, in order that they can provide the wolf with cover if anyone ever spots what they are really like.

King David is an instructive example. He really mucked up, a lot. Not only committing adultery with Bathsheba and arranging the murder of her husband, as if that wasn’t bad enough. But also refusing to enact justice in the case of vicious and godless officials, overlooking terrible sin in his children, and more.

Yet the Bible’s verdict is that, finally, David was a shepherd not a wolf. How can we tell? In two ways. First, despite all his sin, he never apostatised. And secondly, when confronted he genuinely and earnestly repented of his sin. Once when rebuked by the prophet Nathan about his adultery, and a second time when confronted by Gad. As God’s angel was judging Israel for David’s ungodly decision to take a census, David pleaded with the Lord “I am the one who has sinned and done wrong. These are but sheep. Let your hand fall on me and my family” (2 Samuel 24:17).

We have to create a grace-filled church culture that makes repentance easier, rather than impossible

Those are the words of a shepherd. David even included his sin and need for repentance in a Psalm for public worship (Psalm 51). He knew the King needed to model repentance. You will never hear that from a wolf. Wolves turn from the faith but cover it up. And they never repent, but only double down. That is how we distinguish between them.

Why did David continue as leader of God’s people? We almost certainly shouldn’t let ministers who have done what he did continue in any kind of leadership today. We restore fallen Christians to fellowship, but we will want to be far more cautious about restoring them to leadership. We don’t welcome wolves back into the sheep pen.

We discern the character of leaders – and everybody else – not by whether they are sinless, but by whether they walk in repentance and faith. Ironically, this can be especially hard for leaders if they think people in the church expect sinlessness from them. If the approval of the church depends on maintaining a façade, that makes pretence easy and honesty hard.

Leaders need to take the bull by the horns on this. We have to create a grace-filled church culture that makes repentance easier (it’s never wholly easy) rather than impossible. Here are a few ideas that may help:

  • As a leader, be public that you make mistakes. Never present as sin-free.
  • Never double down when we’ve got small things wrong. If you do, you’ll do it in more important matters too.
  • Make it easy for people to correct you early on. If they can’t do it then, they certainly won’t later.
  • Be clear and public about the boundaries of authority and how it works in the church.
  • Regularly ask others to evaluate if there is anything that would put the church “at risk” of manipulative or coercive leadership practice. A red flag is anything that is done for gospel ends but not by gospel means.
  • Make it easy and safe, rather than dangerous, for people to raise concerns about leaders. Be proactive in putting in place systems, structures and people who would challenge the leadership.
  • Make the testing of character for leadership: prayerfulness, humility and evidence of the fruit of the Holy Spirit. Rather than confidence, competence, enthusiasm, or just who we like.

A great question for all leaders to consider is “what safeguards would be strong enough to protect me and everyone else from the worst version of me?” It isn’t totally foolproof, nothing is. But those who actually enact it are very unlikely to be wolves.