Those Savage Wolves Coming Among Us

Heritage Presbyterian Church

October 10, 2021   
41st Anniversary of Heritage PC
Scripture reading – Acts 20: 17-38

We don’t really know about wolves here in Texas, do we?  The last wolf in this state was killed in 1970, and they were declared officially extinct in our state by 1980.  Our lack of experience with wolves might lead to some assumptions that are not close to accurate.  They don’t eat grandmothers, they don’t dress up in grandmother’s clothes to trap little girls, and they have never been known for blowing down houses made by pigs – whether those houses were made of straw, sticks, or especially bricks.

In folks stories, in cartoons, in our American imagination, we just don’t have much experience with wolves.

Different story if you lived in the American west.  In many parts of our country, wild wolves still roam in packs or solo and still kill and eat livestock.  The government has tried to get rid of them, move them away, and even protected them.  But those wolves continue to cause trouble.

Because that’s just how wolves are…they cause trouble, especially if you protect them.

When Paul used that phrase “savage wolves will come in among you, not sparing the flock,” he was painting a vivid picture using a predator that the people of his day and of that area understood clearly.  They knew what wolves could do, they understood how they acted and the destruction they could bring, and they were not associated with anything good. Even to us Texans, we understand this pretty clearly.

What we might miss is how it applied to churches in Paul’s day and still applies in our own.  

And on the 41st anniversary of our beloved church’s founding, it seems to be the right time to bring up this issue.

We should remember that Paul’s use of wolves to paint a picture is not the only reference to this animal in the Bible.  In the Book of Genesis, as Jacob lay dying, he described publicly his 12 sons and their tribes.  Benjamin was described as “a ravenous wolf” [Genesis 49: 27].  This makes sense when you see that the tribe of Benjamin was located directly in the middle of the Promised Land, an area that included Jerusalem and Jericho…in other words, a powerful position that enabled it to push the other tribes to do what Benjamin wanted.  When Jeremiah was describing what would happen to God’s people if they did not turn from their national sins and disregard for God, he predicted “a wolf from the desert shall destroy them” [Jeremiah 5:6], exactly what happened to Judah when the Babylonians attacked and destroyed their country.  The prophet Zephaniah described Jerusalem’s corrupt judges as “evening wolves that leave nothing until the morning” [Zephaniah 3:3].  And, of course, we all know how Jesus compared false teachers and false prophets to “wolves in sheep’s clothing” who do this in order to lead the people of God astray [Matthew 7:15, 10:16, and Luke 10:3].  Those are pretty clear images.

But what about churches today?  Not just Heritage but also other churches we might know and care for.  What are the savage wolves that might be encountered?

Before I share this brief list with you, let me state very clearly that these are only my observations and opinions.  I draw them from the relationships I have with other pastors and the experience I have serving you.

First, there are the wolves who come in from the outside; they come to cause trouble and to change you.  

We welcome anyone and everyone to our church.  That is how we do things, and I don’t ever want us to change.  When folks join us for worship that we do not know, I admire the way you approach them; you are friendly without being pushy, you are welcoming without being overwhelming, and you are polite without being stiff and formal.  I have seen this multiple times over the years and it’s great.  

Now imagine that a wolf comes into our midst, a hidden wolf, and we welcome that wolf in the way I just described.  Perhaps we change the wolf’s outside opinion about us – after all, how can you form a reasonable opinion of anyone without spending at least a little time with that person or that group?  But perhaps that outside wolf sees this and smiles at how easy we will be to completely fool.  All it will take is a little patience and some dangerous questions…questions such as, “Why do you believe in THAT?” or “How long has your pastor being doing that incorrectly?” or “Does this church ever welcome outside speakers with different points of view?” or (my personal favorite) “I heard your church doesn’t follow the Bible very closely…since it’s the Word of God, why don’t you do that?” With those types of questions and some quick rumoring, that wolf would be in a position to become the one to answer those questions instead of the leadership of the church.  This type of wolf is not even that comfortable in his or her own church!  And perhaps that is why this lone wolf is seeking to stir up trouble in others.

Second, there is the wolf who lives inside the membership of a church.  This wolf is often viewed as being “contrary” – someone who is difficult to get along with, someone who doesn’t agree with most decisions the church makes and is not afraid to speak up.  This type of wolf often seems himself or herself as the “conscience of the church” because they speak up early and often in any discussion.  This wolf asks tough questions – nothing wrong with that…leadership in ANY church had better be able to address tough questions – but there is never a sense that any answer is good enough.  This wolf will publicly embarrass church leaders, and the next day will act as if nothing untoward was said, no negative intent was meant, just asking questions, don’t be so sensitive! 

Personally, I appreciate church members who ask the tough questions, but I must prefer those who also have alternate ideas or solutions that will address those same tough questions.  A healthy church can and should have some debate when it comes to important issues before that church; any church that goes quietly into the next issue can be seen as “rubber stamping” the leadership’s ideas.  Wolves just love to point that out later when something goes wrong.

Third, we have the wolf that comes from hidden places, the wolf in sheep’s clothing, waiting for the perfect opportunity to attack.  I saw this once, and I admit I couldn’t believe it when it happened.  Later, it became clear to me that this elder had been lying in wait, biding time, and looking for the perfect opportunity to change the church into something the wolf liked much better.  Suddenly, hurtful things were commonly said which had not previously been said, and a few others joined in.    What truly startled me and others was that this elder was loved and respected by just about everyone in that congregation.  This elder was seen as being friendly, supportive, hard-working, and especially faithful.  Yet, when the leadership of that church had a major overhaul – their long-term pastor moved out of town and several brand-new elders came onto that Session – suddenly this wolf raised its head and appeared.  For several weeks, this wolf caused chaos wherever possible. Everything good that church did was questioned, and the congregation began to doubt themselves.  When an interim pastor was finally hired, the damage had already been done.  That church lost their direction, their sense of community, and especially their momentum that had been a constant good in the life of that family of faith.  Multiple members and families left that church in droves.  Today, it is a shell of what it once was, and as far as I know, that particular wolf is not around either.

Unlike the state of Texas, it is virtually impossible to make wolves extinct in our churches today.  They existed well before Paul’s time, and they exist today in forms Paul never dreamed of.  Yet the truth in Paul’s day is the truth today:

  • People of God must stick together and be aware of wicked intent whenever it arises.
  • Churches must be open to outside visitors, outside opinions, and especially outside ideas if they are ever to grow and thrive; but those same open churches must understand that wolves may come in too.
  • The most powerful thing that scares wolves away is a loving church that truly embraces the love and instruction of Jesus Christ.  If that is done, no wolf will even try to attack that powerful flock.

People of Heritage, know that you are loved and admired…

know that all of us are God’s tenderly loved children…

and know that although wolves exist, wonderful children of God do too.