Wolves in sheep’s clothing

“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).

Jesus blends two metaphors—the wolf in sheep’s clothing and the tree identified by its fruit. Both metaphors warn us of false prophets. Certainly we must judge other people! We must use good judgment to determine who is telling us the truth about God and salvation and who is misrepresenting the truth. (Some Christians would substitute the word “discernment” for judgment in this context.) When we judge, we do not consider only outward appearances, which can deceive us. When we judge, we look at the results of a life—its fruit. Thus we see whether the person we are judging—the person who claims to be leading us on the paths of Jesus Christ—is faithful to Christ.

Many false religious leaders have fallen victim to temptation. Their sins are known, and we can avoid their false teachings. What should happen, though, if a teacher contradicts God’s Word and yet appears to be moral and upright? Must we accept them as genuine even if their message differs from the Bible? In Deuteronomy, two kinds of false prophets are rejected (and executed): those whose words do not come to pass, and those who preach in the name of false gods—even if their words do come to pass. Jesus teaches nothing different. False teachers may be able to exhibit the outward appearance of virtue, but if their words do not match the words of Jesus, their fruit will be bad. We do not need to wait for the fruit to ripen before we judge it; we already know that the fruit will be bad when we see that the tree is bad.

We judge teachers by their fruits to know which teachers to follow, but we do not judge ourselves this way. We know our hidden sins too well to be convinced by our fruits that we are holy enough for God. When we try to measure our faith and our salvation by our good deeds, we always see ourselves falling short. Instead of measuring ourselves by what we do, we trust what God says about us: we are forgiven, our sins are washed away, and we are clothed in Christ’s righteousness. The promise of Baptism says that we have been washed clean and adopted into God’s family. From this forgiveness and adoption, good fruit follows. Others may see our saintly fruit and know that we belong to God’s kingdom, but we continually place our confidence in the promises of God and not in our own fruits.

But anyone who teaches a religion of Law, a message consisting only of ethics and morals and doing the right thing, is teaching an incomplete religion, a false religion. Anyone who omits the Gospel promise of forgiveness through Jesus is a bad tree, a wolf in disguise. We judge them by their own teachings, for we already know that no one but Jesus can fulfill the Law perfectly. Those who affirm God’s Law and also share the promise of forgiveness through Jesus are presenting the true message of the Gospel. They are good trees, and they will bear good fruit. We will recognize them by that fruit. J.

Judging the wolves

Jesus said, “Beware of false prophets, who come to you in sheep’s clothing but inwardly are ravenous wolves. You will recognize them by their fruits” (Matthew 7:15-16). He never told us to judge ourselves by our fruits. If we want to know whether or not we are saved from evil and promised a place in heaven, we look to the Word of God. We trust what God has said there about our forgiveness and our place in his kingdom. We turn to the Church—the people of God gathered around God’s Word—and to the special blessings of the Church for confidence that we are the people of God, redeemed from all sin and evil, and guaranteed eternal life in a new creation.

We do not judge ourselves, but we do judge others. Especially those who claim to be prophets and teachers must be judged so we will be safe from false prophets and lying teachers. The best way to judge such a teacher is to compare the teacher’s words to God’s Word. If their teachings differ from the Bible, they are to be corrected; if they refuse correction, they are to be ignored. (Under the Law of Moses, they were to be executed.) Another way to assess the fruits of a preacher or teacher is consider their lives. I Timothy 3:1-7 describes the qualities that the leader of a congregation must have. Fourteen qualities are listed. While I do not want to comment upon all fourteen, several are worthy of special mention.

“Above reproach”—no one but Jesus is without sin, but not all sins are equal in this world. All sins equally separate sinners from God, and all sins are forgiven through Christ’s sacrifice, but in other ways some sins are worse than others. A leader who does not abuse authority can be considered beyond reproach. One who uses authority over others to take advantage of them does not belong among the leaders of the Church. The Church’s leaders are to be servants rather than lords.

“The husband of one wife”—aside from excluding polygamy, this qualification has generated controversy. Can the leader of a congregation remarry if his wife dies? What if the marriage ends in divorce, but it was entirely the fault of the wife? I am uncertain of the answer in these cases, but in other matters I am certain. A church leader who commits adultery, or one who abuses women or children, cannot remain in leadership or return to leadership. The sinner might repent, confess, and be forgiven, but even being forgiven that former leader cannot return to leadership. The harm he has done to others is too great to ignore, even under forgiveness.

“Not a drunkard”—sad to say, many Christian leaders buckle under stress and turn to alcohol or other addictive substances or behaviors rather than finding their strength in the Lord. While a person is under the power of an addiction, that person cannot lead others. Following recovery, including repentance and confession, I believe such a person can return to leadership in the Church.

“Not violent, but gentle; not quarrelsome”—how many prominent leaders in the Church do these words disqualify? When a person is causing fights and schisms in the Church, either by beginning such fights or by entering them as a participant rather than working as a peacemaker, that person should not be entrusted with a position of leadership. In this case, also, recovery, including repentance and confession, can be considered grounds for returning to leadership.

“Not a lover of money”—anyone who considers wealth to be proof of genuine faith and Christian living is unworthy of leadership in the Church. Anyone who teaches others to believe the same is unworthy of leadership in the Church. Some Christians are obsessed with money and worldly property. They have turned their backs upon God and upon treasures in heaven to claim as much wealth as they can seize on earth. Worse, they are using God’s name to gather such wealth. If they persist in this error, they face serious judgment on the Last Day. Meanwhile, those who will not be corrected should be ignored.

Many famous and prominent leaders in the contemporary Church fail to show these qualities. They are not fit to lead God’s people. So long as they persist in their errors, they should be regarded as ravenous wolves. Every Christian is advised to flee from such wolves and to seek protection from Jesus Christ, the Good Shepherd. J.