by Jeff King

For the past twenty-two years of my life I have served as a pastor at two different Southern Baptist churches while living in Louisville, KY. I love the Church which truly is the buttress of truth, I love the gospel of grace that redeems sinners, and I love the people of God redeemed by the blood of Christ. It has been a deep privilege to gently nudge along God’s sheep with the staff, even seeing those wandering brought back into the fold. And it has also been a significant challenge to fight off wolves with the rod, wolves that sneak into the fold and threaten the wellbeing of the sheep. 

But faithful pastors must fight to not grow weary in this task of exercising the rod in their pastoral ministry. But not only pastors, all God’s people must also be aware of the schemes of the devil to avoid being hoodwinked by wolves in sheep’s clothing (Eph 6:11).

Bitten by “Sheep”

As a pastor, I have personally experienced the biting and devouring of shepherds.  I have been surprisingly and shockingly bitten by more than one apparent sheep that I have sought to help.  It’s no surprise to be hated by unbelievers. But it often comes as a shock to be bitten by someone in the fold.  

For example, I was once slapped in the face after preaching a sermon by a church member who did not like what I said. I have been cussed out by church leaders. I have been threatened. I have been lied about, accused wrongly, brought under suspicion, gossiped about, slandered, mistreated, and wronged. I have been written about publicly without hearing those accusations privately.  I have had meetings in which mutual reconciliation was communicated only to experience ongoing slander and misrepresentation from those in the meeting.

Of course there are bad pastors that love positions of power and exercise their authority unjustly and wrongly. I do not doubt for a minute that some pastors are wolves in sheep’s clothing. This sad and evil reality must be swiftly dealt with when exposed. For those who truly have been wounded by wicked men in powerful positions, I grieve with you the injustice and wrongs that have been done to you, the mistrust it has produced, and pray for deep healing and relief that can only be found in the wounds of Christ Jesus.

In the days where any vigilante with a keyboard and an internet connection can post anything they want onto social media and gain a following, the Church needs to know how to discern claims. I have lived through multiple public, twisted accusations that go on to receive widespread sympathy and agreement without any verification from the other side of those accusations. Isn’t there a proverb warning us against this practice? (Prov 18:17).  This should be obvious: A thing is not true just because someone wrote it. The mentality within the evangelical social-media world to uncritically align with any story that fits the narrative must grow in discernment lest we ruin ourselves. We have been told, in the last days, there will be wolves who break in among the sheep and harm the sheep (Matthew 7:15). 

The Need of the Hour: Discernment

When a person is truly a wolf in sheep’s clothing  they, by definition, appear at first glance to be a genuine sheep. One particularly destructive manifestation of a wolf in sheep’s clothing is the wolf who presents as a wounded sheep in need of tender care. They’ve been around long enough and know the right things to say to get a hearing. They put on a great façade of “sheepiness” and walk among the flock telling other sheep their fabricated stories about the wounds they have received from bad shepherds.  But no-one has ever seen their wounds, their claims have never been verified, but they would bite out at anyone who dares question the existence of their wounds. The genuine sheep in the fold must—I repeat must—be extremely discerning as they seek to minister to one another and fulfill their role in protecting the flock.   

For this to happen, sheep must know that wolves in sheep’s clothing are deceptively convincing. They are persuasive. Their façade of humility is endearing. Their story is believable. Their accusations are plausible. If their stories were true, their wounds are the marks of wicked injustice which must be strongly and quickly dealt with. If, however, the accusations are false then to charge the accused shepherd with wrongdoing would result in a very different injustice. This is not the injustice of misusing pastoral authority, but the injustice of a false accusation and slander of a faithful shepherd of God’s people. 

Lack of Discernment Damages the Church

Sadly, I have experienced such false accusations and seen them also thrown at my co-pastors. Many of these accusations have twisted significant facts, altered key details, edited the history, and taken discussions and actions out of context in order to prove a point.  

Think for a moment of the damage this does to a church.  

It successfully erodes the trust of the sheep towards shepherds—and trust is a necessary ingredient for exercising pastoral care. If trust is broken, a shepherd’s ability to wield the rod and staff successfully to warn, rebuke, admonish, gently prod, help, fend off danger, and exercise his duty is all crippled. Because trust has been destroyed by lies, the sheep are no longer able to submit to the pastoral care of a shepherd. Those sheep then put themselves in great danger by removing themselves from the God-ordained grace of pastoral oversight. They, wrongly, feel justified in doing this because trust in the shepherd is broken. They feel much safer taking their own counsel, fending for themselves without any pastoral staff or rod. But sheep without a shepherd is a pitiful and vulnerable scene (Ezk 34:5).

Shepherds themselves are also wounded through false accusations from wolves in sheep’s clothing. These wounds leave a mark. Their wives, their children, and their closest friends are wounded, confused, and grieved. For a wife and a child to hear her husband or her father wrongly accused is a significant grief.   

When genuine sheep read serious accusations of mistreatment from the hands of the men that they trust and receive God’s Word from week after week, how could they not be left wounded and hurting? The saints love the men leading them in pastoral roles. They look to them for guidance. They want the advice, direction, help, counsel, and care that faithful pastors, serving under Christ dispense. Every true Christian seeks to “obey their leaders and submit to them, for they are keeping watch over their souls as those who will give an account.”  True believers strive to “make this a joy (to their pastors) and not a groaning, for that would be no advantage to the flock” (Hebrews 13:17).  

Without biblical discernment many people are being destructively hindered from joyfully receiving the counsel and care dispensed by their shepherds by the bogus-blogs and twisted-tweets of the modern-day sheep-dressing wolf, the keyboard vigilante.

The Sufficiency of Scripture

This is not at all to say that shepherds are always right and that the sheep have no recourse if and when wronged by a shepherd. Again, some certainly have been wronged by abusive shepherds and when accusations arise, there should be a process for assessing those things and taking them seriously—and there is one in the Bible (1 Tim 5:19–20). The Bible is sufficient to deal with abusive pastors, seeing them rebuked and disciplined to prevent further harm of the precious sheep. Any and all abuses of power should be exposed and brought to repentance and justice.  

But, those who make false, misguided, twisted, inaccurate, warped, and sinful accusations should also be examined and called to repentance and justice. Hiding behind a keyboard making claims that are unable to be assessed is not only unsubmissive to Christ’s authority which he has given to the church, it’s just plain ungodly. And uncritically accepting the one-side of a story at face value as fact is foolish, unbiblical, and unloving (“do unto others etc.”)

Scripture is sufficient in detailing how accusations ought to be dealt with. It has disastrous effects when abusive pastors are not dealt with, but also when unaccountable cowards sling mud from the sidelines, and when church members allow themselves to be taken in by claims that are not assessed, validated, and dealt with in the way Christ has taught us.

Be Slow to Speak, and A Little Wiser Too

Regarding the precious sheep who have been hoodwinked by such keyboard vigilantes, I trust that your intentions are sincerely good.  When a trusted source shares a personal experience that seems credible, what Chrstian wouldn’t want to empathize, comfort, and put their proverbial arm around a wounded sheep sharing their experience vulnerably? If the facts do in fact line up and the story proves true, then of course, we ought to comfort others with the same comfort that we have received through the cross of Christ (2 Corinthians 1:3-5).  

Yet, sadly, many well-intentioned Christians have too quickly penned/posted a quick response and inadvertently comforted a wolf in sheep’s clothing. If the initial fabricated post with its slanderous accusations is a deep wound to pastors and their people, then the corresponding “comfort” given to the wolf from well-intentioned believers pours buckets of salt into their gaping wound. In such cases, your well-intentioned sympathy and comfort has made matters worse, not better.  

We must know better and act better. In the least, we can all get into the habit of saying, “If what you are saying is true (which needs to be verified), then we grieve with you and want to offer our deepest sympathy and comfort.” If however, the sentiment shared is false, warped, twisted, deceitful, manipulative, slanderous, and is cause for stirring up division, then the baa-baaing wolf should be warned once, then twice, and then no more interaction with him (Titus 3:9-11). This treatment is worlds apart from offering immediate comfort and sympathy to an unverified claim. And a strong, biblical rebuke to a divisive wolf has certainly not been as utilized as it ought—but it must be used to protect the genuine sheep. Unless we simply want to be fools, then we cannot and must not ever determine a matter to be true or false after hearing only one side of an argument.  

The Bible advises us towards a better way. Because we live in a day where there are wolves among sheep, we must be wise as serpents and innocent as doves. For the sake of the One who gave up His life to purchase for Himself a bride without spot or blemish, let us give ourselves to the hard work of hearing both sides of a matter before concluding a matter. Let us strive (this will involve some effort!) for the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace. And, let us not be fearful of disrobing these dressed-up wolves—even those dressed in the “untouchable” clothing of a severely wounded sheep. The name of our Savior Jesus Christ is a stake. The wellbeing of those who love the gospel is at stake.  The trust of shepherds towards sheep and sheep towards shepherds is at stake. The stakes are simply too high to avoid this “path of righteousness” that our Good Shepherd is leading us on.