I believe one of the most neglected roles of pastors is protecting our flock from false teachers. We can spend all our energy and attention juggling many pertinent responsibilities with little thought given to an imminent attack on our people. Without an obvious threat before us, we often underemphasize or overlook the guarding of our churches against error.
During the apostle Paul’s farewell, he warned the Ephesus elders that wolves would emerge from within the flock and attempt to derail the church (Acts 20:29–31). He charged them to be alert. Wolves are still on the hunt today, and we would be wise to heed Paul’s warning. We have the obligation of guarding against wolves, protecting our sheep, and providing them spiritual safety.
Before we can guard against wolves, we must first know how to spot them. We rarely get a heads up that an attack is coming. Jude encouraged the church to contend for the faith, “for certain people have crept in unnoticed who long ago were designated for this condemnation, ungodly people, who pervert the grace of our God into sensuality and deny our only Master and Lord, Jesus Christ” (Jude 3–4).
Wolves are sneaky. They creep into our churches without notice. This is why Paul tells elders to be alert. The best way to spot wolves—ungodly people who twist and manipulate the gospel and lead others astray—is to be looking for them.
Once you spot a wolf in your flock, what should you do? Here are three ways shepherds should respond to wolves.
There’s no room for casualness when the church is being threatened. A good shepherd doesn’t just watch his sheep endure attacks from wolves. He acts—and he acts urgently. The gospel fidelity of our churches must be of highest priority. Sadly, I’ve noticed a lack of doctrinal diligence in many church planters. Instead of fencing the flock to prevent the enemies’ easy infiltration, many pastors act carelessly and allow preventable attacks on their flocks.
While pouring our energy into the mission, preaching, discipleship, community, and strategy, we must heed Paul’s admonishment to Timothy and guard what has been entrusted to us (1 Tim. 6:20). Practically, this means clearly correcting those in error, calling them to repentance, pointing them to Christ’s truth, praying for them, and monitoring the church body against the spread of error. A person espousing false teaching requires a swift, decisive response from church leadership. Passivity only allows harmful teaching to spread through our churches like a virus.
Second, I believe it’s crucial to respond graciously to all—even to false teachers. Paul laments how false teachers and their teachings “spread like gangrene” and how members of the faith family “departed from the truth” and “ruined the faith of some” (2 Tim. 2:17–18). But Paul’s instruction to his protege is interesting. He goes on to describe a major character attribute of Christ’s messengers: “And the Lord’s servant must not be quarrelsome but kind to everyone, able to teach, patiently enduring evil, correcting his opponents with gentleness” (2 Tim. 2:24–25).
Likewise, we’re called to be servants of grace and gentleness, as well as teachers of truth amid error. Instead of responding with aggression, sarcasm, malice, and fruitless back-and-forths, we’re called to a patient and gentle gospel proclamation with a Christlike disposition—even to those lost and in error. Unfortunately, much of what masquerades as apologetics is just bullying, argumentativeness, abrasiveness, and elitism. Many have mastered exegesis but lack Christlikeness. Standing for truth doesn’t mean standing on people’s necks.
Lastly, boldness is paramount. Coaches often teach their players that “the best defense is a good offense.” I believe one of the most effective ways to defend against false teaching is to be intentionally proactive. People don’t typically aspire to believe false doctrines and shaky theology. Many who fall into error start out sincerely but have major holes theologically. Sadly, people fill these holes with attractive false teaching, fast-food theology, and Christless gospels.
Brothers, be bold. Go on the offensive and feed your sheep gospel-rich doctrine. Explain theological truth with clarity and conviction. Address prominent false teaching in your ministry context. Create space for doctrinal dialogue and tend to sheep struggling with life and in their faith.
We have an enemy who daily comes for our destruction. But we need not cower to the ancient serpent. His plans for us will only end in disappointment for him. We belong to the almighty God, and he’s entrusted his sheep to our care. He’s promised to keep us from stumbling and to present us blameless before himself with great joy (Jude 24). Thank God that we will never slip or stumble because we are in Christ who himself never fell.
Paul describes wolves as fierce. May we be even fiercer as we guard our sheep. And may we act with great courage and confidence, trusting our Great Shepherd to keep us all for his glory.