A wolflike leader might project a very confident image, he might rationalize domineering and manipulative behaviors as characteristics of a “strong leader,” and he might point to numerous strenuous performances that he asserts are “sacrifices.” But his confidence, his leadership, and his “sacrifices,” when examined carefully and honestly, tend to benefit him more than those he “serves.”
When a wolf looks at sheep, what does he see? Food. His motivation for getting close to sheep is not to care for their needs or protect them from danger; it’s to feed on them. But in order to get close to sheep, a wolf employs deceptive tactics to keep the sheep from discerning his dangerous presence before he can achieve his aims.
That’s why Paul called false teachers in the church “fierce wolves” who don’t spare the flock (Acts 20:29), a metaphor he likely adapted from Jesus, who described false prophets as leaders “who come to you in sheep’s clothing but inwardly are ravenous wolves” (Matthew 7:15). What makes these leaders false is not merely that they teach false doctrines, but that they have false aims. Their aim is not “love that issues from a pure heart and a good conscience and a sincere faith” (1 Timothy 1:5) but something else. It’s an aim they hide from the sheep, an aim that causes them to view the sheep as a means of satisfying some ungodly appetite.
Jesus, switching to a tree metaphor, said, “You will recognize them by their fruits” (Matthew 7:16). And Paul labored to help sheep spot the “fruits” of disguised “wolves” infiltrating the flock. Let’s look at three of these fruits as described by Paul in 2 Timothy 3, where Paul offers a description of the “opponents” Timothy can expect to meet in his ministry (2 Timothy 2:24–26).
The first characteristic of a wolfish leader Paul describes is someone who “[has] the appearance of godliness, but [denies] its power” (2 Timothy 3:5). It’s worth looking at his full description:
Understand this, that in the last days there will come times of difficulty. For people will be lovers of self, lovers of money, proud, arrogant, abusive, disobedient to their parents, ungrateful, unholy, heartless, unappeasable, slanderous, without self-control, brutal, not loving good, treacherous, reckless, swollen with conceit, lovers of pleasure rather than lovers of God, having the appearance of godliness, but denying its power. Avoid such people. (2 Timothy 3:1–5)
We can summarize such leaders this way:
- Their Wolfish Aim: self-indulgence
- Their Sheeplike Clothing: “the appearance of godliness”
- Their Recognizable Fruit: a lack of personal holiness (“denying its power”)
Now, just by reading Paul’s list of these leaders’ selfish pursuits, you’d think they’d be easy to spot. But frequently they’re not, because wolves can be very good at concealing their motives from sheep. They move into positions of leadership because their guise of “godliness” is convincing, at first. But then their influence begins to cause a decline in the spiritual health of a church.
One such leader I worked with a few decades ago was in a pastoral position for years before he was discovered. I remember feeling a growing intuitive uneasiness around him before I saw any clear evidence. It was hard to put a finger on what was wrong, but something seemed off, and not only to me. There was a deficit of spiritual authenticity. His teaching and example seemed to lack power. Then the disguise began to slip, and other discerning leaders pressed until his secret, selfish, immoral pursuits were exposed.
I’m not suggesting that our every uneasy intuition is accurate. Fruit becomes apparent over time, so watch for patterns. Watch for a permissive application of “grace” and an orientation toward worldliness and self-indulgence. Watch the way a leader handles money. Watch for subtle signs of laxness regarding sexual ethics. Note other spiritually discerning people’s uneasiness regarding the leader. Watch for a leader’s defensiveness, condescension, and lack of transparency when challenged. And if a culture of manipulation and fear develops around a Christian leader, that’s cause for concern, since a wolf tends to appear godly but loves badly.
Another characteristic of a wolfish leader is someone who “oppose[s] the truth” (2 Timothy 3:8). This is what we expect from a wolf, since they’re false teachers. And again, we might assume they’d be easy to spot right away. But often they’re not. Their influence, at least at first, is usually more insidious and ambiguous than we expect. Paul describes them like this:
Among them are those who creep into households and capture weak women, burdened with sins and led astray by various passions, always learning and never able to arrive at a knowledge of the truth. (2 Timothy 3:6–9)