Learn to recognize 4 marks of an abusive church leader
The Bible commands Christians to “Trust in your rulers and submit to their authority, for they watch over you as those who are accountable” (Heb. 13:17, NIV). But God’s Word also speaks of times when we should not trust and submit to leaders. In what circumstances does honoring God mean disobeying, fleeing, or even calling those who serve in his name?
Paul warned the Ephesian elders of the wolves that would come and not spare God’s flock (Acts 20:29). The apostle borrows the image of the wolf directly from Jesus (John 10:12; Matt. 7:15). As patterns of abuse are revealed in the church, we urgently need this biblical warning that shows us the difference between a godly shepherd and one who hunts sheep.
How to differentiate a real shepherd from a wolf in sheep’s clothing?
Anatomy of a wolf
Identifying wolves is difficult because the marks of a dangerous soul rarely show in physical appearance. More so, false teachers are people made in the image of God. A wolf shows his humanity in his seemingly healthy relationships. His personal charisma and the true good that his ministry accomplishes can still hide his true nature from others, and even from the wolf himself.
But the Bible teaches us that a wolf’s ignorance of its own identity does not excuse its behavior. False prophets may come in sheep’s clothing (Matthew 7:15), but there are clear signs that reveal wolves for who they really are.
1. Wolves emphasize gifts over character.
When biblical authors write about qualifications for church leadership, they emphasize moral graces rather than ministerial gifts. The apostles repeatedly insist that the elders be “blameless.” They contrast the self-control, meekness, and humility that should characterize true pastoral ministry with the harshness, disrespect of civil authorities, and abuse of Church authority that characterize wolves (Titus 1; 1 Tim. 3; 2 Peter 2).
False prophets may come in sheep’s clothing, but there are clear signs that reveal wolves for who they really are.
At the final judgment there will be some who stubbornly insist on the sincerity of their Christian life but whom Christ will declare he never knew (Matthew 7:21-23). As proof of their faith, these false teachers will call upon the mighty works they have done in the name of the Lord, including prophecy and even exorcisms! But Jesus considers this proof inadmissible. He condemns wolves as “workers of iniquity” (v. 23).
Wolves justify themselves by their mighty ministries, but the Shepherd judges them based on the moral precepts of God. And he finds them missing.
2. Wolves avoid accountability.
James warns that teachers are subject to stricter judgment (James 3:1), but wolves reject scrutiny of their ministries. They want autonomy, not responsibility. They are “grazing themselves” (Jude 12). If a wolf’s favorite peers contradict it, it will leave for a purer pack or go off on its own to create a new one. When a wolf’s conduct proves too egregious to avoid confrontation, he will rationalize rather than repent.
Theologically sophisticated wolves are devilishly adept at twisting scripture to support their behavior (Jude 4). Yet, even if they carefully avoid accountability to the flock of Christ, wolves cannot completely suppress their unrecognized hatred for the Shepherd. Their enmity is revealed in a special disdain for those to whom the Savior’s heart is particularly drawn. When someone approaches Jesus in a way that threatens his authority and prestige, wolves become viciously territorial (John 12:1-8).
3. Wolves crave power.
Jesus warned his disciples against a wolf-like lust for power. As they argued about standing in the kingdom, Jesus presented the children as those to whom the kingdom belongs and as models of how to receive it (Matthew 18:1-5). He welcomed and blessed them when the disciples would have prevented him (Matt. 19:13-15), and he warned, in the sternest way, that his Father would hold accountable anyone who involved the little ones in scandalous activities. and sinners (Matt. 18:7–9). To secure a personal position in the church, wolves are willing to sacrifice the lambs of Christ. Their contempt for “the least of them” among Christ’s followers is a contempt for Jesus himself (Matthew 25:45-46).
4. Wolves lack gentleness.
If pastors are bullies in the pulpit, chances are they’ll behave brutally behind the scenes. Immediately after James warns that most believers should not desire to be teachers, he forbids dehumanizing speech, likening the tongue to fire (James 3:1-12).
Wolves insult those who challenge them. They use pious words to cover up their wickedness and then blame their agitation on their victims. When called to account, false teachers may leave the scene of their crimes fully convinced of their own loyalty and the righteousness of their cause. But the true nature of a wolf is revealed in the carnage it leaves behind, in the tears and scars of the sheep it preys on.
The true nature of a wolf is revealed in the carnage it leaves behind.
The Scriptures promise that the condemnation of the wolves is near (2 Peter 2:1-3), but for now it is essential that we remember Paul’s warning. He told the elders of Ephesus that wolves would come, and that “men shall arise from among you, speaking crooked things, to draw away the disciples after them” (Acts 20:30). He warned them to be “watchful” (v. 31).
Being biblically alert means spotting wolves before they pounce. When brave lambs who have already been injured speak out, we must listen and alert other church authorities. When wolves behave not only immorally but illegally, we must immediately alert civil authorities. We should never leave or join Christian organizations run by wolves, and we must have plans in place to lead others to physical and spiritual safety. It is also crucial that church leaders recognize and repent of wolfish tendencies in our own hearts and refuse to tolerate such traits among our peers and those training for ministry. Wolves may persist in self-deception, but their ignorance of their true nature is inexcusable. Nowadays especially, ours is too.