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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).
You could also add the passage about the weeds among the wheat. The first is talking about leaders, and this next one is addressing another kind of leader, the church member who may or may not be an authentic Christian.
He put another parable before them, saying, “The kingdom of heaven may be compared to a man who sowed good seed in his field, but while his men were sleeping, his enemy came and sowed weeds among the wheat and went away. So when the plants came up and bore grain, then the weeds appeared also. And the servants of the master of the house came and said to him, ‘Master, did you not sow good seed in your field? How then does it have weeds?’ He said to them, ‘An enemy has done this.’ So the servants said to him, ‘Then do you want us to go and gather them?’ But he said, No, lest in gathering the weeds you root up the wheat along with them. Let both grow together until the harvest, and at harvest time I will tell the reapers, “Gather the weeds first and bind them in bundles to be burned, but gather the wheat into my barn”‘” (Matthew 13:24-30).
Both people groups—wolves and weeds—are not genuine believers. The wolf is more destructive, as you can sense from Jesus’ use of the wolf descriptor. The wolf is a teacher, given power and authority over the sheep (James 3:1). The wolf’s mission is to destroy. He is similar to the thief that you read about in John’s Gospel.
The thief comes only to steal and kill and destroy. I came that they may have life and have it abundantly. I am the good shepherd. The good shepherd lays down his life for the sheep (John 10:10).
Destruction is what wolves do, though weeds will also create disunity and heartbreak. The vital assessment that reveals their lack of authenticity is the fruit of their actions (Luke 6:43-45). Perhaps it would benefit you to read my article about how to identify spiritual abuse in a local church. I provide eight examples of what to look for with spiritual abusers.
Though you want to be careful with your assumptions and interpretations, you also must prepare yourself for decisive steps if a wolf is masquerading as a sheep, or the weeds are sucking the life out of the wheat. You must be cautious about making conclusions too quickly because it’s not a simple process to distinguish weeds from the wheat, and whether you should tolerate them.
The behaviors of a wolf could be more apparent in that they teach false doctrine, and their actions do not square with the Word of God (Galatians 1:8-9). You may also see overt signs of abuse. Then there is the wolf working under the guise of an angel of light (2 Corinthians 11:14). The challenge for you is that no situation is the same; there are different responses needed for what you’re observing. Let me illustrate:
As you can see, what I’m addressing here is a wisdom issue. I have encountered many challenging people in the church who seemed to be weeds, only to find out they were wheat. They were hurting and reacting to the bad things that had happened to them in their pasts. Christianity can be tough on people, and it’s not out of the realm of possibilities that folks are carrying a lot of hurt from friendly fire, or pagan parents.
For example, a Christian, who has been reared by an angry or a passive dad will have a hard time learning how to relate well with others as an adult. Their social skills are lacking, and they come across awkwardly. Salvation does not solve all their problems. It only puts them on the path to transformation. We are a work-in-progress, which is why I’m cautioning you about reacting too quickly, with the wrong attitude, or at the wrong time.
The progressive nature of sanctification could take them many years to learn and model historical Christian virtues (Galatians 5:22-23; 1 Corinthians 13:4-7). These people are not weeds at all, but our brothers and sisters in Christ, who are still drinking the milk of God’s Word (Hebrews 5:11-14). They are immature (1 Peter 2:2). The way you gauge this is according to what I said earlier: do they have a pattern of repentance in their lives?
On the other end of the spectrum are actual weeds, who have one objective, which is to tear down the name of God by bringing confusion, divisiveness, and pain to His sheep. In these situations, someone must confront them while protecting the sheep. In a sense, it’s similar to parenting. Attuned parents can tell the difference between the active rebellious child and the one who is not.
Perhaps you could follow Paul’s advice in 1 Thessalonians 5:14, where he added two more types of people alongside the one you admonish. He gives specific but different instructions on how to serve them. The idol, you rebuke, the small-soul person, you encourage, and the weak person, you help. What appears right to the naked eye might not be the case upon closer examination. Let wisdom lead you.
Different People, Different Responses
One thing that has helped me to think about this “weed, wolf problem” is to come at it from a “shepherd-to-sheep perspective.” I try to imagine the good shepherd looking over his sheep while asking this question: “How will I take care of my sheep?” You could apply this to how a husband thinks about his wife, or a father thinks about his children.
Husbands – Good husbands are like good shepherds: they are protective of their spouses. It is every husband’s leadership responsibility to protect their wives. Being diligent in providing care to them is a top priority. For example, God calls husbands to discern their wives (1 Peter 3:7) and to protect, nourish, and cherish her (Ephesians 5:29).
Fathers – The number one characteristic of being a man is to be fatherly. It does not matter if the person is young, old, married, or not. God the Father provides a protective, caring example for all men to follow. The “father of lies” is the counter to a good father, which is what weeds and wolves are (John 8:44). When leading a teen son, you want him to have “fatherly characteristics,” which is a beautiful word picture to evaluate how he is doing and how a dad is leading him.
It would be suitable for all of us to step back for a moment of reflective self-assessment. All that I have mentioned will apply to all Christians. The temptation could be to focus only on “those out there who are doing wrong” while not addressing areas where you can change. This kind of miscalculation often happens with those who have experienced hurt from leaders, i.e., pastors, husbands, and dads.
It’s so easy to forget about the log that is in all our eyes (Matthew 7:3-5). It should be our top priority to provide excellent soul care to anyone who is under our influence. A few thoughtful questions could be perfect for you. What you want to assess is how well you are caring for souls. Besides the immediate positive effect of this kind of examination, you will also be setting an excellent example by your humility for others to emulate.
He makes me lie down in green pastures. He leads me beside still waters (Psalm 23:2).
You prepare a table before me in the presence of my enemies (Psalm 23:5).
Their overall spiritual health is your best clue to who affects them and how effective the care is for them. All leaders must engage the sheep in their pastures, whether that’s a church, home, school, or workplace. We cannot be passive, detached, or distant; we cannot be angry, critical, or discouraging. We must be willing to give our lives for our sheep. We do this by creating environments where the sheep can boldly and confidently proclaim,
The LORD is my shepherd; I shall not want. Surely goodness and mercy shall follow me all the days of my life (Psalm 23:1, 6).