“On Watching out for Wolves” on Matthew 7:15-23 by Joe Ellis — April 23, 2023
In Ancient Israel, Prophets were those who claimed to be speaking the word of God. Some were true to this calling. Others were not. There are a lot of different directions we could go in this warning in the Sermon on the Mount about False Prophets, but today I want to focus in on one type of prophet: the Pastor. One aspect of pastoral ministry is prophetic, that is speaking for God. It is this prophetic aspect of a pastor’s ministry that can create conditions for abuse, but I’ll get into this later.
In the many conversations I’ve had with those attending this church, I’ve heard some stories of wonderful pastors and stellar church leadership. Sadly, I’ve also heard some stories of pastors and leaders that did not honour the significant responsibility of their charge. Because of the profoundly personal and relational nature of a religious community, sour religious leadership can impact a person and their family deeply, sometimes devastatingly. Yet, we can’t give up on this project called church — being a part of a Christian community can have unspeakable beauty. That’s what being a part Telkwa Community Church has shown me over the past years. By the mere act of attending this church, you are placing trust in our leadership.
These are my goals for this sermon. Firstly, I want you to know that you have a right to take Jesus’ words seriously. It is never right for you to have religious leaders who are wolves in sheep’s clothing — as your pastors we will strive to be faithful to our calling. Yet wolves in sheep clothing do happen, so the second thing I want to highlight in this sermon is that discerning this warning about false prophets is a communal practice — it's not on any one person. Because it's a communal practice, it's important for you to know that in this church we have the resources to take Jesus’ warning about false prophets seriously. Here is my third and final goal: If one day you might decide to join another church or Christian fellowship, and my hope is that you’ll be able to ask some intentional questions to find out what resources that community has for protecting its people from the tyranny of false prophets, or wolves in sheep’s clothing.
Almost ten years ago Michelle and I were ordained as Ministers of the Word in this church. For those of you who were present, you may remember when Pastor Martin Vellekoop said some important words to the congregation using the official form for ordaining Ministers of the Word. The form had Pastor Martin say to the congregation: “And you, brothers and sisters, joyfully receive your ministers in the Lord and honour them. Remember that through them God Himself speaks to you. Receive the Word which they, according to the Scripture, shall preach to you, not as the word of human beings but, as it is in truth, the Word of God.” I don’t imagine I’ll ever be wholly comfortable with those words, but they do highlight the prophetic nature of pastoral ministry. I bring up how this calling relates to me personally, because it wouldn’t be right for me to talk about how we need to watch out for false prophets without inviting you to consider that Michelle or I could very well be some of those people that Jesus is telling you to watch out for. You need to consider whether we are wolves in sheep’s clothing.
Jesus calls for you to watch for wolves in sheep’s clothing, and you must listen to this call. In John 10, Jesus describes how serious this is. He describes false pastors as those who jump over the fence to get at the sheep. Jesus describes these false pastors as those coming only to steal, kill and destroy. They’re wolves in disguise. In our Scripture today in Matthew 7, Jesus also says that you can tell these wolves by their fruit. He says, “Are grapes gathered from thorns, or figs from thistles? Good trees produce good fruit and bad trees produce bad fruit.” Now, it would be understandable if all this raised your blood pressure a little bit and you were thinking, “Geesh, now I have to assess the good and bad fruit in my pastor’s life to sort out whether they are wolves in sheep’s clothing? Where do I start? I heard that Pastor Joe brews beer, is that ok? I’ve heard he gets defensive, sometimes snappy, when he’s stressed or anxious. Does that cross the line?” Where is the line? When does a pastor’s growth area cross the line into becoming plain old bad fruit? We know this is an important question, as there is no shortage of examples of pastors abusing the trust given to them. Abuse, spiritual abuse, happens in churches. In his blog, Scot McKnight helps us define the bad fruit of spiritual abuse that we need to especially watch out for:
“Spiritual abuse works both ways: congregations can abuse pastors, and pastors can abuse congregations and congregants. To make it more complex: congregants can abuse one another…. Spiritual abuse is a form of emotional and psychological abuse. It is characterized by a systematic pattern of coercive and controlling behaviour in a religious context. Spiritual abuse can have a deeply damaging impact on those who experience it. This abuse may include: manipulation and exploitation, enforced accountability, censorship of decision making, requirements for secrecy and silence, coercion to conform, inability to ask questions, control through the use of sacred texts or teaching, requirement of obedience to the abuser, the suggestion that the abuser has a ‘divine’ position, isolation as a means of punishment, and superiority and elitism… Spiritual abuse impacts people and leads to the following sorts of questions: Who can I trust? How do I cope with fear? What do I believe? How long does this impact last? Who is here to support me?”
Pairing McKnight’s words alongside our form for ordination about the prophetic role of pastors, with Jesus’ warning to watching out for False Prophets who are like wolves in sheep’s clothing, reveals complex and high stakes. Some might argue for the need to knock pastors off the pedestal and just say that preachers are just talking like the rest of us. You could to that, but that doesn’t really solve the problem — informal churches, like house churches and religious communities with no real leader can be just as susceptible to spiritual abuse, sometimes more so, because these communities are out on their own and have no outside accountability.
Here is one place where knowing some basic Greek can be quite helpful. When Jesus says, “You will know them (referring to the false prophets) by their fruits” the ‘you’ is plural. If we read this in Texas, we would say, “Y’all will know them by their fruits.” Y’all, as in ‘you all’. What that means is that although you (each person singularly) play a part in discerning fruits, you don’t bear sole responsibility to figure out whether your pastors have good or bad fruit in our lives. You (plural), as in the congregation, have a big role in this, yet everyone in our church together doesn’t even have sole responsibility to figure this stuff out.
It's significant that when we were ordained, Pastor Martin was the one who ordained us. In other words, we didn’t ordain ourselves. Pastor Martin had the authority to do so, and he had the blessing from the CRC (Christian Reformed Church) denomination. That ordination was the culmination of a fairly lengthy process that involved many different people in the denomination imperfectly doing their best to walk alongside Michelle and I to discern whether our lives showed the fruit that you might expect of a Minister of the Word. Ordination is one way, but not the only way, our denomination tries to take Jesus’ words seriously about preventing wolves from getting near His sheep.
No process is perfect. There have certainly been times where there are ministers, even ordained ministers in a denomination, who are bearing some really unhealthy fruit. You individually, and y’all collectively, are really important in discerning that, but again you are not on your own. Our denomination organizes church so that Ministers of the Word do not hold all the power. We don’t have a hierarchy in the church with the Pastors alone at the top. Our church order places Pastors, Elders and Deacons all on the same level. Our church has Elders (currently Evert and John W are Elders), and it has Deacons (we have 4 deacons now.) Together the Pastors, Elders and Deacons make up our Church Council. Pastors are accountable specifically to the Elders in the church. When we ordain Elders in the church (again, Elders are ordained, not self-appointed), we have a form that we read for them also. This form says that “Elders serve by governing the church in Christ’s name.” Then later the minister says to the Elders, “I charge you Elders, to guard yourselves and all the flock of which the Holy Spirit has made you overseers.” Elders are specifically appointed to be guardians of the flock. If they see bad fruit, or a wolf in sheep’s clothing, they have the responsibility to do something about it. That means that if you, as an individual member of this church family, are concerned about some bad fruit that you might be seeing, you can talk to an Elder. You can do this because they have been charged with looking out for the welfare of this local flock. Even still, the Elders are not on their own. If the Elders are concerned about some potentially bad fruit in their pastors, they have a number of different denominational supports which help churches discern what’s going on — Is this good fruit or bad fruit? Is there congregational dysfunction or a bad economy? Perhaps it's just time for the pastor to move on? These are questions that are really healthy to ask — and the fact that Jesus says “Watch out” means that he wants these questions to be asked — He’s looking out for us. Others in the denomination can help the Council and the congregation sort out the sort of fruit we’re encountering, and then discern what the most God honouring way is to go forward. Of course it's vulnerable to have these questions asked, but they need to be asked.
Now moving onto the last section in the Scripture for today, Jesus says “Not everyone who says to me ‘Lord, Lord,’ will enter the Kingdom of heaven, but only the one who do the will of my Father in heaven”. Here, Jesus is shadowboxing with false-prophets in a hypothetical end-time judgment scene. Jesus is focusing here on what is called charismatic gifts. These people are trying to elbow their way into the Kingdom by appealing to their prophecies, exorcisms and miracle workings. But Jesus says, "I never knew you; go away from me you evildoers.” This passage always surprises me, I think it's because I often assume that the presence of charismatic gifts are the fruit of God’s blessing. This can create the situation where an individual who has incredible charismatic gifts can have a lot of power and thereby may feel they have license to treat others like garbage. There may be individuals who come to mind when I say that. Jesus says that charisma in itself is not the end-all-be-all of doing the Father’s will. It's not the only fruit that matters.
In the Gospel, particularly in the Sermon on the Mount, the little blueberry type fruit is really important (perhaps much more than the big and spectacular showy starfruit). Little fruit like: do they serve their spouse as Christ serves the church? If they have kids, do they nurture them with love and patience? Are they kind to neighbours? Do they scoff at meaningless tasks like washing the dishes or cleaning the toilet? Do their coworkers delight in working with them? These small acts of compassion are the sort of fruit that you’ll read about throughout the Sermon on the Mount. They are far more important to God than charismatic gifts and impressive credentials.
I hope this hasn’t felt too technical — it's important stuff. Christ’s ministry through the church is far too important, too beautiful, too healing to let a wolf tear it apart. What we are doing together in church is so precious? I’ve learned this well over the last years.
In our church, we welcome babies into our family through blessing and baptism, we walk with these little ones as best we can throughout their lives, teaching them who God is and how to live in His power and His word. As our little ones grow up, we connect with the young people as best we can. New grownups join our family, and we all walk alongside each other as we strive to live with God and each other in the trials and joys of each day, when we pray with each other because our kids are sick, when we celebrate marriages, when we grieve disappointed hopes such as not finding a spouse or not having kids, or in the breakdown of a marriage. We gather around those who are grieving the loss of someone they love or who are battling long term illness. We celebrate with each other about finding meaningful work, and we pull together around the loss of a job. We support and encourage each other as we care for ailing parents, ailing spouses, and ailing children. We welcome each other as we repent of our sins and find forgiveness. We hold space for each other in moments we never believed would happen — in burying our children, in burying our parents too soon, in watching our brothers and sisters go through extreme trials where we ask “How can this happen?” We break bread with each other, we play with each other, and we hope with each other. And we do all this while together seeking the presence of God, striving to make sense of our lives together in light of His Word and His presence.
I believe so much in the church, and the church is far too important to let anything or anyone come in between Christ and His ministry to His people. That’s why we must take this passage seriously together. The church needs to be a place in which we all strive together, albeit imperfectly, to be a place where we grow into our faith: “Loving the Lord God with all their heart, soul, mind and strength, and loving our neighbour as ourselves.”