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Marks of a Wolf

By September 11, 2023January 14th, 2024No Comments

“Therefore be alert.”

Acts 20:31

All Scripture from ESV unless otherwise noted.

Tl; dr If you prefer to start with a summary: jump to summary

Take a minute and ask yourself: What does Scripture teach about the characteristics of a dangerous spiritual leader? How well-equipped are you to recognize a wolf? How likely is it that you’d be fooled?

For many evangelicals, what first comes to mind is whether the leader preaches orthodox doctrine. Aside from sexual sin, that may be the only issue that comes to mind.  Orthodox doctrine is certainly of critical importance: being able to accurately teach is a requirement for an elder or overseer in the church (Titus 1:9) and warnings against false teaching can be found in passages such as Gal. 1:6-9 and elsewhere.

Orthodox teaching is a necessary mark of a trustworthy spiritual leader, but it is not sufficient to rule out a dangerous one.

As Paul warns the Ephesian elders, wolves can arise even from among the elders of a church. After the warning, he issues a command: “Therefore be alert.” Most evangelicals are indeed “alert” to the need for good teaching. But Scripture is clear: orthodox words are not enough.

All believers, not just elders, are commanded to ”beware” of or “watch out” for the behavior patterns of dangerous spiritual leaders (Matt 7:15-20; Mark 12:38-40; Luke 12:1; Col 2:8)  But elders or leaders of a church have an even greater duty to be alert in order to protect their flock.  (Acts 20:28-31: 1 Peter 5:1-3)

If orthodox teaching is not enough to ensure that a leader is not dangerous, what else should I be alert to?


Matt.7:15-23; Luke 12:1

Jesus said that patterns of deeds that do not match words are characteristic of false spiritual leaders.

“The scribes and the Pharisees sit on Moses’ seat, so do and observe whatever they tell you, but not the works they do. For they preach, but do not practice. Matt 23: 2-3 ESV or “They do not practice what they preach.” NIV

Notice that it is not  the content of their preaching  that Jesus condemns here, but rather, the content of their character: their practiced patterns of behavior and motivations.

Likewise, in Matthew 7, Jesus says that you will be able to identify false teachers not through outward “spiritual” activities, but by their “fruits.”

1 Cor 13:1-2 makes it clear that a person can speak or preach with the tongues of men and angels, but without a habitual practice of love, all those beautiful words amount to nothing more than noise.

Although you can discern the orthodoxy of a leader’s teaching by listening to that teaching, you cannot discern a leader’s character by how he appears from the pulpit.  You don’t know whether the speaker’s relationships with people are characterized by love or what the “fruit” of his life shows. You don’t know if he has another “face” that is not shown from the pulpit, although you may catch quick glimpses of that other face if it is present.

False leaders will outwardly appear “beautiful” and “righteous” Matt 23:27-28 ; 2 Cor 11:13-15.  To “be alert” or to “beware” requires not only that you keep your ears open to false teaching but also that you keep your eyes open to patterns of behavior that reveal character and that you look beneath the surface.

What are the  particular patterns of sin that the Bible flags as “wolf behavior?”

On the outside wolves will appear very spiritual, even beautiful, and will be regarded as righteous by other people.

Matt 23:25-28 (also Luke 12:1; Matt 7:15-23)

This “mark of a wolf” may be the most important one to remember, and the easiest to forget!

Wolves don’t look like wolves. They dress in sheep’s clothing, or even shepherd’s clothing. Your  impression of a person who is a wolf will most likely be that they are a good and righteous person. It could be hard to even entertain the notion that this person who has always seemed like a good person to you is actually a wolf, even when evidence emerges. Your mind will fight against the thought.

Your own experience of a person as “good” does not rule out that they are a wolf. So listen if someone else tells you they have seen the bared teeth or speaks of the wounds that mark interaction with a wolf.  Don’t dismiss the  experience of another person just because it doesn’t match your own.

But on the inside, there is hypocrisy, greed, self-indulgence, and lawlessness

Matt 23:25-28 (also Luke 12:1; Matt 7:15-23)

Hypocrisy (Matt 23:13,15,23,25,27) Beware the leaven of the Pharisees, which is hypocrisy.  Luke 12:1

Hypocrisy requires habitual deceit of others so they will be fooled as to the false leader’s true nature and character. A pattern of hypocrisy enables a wolf to sustain his position of power because he will be careful to show only the sheep’s clothing and the shepherd’s costume to the people whose support he needs in order to stay in power. His skill at deceit makes it hard for those same people to believe a sheep who comes to them to say that it has been savaged by the wolf’s teeth. Most people will believe the wolf instead–because he has deceived them. “He’s never behaved that way in front of me!” or “But his teaching is so good!”

As we’ll see later, hypocrisy frequently involves deceit of self as well as deceit of others. (James 1:22-25)


Greed can encompass more than money. A wolf is often greedy for status, power, and acclaim  (Matt 23:5-12)  Greed is linked with hypocrisy (Matt 23:25)


Self-indulgence doesn’t have to be a type of bodily self-indulgence (such as described in 2 Peter 2). Self-indulgence can manifest as excusing one’s own behavior (instead of owning and confessing it) or even playing the victim rather than  accepting responsibility for harm done to others.


A dangerous leader can become a law unto himself, with his focus on the rules for others, not necessarily for himself. This lawlessness is linked with hypocrisy. (Matt.23:28)

“Rules for thee but not for me” is a red flag of a wolf.  Their double standards can trump even principles and clear commands of Scripture (Matt 23:16ff and Mark 7:1-13).  For instance, wolves seem prone to apply Matt 18:15-18 and Matt 5:23-24 legalistically — but only to other people — as a way of guarding their own power.


Matt 23:16-24; Matt 15:1-14

Think about what it means to be blind. Ask yourself, “What can false leaders not see?”

They are blind both to the character of God and to who they are themselves. The religious leaders Jesus confronted were blind to the actual character of God as revealed in Jesus, a blindness that was reflected in their teaching.

They are blind because they don’t emphasize what Scripture emphasizes. Scripture emphasizes the character of God: (Matt 23:16-25)

“Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! For you tithe mint and dill and cumin, and have neglected the weightier matters of the law: justice and mercy and faithfulness. These you ought to have done, without neglecting the others.  You blind guides, straining out a gnat and swallowing a camel! (Matt 23:23-24)

Their teaching on the application of Scripture may not be wrong in itself, but becomes wrong when it majors on minor aspects outside of  the context of  God’s character and His justice, mercy, and faithfulness. That wrong emphasis can totally distort the message resulting in teaching that is misleading. In their teaching, they may put forth “rules” that sound biblical, while contradicting the very essence of the broader themes of Scripture. (See Luke 6:1-11; Mark 7:1-13)

Being in charge of the “rules”  is also an effective way of maintaining power over other people.

They are blind because their character (what is inside them) doesn’t match the outside. The outside looks really good to others and fools many people.

“Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! For you clean the outside of the cup and the plate, but inside they are full of greed and self-indulgence. You blind Pharisee! First clean the inside of the cup and the plate, that the outside also may be clean. Matt 23:25-28

Missing the fact that the character of God is to be reflected in his people, wolves seize on words and actions that are readily be seen by others as “religious”, but which don’t involve becoming more like Jesus.

Hypocrisy leads to actual spiritual blindness when we live in such a way that we do not practice what we preach, when our character is hidden by the deceit of whitewash and our hearts are filled with a desire for power, status, & praise even as we outwardly praise God  and speak of His power.

The role of self-deceit

Though some people may be wolves by deliberate and conscious choice, others  gradually become wolves through constant self-deception about who they are and what the nature of their true character is. They have first conned themselves.

But be doers of the word, and not hearers only, deceiving yourselves. For if anyone is a hearer of the word and not a doer, he is like a man who looks intently at his natural face in a mirror. For he looks at himself and goes away and at once forgets what he was like. But the one who looks into the perfect law, the law of liberty, and perseveres, being no hearer who forgets but a doer who acts, he will be blessed in his doing. James 1:22-25

Compare to Matt 23:2-3 [Wolves, faithless shepherds, false teachers] “do not practice what they preach.” NIV  They’ve become cleaners of the outside of the cup only — doing what they do to be seen by men. But God sees the heart.

One of the most frightening passages of Scripture teaches that our consciences can actually become seared in the course of insincerity and lying. (1 Tim 4:2)

One reason that wolves can so easily deceive others may be that they have thoroughly deceived themselves.

The self-deception of the leader will infect other leaders and followers.

If the blind lead the blind, both will fall into a pit. Matt 15:14

The self-deceit of a leader is frequently reinforced by both his followers and fellow leaders who are deceived by and impressed with the whitewash. When others fall for his deceit, they are rendered incapable of helping him.

In C.S. Lewis’s Voyage of the Dawn Treader, Eustace, who has become encased in dragon hide, submits himself to the painful process of Aslan cutting through the layers of the hide to free the repentant boy within.

When a leader is exposed as a wolf, what is needed is for other church leaders to stand resolute in cutting through the deceit until the actual man encased in layers of whitewash is revealed and can be set free of it.

What happens much more frequently is fellow leaders reinforce the deception. They circle the wagons around the wolf. They support him as a “godly” leader who has made “mistakes”. They minimize the wrongdoing, ignore the disqualification, and instead say, “All have sinned” and apply a few new coats of whitewash.  In the process, they both reinforce the wolf’s self-deception and become more deceived themselves. It is a horrifying and hellish feedback loop.

Truth and light become the enemy of both the wolf and his defenders. The wolf is not rescued and set free, injured sheep lay abandoned by their shepherds, and truth-tellers are driven out.

A wolf will treat truth-tellers as a threat and persecute them

Matt 23:29-36

  • The light of the truth is a threat because it could break through the blindness of both the false leader and his followers. False leaders will persecute those who speak the truth because the light of truth exposes them and threatens their status and power. (see also 3 John 9-10)
  • Experience shows that even those who come alongside them to “speak the truth in love” will be perceived as enemies and threats. Persecution in the church often comes through the false teacher lying about the truth-teller to others (3 John 9-11)

The false leader is then perceived as the victim of the truth-teller. In turn, the truth-teller is perceived as the trouble-maker by others, who, being deceived themselves, rise up to defend the false leader and push the truth-teller out of the church.

  • Avoidance of truth-tellers and driving out truth-tellers may be one reason for the blindness Jesus says repeatedly characterizes false spiritual leaders (Matt 23:16-26)

A wolf seeks external status: A wolf loves to be first, will seek to put himself first, will seek preeminence in the social hierarchy

3 John 9 (see NIV, ESV, NKJ versions)

  • Everything they do is done for people to see. A dangerous leader will be very aware of, and habitually practice what we now call “image management.” (This is one of the reasons that makes it hard to spot a wolf from the pulpit; it’s quite easy to manage your image from the stage.) Matt 23:5
  • They love the “place of honor” Matt 23:5
  • They like being distinguished from others by the way they are greeted Matt 23:6
  • They may be blind, but that doesn’t keep them from seeking to lead others. “…They are blind guides. And if the blind lead the blind, they will both fall into a pit. (Matt 23:16,24; Matt 15:10-20)

A wolf lacks true empathy and love for others, and does not view caring for sheep as part of the job of a shepherd

Ez. 34:2-4,20-22; Matt. 23:4,23; 1 Cor. 13:1-2

God rebukes the so-called “shepherds” of Israel for neglect of sheep-care: The weak you have not strengthened, the sick you have not healed, the injured you have not bound up, the strayed you have not brought back, the lost you have not sought Ez. 34:4

They tie up heavy burdens, hard to bear and lay them on people’s shoulders, but they themselves are not willing to move them with their finger. 23:4 This passage may refer to spiritual burdens, but don’t ignore the more practical implications such as a leader who attends a staff potluck, but never pitches in to help the rest of the staff clean up.

A wolf scatters the sheep of his flock

Jesus, the true Good Shepherd, says of himself that he has “guarded” (ESV) and “kept safe and protected” (NIV) those whom God placed under his care, and has lost none, except Judas.  John 17:12

In contrast to the Good Shepherd, false shepherds scatter sheep by their behavior. We are all aware of sheep who leave for what they perceive as “greener pastures” over changes in music style or other changes. The pastor may have been involved in such decisions, but that is not the “scattering” that is a mark of a false shepherd.

In contrast, true leaders are to “be an example” (1 Peter 5:3) and take the posture of  the “youngest” or a “servant” or even a “slave” (Matt 20).

Sheep are scattered in the absence of good shepherding. Poor shepherding can be neglect and/or exploitive and abusive behavior.

A wolf or false shepherd scatters sheep by neglecting their duties of care for their sheep

…You do not feed the sheep.  The weak you have not strengthened, the sick you have not healed, the injured you have not bound up, the strayed you have not brought back, the lost you have not sought.  Ezekiel 34:3-4

(Note: evangelicals typically associate “feeding sheep” only with “good teaching.” In contrast, Scripture uses the phrase more broadly.)

A wolf or false shepherd scatters sheep by mistreating sheep

Exploiting or using sheep for personal gain (Ez. 34:2-3; 2 Peter 2)

This can be — but is not limited to — financial gain; false shepherds can also use sheep to gain power, status, and praise. They can exploit sheep for their own sensual desires.

Leading harshly and with force, cruelty, severity, dominance those who are weak Ez. 34: 4

with force and harshness you have ruled them.  (ESV, RSV, & others)

with force and with cruelty you have ruled them (21KJV &others)

with force and with severity you have dominated them. (1995NASB)

The New Testament reinforces these descriptions.

In contrast to the requirement that an elder be “gentle” , Scripture indicates that it is disqualifying for an elder to use bullying (sometimes translated violence)  in interpersonal interactions. (Titus 1:7) (NASB translates the Greek as “bullying”)

Other New Testament passages use words such as dominating or lording it over or exercising authority over those entrusted to their care (1 Peter 5:3; Matt 20:20-28; Luke 22:24-30) Matt 20:26  Jesus declares: It shall not be so among you. Those are not the marks of a leader of God’s people.

Wolves may actively harm people under their leadership. Ez. 34:4 & 21

…you push with side and shoulder, and thrust at all the weak with your horns, till you have scattered them abroad.

A wolf or false shepherd  actively seeks to get rid of sheep who are perceived as a threat to his status

Evangelicals tend to be familiar with the first epistle of John 2:19 “They went out from us but they were not of us: for if they had been of us, they would have continued with us.”  However, in John’s 3rd epistle, vs. 9-10, he says that one of the offences of the leader of the church  is that the leader there “puts people out of the church.”

But why are they put out? Is it because of their doctrine? No, the false leader won’t receive the apostles themselves, so guarding doctrine isn’t the issue. Are people put out because of unrepentant behavior? There is no hint of that.

Instead, the first clue to the problem is the description of the false leader as one who is concerned with maintaining his status at the top. He  “loves to be first” (NIV) “seeks to put himself first” (ESV), “ “loves to have preeminence” among [the people of the church there]” (NKJ ) The clear implication is that the presence of these “others” somehow works against his desire to be “first” or “preeminent.”

Wolves and false shepherds will lie to scatter any sheep who are perceived as a threat to his status

A second clue in the passage is that one of his strategies to maintain his preeminence is to spread lies about those whom he apparently perceives as a potential challenge to his desire to be at the pinnacle of power.  A crafty wolf will do this subtly, possibly just dropping hints here or there.

A wolf or false shepherd may rename his compulsion to dominate with biblical sounding words:

Jesus points out a form of whitewashing used by their Roman rulers that is also used by false leaders in churches: The kings of the Gentiles lord it over them; and those who exercise authority over them call themselves Benefactors.  26 But you are not to be like that. Instead, the greatest among you should be like the youngest, and the one who rules like the one who serves. Luke 22:25-26

A wolf’s behavior hinders people who are seeking God

Jesus names the character of the false leaders as an obstacle to others coming to faith.

  • Some false leaders don’t even bother to seek the lost  Ez. 34:4 (Many churches today don’t distinguish between church “growth” that results from people coming to God versus people transferring from another church)
  • Other wolves create barriers to true conversion: But woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! For you shut the kingdom of heaven in people’s faces. For you neither enter yourselves nor allow those who would enter to go in. Matt 23:14

Nonbelievers will often notice the marks of hypocrisy (flaunting status, expensive clothing, self-promotion, making a big show over winning converts) more easily than those who have been sitting under a false leader’s teaching and leadership. Nonbelievers may reject the outward show and, assuming it characterizes Christianity, may discard the Truth. “Stumbling is inevitable, but woe to him through whom it comes.”

Wolves are spiritually dangerous to those they do convert and those whom they teach and lead:

For those who are converted by the “show” of  a false shepherd,” there is danger: You travel over land and sea to win a single convert and when you have succeeded, you make them twice as much a child of hell as you are. Matt 23:15

The convert may come to reflect the false shepherd’s character, and Jesus here calls the false shepherd, not a child of God, but a child of hell.

This warning is not just for converts but to those being discipled by, sitting under the teaching of, or employed under a false shepherd: your character will be influenced by theirs. “…“Can a blind man lead a blind man? Will they not both fall into a pit? A disciple is not above his teacher, but everyone when he is fully trained will be like his teacher. (Luke 6:39-40)

“A little leaven leavens the whole lump of dough” (1 Cor 5:6) and “the leaven [yeast] of the Pharisees is hypocrisy.” (Luke 12:1)

Remember that hypocrisy requires deceit. You will become deceived and quite possibly grow to be deceitful.

Those submitting themselves to the influence of a false shepherd will take on more and more of his character instead of Christ’s.

Contrast this to Paul: Be imitators of me, as I am of Christ. (1 Cor. 11:1)

A true shepherd reflects the character and behavior of Jesus (Phil 2:5-11).


  • Orthodox teaching alone does not guarantee that a leader is not a wolf.
  • Character (the habitual practices of a person) is what distinguishes a godly leader whose teaching is orthodox from a wolf whose teaching may also be orthodox .

Character of a wolf

  • Wolves purposely cultivate the image of being “godly.
  • They do everything to be seen and looked up to by others.
  • Their mark is hypocrisy, which necessarily involves deceit.
  • They are self-indulgent and exploitive.
  • They like to be “first”, to have pre-eminence.
  • They are greedy for external rewards such as power and social status.
  • They are deficit in love and empathy and don’t care well for sheep.
  • They deliberately drive out truth-tellers.
  • Their leadership style is not gentle, but domineering, “lording it over” those in their care. They have an ethos of “rules for thee but not for me”. They can be bullies.
  • They actively harm people under their care and may spread lies about them.
  • They scatter their flock through lack of care and even active harm and lying about them.
  • People who are discipled by wolves will acquire their characteristics.
  • Don’t underestimate your own susceptibility to being fooled, but instead be humble about your human weakness. (And don’t underestimate your resistance to acknowledging that you were actually fooled. “It’s easier to con a person than for a person to admit they were conned.”) When you meet a wolf in person, you are likely to think that he or she is a godly person. Having decided that, you will tend to overlook red flags and minimize or explain away the marks of a wolf when you see them. Wolves know this and will use it to their advantage. Listen to others whose experience with the person is different than your own.

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Questions for reflection: 

Which “marks of a wolf” might you be able to observe from the pulpit?

Why might some people see specific “marks of a wolf” that others haven’t seen?

What might it look like in a church when the “leaven” of hypocrisy and deceit affects the “whole lump of dough?”

Which passages describe wolves’ using the power of their spiritual authority to exploit and abuse sheep?

Read Ez. 34: 1-6 and 18-22.  What types of actual behavior could the metaphorical language be describing?