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“Beware of false prophets,” Jesus said, “who come to you in sheep’s clothing but inwardly are ravenous wolves” (Matt. 7:15)

The imagery must have been startling to Jesus’ hearers. People widely acquainted with agrarian society would vividly understand the metaphor. Perhaps they had lost sheep to predatory wolves. Late in the evening, they may have been awakened by the prowling wolf seeking to dodge their protective notice. They may have seen the carnage a wolf can leave in its wake.

Beware, my sheep, Jesus said… there are wolves in your midst.

The desire to protect the flock against wolves is noble. As the church, we must be aware of the voices we are hearing and the motives behind even the most disarming approaches. We must continually place right doctrine through God’s Word before our eyes and ears.

The Bible instructs us to evaluate each other’s fruit – to consider the fit of the wool, so to speak, to ensure we do not give a foothold to any who would seek to knowingly or unknowingly create division in the church and take others down a false path.

However, in our social media age, when one’s entire worldview and experience is weighed in the balance of 280-character tweets and 30-second soundbites, we have become masters of detective intrigue. We have been given a call to protect, signs to watch for and digital weapons to fire at will.

Unfortunately, we are often not trained on how to use those weapons. We are quick to dismiss those with whom we disagree and can always find an audience for our righteous indignation. Throwing grenades at the enemy is easy. It’s harder to love that enemy. Harder still to help that enemy.

Absolutely, there is an essential place for evaluating doctrine—especially among those with a vulnerable audience—but how quick is too quick to pull the trigger? At what point do we cry wolf! And at what point do we risk shooting merely immature sheep? A sharp-toothed sheep is not desirable, but it’s also not a wolf.

I am reminded of the young man from Alexandria who was incredibly gifted with charisma and the ability to hold an audience with his eloquence. He knew the Scriptures. He had his training. He was excited to share his message. Yet he did not fully understand the things of Jesus. He was a sheep with sharp teeth.

Upon hearing him, I likely would have backed away. I would have checked his associates, who endorsed his books, what theological “tribe” he was linked with. I might even have fired a warning tweet into the air.

Fortunately for Apollos, there were two in his audience who heard his message, noticed where he was misguided, and took him into their lives so that they might “explain to him the way of God more accurately” (Acts 18:27).

What if Priscilla and Aquila had been more concerned with wolf-shooting than sheep raising? Where would Apollos have been?

Discernment, grace, truth and doctrine create many tensions in the Christian life that are necessary. We should all be equipped with the Truth—ready to defend it and lead others in it as we live life together as the church.

But we also must not be so quick to speak. We must be quick to listen.

Obviously, this goes both ways. Apollos was teachable. He was leadable. He was willing to admit that he did not know it all and was open to the discipleship opportunity from this older Christian couple.

Understand, when the wolf starts to howl and our flock is in danger, we must be resolute in following the steps of discipline. We must not humor wolves.

But when we hear error (or possible error) in our Christian circles, let us be those who are quick to listen and slow to speak. Let us reach with a gentle hand and go in private (if possible) rather than publicly defaming one who may not fully yet know the way of Jesus.

Remember, our sheep (as well as ourselves) are always a work in progress. Had Jesus immediately dismissed us when we took a misstep, none of us would be safe beneath His staff. There is a time and a place to call a wolf a wolf, but may we have exhausted every avenue of grace at our disposal before we do.

Beware of false prophets. Remove the wolves. Protect the flock. But don’t shoot the sheep.