Beware of false prophets, which come to you in sheep’s clothing, but inwardly they are ravening wolves.
But he that is an hireling, and not the shepherd, whose own the sheep are not, seeth the wolf coming, and leaveth the sheep, and fleeth: and the wolf catcheth them, and scattereth the sheep.
For what shepherd is there among you having many sheep doth not watch over them, that the wolves enter not and devour his flock? And behold, if a wolf enter his flock doth he not drive him out? Yea, and at the last, if he can, he will destroy him.
And now I say unto you that the good shepherd doth call after you; and if you will hearken unto his voice he will bring you into his fold, and ye are his sheep; and he commandeth you that ye suffer no ravenous wolf to enter among you, that ye may not be destroyed.
Pastoral images are used frequently in the Bible, often to describe the relationship between us and Christ, and particularly between Christ and his Church. John 10 and Alma 5 develop this image most fully, to slightly different ends: the principal point of John 10 hinges around the identity of the good shepherd; Alma 5 as to whether we are included with his sheep.
But there is another aspect to these images, as the quotes above illuminate: the existence of wolves.
Wolves are very real.
People can do a lot of damage. And others can be very vulnerable.
Wolves are also a very pertinent topic. I’ve seen in a number of places opposition to the idea that anyone has to deal with them, that some people are wolves at all, or that actions to exclude them – such as excommunication – are at all necessary. This opposition appears to me to be founded on several misconceptions:
The first is the idea that Christ himself would never exclude or judge. This itself is a myth, when it is Christ himself who will be our ultimate judge. I’ve written about this before.
The second is that in the Church the spreading of ideas should carry no consequence. It is certainly the case that Wolves, human predators, can take a variety of forms. Physical, emotional, sexual or financial predators are all threats, and certainly many of the scriptural warnings above and the injunctions about protecting the flock (whatever flock that is) from wolves apply. Much of what I will say here would also apply. We should always aim to protect the innocent. But the first scripture quoted above has Christ warning particularly against “false prophets”, not these other categories of predators. We are warned in the latter days against “false teachers” and “false doctrines” (2 Nephi 28:12), and need to be vigilant in an age when men “call evil good, and good evil” (Isaiah 5:50, 2 Nephi 15:20).
Ideas have consequences. They affect what we feel and what we do, and we will be held accountable for them. As the episcopal spirit is asked in C.S Lewis’ The Great Divorce: “Do you really think there are no sins of the intellect?” Alma likewise teaches that in addition to our words and works “our thoughts will also condemn us” (Alma 12:14). And there is a world of difference between someone who is personally wondering and questioning over what is true (something I am sure most must face at some stage) and someone campaigning to replace the teachings of the Church with their own ideas. That’s not questioning: they’ve already settled their own mind. Indeed they’re trying to remake Church doctrine in the image of their own mind. Nor, for that matter, are they making a great stand for openness and free thought when they demand their own precepts should enjoy immunity from criticism, but that they should be free as members of Christ’s church to denigrate its teachings.
They are, as individuals, free to campaign for whatever they wish. But the Church is under no obligation to act as a neutral witness, or act as a host for those who oppose its teachings. And when people teach others that certain sins are not sins, for example, or teach a denial of the resurrection, or teach disbelief in experiences (such as revelations and spiritual gifts) that are necessary for salvation, their teachings can lead others down to hell. Is there to be no accountability for this? Is the Church of God supposed to stand idly by and just watch the deception of the flock? Certain false teachings can lead to eternal damage, and the Church is under no obligation to permit people to use the cloak of Church membership to lead its members astray.
The third misconception is the idea that Christ taught us that we must never judge. It is certainly true that there are certain judgments we must leave to God, and eternal judgments are his prerogative. We are meant to focus upon our own sins, and in my experience we usually have enough to keep us busy. But Christ’s command in the Sermon on the Mount to “judge not, that ye be not judged.” (Matthew 7:1) is sorely misunderstood if we believe that means we must never judge (and we are in serious danger if we believe that frees us personally from any accountability). As the next verse shows, the point of the passage is that we will be judged by same standard we extend: “For with what judgment ye judge, ye shall be judged: and with what measure ye mete, it shall be measured to you again” (Matthew 7:2). Christ also teaches us to “judge not according to the appearance, but judge righteous judgment” (John 7:24), as does the JST of Matthew 7:1-2. Alma likewise teaches that we should “judge righteously” and then “ye shall have a righteous judgment restored unto you again” (Alma 41:14).
This is because some judgment is inevitable in this life. Yes, we must be careful and cautious (for, as I heard a wise Elders Quorum President teach once, we often have the tendency to judge others by their actions but ourselves by our intentions). We must “judge righteously”. But even as individuals it is often necessary for us to judge who we associate with, who we marry and who we trust. We have to judge who we listen to, who we take counsel from, and who we ultimately follow. And many people have responsibilities that go beyond the individual that demand they judge. Parents need to judge in order to look after and protect their children. And Church leaders have a responsibility to judge to protect the flock; indeed Christ teaches above that if one does not, such a shepherd is a mere hireling.
Now there is obviously a need for discernment, wisdom and divine aid in this judgment. Overzealousness can be damaging. It is a terrible mistake if some wandering sheep, or a prodigal son, or even just some poor sheep that’s with the ninety and nine but is confused about a few things is treated as a wolf. It’s also wrong if we as individuals infringe upon the duties and responsibilities of those who have this task. But those in a position of a responsibility have the duty to judge: to both judge who needs especially help (indeed it’s a tragedy if a wandering sheep is judged not to need any help) and to protect the other members of the flock from those who’d prey upon them (in whatever way that might be). This is especially true for those whose calling specifically labels them as a “judge” (Doctrine and Covenants 58:17-18, 64:40, 107:72-74).
The fourth misconception is that such judgments are inherently unloving, and fail to display Christlike love. It is important for us to remember that every human being born on this earth is a child of our Father in Heaven, and he loves them. We are likewise commanded to love all his children (2 Nephi 31:20). Wolves are not born wolves, and it is possible for former wolves to become part of the flock, like Alma the younger and the sons of Mosiah. Furthermore Christ commands us to love even our “enemies”, and pray for those who mistreat us (Matthew 5:44). If someone is acting the part of a wolf – in any of the variety of ways I mention above – that is something to be mourned.
But I believe there is often here a significant misunderstanding of justice and mercy (something I hope to return to in the future) and the role of divine love in each. We sometimes seem to treat justice as something bad and mercy as something good, but this is not the case. Both are divine attributes (Alma 42:15). An unjust God would be a more terrible thing than it seems many can even imagine, punishing the innocent and rewarding the guilty. Justice isn’t just about punishing the transgressor, it is also about protecting those transgressed against, and restoring their hurts. Mercy extended to predators without condition is showing merciless cruelty to their prey.
If those who have a duty to care for a flock (a family, a congregation, or whatever), out of a misguided sense of love and compassion, give a wolf the opportunity and license to savage the flock, they are being unloving to the sheep. It’s not even good for the wolf eternally: to take the example of Church discipline, that can prompt repentance and a goal is to save the soul of the transgressor as well as protect the innocent. But it is especially uncharitable to any sheep who have been sacrificed to the idea that mercy can rob justice. If charity and compassion cause the sheep to be left to the mercy of the wolves, then the shepherds have blood on their hands.
That is not the example of the good shepherd. The good shepherd drives out the wolves, and even if necessary destroys them (Alma 5:59) not because he hates wolves, but because he loves his sheep. He “giveth his life for the sheep” (John 10:11). The good shepherd cares for and is vigilant in protecting his sheep, and those who have some responsibility for his flock likewise have the responsibility to feed, care, heal and protect his sheep.