While the pastor as a shepherd has many duties which turn his focus inward toward the flock, there is one duty in particular for which he must keep his eye focused outward as well: protecting the flock against wolves.
False teachers, both outside and within the church, attack it, usually disguising themselves as sheep, that is, as fellow Christians. Jesus warned his church against such attackers. “Beware of false prophets, who come to you in sheep’s clothing but inwardly are ravenous wolves.” (Matt. 7:15)
While the flock may often remain unaware of the danger, pastors and elders must be vigilant or else be negligent. Paul warned the Ephesian elders that they could expect such attacks and should be ready to repel them.
Pay careful attention to yourselves and to all the flock, in which the Holy Spirit has made you overseers, to care for the church of God, which he obtained with his own blood. I know that after my departure fierce wolves will come in among you, not sparing the flock; and from among your own selves will arise men speaking twisted things, to draw away the disciples after them. Therefore be alert, remembering that for three years I did not cease night or day to admonish every one with tears. (Acts 20:28-31)
The Apostle Peter issued a warning, which applies to all ages, that the church should always stand on guard, aware that false teachers are lurking to attack the church. “But false prophets also arose among the people, just as there will be false teachers among you, who will secretly bring in destructive heresies, even denying the Master who bought them, bringing upon themselves swift destruction.” (2 Pet. 2:1)
Indeed, all Christians are to be aware of the reality of false teachers and so should test everything they are taught against the perfect Word of God. “Beloved, do not believe every spirit, but test the spirits to see whether they are from God, for many false prophets have gone out into the world.” (1 Jn. 4:1)
While all Christians should watch for false teachers, the elders of a church, both teaching and ruling, have a particular duty from God to guard their flocks from false teachers. Should a false teacher be among the flock, or their teaching reach to their flock, the teacher is duty-bound to do something, not just sit silently by, since they must give an account for those they shepherd. “Obey your leaders and submit to them, for they are keeping watch over your souls, as those who will have to give an account.” (Heb. 13:17)
What does a faithful shepherd do when a wolf threatens his flock? He alerts the flock to the danger and also goes after the wolf, the false teacher, by refuting their theological error. John Calvin referred to this as the faithful barking of a dog whose master is threatened.
A faithful dog barks at the first sound of a thief and risks his own life to protect his master’s life and his family—shall the church be plundered by the thieving of the ungodly, shall God’s majesty be stamped under foot, shall Christ be robbed of his own kingdom, while we watch and say nothing?
John Calvin, Bondage and Liberation of the Will, 19.
Calvin rightly notes that a faithful pastor should not simply stand by and say nothing but bark, refuting and rebuking the one in error in order to warn the flock and drive the wolf away. Note this carefully, the faithful teaching or ruling elder will not only teach sound doctrine but must also refute bad doctrine. “He must hold firm to the trustworthy word as taught, so that he may be able to give instruction in sound doctrine and also to rebuke those who contradict it.” (Tit. 1:9)
When a pastor or elder refutes a false teacher he may rightly do so sharply, like the barking of the dog, so that the firmness of his language alerts the flock to the danger of the attack. “Therefore rebuke them sharply, that they may be sound in the faith.” (Tit. 1:13) Our beloved dog Ginger was a wonderful watchdog. Once, during the workday when one of our young teen sons was home alone from school sick, three robbers were attempting to break into our house. Our son was terrified, but Ginger outside saw them, and barking fiercely, chased them off. We had a new appreciation of her bark after that!
Jesus rebuked the false teachers of his day sharply to alert his flock.
For you are like whitewashed tombs, which outwardly appear beautiful, but within are full of dead people’s bones and all uncleanness. (Matt. 23:27)
You serpents, you brood of vipers, how are you to escape being sentenced to hell? (Matt. 23:33)
The Apostle Peter rebuked false teachers sharply as well. “These are waterless springs and mists driven by a storm. For them, the gloom of utter darkness has been reserved.” (2 Pet. 2:17) The Apostle Paul was not mild in his rebuke of false teachers either. “I wish those who unsettle you would emasculate themselves!” (Gal. 5:12) Paul would regularly warn the church away from false teachers while denouncing them sharply.
I appeal to you, brothers, to watch out for those who cause divisions and create obstacles contrary to the doctrine that you have been taught; avoid them. For such persons do not serve our Lord Christ, but their own appetites, and by smooth talk and flattery they deceive the hearts of the naive. (Rom. 16:17-18)
Recently, Uptown Church posted a blog from Pastor Mike Kruger which accurately and appropriately criticized some contemporary erroneous teaching. While some have criticized this, most reliable pastors and theologians have read it with approval, aware of the danger of this teaching, as well as the duty of faithful pastors to bark, that is, to refute false teaching as they alert the church.
This work is difficult and unpleasant for us as pastors, we far more enjoy being able to endorse books and teachers for the church, the positive aspect of shepherding the flock. But pastors are duty-bound and accountable to Christ for both preaching truth and refuting error. Therefore when you hear a faithful pastor barking—refuting error—sit up and take notice, for he is faithfully serving you as a member of his flock, as Ginger faithfully served our family.
Do not be surprised either that the language he uses is sharp, like the bark of a dog, God has given the pastor two voices, as Calvin says, a gentle one with which to call the flock and a harsh one to frighten away wolves.
The pastor ought to have two voices: one, for gathering the sheep; and another, for warding off and driving away wolves and thieves. The Scripture supplies him with the means of doing both; for he who is deeply skilled in it will be able both to govern those who are teachable and to refute the enemies of the truth.
Calvin, Commentary, Titus 1:9.
It is important that Christians understand this duty of their pastors and elders and take note when their pastors alert them to false teachers. Contrary to the spirit of our age, truth and falsehood do matter, both now and for eternity. “They refused to love the truth and so be saved.” (2 Thess. 2:10) When you hear your faithful pastor bark, know that real danger lurks near and move closer to the safety of the eternal Word of God.
Author: Dr. Thomas D. Hawkes