One of the responsibilities of pastors is to guard the flock against wolves. Paul brings up this issue in his address to the Ephesian elders in Acts 20—a topic we pondered a bit when we covered that passage in our current sermon series.
The point isn’t unique to this text. Almost every New Testament writer includes at least some reference to false teaching in his own day or in the future. Even Jesus warned: “Beware of false prophets, who come to you in sheep’s clothing but inwardly are ravenous wolves.” (Mt 7:15)
It’s not a pleasant responsibility, but it’s a necessary one. Wolves ravage sheep, and it’s the job of shepherds to make certain that doesn’t happen—which is why, as I pointed out in that sermon, you may detect a little reserve among our elders toward nonmembers. The reason is plain: wolves exist, they prey on sheep, and it’s the job of shepherds to watch out for them.
Of course, it should go without saying that I’m not referring to newcomers who are just visiting our church and getting to know us. If that’s you, take your time! Examine us well. Take the full test drive—attend a prayer meeting, visit a care group, observe a congregational meeting, meet with the elders, inspect the lives of our members. Our elders welcome newcomers with open arms. The reason is obvious: newcomers aren’t in position to destroy sheep, which requires familiarity and trust.
Wise elders are wary and cautious—not embracing all comers, but examining each to see what they are. All are welcome to gather with us, but wise shepherds know that not all actually belong to us. This is one reason we allow only members to serve in official ministry capacities—it’s one way we guard the flock from wolves. Membership is the elders’ (and the rest of the church’s) endorsement of certain people, indicating: “These guys understand the gospel, profess to believe it, and show its fruit in their lives. Best we can tell, you can trust them.”
As I suggested in that sermon, folks inside the church sometimes get this exactly backwards. They want the elders to welcome everybody coming in and overlook everybody headed out. Ultimately, it’s all very democratic. But God’s word won’t allow it. He gives elders the responsibility to talk to people at the front door and the back door—the front, to make sure they aren’t wolves looking to eat sheep; and the back, to make sure they aren’t sheep wandering off to feed the wolves.