Issues Facing Missions Today: 56. When Wolves Come Among
You: Paul’s Speech to the
[This post continues New Testament studies on false teaching and ministry in the Church. Such studies are relevant for understanding mission as Church renewal, which is a particular need in the Church's mission to the West (but not only there) in our time.]
If there was one certainty the early Church had about its future, it was that it would be plagued by persecution from without and false teaching from within. Jesus, himself, was crucified by the Roman and Jewish leaders and betrayed by Judas, and he warned of false prophets who would arise as wolves in sheep’s clothing (Matthew 7.15). Even persons intimately involved in ministry could be false ministers:
Matthew 7:21-23 "Not everyone who says to me, 'Lord, Lord,' will enter the kingdom of heaven, but only the one who does the will of my Father in heaven. 22 On that day many will say to me, 'Lord, Lord, did we not prophesy in your name, and cast out demons in your name, and do many deeds of power in your name?' 23 Then I will declare to them, 'I never knew you; go away from me, you evildoers.'
Paul also warned of savage wolves preying on the Church. His final address to the elders of the church of Ephesus is a somber warning of this very thing. He tells them to be on guard for the divisions that will arise in the Church because of false ministers and their false teachings. This post looks at Paul’s speech to the Ephesian elders in Acts 20.18-35.
Not all divisive issues are of equal importance. Matters of indifference in the early Church entailed differences over food, drink, circumcision, and days of religious observance (e.g., Galatians 6:15; 1 Corinthians 7.9; 8.1-10.31; Romans 14.1-15.13). More significant matters were matters essential to Christian faith and to salvation. For example, Paul began ministry to new converts with teaching on sexual ethics, communal love, and living a quiet life in society (1 Thessalonians 4.1-8, 9-10, 11-12).
Paul’s warning to the Ephesian elders is not over matters of indifference in the church. He speaks to several kinds of issues, which we might categorize as ministerial and convictional issues.
Paul contrasts the nature of his ministry with false ministers on a number of points.
Humility, Meekness, Gentleness
Paul emphasizes that his ministry was conducted in humility (Acts 20.19). This is an issue that had arisen earlier in his ministry as he encountered pretentious ministers who had arrived in Corinth. These ‘super apostles’ tried to minister out of their personal authority rather than the authority of the Gospel (2 Corinthians 10-12). Over against such ministers, Paul set before the Corinthian church the ministerial conduct of Christ himself. They may have been perfectly acceptable to the Corinthian church because they fit rather well into the pattern of travelling orators in the Graeco-Roman world. However, Paul sets over against them the ‘meekness and gentleness of Christ’ (2 Corinthians 10.1). Indeed, he sought to model his own conduct after Christ, being humble and yet destroying ‘every proud obstacle raised up against the knowledge of God’ (2 Corinthians 10.1, 4-5). His ministry was gentle, like the care given to children (1 Thessalonians 2.7)—a gentleness that, nevertheless, corrects others out of love for them.
Paul realized that, in his case, financial independence in ministry was important. He recognized his right to be paid for ministry (1 Corinthians 9.1-18), yet he saw that remuneration could be construed in such a way that it would be an obstacle to his ministry. Rather than being a means to some personal gain, he wanted the ministry to be understood as an obligation laid upon him (1 Corinthians 9.16). Nor did he want anyone to be able to accuse him of coveting what others had:
Acts 20:33-34 I coveted no one's silver or gold or clothing. 34 You know for yourselves that I worked with my own hands to support myself and my companions.
This same issue arises in various ways in the Church today. Where salaries, medical benefits, pensions, manses, mission support, and other benefits offered to ministers create a dependency that leads to some compromise of the Gospel, the situation is comparable to Paul’s. How easy it is for a minister to look the other way when an elder in the church needs correction because the same elder is determining the minister’s salary. How easy it may be for a minister or bishop to compromise the Gospel when a heretical church or compromised archbishop offers money along with political, moral, or doctrinal changes contrary to Scripture. Thus, Paul reminds the elders in Ephesus that his ministry among them was self-supported and therefore untainted (Acts 20.33-34).
Paul also saw his own work to support his ministry as a way to model work for the Christian community. As community could lead to dependency relationships, where some persons benefit from the gifts and labours of others, Paul wanted to offer an alternative arrangement. He wanted to provide the example of service instead of dependency, where able-bodied persons worked to support the weak. He said to the Ephesians,
Acts 20:34-35 You know for yourselves that I worked with my own hands to support myself and my companions. 35 In all this I have given you an example that by such work we must support the weak, remembering the words of the Lord Jesus, for he himself said, 'It is more blessed to give than to receive.'"
Pastoral Correction, with Tears
Financial independence gave Paul freedom to correct persons, which was essential for a ministry of the Gospel. Proclamation of the Gospel called people to change their lives—their beliefs and behaviours—in significant ways. Ministry was not and should not be passive, conducted only by invitation, or entail a softening of the truth. It is still confrontational even if done with humility and gentleness, with sincerity and conviction and out of love and caring concern. Paul said to the Thessalonians that he and those ministering with him ‘made demands as apostles of Christ’ (1 Thessalonians 2.7). The minister must guard against any distortion of the truth in order to gain people’s favour. Paul says,
Acts 20:30-31 Some even from your own group will come distorting the truth in order to entice the disciples to follow them. 31 Therefore be alert, remembering that for three years I did not cease night or day to warn everyone with tears.
Paul’s compassion and desire for fellowship with the church did not cause him to soften the Gospel; rather, it led him to tears in admonishing persons to receive Christ and transform their ways. He said to the Thessalonian church,
1 Thessalonians 2:11-12 As you know, we dealt with each one of you like a father with his children, 12 urging and encouraging you and pleading that you lead a life worthy of God, who calls you into his own kingdom and glory.
Paul’s compassion for the church is also seen in his direct involvement in their lives. He does not simply want to write them letters, but he prays to be present with them in order to ‘restore whatever is lacking in your faith’ (1 Thessalonians 3.10). Indeed, his presence in ministry was not to affirm communal unity in itself but in order to have such unity through his sharing the spiritual gift of his ministry among them (Romans 1.10). His ministry involved preparing Christians to be an acceptable and sanctified offering to God (Romans 15.16).
Thus, Paul reminds the Ephesian elders that he had ministered among them in just these ways. He never distorted the truth, as some false ministers would inevitably do among them (Acts 20.30). Nor did he tell half the truth so as to avoid any conflict or to pander to what ‘itching ears’ wanted to hear (cf. 2 Timothy 4.3). Rather, he says, ‘I did not shrink from declaring to you the whole purpose of God’ (Acts 20.27).
Paul understood how essential ministry in person was. While he did minister in public settings, he also ministered from house to house (Acts 20.20). His ministry among the Galatians took place through intimate fellowship, which appears to be why God used some infirmity of his to draw people into close relationships (Galatians 4.13-15). The closeness of this relationship did not, however, lead Paul to soften the truth that it was his duty to share (Galatians 4.16). The close relationship was, rather, like that of a mother, who endures the pain of childbirth for her children ‘until Christ is formed in you’ (Galatians 5.19).
Any pastor finding his or her ministry to be more from the pulpit than from around the kitchen table is a minister who has lost touch with the intensely personal calling of pastoral ministry. Thus, Paul exhorts the Ephesian elders to care for the church of God, which Christ obtained with his own blood (Acts 20.28). The supreme cost of obtaining the Church—through Christ’s blood—also reminds us of the priceless value of the Church. No minister can take his or her responsibilities lightly, and no minister can narrow ministry to services and programmes when the Church was established through a very personal, blood sacrifice.
Paul’s speech to the Ephesian elders picks up some of the content of the convictions on which ministry is based, the essential teaching that ministers are called to teach. He mentions (1) repentance toward God, which means that the Church is composed of persons who (a) acknowledge their sins and (b) repent of their sins. Also, (2) Christian convictions centre on ‘faith in our Lord Jesus Christ’ (Acts 20.21). Thus, Christian teaching entails trusting in the salvation that God provides in Jesus Christ, the Lord of the Church. There are no alternative paths of salvation. As Peter said to the rulers and elders of the Jews,
Acts 4:12 There is salvation in no one else, for there is no other name under heaven given among mortals by which we must be saved."
Further, (3) in this speech Paul spoke of the ‘Gospel of the grace of God’ (Acts 20.24). God’s grace—His salvation—was a free offer, but it was an offer of life in the kingdom (v. 25), and therefore it involved the offer to submit to the ‘whole counsel of God’ (Acts 20.37). Only so, could Christ be called ‘Lord.’ Grace was not license, but citizenship, life in the Kingdom of God. Entrance was free, by the blood of Christ, and yet it was, after all, an entrance into life with Jesus Christ the Lord. Thus, Paul’s ministry was not only a proclamation of God’s grace but also a declaration of the ‘whole counsel of God’ (Acts 20.37).
The Church, then, is a community that is commended to God and to His grace. This is an offer of inclusion, whether to Jews or to Gentiles—that is, to everyone who will answer the invitation. But it is more. The Church does not merely receive God’s message, for His message is an active Word among them that is able to build them up such that they will receive an inheritance ‘among all who are sanctified’ (Acts 20.32).
Whenever ‘savage wolves’ come among the flock—Paul is saying—they will turn the sheep away from the truth so as to gain followers for themselves (Acts 20.29-30). They speak twisted things. Such wolves in the Church regularly devalue Scriptural authority, discount orthodox teaching, and undermine Christian ethics. It is a pattern regularly repeated since the early days of the Church and one that Paul warned against with tears. Thus, elders in the Church are to pay attention to their own lives and to the flock in their care. They are to remember that their ministry is as overseers appointed by the Holy Spirit to shepherd the flock (Acts 20.28).
Acts 20.18-35, Paul’s speech to the Ephesian elders, is a speech about divisions that will inevitably come to the church. It is an instructive word for the Church today. We learn, first, that there will be divisions—faultlines—in the Christian community. The Church is not to labour to smooth over these divisions but to identify them and their causes and to recognize that some in the Church are not shepherds but savage wolves. The first pastoral duty is to overcome the instinct to find unity where there is serious error. Only so can one heed Paul’s warning.
Second, error can develop through a harmful understanding of ministry itself. We can put into effect practices in ministry that will actually harm the people of God. Paul encourages the Ephesian elders and other churches to affirm humility, meekness, and gentleness rather than power in Christian ministry. He commends financial arrangements that will not compromise the Gospel and the concern in pastoral ministry to speak the truth rather than what people will want to hear. The pastor’s heart is not soft towards the truth but towards people, and he or she can only be so by presenting to the flock the whole counsel of God. The pastor, moreover, is to be in intimate fellowship with the flock, not aloof. He or she is to be so involved in the lives of the church that he or she visits from house to house and admonishes persons with tears to let Christ be formed in them. This life-on-life ministry is essential for keeping wolves at bay from the flock that Christ purchased with his own blood.
Paul also warns of the distorted content of the wolves’ teaching. They will distort and soften the full counsel of God, accommodating the truth to what people wish to hear rather than what God has revealed in His Word. They thereby undermine the Lordship of Christ while they promote ideas that do not separate the Church from the world but blur the distinction altogether. We might remember that Paul’s letters to Timothy were written to him in Ephesus, and therefore his warning against false teachers in 2 Timothy is quite relevant to the concern in Paul’s speech in Acts 20. Paul says to Timothy,
2 Timothy 4:3-4 For the time is coming when people will not put up with sound doctrine, but having itching ears, they will accumulate for themselves teachers to suit their own desires, 4 and will turn away from listening to the truth and wander away to myths.
 The ESV, NIV, and NRSV punctuate this verse in a way that separates being appointed as overseers from shepherding the church of God. However, the verse reads naturally as a single thought: the elders are appointed by the Holy Spirit to shepherd the flock: their authority as elders is not in being in a position of elder-leadership but in being responsible shepherds.