The idea of wolves and sheep as the dichotomy of good and evil is deeply ingrained in Western thought. The metaphor of a “wolf in sheep’s clothing” has origins as old as time and is referenced in the Bible and countless times in classical and modern literature, music, and Saturday morning cartoons.
First of all, this idea of wolves vs. sheep just makes logical sense. We all know that sheep are vulnerable and weak. They have little defense against predators. They tend to wander off when unattended. That’s why sheep need a shepherd. The shepherd feeds them, keeps them from wandering off the edge of a cliff, and protects them from predators.
Sheep are much easier to take down than cattle and make a much bigger meal than a chicken. They are the perfect size and weight to make them an ideal target for a pack of wolves or coyotes or a big cat. Even a lone wolf can easily take a sheep.
The second reason for the popularity of the wolves vs. sheep narrative in the church is a warning given during the Sermon on the Mount. In Matthew 7:15, Jesus tells us to, “Beware of false prophets, which come to you in sheep's clothing, but inwardly they are ravening wolves.”
I think we’ve all seen a “wolf in sheep’s clothing” situation unfold. It always looks different, but the end results are the same. I can think of stories ranging from fraud to sexual misconduct to murder.
I’m sure we’ve all heard the name, Jim Jones. He founded The People’s Temple in Indianapolis, where my step-grandfather actually attended services for a time, before Jones moved the congregation to California. Eventually he uprooted the church again and founded “Jonestown” in Guyana, South America. This was to be their paradise. Heaven on earth.
It turned out to be hell for everyone but Jones. Eventually, he would order the murder of U.S. Congressman Leo Ryan and four others at a nearby airstrip. Congressman Ryan had been investigating concerns of abuse and coercion by the cult. This event was followed by a mass-scale murder/suicide at the Jonestown compound. A total of 918 people (304 of which were children) lost their lives, thanks to the misguided passion of a charismatic revival preacher turned nefarious doomsday cult leader.
The wolf in sheep’s clothing ordeal isn’t always so cut and dried, however. It’s easy to look at someone else, especially after their spectacular fall from grace, and say, “I saw that one coming! He always looked like a wolf in sheep’s clothing to me…”
We always assume we are the sheep, which is why it’s a little more difficult to spot the wolf when he flashes his bloody fangs in the mirror…
It’s just like Splatoon...
There is a false dilemma fallacy at work here. Wolves vs. sheep. Us vs. them. The “good guys” vs. the “bad guys”. Which brings me to my next point. You are always the “good guy” in Splatoon.
For those who don’t have an inkling of what I’m talking about (See what I did there?), Splatoon is a third person shooter style video game on the Nintendo Switch (and the ill-fated Wii U), in which the objective is to cover as much of the play area as possible in your team’s color of ink or paint (or whatever it is) and to attack the other team in order to prevent them from doing the same. This is accomplished through the use of a wide array of “weapons” that range from sprayers and rollers to paint bazookas and ink-powered jetpacks.
My son plays this game quite a bit and I usually just watch. I’ve played a few times and I’m just terrible. At the end of each round, the percentages are displayed on the screen, indicating which team marked the most territory. Here’s the funny thing, no matter whether you’re on the pink team or the green team, you are labeled as the “good guys” and the other team is designated the “bad guys”.
This is how we approach everything in life. We want to shoehorn politics, religion, business, sports, and anything else we can think of, into this model of “good guys” vs. “bad guys”. The 2016 election cycle was the most toxic that I can recall and it revolved around this faulty logic. Each side tried their best to paint the other as the “bad guys”. There was very little talk of what anyone believed in. Hilary Clinton’s entire platform was “I’m not Trump”. Donald Trump’s entire platform consisted of variations of “at least I’m not crooked Hilary”. Not a lot to work with there.
The crazy thing about Splatoon (and many political contests) is that no one knows what they’re fighting for. The only reason you are going head to head with the “bad guys” is that you are the “good guys” and that’s what you are supposed to do. You fight the other team because they are the other team.
It’s completely arbitrary, which is fine when the point is just a few hours of mindless fun. There’s one problem, though. This isn’t a video game. When people’s souls are at stake, the “we’re good, so they’re bad” logic can’t be good enough.
We know this, yet I have seen more Christians bash people of other faiths (by far) than I have seen reach out and actually try to build a connection on common ground. We’ve been programmed to view everything as a dichotomy, which is just not how the world works.
For many, the convenience of this false dicotomy is bettter than the difficult truth of the all-encompassing love of Christ.
Three Sheep and a Lion
The truth about the wolves and sheep is that it isn’t the truth at all. The real story is a story of a lion, a shepherd, and three different sheep.
We are the sheep (even though we sometimes act like wolves) and Jesus is the Good Shepherd. We have concluded that this fact doesn’t necessarily mean that everyone else is a wolf, but let’s go a little deeper.
The Bible tells the story of three types of sheep that are all in need of a shepherd.
The sheep. The other sheep. The lost sheep.
If we are the sheep, who are the “other sheep”? In John 10:16, Jesus speaks of “other sheep” that are “not of this fold”. I believe these to be those who believe in God, maybe going so far as to be actively religious, but lacking a personal experience or relationship with Jesus. I will go so far as to suggest that the adherents of the other Abrahamic religions (Judaism and Islam) would be classified as such. They want to know the God of Abraham. I believe that if they are sincerely seeking God and remain open to his leading, they will be drawn into the beautiful truth of a relationship with Jesus Christ. These are the other sheep.
The “lost sheep” are simply unbelievers. Atheists, agnostics, and the “unchurched” may fall into this category, but I would also include Hindus, Taoists, Buddhists, Sikhs, Bahá'ís, Occultists, Wiccans, other Pagans, Satanists, etc.
Another thought on “lost sheep”... Jesus said he would leave the 99 to find the one lost sheep. From that statement, it would seem that we should do the same. Now, I’m not saying that we shouldn’t go after the lost sheep, but the problem is we don’t know which lost sheep to go after.
Only the shepherd knows.
Many times I’ve been pretty sure I knew who the lost sheep wasn’t. Many times I’ve been wrong. I would assume that the person in question wasn’t “lost” per se, they knew right where they were, but were perfectly happy there. Oftentimes, it turned out that was the person who was desperately searching for God.
There are certain sheep who are longing to hear the Shepherd's voice, but don't know where to look. (They're just sheep after all...) We must pray that God will lead us to these sheep. A connection with a lost sheep who is looking for the Shepherd is going to be 1,000x more effective than simply yelling the message to 1,000 lost sheep who couldn't care less.
Not only must we pray for guidance; we must pray for sensitivity to the Spirit. God can put that one person right in front of your face and not recognize them. Trust me I know. (More on that next week.)
This brings us to the lion.
The lion is Satan. I Peter 5:8 says that Satan is a “roaring lion” who roams the earth “seeking whom he may devour”. Forget about the wolves. The wolves aren’t wolves, anyway. They’re just other sheep.
Be vigilant regarding the lion, but not fearful. If the sheep are under the protection of the shepherd, they need not be afraid.
This is the importance of evangelism. It is our duty to connect with the other sheep. Sheep of a different fold. Lost sheep. As we connect with them, they will be exposed to the love of Christ and drawn under the protection of the Shepherd.
It all starts with common ground. We can’t connect with people any other way. It may be a daunting task, but we must rise to the occasion. Time is short. We have to close our mouths and open our hearts.
Common ground is there to be found, but actually taking the time to find it has become extremely uncommon.
1. Which sheep do I tend to treat like wolves?
2. How can we change the attitudes in our church culture that cause us to act like wolves ourselves?
3. When discussing religion and politics, where is the line, that if crossed, will damage or destroy my witness?
Check out the first installment of the (Un)Common Ground series here.