False teaching has been and will continue to be one of the primary battlefronts in which pastors must engage in combat to protect the biblical fidelity of the local church. However, one could argue that the information age opened the floodgates to a watershed of false doctrine streaming into the local church in a way that we have yet to experience in her history.
The epistemological and moral relativism of our culture has weaponized the wolves that seek to devour the doctrinal integrity of our congregations. The tactics are often subtle, but the implications reveal themselves swiftly when divisions, dissensions, falsehoods, and distortions contort the unity of our people. For this reason, protecting the sheep from wolves through our preaching is indispensable as we minister in the modern world.
Once again, this conflict is nothing new. The Apostle Paul addresses this very issue in his final plead to the elders of Ephesus in Acts 20. As Paul approaches the end of his life and begins to recede into the shadows from direct oversight of a congregation in Ephesus, he gathers the elders for specific instruction as he passes on the mantle of leadership. This farewell address is instructive to us as pastors because one doesn’t use their “last words” without saying something that is all-important and necessary. When considering what it looks like to guard the sheep against wolves through preaching, it would serve us well to consider the dying Apostle’s instruction to those who would be the protectors of the church in Acts 20:17-36.
Consider the Protector’s Courage
First, the pastor must courageously protect the flock through his preaching. In Acts 20:18, Paul poses a question to the elders in Ephesus as a means of example, “consider how I was with you.” In asking this question, he is calling them to examine his life in the context of his calling. If the elders were to look back at the sum and substance of Paul’s ministry, one of the many examples he set for those who would follow him as leaders was that of courage in biblical instruction.
As Paul says in Acts 20:20, “I did not shrink back from teaching anything that’s profitable for you.” Like Paul, we as pastors understand that while all biblical teaching is profitable, not all teaching is comfortable. There will always be a temptation to shrink back from preaching what is profitable when the consequences of confronting false doctrine place one in a precarious position. But the example of Paul is of one who preached the entire counsel of God courageously, without shrinking back from controversial or confrontational instruction.
Consider the Protector’s Call
Second, the consequences of preaching will inevitably call to mind the stewardship pastors have received from God. At the end of this address, Paul exhorts the elders to watch their own lives and to watch over the flock God has called them to: “Be on guard for yourselves and for all the flock of which the Holy Spirit has appointed you as overseers, to shepherd the church of God, which he purchased with his own blood” (Acts 20:28). Notice that Paul first reminds these elders of their call by God to serve in this role–namely, it is the Holy Spirit that appoints pastors to such work.
Certainly, there must be a desire in the heart of those called to take up the noble task of pastoral ministry (1 Timothy 3). The local congregation affirms an elder’s calling (we see this at the beginning of Acts 13). However, before the man desires the task and before the congregation affirms the call, God’s Spirit is the one who calls men to the pastorate.
Therefore, if God is the one from whom we receive the ministry we are to fulfill, then we are ultimately accountable to Him in our preaching. The One who has appointed you expects that you carry your responsibilities out in a manner worthy of His Word. No one, then, should take the office of pastor, or the call to preach lightly. The reason is simple, the church is extremely valuable to God because she was purchased by the blood of Jesus. It is by his precious blood that the church is covered in atonement and called together as “one body”. Thus, protecting the unity of the body is dependent on doctrinal fidelity in preaching.
Consider the Protector’s Combat
Third, because pastors are accountable to God, and the church is loved by Christ – so much that he died to form her – there are several things that one must be ready to fight for. As Acts 20:29-30 reminds us:
I know that after my departure savage wolves will come in among you, not sparing the flock. Men will rise up even from your own number and distort the truth to lure the disciples into following them.
Paul warns the elders about what will happen after his departure – the wolves will seek to distort the truth of God. Pastors know that churches don’t only face the threat of wolves on the outside and that sometimes wolves will “come in among” the believers. Anyone who threatens the unity of a church by division or the purity of the church by personal unrepentant sin should be viewed as a potential wolf. And if they are a wolf, the leaders must protect the flock. It’s been said that a good shepherd doesn’t coddle wolves, they shoot them. The pastor must not only be watchful, but willing to go to combat with the savage wolves that seek to devour the unity of the church.
Consider the Protector’s Confidence
Fourth, after his example and warning, Paul gives the elders a wonderful word of assurance in Acts 20:32: “And now I commit you to God and to the word of his grace, which is able to build you up and to give you an inheritance among all who are sanctified.” This is an important reminder from Paul that highlights the Word of God – centrally a message of grace – which holds the power to protect the church from being led astray. Interestingly enough, Paul notes here and elsewhere that God is ultimately the true and faithful protector of his church (2 Timothy 2:19).
In other words, pastors don’t shepherd alone. There might be times when pastors face the temptation to shrink back when considering the personal implications of faithfully expositing God’s Word, which may be met with hostility. Therefore, it is important to remember God’s promises, presence, and power, which bring much-needed comfort and assurance to pastors as they seek to fulfill their call.
Consider the Pastor’s Compassion
Finally, we all know that the instructive words of a faithful pastor will often cut. We know that there is a difference between performing theological surgery with a scalpel rather than a sledgehammer. When a pastor’s words cut, they should cut to heal. In pastoral ministry, God calls his shepherds to speak the truth in loving compassion. Love without truth will only bring empty sentimentality. Truth without love only leads to careless devastation. So, notice that in Acts 20:31, Paul states that he “…never stopped warning each one of you with tears.”
Speaking the truth in love afforded the opportunity for Paul to say without reservation in 20:26-27, “Therefore I declare to you this day that I am innocent of the blood of all of you, because I did not avoid declaring to you the whole plan of God.” The words in this verse recall the description of the watchman in Ezekiel 33:1-7. A watchman was required to stay composed and alert at the city walls while the rest of the population rested. A watchman must always be awake and ready to sound the alarm when danger was near. If the watchman warns and the people do not heed his words, their blood is on their own heads. If the people are not warned, their blood is on the head of the watchman. Courageous preaching done in a posture of love requires protective compassion.
Once again, there remains a temptation in the hearts of all men to shrink back when the truth of God’s Word confronts the personal sins and godless cultural dispositions shaping those in the congregation. It would do us well as pastors to not only consider Paul’s words here in Acts 20 but also ponder the questions:
When I stand before Christ on the last day, will there be anything I should have said that I didn’t?
Were there any biblical texts I shied away from in cowardice?
In my preaching, did I make it clear what false teachings must be rejected (Romans 16:17; Titus 1:9; 2 John 9–10)?
Did I exhort the church to know what is true and worth holding on to (1 Timothy 3:9; Revelation 2:24)?
If we do not protect the flock from the wolves that seek to devour the doctrinal fidelity of those under our care, how will they distinguish between right and wrong? If we do not preach the whole counsel of God, how will all sin be confronted and corrected? There is a certain sobriety that is required when considering what is at stake here. The church is the most important organization in the world, and how we lead her has implications that stretch into eternity. Because of her importance both here and in eternity, the flock of God is the primary target of every demonic and hostile attack of the defeated one.
We understand that Jesus guaranteed that the gates of hell will never prevail against the church, but He made no guarantee that the gates of hell would not be unleashed against it. The call to pastor is surrender, but the call to minister is war. Therefore, it is with confidence and compassion, that pastors must courageously preach the whole counsel of God. This is our call, to protect the flock.