Neither individual Christians nor congregations of Christians are required to be victims. Wizened by the word of God, we know that "Satan masquerades as an angel of light" (II Cor. 11:14). We know about and should be prepared for "ferocious wolves...in sheep's' clothing" (Mt. 7:15) who will "not spare the flock" (Acts 20:29).
These Bible words teach us that we will most certainly become the targets of people who pretend to be faithful brethren, but who are not. Instead, they are camouflaged predators who target Christians for different kinds of schemes. Who are these predators? What can we do about them?
Kinds of Wolves; Kinds of Clothing
Just as there are different subspecies of wolves in the wild, there are different kinds of wolves in sheep's clothing. False teachers are one kind of wolf (Mt. 7:15). A second kind are personal power seekers who "draw away disciples after themselves" (Acts 20:30). Sheep-fleecing confidence men are a third kind of wolf, who "in their greed...make up clever lies to get hold of your money" (II Pet. 2:3). Not specifically mentioned in scripture is the fourth kind of wolf, the creepy kind, who are pathologically, even criminally dangerous.
As dangerous as these wolves are at face value, they become even more dangerous due to their name-sake method. They are not wolves in wolves' clothing. They are wolves in sheep's clothing.
Instead of coming to us with barred fangs and a chilling howl, they disguise their danger beneath appealing, even disarming exteriors. Knowing that sheep are trusting by nature, the worst kinds of wolves use our trust as a weapon against us, taking advantage of the unprepared by being clothed in apparent kindness and worthiness.
Kinds of Responses
Paul specifically equipped Christians and churches to deal with the first two kinds of wolves. False teachers and power seekers are the subject of Romans 16:17: "I urge you...to watch out for those who cause divisions and put obstacles in your way that are contrary to the teaching your have learned. Keep away from them" (see also II Thess. 3:14, Tit. 3:10, II Jn. 10). These passages teach that isolation is the best protection. We are to "keep watch" (Acts 20:28), and keep our distance.
Wolves who seek to financially fleece the flock, the third kind, require a special kind of response. Christian sheep are eager to assist others, so eager that con men (yes, they are out there; yes, they are in here) are remarkably successful at tricking us into giving them more and more and more money. But Bible principles arm us against being gullible. Christians should be the focus of our benevolence (Gal. 6:10), with older sisters (Acts 6:1+, I Tim. 5:1-15), widows and orphans (Jas. 1:27), and brethren who are enduring crisis situations (II Cor. 8) as primary beneficiaries.
Paul told the Thessalonians more about how to identify and respond to this third kind of wolf: "The one who is unwilling to work shall not eat" (II Thess. 3:10). Habitual non-workers, in other words, who become habitual beggars, are not due habitual assistance. This is an applications of the "Tough Love" ethic - we do not help anyone by helping them remain helpless.
Perhaps the most dangerous kind of wolf, and the most difficult to protect ourselves against, is the fourth kind, the creepy kind. About 1% - 2% of the population are clinically psychopathic. These are bold, cunning, and subtly aggressive criminal offenders and sexual offenders who are in no way hindered by moral restraints. Deceptive and exploitive, psychopaths are skilled liars who fit perfectly in sheep's clothing. They are mean-spirited predators with sweet smiles on their faces.
How can churches and Christians guard against criminal offenders and sexual offenders? Somehow, perfectly capable decision-makers lose their powers of critical thinking when they put on their church clothes. This extreme naiveté is not necessary. Jesus said, "I am sending you out as sheep in the midst of wolves, so be wise as serpents and innocent as doves" (Mt. 10:16).
At least half of out thinking, then, should be characterized by the counter-cunning intuition of snakes. This seasoned intuition alerts us about who should not date our teen-age daughter and who should not be allowed access to our elementary-age children. Being "wise as serpents" means that "no" is just as Christian as "yes."
In a perfect world, there would be no need to think about wolves in sheep's clothing. In "this present evil world" (Gal. 1:4), however, ravenous wolves are a real threat. Living in this world, Christians and churches must act accordingly. Neither individual Christians nor congregations of Christians are required to be victims.