In Acts 17, Paul visits a backwater town called Berea to preach the gospel. The people of this region stuck out (and were actually called "more noble" than their neighbors) because they were a questioning bunch. They listened to Paul teach and instead of just accepting or rejecting his message, they would only trust his teaching after they studied the scriptures for themselves to see if what he was saying jived with God's Word.
These guys challenged authority. They were godly nonconformists. They asked tough questions and had a healthy skeptical trust that led them to continually center themselves on God's word instead of man's traditions. These are the people in our churches who say, "Hey Steve. I enjoyed that sermon. I am going to have to do some digging to see if I agree with it."
I love Bereans. May their tribe increase.
There is another tribe in our churches, though, and we must become skilled in telling the two of them apart. The other tribe are ravenous wolves. Paul warned the elders in Ephesus in Acts 20 about them:
Pay careful attention to yourselves and to all the flock, in which the Holy Spirit has made you overseers, to care for the church of God, which he obtained with his own blood. I know that after my departure fierce wolves will come in among you, not sparing the flock; and from among your own selves will arise men speaking twisted things, to draw away the disciples after them. Therefore be alert, remembering that for three years I did not cease night or day to admonish everyone with tears. (Acts 20:28-31, italics mine)
Paul makes it clear that one of my responsibilities as an elder in the church of God is to protect the flock from wolves because they will not spare the flock.
But here is a tough question: how can you tell the difference between a Berean and a Wolf? It can be hard to tell the difference between someone who is asking tough questions, even challenging cherished ideas, in a way that is healthy for them and for the church and another who questions in such a way that the sheep are hurt and the church derailed. This is an important question because the Berean should be encouraged, strengthened, and imitated while the Wolf should be cracked over the head with a staff.
This question hems us in with danger on both sides. If we ignore the issue altogether because we lack the stomach for conflict or because we are afraid that we will smack the wrong dudes, we are passive, self-serving shepherds who allow the flock to be attacked under our watch. On the other hand, if we squelch all challenging voices we become authoritarian abusers who need to be smacked ourselves.
Paul helps us out here - by looking at his description of wolves, we can make it much easier to differentiate between Bereans and Wolves. So, here are a few things that may be helpful:
1. Bereans ask tough questions. Wolves “speak twisted things.”
While Bereans are asking questions in humility to generate discussion and light, Wolves don't ask questions, they question. They are not looking to be taught - they are looking to teach. They do it be tearing down the authority of the church (and the leaders of the church) in order to assert their twisted teachings.
Bereans, while asking tough questions, show a humility that leads to greater learning (sometimes for everyone, not just them). Wolves show arrogance that shuts down discussion with the purpose of asserting their own position and influence.
2. Bereans engage leaders. Wolves attack the sheep.
The Bereans engaged Paul after his teaching - they challenged him, asked tough questions, and then dug into the scriptures. Their purpose was to learn, to become disciples. The Wolves generally focus their questions to the sheep (even though they are questioning the shepherds). Why? Because they aren't interested in becoming better disciples. Their goal is to “draw disciples away after themselves.”
3. Bereans might be immature and challenging, but they are teachable and have joy. Wolves have answers, not questions, and are driven by bitterness.
One of the reasons Bereans are so enjoyable to have around is that they just love the truth. They are teachable and eager to learn. They challenge us as teachers with their curiosity, confusion, and desire to learn more, but their challenge actually re-ignites our own love for the Word and for learning.
Wolves don't have joy and don't produce joy in others. They are bitter and tend to spread fear, distrust, and pride. They are predators - they want to devour others to make themselves feel important, worthwhile, or significant. They are also parasites - they show up in our churches because they want to leach off the church's success in gathering and discipling others. They want to approach people who are already disciples and seek to draw them away to themselves.
If you are a leader in God's church, you have no choice but to get good at finding the wolves in Bereans' clothing. If you don't, your flock will be attacked and your leadership derailed. If you are a good leader, though, you will also encourage your people to imitate the Bereans and find their final authority in the Word of God.