Gospel Reading: Matthew 7:15-21
Christ has taught us to beware of wolves in sheep’s clothing.
In the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, our God is one.
There once was this newlywed couple, and they started attending this small Orthodox Church. And they really liked the people there. And they liked what they learned there. But there was one particular doctrine that just didn’t quite set right with them. They just had trouble believing it. But they calmed their fears a bit, because they were assured by the priest and by the other people in this congregation, that this doctrine was true, it was Orthodox, it was Christian, it had been passed down from Jesus and the apostles, and was even confirmed by Scripture.
But as time went on, they met other Orthodox Christians from other parishes, and they found out that a lot of other Orthodox Christians that go to other churches–they had these same doubts. They had the same suspicion that this particular doctrine was not true. And so their own doubts arose again.
And this newlywed couple started doing some research. They talked to several Orthodox priests from other congregations, and lo-and-behold, these priests agreed with them, and not with their own priest, not with their own congregation. And then they went even farther, and they interviewed several Orthodox bishops, and all of the bishops they talked to once again agreed with them and their doubts, and did not agree with this one little church that sat in the minority.
And so, armed with this research, they finally decided to reject this particular doctrine. And instead of looking at themselves as being unorthodox and in the minority, they looked at their church as being unorthodox and in the minority. They looked at their priest, and the people in their church, as being outside of the teachings the Orthodox Church. And they took comfort in the fact that they were in agreement with all these other churches, and all these other priests, and all these other Orthodox bishops.
And in so doing, in the fourth century, this newlywed couple rejected the deity of Christ.
The 4th Century – Arianism
In the fourth century, in the Roman Empire, there was a scourge that infected the Church, not from without, but from within. It was the Arian heresy, the teaching that Jesus is not really God, that he was created.
And he [Arius] was a shrewd Orthodox priest. He even wrote songs; he might have been one of the first contemporary Christian musicians, circa fourth century A.D. He wrote this one song that said, “There was a time when He was not.” You can imagine that to a little praise and worship music–“There was a time that He was not”–singing about Jesus, saying that there was a time that He didn’t exist yet. “He was a created being. He’s the greatest of all created beings. He’s the tops, but He’s not God.”
For three centuries the church had suffered great persecution, bloody persecution, at the hands of various emperors the Roman Empire, all the way down to Diocletian. But once the bloodshed stopped, then the insidious infiltration began. For now you did not have wolves from without, overtly attacking and trying to shed the blood of Christians. You had wolves within, dressed in priests’ clothing, working to destroy the very souls of Christians.
Realize, Arius was not some pagan priest attacking Christianity. No, this was Father Arius. Orthodox Christians would go to his church every week and take communion from his hands. He had been ordained by an Orthodox bishop who was in the line from Christ and the apostles. This guy was legit, he had all the credentials. And we are not just talking a few weeks, or a few months, or even a few years, but we are talking a good two or three generations.
There was a period of time in the fourth century, that this was not some minority sidelined heresy, but this was what most Orthodox bishops and priests were teaching! Let that sink in for a moment. That was not just this one robed guy over here, this one robed bishop over here, it was the majority.
Now, there were famous exceptions, famous people who to this day we venerate as saints, and we look up to as defenders of Orthodoxy, defenders of the Christian faith. An excellent example is St. Athanasius of Alexandria, Egypt. He was a deacon by the time of the First Ecumenical Council in 325, and then he was later made priest and bishop. And he is known to this day as Athanasius, “contra mundum”–“against the world”.
And those who are ignorant of the Church’s history often assume that they know what that means. They think, “Oh! Well, of course he is against the world, as we all are, against the world, the flesh, and the devil, against the sinful world out there that’s attacking the Church and telling us not to be Christians. Yeah, he was against the world.”
Well, all Christians are against the world in that sense, all true Christians. But that’s not how he got that nickname. For, you see, they called him Athanasius–against the world of bishops. He is a saint in the church today, and venerated and honored today, because he had the guts to stand up against the majority of Orthodox bishops in his day, and called them liars to their face. He was standing against the world of the episcopate, of which he himself was a part.
He was exiled five times. He would be exiled, thrown out of Alexandria, and then he would come back. And then somebody else would be in power, and he would be exiled again, and he would have to leave. And then he would come back. And then he would be exiled, and then he would come back. He had a long, hard, difficult life of fighting for the historic Orthodox faith. And finally in the year 372, he reposed in the Lord, and he went to his reward.
Nine years later, in 381, is the Second Ecumenical Council in [Constantinople]. The emperor Theodosius is in power, and it is now made law of the Empire to hold to the Nicene Creed, and to believe in Jesus as God. And Orthodoxy finally won out. The Arians were finally pushed to the fringes. And even so, the Arian heresy persisted for a few hundred years. But never again did it become such a scourge within the Church itself.
The Fifth Century – Nestorianism
It is not the only time in history that this has happened. In the fifth century, if you lived in the center of Christendom worldwide, in Constantinople itself–the Hagia Sophia is where at the time you had the very heartbeat of Christianity–what used to be called Byzantium, and became the capital seat of the Byzantine–the Roman–Empire. In Constantinople, you don’t just talk about what a priest believes in the church, you don’t just talk about what a bishop believes in the church, but the most honored of all the bishops in that area was the Patriarch himself–the Patriarch of Constantinople! How much, even today, would you be honored to meet Patriarch Bartholomew, whom they interviewed on 60 minutes a couple years ago?
Well, in the fifth century, there was a Patriarch of Constantinople by the name of Nestorius, a name which was honored then, until his teaching became farther known and people recognized it for the heresy that it is. And he was finally anathematized, his teachings rejected. To this day, no Christian in his right mind would probably be likely to name his child “Nestorius”. His name is now “mud”, so to speak. He taught that it was a sin to call Mary “the Mother of God”, the Theotokos. He said,
“Well, she is the mother of Christ, in his human nature, so we will call her ‘Christotokos–Mother of Christ’, just not ‘Theotokos’ . . . not the ‘Mother of God’. I can’t call her the ‘Mother of God’. She is just the mother of his human nature, but not of his divine nature.”
And at first this sounds good, because we know that God has existed for all eternity, before time, and Mary has not. And we know that the only thing that Jesus got from her was His humanity. We know that. But couched in this rejection of Mary as the mother of God, is logically required a splitting of the Incarnation, a denial of the Incarnation, and the dividing of Christ into two persons, because you cannot be the mother of a nature. You can only be the mother of a person.
And the question is, the person–of whom Mary is the mother–the person who was in her womb, is that person God? If you say “yes”, then you are not Nestorian. But if you say “no”, well, then what person is she the mother of? A human person? Well, then are there now two persons in Christ, a human person and a divine person? They are just really close? They are really close together in one body? But that would not be the Incarnation, that would be a possession, almost like a demon possession. This person, this demon, comes and takes over your body and controls you, and now there are two persons within one body. Is that all it was? Was this just a possession? Did God possess the human Jesus and use him like a puppet? Now, that’s not the Incarnation. The Incarnation says that God himself took on human flesh, and that the person that was in Mary’s womb was the eternal God who had created Mary herself.
But in Constantinople, you might have been in a church where they rejected this heresy, where they rejected this teaching. But you get to asking all the other priests around and the other bishops around, and the other Christians, and you start to say,
“Well, my little church here is in the minority. Everybody else says that Nestorianism is good and true, and even the Patriarch himself believes in it. So, who are you to disagree? You know what? I’m going to go with the majority. I reject the world, I reject the devil, I reject stuff outside the Church, but within the Church I’m going with the majority! That’s safe, right?”
Well, going with the majority, going with what you thought was safe, would have made you an Arian in the fourth century, and a Nestorian in the fifth.
The Fifteenth Century – The Council of Florence
Fast forward a thousand years to the 15th century, in Florence, Italy. You have the Council of Florence, at which you have many Roman Catholic bishops and also many Eastern Orthodox bishops, come together and discuss the possibility of reunion, which is a wonderful idea. I would love to see the schism healed. I would love to see East and West reunited. But the terms were unacceptable.
You see, the terms were that we give up Orthodoxy: that we accept the filioque, that we accept the Roman Catholic papacy and all that entails, that we accept the Roman Catholic understanding of the sacraments, the Roman Catholic understanding of how the church works, the Roman Catholic understanding of salvation, and that we wholesale turn to Roman Catholic, Western, Latin doctrine, hook, line, and sinker.
And you know what? Every single Orthodox bishop [at the council], except one, agreed to it! They signed up for it. They said, “Yeah, we’ll do it.” And church bells rang across western Europe to announce the reuniting of East and West, that the schism had been healed. Every single one of those Orthodox bishops that had been at the Council, except for St. Mark of Ephesus–the only one of those bishops that we recognize today as a saint–only one bishop stood up against them.
Ah, but you see, a very interesting and wonderful thing happened when those bishops got back home. When those bishops got back home, the other priests and the laity didn’t just say, “Okay, this is what the bishops say. I guess we better go along with it. You can’t disagree with the bishop.” You see, in their heresy–in their rejection of the historic Orthodox faith–the bishops had given up their right to authority and their right to power. And so, for a short time, to preserve the life of the Orthodox church, the laity picked that very scepter up, and took it from the bishops. They recanted.
[The Council of Florence was broadly rejected by the laity, civil authorities, and monks of Constantinople, and most of the bishops eventually recanted. Over in Russia, the Council of Florence was angrily rejected, and they ousted any prelate who was even remotely sympathetic to it. In both Constantinople and Russia, the laity refused to follow the bishops, when those bishops fell into heresy.]
And the bishops [eventually] did exactly what the laity told them to do. And because of that, Orthodoxy persists to this day. This should be eye-opening to us, because many people think,
“You know what? As long as I just go along with what the majority of the Orthodox Church teaches–as long as I follow what most Orthodox priests, and most Orthodox bishops, and most of the Orthodox books that I see–as long as I follow that, then I’m safe, I’m good, I’m in line with what the apostles taught. I am in line with the historic Orthodox Christian teaching that has been passed down from Christ and the apostles.”
But you see, if you take that approach,
- That approach would have made you an Arian in the fourth century.
- That approach would have made you a Nestorian in the fifth century.
- That approach would have made you a Roman Catholic in the fifteenth century.
And if that approach would not have worked then, what makes us believe that approach would work now?
Wolves that Look Like Sheep
Now this is a very popular passage from Scripture, where Jesus warns us to beware of wolves in sheep’s clothing. And I think sometimes people read this too quickly. Even I sometimes, I think, read it too quickly, and don’t really think about the warning that Jesus is giving here. Because, you ask somebody, “Well, how do you detect the wolf?” And they will say,
“Well, obviously he has big fur, and ears, and fangs.”
And so you say, “Well, give me some examples of that in real life.”
“Wow, well, if you find somebody that is, you know, an abortion doctor, there’s a wolf. If you find somebody that is in favor of homosexual marriage, if you find somebody that is pushing to destroy Christianity . . .”
Well, yes, those are wolves. They have the big fur, and fangs, and they are evil. But those are not wolves in sheep’s clothing. You see, if you want to find a wolf in sheep’s clothing, you have to find someone who looks like a sheep.
- An abortion doctor doesn’t look like a sheep, he looks like a wolf.
- A sodomite marching in a gay-rights parade doesn’t look like a sheep, he looks like a wolf.
- Somebody who is an atheist, attacking Christianity and saying, “Jesus is not God, he never died for your sins, he never rose from the dead . . .” That’s not a wolf in sheep’s clothing. That’s just a wolf!
A wolf in sheep’s clothing is somebody like:
- Fr. Arius, the beloved Orthodox priest who gives you communion every Sunday.
- The beloved Patriarch Nestorius, who presides in the grandest Orthodox church, in the very center of Christendom.
- The venerated bishops who are called to the Council of Florence–to Florence, Italy–in the 1400’s. They are to represent us, as we seek unity, to restore the schism between us and Rome.
If you want to find a wolf, those are easy to find. Just flip on your television. You can find wolves galore, out in the world. But Jesus, here, is not warning against wolves. He is warning about wolves in sheep’s clothing.
And so if you want to find a wolf in sheep’s clothing, you should find somebody who is a baptized, Chrismated, communing Orthodox Christian in good standing, somebody–maybe a layman–very well learned. They can talk for hours about Orthodoxy, and the history of the Church, and the doctrines of the Church, very convincing. They may be ordained, like Fr. Arius or Bishop Nestorius. They may be an Orthodox priest that you have known for years. They may be an Orthodox bishop that you have honored for decades. The wolves in sheep’s clothing are not those without, but they are those within, that are beloved, and trusted, those that we feel safe with, those that we love, those that don’t raise our suspicions.
So, that tells us the first way not to identify a wolf in sheep’s clothing: You don’t look for the fangs, you don’t look for the ears, you don’t look for the big werewolf eyes. No, you look for a sheep! But that should at that point scare us just a little bit, because, “Well, you look like a sheep, you look like a sheep, I look like a sheep, you look like a sheep, he looks like a sheep. Our Priest, our Bishop, our Metropolitan, our Patriarch, they all look like sheep.” “But if this type of horrible person looks like a sheep, then how can I tell them apart?” Well, that’s the $64,000 question, isn’t it?
You see, most of the sheep that you know as sheep, are sheep. They are fine. But some of the sheep that you know as sheep, are actually just covered with the skin of a dead sheep, and underneath beats the heart of a fanged wolf. Sort of like Little Red Riding Hood, “What sharp teeth you have, Grandma! What big eyes you have, Grandma!”
It’s a wolf.
So, you cannot identify the wolf in sheep’s clothing, by looking for somebody that looks like a wolf. But as we have seen, you also cannot identify a wolf in sheep’s clothing by siding with the majority of Orthodox Christians in any given age. Because, multiple times throughout the history of the Church–not the whole Church, mind you, the gates of hell cannot prevail against the whole Church–but a large section of it, a majority of it, they have gone off into all kinds of heresies. You’ve got Arianism, Nestorianism, the Meletian schism, Acacian schism, the Photian schism . . . we could go on and on and on.
And there have been multiple times throughout the history of the Church that one or more–or even the majority–of a group of the church, for a while goes nuts, and goes off into some heresy. And so you can’t just trust that “Well, so-and-so is my priest, or so-and-so is my bishop, or here’s what most Orthodox priests teach, or here’s what most Orthodox bishops teach.” That is no guarantee of safety. Sometimes the majority of the sheep are wolves in sheep’s clothing. So what do we do?
Do Not Merely Consult the Living
What do we do? I believe there is one case in which it is safe to consult the majority, but not the majority of the living. For you see, a living Christian can still turn his back on God. A living saint can turn back into a sinner. A living Bishop, or Metropolitan, or Priest, or Deacon, or layman, can lie to you and can go astray. But the funny thing about the dead is that they don’t change their minds.
What Athanasius wrote 1700 years ago, is still what his books say today when you read them. It hasn’t changed. What St. Basil the Great–and other Cappadocian fathers–wrote over a millennium and a half ago, is still what it says today, if you read what they wrote. The decisions of the Seven Ecumenical Councils–over 1000 years later–today they are still the same decisions of the Seven Ecumenical Councils. You go back and you read the canons of the Seventh Ecumenical Council, and iconoclasm is still called anathema. Anybody who rejects the veneration of icons, and icons in the church, and incense burned to icons, are anathema. That’s the word used: anathema. The canons don’t change, the Councils don’t change, the Fathers don’t change.
And so what I think is much safer, is that if there’s a particular doctrine that bugs you, that questions you, that you see division in the church over that particular doctrine . . . Don’t consult the majority, because they may or may not be correct. But go to the Fathers. Go to the Councils. Go to what the Church has taught for 1900 years prior to this century. If you find virtual unanimity there, then I would feel at greater ease to side with them, than to side with even the majority of Orthodox bishops today.
Because, you see, at the end of the day, disagreement, dissension, and rebellion are inevitable. The question is, are you going to rebel–in that particular case–are you going to rebel against the living bishops, the living priests? Or are you going to rebel against all of them throughout history?
Think about the various doctrines that the church questions, various doctrines that various Christians wrestle and struggle with: family issues, marriage issues, questions about birth control, questions about marrying people who are outside the Orthodox Church, questions about how we should live our lives as Orthodox Christians … you have to make a choice.
Because, to side with [what some people have taught] in the church for the past hundred years, in some cases is to rebel against what all the bishops and priests taught for the 1900 years before that. Whose side are you on? Which side do you believe holds the sheep, and which side holds the wolves in sheep’s clothing?
You Shall Know Them By Their Fruits
Jesus, in this passage, also tells us that they can be known by their fruits. He doesn’t say they can be known by how well they make you feel when you’re in their presence, with how loved and accepted you feel when they’re around. The devil is able to copy that. The devil is able to soothe you, and to make you feel loved, and wanted, and accepted. But look at the fruits.
Let’s say somebody wants to give you marital advice. They are on their second marriage, and the marriage they are in right now is a shambles. Probably not the best person to take marital advice from. Look at the fruits. No matter how good or wonderful what they say may sound to you, look at the fruits.
Someone may want to give you parenting advice. They say, “Look, this is what the Church teaches about parenting, and this is what you should do as a mother or a father.” And then you look at their children, you look at their grandchildren, and you just see a big mess. You don’t see a bunch of people, most of whom are devoted to Orthodoxy and who are close to Christ, but you just see a mess. Don’t go to them for counseling about how to raise your kids! At least on that particular issue, treat it like a wolf in sheep’s clothing.
Now, that doesn’t mean that they are damned, doesn’t mean they are going to hell, doesn’t mean that they are not truly a “sheep” in other aspects. But on that particular issue, if you see the fruits are not there, back off. Get your advice from somebody else. If you want marital advice, go to somebody with a good marriage. If you want advice on how to raise your children, go to somebody that has good, godly kids. If somebody is going to give you advice on how to help the poor, then find out whether they actually do it themselves. Look at their fruits. Look at what they do. Look and see whether what they say, and what they do, is in line with what the Fathers have taught for 2000 years before them. You look at their actions. You look at their words.
If you look at their teachings, and they run diametrically opposed to what the Fathers have taught, to what the Councils have taught, they are a wolf in sheep’s clothing, and the radar should start flashing red lights at that point.
How Do The Wolves Deceive Us?
But we still may ask, “How could this be?” Because if they are going to look like a sheep, then they are going to at least give lip-service to going along with the Fathers and going along with the Councils. Because, if somebody just overtly says, “Oh, ignore what the Fathers taught, ignore what the Councils taught,” well, that’s a big flashing red light that this person is a wolf. And yet, if they are going to give lip-service to following the Fathers and the Councils, how could it possibly be that they are going to teach something the opposite?
Well, there are many ways that people do this. I’m going to give you just one very popular example of how they do it. It is very unlikely that you are going to run into a wolf in sheep’s clothing in the Orthodox church, who is going to be so brazen as to say, “Oh, don’t worry about the Seventh Ecumenical Council; that doesn’t count anymore.” “Oh, don’t worry about what the Cappadocian fathers taught.” “Don’t worry about the teachings of the Fathers; we don’t live by that anymore.” You are probably not going to run into that. That would be too bold, too open, too obvious. But here is an example of what you might hear. Someone might say,
“Oh, we absolutely need to hold by what the Fathers taught. We need to have respect for St. Athanasius and St. Basil the Great. We need to have respect for the Fathers that have gone before us, and what they taught at the Ecumenical Councils, and the regional councils, and what the saints have passed down to us, and this wonderful deposit of faith in the Orthodox Church.”
“But we must be wise. We must take great care in how we interpret what the Fathers said, because ultimately, at the end of the day, what’s important is not really the conclusions that they came to, at that time, in that place, for those people. But the real question is, ‘If those Fathers, if those saints were alive today, what decisions would they make?'”
“Now, yes, I know in regard to birth control, in regard to marriage, in regard to family life, in regard to worship, in regard to fasting, etc., etc., in regard to these particular doctrines, yes I know what the Fathers taught in the fourth century, and fifth century, and 10th century, and 15th-century. But in today’s culture, with today’s people, with the problems that we have today, what we really need to ask ourselves is, ‘If the Cappadocian fathers were alive now, how would they interact with this situation? How would Athanasius deal with this issue today? The Fathers of the Seventh Ecumenical Council, how would they interact with people today?”
And then they will come up with some answer. And you say, “Well, but that conclusion is different from the conclusion that they came to then.”
“Yes, yes, yes, but because today is different, I think the Fathers would have come to a different conclusion in response to it. And since we should follow the teaching of the Fathers, and since we should follow what the Saints would do, then whatever I believe they would do today, that’s what I’m going to do today too.”
Do you see the sleight-of-hand? Do you see the magic trick that they are doing right before your eyes? They are denying what the Fathers taught, even as they claim to follow the Fathers. Because, now, instead of encouraging you to emulate and to copy and to follow the example of what the Fathers actually did, they are encouraging you to speculate on the psychology of the Fathers and to imagine this fairytale land in which Athanasius and Basil the Great and St. Benedict happen to be alive today, and are faced with today’s problems, and try to imagine how I think they would react to it.
And notice, they are having to use their own mind, their own imagination, their own psychology, their own biases, as they do this guesswork. And so that’s where they introduce themselves into the mix. And once they have done all this guesswork, they come up with this conclusion, “Well, I think the apostles would have interacted with this issue in this way. I think the Saints would have interacted with this issue in this way.” And having already introduced their own biases, and putting their own words into the mouths of the apostles and the saints, then they get, “Here’s what I think they would do.” And then they still make it look like they are following the Fathers, and they are following the Saints. And they say, “Well, since that’s what I think they would do, then that’s what I think I will do too. It is submission to them.”
This is the type of speaking you can expect from a wolf in sheep’s clothing, verbally pretending to honor the Fathers, and to honor the Scriptures, and to honor the traditions that have been handed down, even as with their very actions–their very fruits–they obliterate the traditions, they stomp on the teachings that have been passed down, and they absolutely turn their backs on what the Church has consistently taught and done for 1900 years on that particular doctrine.
How To Avoid the Wolves
This is something we can apply to every doctrine:
If the Orthodox Church teaches something for 1900 years, and then today most Orthodox priests and bishops teach the same thing, then we say, “Praise God, hallelujah! They are in line with what the Church has always taught. I am going to submit to that.”
But if we see that the Church consistently taught the same thing for 1900 years on some other doctrine, and then today you find some Orthodox Priest or Bishop or Metropolitan or Patriarch or even the majority of them all, teaching something else, let your radar go off, for you have discovered them by looking at their fruits, for they deny the Tradition, even as they claim to uphold it.
So, as Jesus has warned, beware of wolves in sheep’s clothing. They don’t look like wolves. They look like sheep.
In the name of the Father, of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit, our God is one.
This homily was preached on Sunday morning, August 25, 2013, at Christ the King Orthodox Church in Omaha, Illinois, by Dn. Joseph Gleason.