Recently I read a book that kept me awake a couple of nights. It was about “Clark Rockefeller,” and the scare quotes are important. The man was neither “Clark” nor “Rockefeller.” He was a German immigrant who crafted an identity as an heir of one of America’s wealthiest dynasties. He married, fathered a child, and was involved in fraud, theft, and maybe even murder. And no one ever knew, until the very end.
What made me squirm was that fact that the fake Rockefeller’s inroad to all his deception were churches and relationships, particularly with women. He would make the connections he needed in local congregations, and he would charm the women there. At the same time, he would parasitically imitate the men, watching and mirroring back to them their convictions and opinions, even the inflections of their voices. But, behind all of that, there was nothing real but a predatory appetite.
The New Testament warns us, of course, about spiritual impostors. Sometimes these “wolves” are there to introduce subtly false doctrine. But, just as often, it seems, these spiritual carnivores hold to true doctrine, at least on the surface. But they use this doctrine and service for predatory ends. The sons of Eli, for instance, use their priestly calling to co-opt the fat of the offering and to lay with the women at the altar (1 Samuel 1:1).Virtually every New Testament letter warns us about the same phenomenon (e.g., 2 Peter 2:1; Jude 1:1).
But why, when there is so much opportunity for debauchery out there in the world around us, do such people choose the church?
First of all, I think its because deception can look a lot like discipleship. A disciple is like a son learning from his father, Jesus tells us. The student resembles his teacher. That’s good, and right. But the satanic powers turn all good things for evil. A spiritual impostor can mimic such discipleship when he’s, in fact, just “casing the joint,” watching the mores, learning the phrases, mimicking the convictions. It can seem like the passing down of the faith when, in reality, it’s an almost vampiric taking on of another identity, all for the sake of some appetite or other.
Second, I think it’s because these impostors are looking for something they can’t find in bars and strip clubs. Many of them “feed” off of innocence itself. The Apostle Paul, therefore, warns of those who “creep into households, taking captive weak women burdened down with sins” (2 Timothy 2:6). The impostors are able to gain power over the weak not only by deceiving them but by morally compromising them.
Often these victims are drawn, for reasons good and bad, to spiritual authority. The impostor mimics this authority, sometimes with a precision almost to the point of identity theft. But use it to defile, sapping away what seems to them to be innocence as a vampire would lap up blood.
Finally, the church often draws such impostors because of a perversion of the Christian doctrine of grace. The Christian gospel offers a complete forgiveness of sin, and not only that, a fresh start as a new creation. But both Jesus and the apostles warn us that this can easily be perverted into a kind of anti-christ license. Faith is not real without repentance, and faith is not like that of the demons, simply assenting to truth claims. Faith works itself out in love. Faith follows after the lordship of King Jesus. Faith takes up a cross.
But a notion of “grace” apart from lordship can provide excellent cover for spiritual impostors. That’s why virtually every sex predator I’ve heard of compares himself, or is compared by one of those on whom he’s preying, as a latter-day King David. This is often the case even while this person continues to run rampant in his sin against the Body of Christ. Those who seek to hold accountable, or even just to warn the flock, are then presented as “unmerciful” or “graceless” or unwilling to help along the “struggling.”
This often leads to a church that then loses its ability to be the presence of Christ. The church, desiring to be seen to be merciful, loses any aspect of the merciful ministry of Christ because we don’t do what he called us to do: to tend the flock of God. Or, we are so burned over by the presence of predators among us that we lose the ability to trust anyone. Yes, there is Demas, and yes, there is Alexander the Coppersmith. But there’s Timothy and Titus too.
Moreover, the presence of impostors can cause us to lose confidence in the church itself. But how can that be when Jesus warns us from the very beginning that we must be watchful of this. The apostolic Word gives us confidence that spiritual predators, like Pharaoh’s magicians, “will not get very far” (2 Timothy 2:9).
There’s nothing more enraging than the sound of a lamb bleating in a wolf’s mouth. But the Shepherd is coming.
Russell Moore is Dean of the School of Theology and Senior Vice President for Academic Administration at the southern baptist theological seminary and executive director of the Carl F. H. Henry Institute for Evangelical Engagement. Dr. Moore has authored and contributed to several books, including: tempted and tried: temptation and the triumph of christ, the kingdom of christ: the new evangelical perspective, and adopted for life: the priority of adoption for christian families and churches.