What is a Wolf in Sheep's Clothing?
by Stephen Martin
A wolf in sheep's clothing" can be a simple and concise definition of a cult (or an abusive church or
relationship). Everything that describes a wolf in sheep's clothing is what a cult is and does.
What would such a creature look like? Many people believe (or want to believe) that it would look like
wolf in sheep's clothing, as though its true identity is apparent. But if a wolf could truly disguise itself
and do a good job of it, it would look exactly like a sheep. People would not say, "Look at that wolf
in sheep's clothing," but rather, "Look at that sheep." It would look like a sheep to those with little
education as well as to those with much education. It would look like a sheep to Protestants,
Catholics, Jews, or members of other religions, as well as to those of no religious affiliation. It would
look like a sheep to one who is committed to his faith, or to one who is only nominal in his
A wolf in sheep's clothing deceives in order to lure, then devours the victim to satisfy its own
appetite. The prey is torn, severely injured, and emotionally traumatized. If he manages to survive, he will
now have a lack of trust for anything that looks like a sheep.
Responses and "remedies" that an observer might typically give only pour salt into the wounds of the
victim: "You must have been stupid or crazy to get near that wolf."
"You must have had some prior psychological problem to get involved with a wolf."
"You must not have been a good moral and spiritual person to get near that thing."
"You just need to return to the flock and you'll be fine."
Yet these are exactly the kinds of responses that many people give in regard to those who have been
involved in a cult or abusive church, because few who have not personally experienced life in a cult
really understand what it's like.
By the time a cult makes news because of some tragedy, the wolf has had its disguise removed, and
people conclude things like, "Those people had to be pretty crazy or immoral to come near that group
and get involved." (It is true that a few people do deliberately choose an evil way when they join an
evil group, depending on the nature of the group. But members of cults and abusive churches are
generally not people who have deliberately chosen an evil way.)
In reality, of course, a wolf cannot disguise itself as a sheep, but it is quite easy for harmful groups to
disguise themselves as good. In fact, they often do a better job of appealing to new prospects than most
mainline churches do. They do a better job of being more friendly, showing more care and love, and
offering to meet needs. All of this is designed simply to draw recruits into their group. But the true
agenda of the group is hidden. It is a "bait and switch" tactic of betrayal orchestrated by a very
appealing and persuasive leader and group. It is not that people who join are stupid or gullible, but that
the leader and the members who have been trained by the leader are so persuasive and appealing.
"A wolf in sheep's clothing" is a simple way to illustrate a problem that is actually quite complex. In a
cult, the "wolf" acts in a way you would not expect. It does not devour instantly, but slowly, biting
occasionally and then more frequently. Part of the time it shows itself as a sheep and part of the time as
a wolf in order to keep the victims confused. There is just enough charm in the "sheep" side to keep the
victims awestruck, believing, and therefore hooked.
Eventually, victims are torn between trust and distrust. If distrust wins out so that the victims escape,
the lack of trust may carry over to other "flocks," because the victims have experienced a form of
trauma, and may feel bewildered in many ways about this encounter. These are the people that
Wellspring seeks to heal and restore. (Wellspring Retreat and Recovery)