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)