"Bullies in the Body"
3 John 9-11
(Delivered Sunday, February 2, 2003 at Bethany Bible Church. All scripture quotes, unless otherwise noted, are from the New King James version.)
Second and Third John are two little letters that go together like the two sides of the same coin. Both are about our 'circle of fellowship' as members together of the family of God. John's second letter deals with how we should not to consider someone to be in the circle of fellowship who does not belong there - that is, someone who does not believe on Jesus as the Son of God incarnate, or who spreads false teaching about Him. In that letter, John warns;
For many deceivers have gone out into the world who do not confess Jesus Christ as coming in the flesh. This is a deceiver and an antichrist. Look to yourselves, that we do not lose those things we worked for, but that we may receive a full reward. Whoever transgresses and does not abide in the doctrine of Christ does not have God. He who abides in the doctrine of Christ has both the Father and the Son. If anyone comes to you and does not bring this doctrine, do not receive him into your house nor greet him; for he who greets him shares in his evil deeds (2 John 7-11).
But the third letter deals with the other side of the coin. It deals with how we are to be careful not to reject someone from the circle of fellowship who truly belongs there - that is, someone who sincerely believes on Jesus, seeks to live in obedience to Him, and faithfully proclaims the truth about Him. In this third letter, the apostle John writes to a church leader named Gaius - thanking him for warmly welcoming and supporting the teachers and ministers that he sent out to do the work of the gospel. John writes to Gaius and says,
Beloved, you do faithfully whatever you do for the brethren and for strangers, who have borne witness of your love before the church. If you send them forward on their journey in a manner worthy of God, you will do well, because they went forth for His name's sake, taking nothing from the Gentiles. We therefore ought to receive such, that we may become fellow workers for the truth (3 John 5-8).
Notice that last sentence carefully. John, writing under the authority of the Holy Spirit, says that we "ought to receive" those from outside our immediate church family who trust Jesus in accordance with the Scriptures - and especially those who are faithful and proven workers in the spread of the message of the gospel. We "ought" to receive them - in other words, it's our duty to do so. That doesn't mean, of course, that we must be in complete agreement with these brothers and sisters in every detail. There's to be room allowed for disagreement on some of the non-essential details of theology or church practice. But when we're in agreement with such brethren on the fundamentals of the faith, we are to be a welcoming and receptive church family. If our Lord is their Lord, then our house is to be their house too. The cause of the gospel, and our own joy in the faith, is greatly advanced when we have the attitude John is exhorting us to have in this letter. Such mutual love is nothing less than a picture of heaven.
But what happens when things get out of balance? What happens when someone tries to keep someone out of the circle of fellowship who truly belongs in it? John writes about such a man - Diotrephes - in this third letter:
I wrote to the church, but Diotrephes, who loves to have the preeminence among them, does not receive us. Therefore, if I come, I will call to mind his deeds which he does, prating against us with malicious words. And not content with that, he himself does not receive the brethren, and forbids those who wish to, putting them out of the church. Beloved, do not imitate what is evil, but what is good. He who does good is of God, but he who does evil has not seen God (3 John 9-11).
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My belief is that there's far too much more of a 'Diotrephean' spirit in the household of God than we may like to think. The great Baptist scholar A.T. Robinson once wrote a scholarly article on Diotrephes for a denominational paper. He was later told by the editor of the paper that, after the article was published, twenty-five deacons wrote to cancel their subscriptions in protest - to show their resentment against being personally attacked! 1
We may laugh that off with the thought, "Me thinkest thou dost protest too much!" But the truth is that many of us can testify, through painful personal experience, what a terrible trial it is when the household of God falls under the control of a church member with a domineering spirit. Such modern-day Diotrepheses may be able to convince themselves that they're doing the Lord' work; but those of us who have seen them in action know that they actually hinder and damage the Lord's work. You can see the fruits of their work when God's household of grace has been turned, by them, into a prison of legalism. You can detect their presence when a church's sweet spirit of fellowship has been darkened, by them, with clouds of suspicion and gossip. They show their handiwork when the joy of ministry in a church family has been turned, by them, into the drudgery of performance-based acceptance. Such "workers for the truth" hinder the fruitful work of the Holy Spirit through His people by proclaiming themselves His self-appointed "fruit-inspectors". Such church dictators draw the circle of fellowship with a very small compass; and they exercise a demanding and illegitimate control over who may or may not enter that tightly drawn circle.
It has been my own sad experience to run into a few church bullies along the way. I know what it feels like to be under their thumb. And yet I'm convinced that, often, such people are genuine Christians. They truly believe the doctrines of the faith, and have sincerely believed on Jesus for salvation. Many are very often quite zealous and very schooled in the Bible. They often have many years of experience in the faith or in the life of a church. Personally, I'm not entirely sure we can say that the Diotrephes of John's letter was not a Christian either. But nevertheless, I believe that it will shock us all - including many modern-day Diotrepheses - when we get to heaven and see how many church fights they started and maintained, how many churches they split or closed, and how many souls they harmed and embittered for a lifetime.
Even the work of the apostle John - the great apostle of love - was being frustrated by Diotrephes' domineering spirit. John had apparently written a letter to Gaius' church family. It may have been a letter much like his first or second letter - one intended to edify and instruct the people of God. The letter, however, never reached the Christians to whom it was intended. It apparently didn't pass Diotrephes' approval; and he took it upon himself to deny the people of God the benefit of John's ministry. Because most scholars believe that Diotrephes destroyed this letter, we'll never know what good words of instruction it might have contained.
But in the providence of God the Holy Spirit, it was not His plan that the lost letter of John be preserved for us. Instead, it was His plan that the loss of that letter would occasion a different word for us today - specifically, this word of warning against those who hold to the dictatorial attitude of Diotrephes, and who take it upon themselves to close the door of fellowship when it should be opened.
John was hoping to be able to come to the church sometime soon after the letter was written; and he promised that, if he does, he will deal with this problem. The apostle Paul had to make a similar promise once. His own apostolic authority was being questioned and rejected by some in the Corinthian church. Many, in fact, where saying of him, "... His letters ... are weighty and powerful, but his bodily presence is weak, and his speech is contemptible" (2 Cor. 10:10). But he warns, "Let such a person consider this, that what we are in word by letters when we are absent, such we will also be in deed when we are present" (v. 11). He told them, as he was preparing to come to them, "This will be the third time I am coming to you. 'By the mouth of two or three witnesses every word shall be established.' I have told you before, and foretell as if I were present the second time, and now being absent I write to those who have sinned before, and to all the rest, that if I come again I will not spare - since you seek a proof of Christ speaking in me, who is not weak toward you, but mighty in you" (13:1-3). And he added, "Therefore I write these things being absent, lest being present I should use sharpness, according to the authority which the Lord has given me for edification and not for destruction" (v. 10).
Like Paul then, John was warning Diotrephes - through Gaius, since Diotrephes wouldn't receive John's letters - that he was going to come and "call to mind [or "remember" or "call attention to"] his deeds which he does". Clearly, John means that he will come and deal with the matter publically and authoritatively. As we can see, John treated the matter with the sort of seriousness it deserves. Sadly, many today do not. Far to many are willing to allow a church bully to have his or her way - a course of action which, in the end, allows the cause of the gospel to be hindered, the witness of the church to be damaged, and the lives of God's precious people to be harmed.
I'm grateful that our church family is a warm, healthy, fruitful church family - one that is clearly welcoming toward others in the Body of Christ at large. But given the seriousness of the problem that we find it in John's letter, perhaps this is a good time for us to pay attention the message of this passage so that the health and fruitfulness of our church can be protected for the future. God here teaches us against allowing a self-advancing, self-serving Diotrephes-type from taking domination of a church, and of the sin of fellowship being denied to other believers that ought to be received and welcomed.
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First, notice ...
1. THE CAUSE OF THIS SIN (v. 9).
I have been involved in ministry long enough to know that there are often two types of authority structures found in a church family. There's the official authority structure, of course - the elders, deacons, and appointed leaders; and then, there's a kind of un-official authority structure. Any experienced pastor who begins a new ministry in an already-existing church knows the reality of these two structures; and he also knows that they aren't always composed of the same people. What's more, he knows that it's not always the official authority structure that holds the greatest power! Sometimes, there are situations in which a whole group of leaders that constitute the official authority structure find themselves hindered in doing anything unless it first passes muster with the unofficial authority structure - which may be composed of just one person!
Diotrephes was the authority structure of the church in John's letter. Who exactly was he? Was he a legitimate leader with a legitimate position of authority within the church body? Was his authority official or unofficial? We can't know for sure; but we can clearly see that he called the shots in the church. And we can, with absolute certainty, know why it came to be that he was calling all the shots. John said, "I wrote to the church, but Diotrephes, who loves to have the preeminence among them, does not receive us."
The Greek word that John uses to describe Diotrephes appears only here in the New Testament; and it's composed of two Greek words put together - the word for "strong affection" [philos], and the word for "holding first place" [próteuó]. Hence, the word philopróteuó means "to love or desire to be first". Diotrephes wasn't protecting the church because he loved the church. Rather, he was protecting his own power-base because he loved himself, and loved having the preeminent position of power in the church. There might have been a number of reasons why Diotrephes thought he ought to exercise such control over the church. He may have thought, for example, that he was "protecting" the church from the sort of false teachers John wrote about in his first letter - false teachers that he thought should not even be welcomed in the church. Or he may have thought it was up to him to protect the church so that it would not loose what it had worked for, so that it would receive a full reward. So many church dictators are able to put a noble slant to their domineering behavior. But whatever reason he may have had in his mind for what he did, Diotrephes did in the end what he did because he loved to have the preeminence in the church.
Jesus alone should have preeminence in the church. "... He is the head of the body, the church, who is the beginning, the firstborn from the dead, that in all things He may have the preeminence" (Col. 1:18). He warned against such an ambitious spirit being found in His followers. He taught us, "... Whoever exalts himself will be humbled, and he who humbles himself will be exalted" (Luke 14:11). He, who is preeminent in all things, set the example for us by humbling Himself and becoming obedient to death - even the death of the cross (Phil. 2:8).
There was once a dispute between the disciples over which of them should be considered the greatest (Imagine having such a discussion while Jesus was sitting there!). It was a discussion they were having just before He went to the cross!
And He said to them, "The kings of the Gentiles exercise lordship over them, and those who exercise authority over them are called benefactors. But not so among you; on the contrary, he who is greatest among you, let him be as the younger, and he who governs as he who serves. For who is greater, he who sits at the table, or he who serves? Is it not he who sits at the table? Yet I am among you as the One who serves (Luke 22:24-27).
I remember reading about a horrible church split once. Some denominational leaders had to come and counsel the people in the congregation, and help put the remaining pieces of their fellowship back together. And in researching the matter, the denominational leaders traced the hostilities and personal conflicts back until they found their original source. Apparently at a pot-luck, one of the deacons in the church was upset because he was served a smaller piece of ham than the child sitting next to him. That's essentially the same sin as Diotrephes had fallen to - the sin of loving to be first.
Only God knows how much damage is done in His household through the sin of "loving to be preeminent". May He search our hearts and help us to repent of any trace of it!
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Next, notice what John's letter teaches us about ...
2. THE CHARACTER OF THIS SIN (v. 10).
We've already seen how Diotrephes exhibited this sin. He did not "receive" John's ministry team, or allow his letter to be read to the church family. Can you imagine not accepting or welcoming a letter to the church from the apostle John? It was because Diotrephes' love for being first wouldn't allow him to accept or receive someone else with authority entering into his domain of power.
But it gets worse. John also says, "Therefore, if I come, I will call to mind his deeds which he does, prating against us with malicious words." The word translated "prating" means to "talk folly" or to "spread gossip." John says that Diotrephes is using malicious words to spread nasty and harmful gossip about John and his co-laborers in the gospel. John once heard Jesus say, "Blessed are you when they revile and persecute you, and say all kinds of evil against you falsely for My sake" (Matthew 5:11). But here, it was being done to him by someone from within the church! It's amazing what depths 'a lover of being first' will go to in order to protect his or her position!
Next, John says, "And not content with that, he himself does not receive the brethren ..." Not only does Diotrephes not receive John or the others with apostolic authority, but he also refuses to receive those whom John sent to minister to the church. What a contrast this is to Gaius. John praises Gaius because he faithfully received such workers as a fellow-worker for the truth. He not only did this for those John sent, but had a reputation for doing this to those who were otherwise "strangers" to him. Gaius' manner was hospitable; but sadly, Diotrephes' manner was hostile.
There's another contrast that I can't help noticing in this. John had just spoken of how Diotrephes had rejected him and his own apostolic authority. You would have thought that that's the worse thing Diotrephes could do! What more would need to be said than that?!! But then, John goes on to say, "And not content [or "satisfied"] with that ...", and then goes on to point out how Diotrephes rejects the good and faithful brethren John had sent. In other words, John humbly considers Diotrephes' rejection of those faithful ministers of the gospel as a greater outrage than Diotrephes' rejection of himself! Here, we see the contrast between John - the humble lover of the brethren, and Diotrephes - the self-serving lover of being first.
Then, John points out that Diotrephes not only rejects the brethren, but also "forbids [or "hinders"] those who wish to, putting them out of the church." Imagine what a tyrant Diotrephes had become! These brethren came to the church from John in order to be helped in their work or the gospel; and Diotrephes not only gave them the 'left-foot of fellowship' out the door, but also actively stopped anyone who tried to welcome them, and gave them the 'left-foot' of fellowship as well! Personally, I can't imagine what sort of people would have been permitted to remain in the church if Diotrephes had had his way; but I suspect it would have been a church full of 'yes-men'. What a miserable place that would have been!
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And so, when someone motivated by a love for preeminence is permitted to seize the reigns of a church, we can see that the results are such things as (1) a rejection of those who have legitimate authority, (2) the spreading of gossip, slander and character-assassinations, (3) a rejection of those whom God sends to minister in His name, (4) an active hindrance of the gospel, and (5) a steadily shrinking circle of people within the fellowship. Such people may love to be preeminent; but after a while, you have to wonder ... preeminent over what? As John Stott has put it, "Self-love vitiates all relationships."2 This leads us to consider ...
3. THE CURE FOR THIS SIN (v. 11).
I have wondered, as I've studied this passage, if Diotrephes ever repented of his selfishly ambitious behavior and of all the harm it caused. We cannot know, of course. But what I notice is that John doesn't issue any commands to pass on to Diotrephes; nor does he tell Gaius what to do about Diotrephes at all. He simply promises that, if he comes, he'll bring the matter up and deal with it. Instead, he turns to Gaius and commands him respecting his own conduct: "Beloved, do not imitate what is evil, but what is good. He who does good is of God, but he who does evil has not seen God."
I believe that there might have been a tendency on Gaius' part to do something that many of us in ministry tend to do whenever we have to deal with a difficult and strong-willed person - that is, to respond by being difficult and strong-willed ourselves. If they give us a bad time, then we just need to make sure we give them an even worse time! But to do this would have been to replace one domineering person with another. Certainly, the problem has to be dealt with. But to conduct one's self in the same evil way as a person behaving sinfully is to imitate someone whose conduct shows they have "not seen God" (See 1 John 3:4-10).
I thought it was interesting to compare Diotrephes' behavior with the standards God has established for the conduct of leaders in His church. Paul told Timothy,
This is a faithful saying: if a man desires the position of a bishop, he desires a good work. A bishop then must be blameless, the husband of one wife, temperate, sober- minded, of good behavior, hospitable, able to teach; not given to wine, not violent, not greedy for money, but gentle, not quarrelsome, not covetous; one who rules his own house well, having his children in submission with all reverence (for if a man does not know how to rule his own house, how will he take care of the church of God?); not a novice, lest being puffed up with pride he fall into the same condemnation as the devil. Moreover he must have a good testimony among those who are outside, lest he fall into reproach and the snare of the devil (1 Tim. 3:1-8).
Later, he wrote and told Timothy,
Similarly, the apostle Peter wrote,
Gaius was to follow good examples in the way he conducted himself in this matter of Diotrephes. He was to resist the temptation to imitate what is evil; but was exhorted to imitate what was good - including in how he was to face the challenge presented by Diotrephes.
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There's another sense in which Gaius was to imitate what was good, and that was in his own sense of on-going hospitality and open-heartedness toward others within the body of Christ.
I'll never forget a complement I heard once being paid about a pastor I had admired. It was said of him, "He's never stingy with his pulpit." What was meant by this was that this particular pastor was always welcoming toward guest preachers and speakers; and was never intimidated by the thought of allowing his church family to enjoy the blessing and benefit of other preachers and teachers who might preach better than him. That has been an example of something good that I have sought to imitate in my ministry.
Another example worthy of imitation is that of a truly 'catholic' spirit - that is, an attitude of ministry that recognizes that there is something good to be gained from the diversity of traditions among God's family of genuine believers. One man whose example in this I have often admired has been the great evangelist George Whitefield - the early Methodist preacher and co-worker with John and Charles Wesley. He was once rejected by his denomination because of his fervent evangelistic preaching; but he responded by preaching out of doors - saying that the world was now his perish. He felt comfortable with, and was welcomed in, many churches throughout the early American colonies as well; and they were welcomed by him, and were included in his evangelistic ministry. Whitefield's catholic spirit became, in many ways, an example to such world-wide servants of Christ as D.L. Moody, Billy Graham, Luis Palau, and J.I. Packer.
Many groups and church leaders didn't appreciate Whitefield's godly example of open-heartedness. They felt very threatened by it. Many reject it and feel threatened by it today. But in the end, I suspect that a denomination becomes suspicious of all others and uncooperative toward them, because it really wishes to be the only one. And a preacher or teacher rejects such an openness to others out of the same desire - a desire to occupy first place in everything.
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It's certainly a horrible and destructive thing to fall into the error of embracing those who claim to be Christians, but who in actual fact refuse to believe on our Savior or who teach false doctrine concerning Him. We're never to do that. We are to draw the circle of our fellowship in such a way as to recognize such people to be outside the circle.
But it's an equally horrible thing to fall into the opposite error - that of refusing to welcome those within the circle of Christian fellowship who truly belong there. This was the sin of Diotrephes. May God keep us far from his evil example; and may we, instead, be imitators of that which is good.
1A.T. Robertson, Word Pictures in The New Testament (Nashville: Broadman Press, 1933), p. 263.
2John R. W. Stott, TNTC, The Epistles of John (Grand Rapids: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 1975), p. 228.
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