In the last blog post, we learned that John wrote his third letter to a man named Gaius who was his child in the faith and who was now the leader of a local church. In light of the testimony of some “brothers” who had been with Gaius and brought a good report of him to John and the church he served, John wrote to his beloved friend to encourage him and exhort him to continue pressing on in the work of exalting Jesus’ name among the nations.
Along with this positive report, it seems that these “brothers” also informed John about some difficulties in Gaius’s church. These difficulties were so serious in John’s mind that he pressed on in his letter to offer some wisdom and guidance to his son in the faith.
John continues, “I have written something to the church, but Diotrephes, who likes to put himself first, does not acknowledge our authority. So if I come, I will bring up what he is doing, talking wicked nonsense against us. And not content with that, he refuses to welcome the brothers, and also stops those who want to and puts them out of the church. Beloved, do not imitate evil but imitate good. Whoever does good is from God; whoever does evil has not seen God. Demetrius has received a good testimony from everyone, and from the truth itself. We also add our testimony, and you know that our testimony is true.”
Since Diotrephes was known to John and Gaius, John didn’t say much about him. However, from what he did say, we can discern at least five things about Diotrephes. First, since his name was a Greek name meaning “cherished by Zeus,” we can infer that Diotrephes was likely a Greek man. It was not uncommon for early believers to retain their birth-names, so we shouldn’t make too much of the meaning of Diotrephes’ name, rather, we should simply note that he was most likely a Greek.
Second, Diotrephes seems to have responded in some way to the preaching of the gospel and come into the life of the church. As a regular participant in the church, he seems then to have risen to power. I get this from verse 10, for there it’s clear that he was exercising authority in the church and that others were bowing to him whether willingly or not.
Third, Diotrephes was power-hungry. On the one hand, he had rejected the authority of the Apostles and thus refused to submit to their leadership. And in addition to passively ignoring or neglecting the things they taught, he was also actively and publicly opposing the Apostles by “talking wicked nonsense” against them before the church. It seems that Diotrephes was trying to diminish the Apostles’ position before the Lord so that he could increase his own.
On the other hand, Diotrephes refused to welcome the precious brothers who had visited both Gaius and John and were preparing to journey into some other part of the world. It’s one thing to be a bit suspicious and test people before embracing them, but it’s another thing to stubbornly and arrogantly refuse to receive people because they represent a threat to your position in the church. This is what Diotrephes was doing, and he was so serious about it that he actively obstructed anyone who tried to bless these brothers and even kicked some out of the church for trying to do so. Can you imagine that?
Fourth, the reason Diotrephes acted this way was because he was amazing and superior in his own eyes. As John put it, he liked to put himself first. He liked to exalt himself over others. He liked to force his agenda upon others rather than laying down his life to advance God’s agenda in their lives. Diotrephes was all about Diotrephes, and while this penchant toward self-love and self-promotion got him places in the world and the church, it was a deadly cancer to his soul and the church.
Fifth, as we meditate on the little we know about Diotrephes, it’s hard to avoid the conclusion that he did not know Jesus. He may have responded to the gospel in some way. He may have risen to power in the church. He may have been impressed with himself and convinced some others that he was laudable indeed. However, we can know a tree by its fruit, and Diotrephes’ fruit reveals that his roots were not in Christ.
In addition to analyzing his way of life, John’s own words lead us to think that Diotrephes didn’t know Jesus. John writes in verse 11, “whoever does evil has not seen God,” and while he articulates this as an abstract principle, he’s obviously talking about Diotrephes. People like Diotrephes may have position and power in the church, they may know how to say and do all the right things, but at the end of the day, they have never encountered him who shed his blood for the church. Thus, John emphatically says that we must not imitate people like this but rather that we should imitate those who do good.
Avoiding those Who do Evil
From our perspective, it’s not hard to see the error of Diotrephes and why John so forcefully encouraged the church to avoid him. But who is Diotrephes in our day? As I pondered this question, I thought of the many churches who build their board of elders (or whatever they call them) by exalting successful business people to places of power. Some of these business people know the Lord indeed and seek to serve his people, but others are simply grasping for power in the name of Jesus because, in fact, they do not know Jesus. In the quest to grow the church, many churches seek to appoint people who can attract outsiders, raise lots of money, build buildings, and otherwise prosper the organization regardless of their way of life, their character, or their personal relationship with Jesus.
While it may make organizational sense to a build a board this way, it’s disastrous for the life of the church and the mission of God in the world. One of my pastor-friends endured years of gut-wrenching, sleep-stealing conflict in his church because of a powerful man who sought to rule the church. This man had decades-long ties to the church, he controlled just about everything that happened there, he was very prominent in the community, and he literally sought to destroy anyone who got in his way including a long string of former pastors.
By God’s grace, my friend endured until the day this man left the church, and today it is prospering in worship, community, and mission. Sadly, this story is representative of churches across our country, and many of them don’t turn out this well. Therefore, it’s imperative that we hear and receive John’s directive to the church: “Don’t imitate evil but imitate good. Don’t mimic people like Diotrephes no matter how tempting that may be. Don’t let men like Diotrephes rise to power in the church.”
I for one give a hearty “amen” to John’s exhortation, but the question is this: how do we keep Diotrephes and his type from rising to power in the church? I have three answers.
First, we must honor the biblical wisdom regarding the kind of people we appoint as elders and deacons. We cannot take the counsel of God lightly when we set out to do these things because the standards God set were given to us in order to ensure that the right kind of people would rise to the right positions.
We don’t have space in this blog to ponder the relevant texts on this point, but I strongly urge you to meditate on 1 Timothy 3:1-13, Titus 1:5-9, and 1 Peter 51-5. As you do, you will see that the primary requirement for being a leader in the church is a maturing Christ-like character that is demonstrated, first and foremost, in the home. Indeed, when we consider the nineteen qualifications for elders given in these texts, we see that fifteen of them relate to Christ-like character, two of them relate to skills in teaching and governance, one of them relates to reputation, and one of them relates to the length of time a man has been walking with Christ.
Please take note of this: fifteen out of nineteen qualifying traits for the leaders of the church relate to Christ-like character. Everything a man does flows out of who he is, and therefore the emphasis in the New Testament is on who the elders are rather than on the skills they possess. Skills are important but character is much more important.
A second thing we must do to ensure that people like Diotrephes do not rise to power in the church is to honor the wisdom of the Bible in calling for a multiplicity of elders. Everywhere you see the Bible speaking of elders, it speaks of them in the plural and there are many good reasons for this. Not the least among them is that a multiplicity of elders, rightly conceived, prevents any one elder from arresting all the power in the church and thus dominating the church with his agenda rather than God’s agenda.
Finally, we must take the time to build trust with people before we allow them to enter into the process of eldership or deacon-hood. While a man can deceive the church for a short time, his true character is revealed in time, and we simply must see his true character before entrusting him with power. Even those who come into the church with much leadership experience in other churches must be tested before gaining power. If they are truly of God, they will rejoice in rather than resisting the process. Indeed, any man who needs power or insists on it should not be granted power until his heart has been humbled and his character has been more fully shaped into the image of Christ.
Imitating those Who do Good
In addition to Diotrephes, John also briefly mentions a man named Demetrius. We know almost nothing about him, but we do know this: everyone spoke well of him, John said that the truth itself would testify on his behalf, and John said that the Apostles testified of him as well.
This is all we know about Demetrius but it’s enough: he was truly a man of God and John wanted his readers to join together in imitating him. Indeed, John clearly had him in mind when he wrote, “Beloved, do not imitate evil but imitate good. Whoever does good [like Demetrius] is from God; whoever does evil [like Diotrephes] has not seen God.” We ought to strive with everything in us to imitate those who are like Demetrius and to avoid those who are like Diotrephes.
John concludes his letter with these words: “13 I had much to write to you, but I would rather not write with pen and ink. 14 I hope to see you soon, and we will talk face to face. 15 Peace be to you. The friends greet you. Greet the friends, each by name.”
John had much more to write to us, too, but what he’s written is enough. I challenge you, therefore, to revisit my previous blog post and meditate on the first half of John’s letter and to re-read this blog post and ponder the second half of John’s letter. As you do, prayerfully consider your way of life and that of your church in light of John’s counsel and pray for God’s help in applying what you see.