The Wrong Call (D)

D. Inherent sectarian restorations:

When we call for a restoration we must be careful in establishing the foundation upon which we base our call. If we are not cautious, then we may end up with some unfortunate conclusions that inherently cause us to divide from one another.

In our picking and choosing what we consider to be the “New Testament church,” we saddle ourselves with an inevitable sectarian conclusion. We will often go to battle with ourselves over determining which behavioral examples of “the New Testament church” should be binding, and thus, be restored. We leave ourselves with the daunting challenge of sifting through a catalog of examples of the early disciples we read about in the New Testament. We diligently sift in order to determine what we should restore in reference to the early disciples’ response to the gospel.

Our hermeneutic for determining that which should be restored is often inherently sectarian. We find ourselves fighting legal battles over the example responses of those, who in their obedience to the gospel, escaped the bondage of legal religion. In our misguided call for a legal restoration, we subsequently legalize the examples of the early Christians’ deliverance from the bondage of legal justification. We often develop a systematic theology of law from the examples of those who through faith in the grace of God were set free from the bondage of systematic theology.

Any systematic theology is inherently sectarian. Here are some examples of deductive applications of examples that have become a part of someone’s theology that has led to sectarianism within their restoration movements: Some have concluded that there should be only one cup used during the Lord’s Supper (Prooftext: Mt 26:27). Some have concluded that contributions could be made only on the first day of the week (Prooftext: 1 Co 16:1,2). Some have concluded that individuals must be baptized the same hour of the night (Proof text: At 16:33). Some have concluded that assemblies of the church must be autonomous from one another (Prooftext: ?). Some have concluded that members must place their membership with a particular autonomous group (Prooftext: ?). Some have concluded that all singing must be congregation (Ep 5:19). Some have concluded that their group must have a specific name in order to label their uniqueness, and thus separate themselves from all others who do not conform to the dictates of their accepted church law.

This list of differences goes on, depending on where one is and with what group he or she is associated in fellowship. The call to restore the “New Testament church” forces on us a hermeneutic of understanding and application of the New Testament in a way that inherently divides us from one another. It is inherently divisive because it is a call for the restoration of the wrong subject.

[Next in series: January 19]

The Wrong Call (C)

C. Call to gospel, not sectarianism:

A call for the restoration of the “New Testament church” is misleading, if not sectarian. It is misleading in that it sets up everyone who would be a theologian with the task of determining what characteristics of the church we read about in the New Testament should be restored. And once this church is supposedly restored on the foundation of law, it is unfortunately assumed that salvation is in this restored biblical church. Church thus becomes the savior, not the Christ in whom we are saved as the church. We subsequently find our security in church rather than Christ.

In our efforts to restore today what we read in the New Testament, our focus must first be on the gospel, not on the dysfunctional response of the early disciples to the gospel. In the midst of a catalog of dysfunctional behavioral and doctrinal problems in the early church of the New Testament, each “church theologian” today is left with the daunting task of determining what examples of the early disciples must be restored.

In order to make a correct decision to determine what is “binding” today in our call for restoration, we have often progressed through a host of hermeneutical gymnastics in order to bind today those behavioral responses of the early disciples who were struggling out of legal Judaism and pagan idolatry. When we cannot come to a common outline of binding their examples in our misguided call for restoration of the “New Testament church,” we often fuss over our hermeneutical gymnastics. In our debates with one another over “issues,” we inadvertently became sectarian in our relationships with one another.

The call for a “restoration of the New Testament church” inherently results in sectarianism among all those who have the noble desire to “speak where the Bible speaks.” However, we forget about “being silent where the Bible is silent.” We are not silent for each sect among us determines to carry on with their own hermeneutical conclusions and practices from the authority of “examples” and “necessary inferences.” Or, in setting aside any New Testament examples or inferences, we simply depend on our favorite religious performances or works in order to express our faith.

When a group eventually agrees on the “identifying characteristics of the church,” the claim is often made that the “New Testament church” has been reestablished in our time. Once the form of this identity is inscribed on outlines and written in books and tracts, then it is usually propagated throughout the world as a mission message that is to be preached. The preaching of the “restored church” usually places the messengers (missionaries) in conflict with other institutionalized churches among the nations who are preaching that they too have “restored the church.” In our zeal to duplicate a form of identity of the “biblical” church, Christ is often marginalized and the “doctrine” of the catechism is capitalized.

Unfortunately, the fallacy of both the call and the hermeneutic to restore the “New Testament church” is that we are seeking to restore the wrong foundation upon which we would be the New Testament church. We obscure why the New Testament church existed in the first place. In our obsession over binding and loosing according to our theological hermeneutics, we lose sight of that which should bring people together as church. We forget that we should first be preaching Jesus Christ, and then the response that people should make to this gospel message.

We must be clear. It is not our task to restore the “New Testament church.” Nowhere in the New Testament is this plea made. But if this is our plea, then we are left with the task of determining which “New Testament church” we would seek to restore. Should it be the “New Testament church” in Corinth? Should it be the “New Testament church” in Ephesus at the time the disciples in Ephesus had lost their first love? Which “New Testament church” must we restore?

Because we confuse ourselves with the dysfunctional behavior of some churches we read about in the New Testament, we cast off that which we do not want to restore and set out on a hermeneutical journey to pick and choose what is worthy to become the major points on our outline of the “identity of the New Testament church.” For example, we choose the example of the Lord’s Supper every first day of the week by the church in Troas (At 20:7), but we discard fasting for missions by the church in Antioch (At 13:1-3). We make our contributions into the collection plate on Sunday morning, but refuse a contribution to a homeless person on Monday morning. Many other examples could be listed. In our hermeneutical inconsistencies, we become theological humbugs.

[Next in series: January 17]

The Wrong Call (B)

B. Restoration of the gospel of Christ:

A common slogan that unfortunately leads to sectarianism is the call that we must restore the “New Testament church.” When living in the midst of religious confusion, this sounds like a noble call. It sounds like a call for restoration that is away from the sectarian denominationalism in which most of the “Christian” world lives. But it is a deceiving call that has embedded within it flaws of human reasoning. This may not at first be noticed, but the results of many misguided restoration movements throughout history has proved that restorations that are not based on the gospel eventually lead to the establishment of more religious sects.

In making a call for the restoration of the “New Testament church,” we often have our favorite Old Testament passages that were originally stated in the context of an Israel that had gone beyond repentance and repair. Nevertheless, we quote proclamations as, “Stand in the ways and see, and ask for the old paths” (Jr 6:16). Since Israel was beyond restoration at the time, for the people replied, “We will not walk in it” (Jr 6:16).

These calls of the prophets for repentance were vain when they were initially stated because God had already doomed Israel to go into captivity. The same calls in reference to restoration today are misapplied because the premise upon which we seek our noble goal is flawed.

The outcome of our call for restoration is often unsatisfactory because we misapply the call of the prophets for Israel’s repentance. We unfortunately use the prophets call for repentance as prooftexts in order to call for restoration today. But we miss a critical point. A call for repentance is different than a call for restoration.

Our use of the Old Testament pleas to Israel is out of context in reference to our plea to all religious groups today. The prophets pled for a return from going after Baal. All of us today believe in the God to whom the prophets pled for Israel to return. Using their pleas for repentance to the God of heaven is out of context in reference to our plea today to those who are stuck in religion, but believe commonly in the one God of heaven. We call for restoration from religion, not to the one true and living God in whom we all believe.

When the early disciples went forth to preach the gospel, their gospel call was not a plea to restore “the old paths” of the Old Testament. Those paths were nailed to the cross by the gospel event (Cl 2:14). The preaching of the gospel by the early evangelists was a call for a paradigm shift, not for a restoration to the “old paths” of the Sinai law. Their call was for a paradigm shift from self-justifying law-keeping to the grace of the God who sent His only begotten Son into the world. The early evangelists, therefore, called on the world to believe on this Son. We would settle for no less today. It was a paradigm shift from Judaism to faith in the crucified Christ. Today, it is still a paradigm shift from religion to the gospel.

[Next in series: January 15]

The Wrong Call (A)

In order for one to call himself out of religion, and especially the heritage of religion that was handed to him by his forefathers, there must be a restoration. But in order to generate a paradigm shift in a restoration from religion to gospel, a very important decision must be made. This decision involves the “what” and “who” unto which one must be called for direction in his move.

A. Tethered to God through His Son:

One must make a decision to untether himself from the bondage of heritage authority in order to be tethered to God through Christ. This means that the gospel is the means by which we approach God. There can never be two tethers in our relationship with God. One cannot be tethered to the religion of one’s past, and at the same time, seek to be tethered to God through the gospel of His Son. It must be one or the other. Christ can have no competition in a restorational paradigm shift.

In their preaching of the gospel, this was the choice the early disciples presented to the Jews who were in the first century in the bondage of the Jews’ religion (Gl 1:13). It took Saul the persecutor some time to make the choice to be Paul the apostle, but he eventually made his way out of religion and into Christ. And of those things he counted sacred in the Jews’ religion, he wrote,

“I count all things loss for the excellency of the knowledge of Christ Jesus my Lord, for whom I have suffered the loss of all things. I count them refuse so that I may gain Christ” (Ph 3:8).

One can be, therefore, tethered only to Jesus. “For there is only one God and one mediator [tether] between God and men, the man Christ Jesus” (1 Tm 2:5). There is only one Lord (Ep 4:5). Peter was very specific about this matter: “There is salvation in no other [than Jesus Christ], for there is no other name under heaven given among men by which we must be saved” (At 4:12). It is only through Jesus that one can be tethered to God. This leaves religion outside the realm of establishing a relationship (covenant) with God. Salvation is not through meritorious religiosity, but through Christ alone.

Unfortunately, throughout history there have arisen numerous misguided efforts on the part of sincere people to establish a relationship with God, which relationship has been obscured by the influences of their religion. In their desire to establish a gospel relationship with God, some have been diverted in the wrong direction by religion. After a few decades, they ended up back where they started. They left sectarian religiosity in order to establish a direct relationship with God, but because they based their paradigm shift on the foundation of their forefathers’ religion, they missed their desired destination. They circled around and ended up being that from which they fled. They left sectarian religion, but constructed a sectarian movement that inherently produced different sects within the movement. Restorations in religion are only disguised reformation movements. And reformation movements always lead to the birth of more religious sects.

[Next in series: January 13]

Endangered World Evangelism

E. Endangered world evangelism:

The behavior of Diotrephes was evil because his behavior would lead to the loss of many souls. On the other hand, Gaius was doing well in supporting those who came his way and left to evangelize other areas. Gaius was living the gospel. Diotrephes was discouraging Gaius from his gospel living. Diotrephes’ behavior, therefore, was contrary to the gospel.

If evangelists were not supported, then many people would never have an opportunity to hear and obey the gospel. Those who live the gospel know this. Diotrephes’ behavior, however, was disrupting the evangelistic function of the body of Christ because he was threatening Gaius and others who supported the preaching of the gospel. In contrast to living the gospel, he was doing evil by obstructing the evangelistic function of the body of Christ.

We must look beyond Diotrephes when interpreting the “evil” that was encouraged by this one individual. The problem went far beyond both Gaius and Diotrephes. If Diotrephes’ example and influence were continued into the next generation of leaders after him, then the preaching of the gospel to a great extent would terminate before the close of the first century. It was for this reason, therefore, that the Holy Spirit deemed it critical that this very short letter be included in the cannon of Scriptures for the church for centuries to come.

The church must be warned about allowing any leader to capture the church to the detriment of evangelizing the world. If Diotrephes’ behavior of church leadership were passed on to those who followed him, then his cancer of opposition to the gospel would have been catastrophic. Thousands of souls would have been lost.

But in order to satisfy the immediate frustrations of Gaius, John advised Gaius to receive Demetrius (3 Jn 12). Gaius must put himself in the fellowship of those who have a good reputation (3 Jn 12). We thus assume that Demetrius had the reputation of living the gospel that must be preached throughout the world. Demetrius may have been a messenger sent by John with John’s letter in hand. Whether he lived in close proximity to Gaius, or was one of John’s fellow evangelists, John encouraged Gaius to receive and fellowship him as a source of good.

Because Diotrephes’ influence could possibly spread throughout the church at the time, the Christ-sent apostle John determined that he should personally show up at the door of Diotrephes’ house. If John had in mind his responsibility to exercise the duty of a Christ-sent apostle, then the ring of Diotrephes’ doorbell would not be pleasant.

By this time in the history of the church, Diotrephes had surely heard that disciples dropped dead before Christ-sent apostles in the early beginnings of the church (At 5:1-11). Some were delivered unto Satan for the destruction of the flesh so that they might be taught gospel behavior (1 Co 5:4,5). Some were struck blind by a Christ-sent apostle (At 13:11). If John were coming with the same rod of discipline that Paul was prepared to use with some arrogant leaders in Corinth (1 Co 4:21), then Diotrephes was in trouble. John’s coming to Diotrephes would be as Paul’s coming to some arrogant leaders in Corinth:

“For I fear, that perhaps when I come, I will not find you as I wish, and that I will be found by you to be as you do not wish … lest when I come again, my God will humble me among you, and I will mourn over many who have already sinned, and have not repented …” (2 Co 12:20,21).

We must mention the preceding because we wonder why John decided not to write a lengthy letter about the problem. “I had many things to write to you, but I will not with ink and pen write them to you” (3 Jn 13). John did not write a lengthy list of instructions because he possibly felt that this situation was so serious that it needed the direct intervention of God through a Christ-sent apostle. Therefore, John wrote, “I hope to see you shortly” (3 Jn 14).

When we are faced with problems among the disciples in the church, it is best to first determine if the problems directly affect the underlying principles of the gospel and our responsibility to preach the gospel to the world. There will always be personality problems among disciples. Such was the case with Euodia and Syntyche in Philippi (Ph 4:2,3). But when problems affect the God-defined organic purpose of the body of Christ to preach the gospel to the world, then it is time to take action. This was the case where Gaius lived, for the evangelistic function of the body was under threat. The mission function of the body to preach the gospel to the world was being curtailed.

This particular case involved a local dysfunction of the mission outreach of the church. But the problem could have gone further, and subsequently, affected the immediate area in which the participants lived. It would be worth mentioning in this context the disagreement between Paul and Barnabas when Paul determined that it was time to continue their mission into Asia (At 15:36).

There was a disagreement between Paul and Barnabas in reference to giving John Mark a second chance, for he had turned back on the first journey (At 13:13). When it came time to go on the second journey, Paul did not believe that Mark was mature enough to go into the difficult areas to which he planned to go. Paul and Barnabas divided over the level of Mark’s spiritual maturity, but both evangelists did not allow their disagreement to detour them from doing that which they must do, that is, preach the gospel to the world. Paul simply took Silas, and Barnabas took Mark, and all four men carried on in their mission to preach the gospel to the world (At 15:40,41).

Nothing should ever become an obstacle to the preaching of the gospel to the lost. If we allow dysfunctional problems in the local church to hinder the preaching of the gospel to the world, then we know that we are wrong. We are wrong because we are allowing personal squabbles to lead to the loss of souls.

It is not possible for most individuals as Gaius to quit their jobs and go into all the world as evangelists. If Gaius gave up his means of support, then there would be no support to give in order to send others into all the world. God’s system of world evangelism involves senders and those sent. Paul explained, “And how will they preach unless they are sent?” (Rm 10:15).

The point is that if a sender is discouraged in his responsibility to send, then there is a problem. God’s system of world evangelist breaks down. If another individual covets the money of the willing sender, then evil has entered the heart of the covetous person. This may have been the problem with Diotrephes. He may have simply coveted Gaius’ support money for himself. Such is evil.

We must never forget that the eternal soul of a person is far more precious than any personal disagreements we may have with one another, or any love of money (See 1 Tm 6:12). Diotrephes was standing in the way of the preaching of the gospel to the world. For this reason, the Christ-sent apostle John was on his way to deal with him personally in order to either bring him to repentance, or move him out of the way. In either case, the gospel mission of the organic body of Christ had to go on.

[End of series.]

Endangered by Evil

In ancient Greek times, the name “Diotrephes” was given to individuals of influence. It was not a name given to those of low estate. We note this because we wonder why Diotrephes rose to the position of power that was allowed by those over whom he dominated. We might conclude that those who are successful and influential in the world may not be the best leaders among a flock of slaves. Unless a leader truly lives the gospel of the incarnate Son of God, he cannot lead those who are living incarnationally (See Ph 2:5-8).

It is difficult for those who are leaders in the world and successful businessmen to live incarnationally among the disciples. The best advice to give to a leader of the world, or a successful businessman who is converted to the Lord, would be, “But what things were gain to me [in the world], those things I have counted loss for Christ” (Ph 3:7). If a successful person in the world cannot live this statement, then it would be very unwise for the slaves of Christ to designate him to be a leader among the disciples. Diotrephes took advantage of the innocence of the sheep, and in some way became dominant among the sheep because of his influence that he had before he became a Christian.

It is noteworthy that John did not judge the sheep for allowing Diotrephes to capture them through his autocratic behavior. John judged the cause of the problem, the one who was the opportunist who lorded over the innocent sheep. Embedded in John’s reply is his assurance of Gaius that individuals as Diotrephes will eventually take ownership for their own behavior in the final judgment because they seized an opportunity to steal the flock of God. Until then, James reminded all leaders with the following caution: “Let not many of you become teachers [leaders], knowing that we will receive the stricter judgment” (Js 3:1).

Because lordship leaders will be held accountable for lording over the flock, they must understand that it is evil to substitute their lordship in the place of the one Lord to whom we must all give our allegiance. So John exhorted Gaius, “Beloved, do not follow what is evil” (3 Jn 11).

The character and behavior of Diotrephes was evil. He sought to establish an autonomous group of disciples under his own lordship, and thus, steal the sheep from their true Lord. The Holy Spirit defined this behavior as evil. If we would make a general list from 3 John of what God considers evil among those who would lord over His sheep, it could be the following:

  1. It is evil to crave to be the leader of the flock for the purpose of either notoriety, lordship, or financial gain. (We must not confuse this with the desire to shepherd the flock about which Paul wrote in 1 Timothy 3:1. That about which Paul spoke was in reference to desiring ministry, not notoriety or authority.)
  2. It is evil to separate a group of disciples under the banner of one’s own personality and command.
  3. It is evil not to support those who are traveling about in order to preach the gospel to the lost.
  4. It is evil to disrupt the mission support of the church.
  5. It is evil to discourage any individual member from supporting the preaching of the gospel to the lost.
  6. It is evil to slanderously damage the reputation of an evangelist who seeks to preach the gospel to the lost, for in so slandering an evangelist, supporters would be reluctant to preach the gospel through him.
  7. It is evil for a church leader to hinder the mission purpose of the church.
  8. It is evil to threaten disfellowship from the disciples those with whom one would disagree in reference to receiving and supporting preachers of the gospel.

[Next in series: January 9]

Endangered Missions

Gaius was justifiably concerned about the disruptive influence of Diotrephes. He was concerned because Diotrephes’ behavior was affecting him personally where he lived. He was being discouraged in fulfilling his personal ministry to support missions. Diotrephes was not only behaving with a sectarian spirit, he was disrupting the mission function of the universal body of Christ. While Gaius sought to live the gospel by supporting the preaching of the gospel, he was being threatened by Diotrephes who sought to discourage others from supporting traveling evangelists.

We must notice carefully how John established the foundation upon which he would eventually judge Diotrephes’ behavior to be both divisive, disruptive and evil. John made the following statement in order to encourage Gaius, as well as identify the organic function of the body: “For I rejoiced greatly when brethren came and testified of the truth that is in you” (3 Jn 3).

There were traveling evangelists moving among the early disciples in their ministry to preach the gospel to the unbelievers. Those who had visited Gaius eventually made their way to John. They reported to John that Gaius gave them accommodation, as well as supported them financially to go on to the next point of preaching. Therefore, John wanted to encourage Gaius with the following introductory comment: “Beloved, you do faithfully whatever you do for the brethren [evangelists] and especially for strangers” (3 Jn 5).

John’s introduction in the letter was directed specifically to encourage Gaius in the midst of his turmoil with Diotrephes. He wanted to encourage Gaius to continue with his personal responsibility to evangelize the world through those whom he supported.

The reason for this encouragement was obvious. Since the evangelists went forth (1) for the sake of preaching the name of Jesus, (2) while they took up no contributions from those to whom they preached, it was necessary that (3) local brethren partner with them financially in order that they continue to preach the gospel (3 Jn 7,8). John encouraged Gaius to continue “doing well” in supporting these evangelists. Diotrephes, however, was disrupting the flow of traveling evangelists among the disciples. He was trying to stop the supply line of finances to support missions.

In order to identify the disruptive efforts of Diotrephes, the Holy Spirit gives us a list of characteristics that identify the personality and behavior of the one who would seek to call disciples after themselves, and thus hinder the preaching of the gospel (At 20:30). This would be the leader who would disrupt God’s system of the function of the organic body to reach throughout the world with the message of the gospel. From 3 John 9,10, the following is a summation of both the character and behavior of Diotrephes to disrupt the mission responsibilities of the body:

  1. Diotrephes loved to be first among the disciples. He craved notoriety.
  2. Diotrephes did not receive (support) the apostles or anyone who might challenge his position of authority. He was so locally focused on his ministry that he could not see lost souls beyond his locality.
  3. The deeds of Diotrephes were contrary to the purpose of the church because his efforts resulted in the loss of souls, for he discouraged both the missionaries and those, as Gaius, who would support them (3 Jn 11).
  4. In order to convince others not to receive and support the traveling evangelists (missionaries), Diotrephes slandered those who would threaten his lordship over those whom he dominated. Through slander he hoped to recruit a group of oppositionists who would stand with him in opposing any transient evangelist who might be passing through their area.
  5. Diotrephes did not receive (support) the brethren who were traveling about preaching the gospel, and thus he discouraged others from doing so.
  6. Diotrephes intimidated any person of the group over which he lorded in order that they also not receive (support) any apostle or evangelist whom he could not dominate.
  7. Diotrephes lorded over those whom he seized control by threatening them with excommunication from his group.

[Next in series: January 6]

Endangered Slaves

Since Diotrephes was behaving autonomously by exercising lordship over his sect (group) of disciples, he was disrupting the evangelistic function of the body as a whole. Since there was to be no such thing as autonomous groups of disciples functioning separate from one another in the universal body, what Diotrephes was doing as an individual was making it difficult for the traveling evangelists to go from one group of disciples to another in order to be encouraged and supported to continue their ministry of preaching the gospel to the world. If we understand correctly the instructions in the context of this function of the evangelists of the early church, then we can better understand the instructions that John wrote to Gaius.

Since the letter of John is a late letter of the Holy Spirit, then we must assume that what was transpiring in the area of Gaius and Diotrephes had developed over a period of about two decades. Therefore, we must go back a few years in order to lay the foundation for what had become dysfunctional by the time John wrote.

About twenty years before, and while Paul was among the leaders of the church in Ephesus, he warned the Ephesian elders, “Also from your own selves will men arise, speaking perverse things, to draw away the disciples after themselves” (At 20:30). About fifteen years after Paul’s meeting with the elders of Ephesus in Miletus, Peter wrote to the disciples throughout the provinces of Pontos, Galatia, Cappadocia, Asia and Bithynia (1 Pt 1:1). To the leaders of the church in these provinces, he specifically admonished the elders with the following words: “Shepherd the flock of God that is among you, serving as overseers, not under compulsion … nor as being lords …” (1 Pt 5:2,3). This admonition was based squarely on Jesus’ mandate that there be no lords of authority among His disciples (See Mk 10:35-45).

That about which Paul had warned the elders in Ephesus, was coming true only about fifteen years later among some of the elders throughout the provinces of Pontos, Galatia, Cappadocia, Asia and Bithynia. At least one very important lesson is learned from Paul’s warning, and evidently Peter’s identification of lords among the sheep. By the time Peter wrote, there were some leaders already at the point of drawing away disciples after themselves through lordship behavior. When John wrote to Gaius, Diotrephes was behaving in a lordship manner about which both Paul and Peter wrote. The important lesson to learn is that among leaders there is always the temptation for them to function autonomously in order to exercise lordship over a particular group of disciples. It does not take much time for such a disorder to develop among disciples.

It is believed that in the latter years of the apostle John, John resided in some area of the aforementioned provinces. At least in his latter days he was in exile on the island of Patmos off the West coast of Asia, and subsequently directed the letter of Revelation “to the seven churches that are in Asia” (Rv 1:4,9). We could assume, therefore, that some of the leaders of the church in the five provinces identified by Peter did not listen to the Holy Spirit’s instructions through Jesus, Paul, Peter, and now John. The apostasy of church autonomy based on lordship authority had already set in as individual leaders assumed lordship over separated groups of disciples. In doing this they were doing as Diotrephes who drew away disciples into his own autonomous group in order to exercise lordship over them. The outline that John gives us in 3 John are instructions on how such leaders become lords of autonomous groups of the flock of God in order to stymie the mission outreach of the disciples.

[Next in series: January 3]

Endangered Relationships

The historical scenario upon which the problem developed was centered around the common social relationships that the disciples had with one another as members of the universal body of Christ. Though the problem certainly spilled over into the assemblies of the disciples, we must not assume that the problem was specifically centered around the church as a whole.

This was a problem in the organic body in a particular region that resulted from the dysfunctional relationships that certain individuals had with one another. It was a problem that originated from the influence of one particular leader who affected the evangelistic function of another member of the body.

In reference to the assemblies of the disciples, we must approach this text with the understanding that the identified members of the body in the region were meeting in the homes of the disciples. This is significant in order to understand the Holy Spirit’s instructions to solve the problem. It is important to understand the home assemblies of the early church lest we read into the letter our modern-day institutional behavior of large single-assembly churches. This is important lest we also read into the text a behavioral practice of assembly that was not relevant to the situation that prevailed in the first century.

The historical scenario was not a problem within a particular assembly of disciples. The problem was that one particular individual took advantage of some disciples who were living in the area where the problem was created. We must keep in mind that the problem centered around individuals, not assemblies.

This point is significant. If we believe that the problem developed within a single-assembly of members in a particular region, then we might misunderstand both the instructions of John, as well as what was actually transpiring in the development of the problem. For example, if we interpret the text from the viewpoint that the problem developed within a particular group of disciples in a region who were meeting in one assembly, then we might erroneously conclude that there was “division in the church.” We might conclude that Diotrephes was drawing away from one particular assembly a group the disciples over whom he sought to exercise lordship authority. His group of followers, therefore, would not be showing up at the general assembly of the saints. They would be meeting on their own apart from the greater gathering of the disciples. Diotrephes was certainly exercising lordship authority, but we would question his exercising of such authority in order to divide a group of disciples.

John does not deal with the problem that prevailed as if it were a problem of division within a particular single-assembly church. The problem was not division of a church, but the erroneous beliefs and behavior of a particular individual who was disrupting the mission responsibility of each member of the church. Diotrephes was dominating an entire group of people, and thus threatening with disfellowship those over whom he lorded.

Though the application of the instructions of John would have a secondary application to division among members of a single-assembly church, such an application would be slightly misapplied. It is imperative, therefore, that we understand the text from the historical fact that the early disciples were assembling in many different homes throughout a particular region. Diotrephes’ influence was over a particular group of disciples with whom he had a lordship relationship.

John gave no instructions for Gaius to start another assembly of the saints with someone else in order to correct the problem that he had with Diotrephes. The problem was not in reference to a particular church group as a whole, but with individuals. It is important to make this distinction in reference to John’s instructions lest we twist his instructions to be advice to pit one assembly of disciples against another.

Though the preceding scenario could have been happening among those who were customarily meeting at the same house, we would conclude that John was advising Gaius to separate himself from the control of an individual, not from an entire assembly of good people who had been captured by an autocratic leader. We do not believe that it was the intent of John’s instructions to encourage any member to disfellowship himself from the whole in order to avoid the one. At least in this context, John advised Gaius as an individual to associate with the good that came from brother Demetrius, and thus shun the influence and behavior of Diotrephes (3 Jn 11,12).

Regardless of our lack of information concerning assemblies in the text, we find it difficult to believe that John advised Gaius to start another assembly in order to correct the problem. Correction of any leadership problem as that which is identified in this brief letter indicates that we must directly approach an individual who is causing the problem. In this case, the apostle John was personally going to approach the source of the problem. In the meantime, he instructed Gaius on what to do until he showed up at the scene.

It would be closer to the truth of the historical house assemblies of the early church to believe that there were several ongoing assemblies in houses throughout the region where Gaius and Diotrephes lived. The sin of Diotrephes was that he was teaching and practicing the autonomy of his group over whom he exercised dominance. Since all the saints were meeting in many different houses in the region, Diotrephes took advantage of the situation by drawing away those under his influence from the rest of the saints in the area. His love to be first moved him to take control of his own group.

[Next in series: January 1]

Endangered Purpose

3 John is one of those brief New Testament letters that is often ignored by Bible students. However, it is one that is directly focused on dysfunctional relationships that often occurs among leaders of the body. In fact, the dysfunction about which John wrote was so great in this particular situation that it endangered the organic function of the body to evangelize the world. Souls were or would be lost if the dysfunction in relationships continued. For this reason, the Holy Spirit deemed it necessary to write a specific document (letter) to correct the problem. If necessary, the Spirit sought to send a Christ-sent apostle to the location of the dysfunction in order to sort out the individual who was the source of the trouble.

There were four personalities (disciples) involved in the dysfunctional scenario that is addressed in 3 John. There was the Christ-sent apostle, John, who wrote the letter. There was Gaius, the informant, to whom the letter was written. There was Diotrephes, the instigator of the problem. And then there was on the sidelines a disciple name Demetrius. All four individuals played a significant role in the problem and solution.

The letter does not deal specifically with the church as a whole, but with individuals. In this case, the focus of the letter was directed to a businessman for whom John prayed would become more successful in his prosperity and health, just as he was spiritually prospering (3 Jn 2). Gaius had assumed the responsibility of living the gospel, and in living the gospel, he took personal ownership of making sure the gospel was preached through his support of traveling evangelists. He did not shun his personal responsibility to preach the gospel. He did not off-load his responsibility on a “church budget.” He was directly involved in mission support.

The Holy Spirit, therefore, urged John to write of his personal prayers for this individual: “I pray that in all things you may prosper” (3 Jn 2). Nowhere else in the New Testament is there such a prayer offered for the material prosperity of an individual. We must conclude that if such a prayer were offered for ourselves, then certainly we should be doing with our material prosperity that which Gaius was doing with his. In his case, the more Gaius prospered, the more money he had at his disposal to support those evangelists who were passing through his house on their way to preach the gospel to unevangelized regions.

But there was a serious problem. The problem was so troubling that Gaius was moved to inform John, and then ask for help from the aged apostle. John’s instructions in the letter, therefore, are significant in reference to our personal responsibility to preach the gospel through others. When the preaching of the gospel to the lost is threatened, then it is time to take action. We can be patient with personality disputes among brothers and sisters. However, when the disputes endanger the preaching of the gospel to the lost, then we are in danger of forgetting who we are as disciples of Jesus. If the church does not step up and sort out any problem that causes any member to be discouraged from supporting the preaching of the gospel, then we individually lose our purpose for being disciples of Jesus.

[Next in series: December 29]