We understand the statements of what John wrote to Gaius in 3 John in the historical context that there were house fellowships throughout the region of where Gaius, Demetrius and Diotrephes lived. The theme of the letter to Gaius deals with a dysfunctional organic function of some disciples in the region, which dysfunction was promoted by one who sought to denominate some of the disciples into independent groups that were submissive to his leadership, and thus, outside the organic function of the church to preach the gospel to the world.
Paul’s meeting with the Ephesian elders in Miletus dealt with elders who would lead sheep away after their own independent groups (At 20:30). John’s letter to Gaius is in reference to an individual doing the very thing about which Paul warned. Though we are not told exactly who Diotrephes was, he could have been any self-proclaimed pastor, priest, or prophet who sought to have his own autonomous group of disciples.
This is one of the revelations in the New Testament where church autonomy is specifically targeted and judged divisive. In fact, the Holy Spirit is so specific in what He says through John that the practice of drawing away disciples into independent groups that are based on the lordship of any individual, or group of individuals, is evil. Such is a strong statement in view of the present practice of forming one’s own group, and then declaring the group’s independence from the rest of the disciples in any particular city or region. Such behavior is an organic dysfunction of the body.
We must keep in mind that this move to establish an independent group was based on lordship leadership. It was not a doctrinal matter other than the fact that Diotrephes violated the principle of servanthood leadership that Jesus taught should be among His disciples (See Mk 10:35-45). If the case were a situation where disciples were being drawn away to restore the truth of the gospel, then this would not be the text to use. In some cases, people must be called out of apostasy in order to restore a Bible-based faith. In other words, if we were to approach some who had been drawn away into the apostasy of a Diotrephetic apostasy, or the lordship leadership of some Ephesian elders, in an effort to bring them back under the lordship of Jesus, then we would be following Paul and John’s advice to restore, not to denominate. Calling people out of hierarchal apostasies does not fall under the judgment of either Paul, John or Peter. In the work of the Holy Spirit to have recorded for us principles by which to judge an apostasy to be hierarchal lordship, He has given to us a road map back to the lordship of Jesus.
The occasion of the letter of 3 John is in the context that Gaius was discouraged concerning the lordship leadership of Diotrephes who was autocratically taking control of some of the disciples in the area where Gaius lived, and subsequently, destroying the organic function of disciples as Gaiua. Because Gaius was certainly discouraged by these efforts to disconnect brethren from one another by one who sought to be independent from the church as a whole, John wanted to encourage Gaius that he was doing well by receiving and sending out the evangelists. In fact, in the context of 3 John, one way to identify the church leader who is evil is that he is not mission minded, nor does he lead the group over which he lords to either receive or send forth evangelists. Diotrephes was actually working against the mission of the church to support those evangelists who were going forth to preach the gospel. This was the evil result of his actions.
In John’s commendation of Gaius in his financial support of traveling evangelists, we can assume that one of the evils in which Diotrephes had involved himself was in reference to money. Gaius was doing a worthy work in financially supporting missions through his reception of and sending forth the traveling evangelists. John used the Greek word propempo in reference to his sending forth of evangelists. It is a word that means to financially set forth one on his journey. Diotrephes, however, was barring any of the members of the group over which he lorded from financially supporting the traveling evangelists. It may have been that Diotrephes did not want any of the support that was coming his way as the preacher of his independent group to be sent to any evangelist who was going about preaching the gospel to the lost. We could make this deduction because such thinking is not uncommon among some local preachers of independent churches. Such preachers need to be reminded that if they are thinking in such a manner, they, as Diotrephes, have involved themselves in doing that which the Holy Spirit defined as evil (3 Jn 11).
In contrast to Diotrephes, Gaius was doing well in his efforts to promote unity through his open arms to include everyone who was going about preaching the gospel. John encouraged Gaius by stating,
Beloved, you do faithfully whatever you do for the brethren and especially for strangers, who have borne witness of your love before the church. You will do well to support them on their journey in a manner worthy of God (vss 5,6).
Gaius was doing that which was right in reference to functioning as an organic member of the body. He was obedient to God’s system of getting those who heralded the good news into all the world (See Mt 28:19,20; Mk 16:15,16). He was instructed according to what Paul had written concerning world evangelism:
How then will they call on Him in whom they have not believed? And how will they believe in Him of whom they have not heard? And how will they hear without a preacher? And how will they preach unless they are sent? (Rm 10:14,15).
All was going well until one individual among the disciples in the area of Gaius decided to do that about which Paul had warned the shepherds in Ephesus. Diotrephes started to draw away disciples into his own exclusive fellowship. He started to restrict the group that he controlled from cooperating with others in reference to receiving and sending forth the evangelists.
One of the contexts in Scripture that specifically identifies the denominating of the organic body into independent groups is 3 John 9,10. Because we live in a world wherein most churches behave independently from one another, this is the text that should be clearly understood lest we be behaving after the manner of Diotrephes. John explains how independent church groups separate themselves from one another, and then how they declare their autonomy from one another in order to protect their own fellowship. By identifying the behavior of Diotrephes we can identify the nature of both himself, and the practice of how independent groups function in order to maintain their independence from one another.
I wrote to the church, but Diotrephes, who loves [A] to be first among them, [B] does not receive us. Therefore, if I come I will remember his deeds that he does, [C] unjustly accusing us with malicious words. And not content with that, he himself [D] does not receive the brethren, and [E] forbids those who would. And he [F] casts them out of the church (vss 9,10).
A. Be first:
Most independent church groups with which we have worked throughout the years were started by a very zealous individual. In this person’s zeal, and willingness to be a good servant of the Lord, either he or the church sometimes moved him into being the center around which the members functioned. Such is only natural simply because of the dedication of those preachers who want to help the people of the community.
Over a period of time, however, this center-of-reference function by the leader often moves the initiator of the group into a change in his character and relationship with the group that he has initiated. He begins to believe that the church continues to exist because he exists. If he has not focused the church on Christ, then the church does focus on him as the one who continues the existence of the church he started. The preacher subsequently leads himself to believe that if he went away, the church would go away. In believing such about himself, he assumes that the members are connected to Christ through him. Since he initiated the church, the members should depend on him for almost everything that happens in the group.
We do not necessarily conclude that the preacher who has initiated a group seeks to be dominant over a group. It is simply human nature that in one’s zeal to serve, the new converts have gravitated toward his enthusiasm, personality and leadership. We have found that the vast majority of the preachers of independent churches on whom the members depend for so much, are almost exhausted because of the pleas for help from the people. They are simply in a situation that often damages their family, and sometimes emotionally exhausts them. It is not a situation in which they would like to be.
This may or may not have been the case with Diotrephes in the early stages of his work with the disciples over whom he exercised control at the time John wrote. He may have innocently started out in his ministry with all good intentions. But things went wrong. All we know about him is that by the time John wrote 3 John, he was spiritually in trouble because he loved to be first. That which he was doing was considered evil by the Holy Spirit. His narcissism had subsequently led him into evil behavior.
It may have been that Diotrephes had a narcissistic personality before the development of the scenario that John explained. At least his name indicates that he was probably from an aristocratic family, for his name includes the Greek word for God. In the society in which he lived, such names were given only to children in aristocratic families. The scenario may have been that when he became a disciple all was well. But as his influence grew among the disciples, the disciples moved him into the position that he held among the house fellowships at the time John wrote.
John does not tell us how Diotrephes became what he practiced at the time he was denominating those disciples over whom he exercised lordship. Such was inconsequential in reference to what he was doing in disturbing the organic function of the one universal body of Christ. The problem was in his drawing away disciples into an autonomous function as an independent group, and by doing such, shutting down the mission outreach of those over whom he lorded.
When preachers stay for a long time with one particular group of disciples, the Diotrephes syndrome almost always happens. It is only natural for people to call themselves after those personalities who stand before them on a weekly basis. And when one who is an evangelist going among the unbelievers stays with a specific group of believers for a long period of time, he ceases to be an evangelist because of the tremendous load of shepherding a large group of people. The members of the group become so dependent on the preacher that they often cease doing anything without his approval. The preacher thus becomes the center of reference for the fellowship of the group, as he has become the center of reference for the assemblies of the disciples.
The autocratic leader makes all the decisions for his group, and in making the decisions, he has separated his group from others in the area who are also making all the decisions for their groups. Everyone declares their autonomy from one another because everyone seeks to make their own decisions over their own work. In the case of Diotrephes, he simply declared the autonomy of his group from all other groups. In this case, he had declared his independence from the group with whom Demetrius was associated, for John, before he came, advised Gaius to associate with Demetrius. Of Demetrius, John stated, “Demetrius has a good report from all, and of the truth itself. And we also bear testimony …” (3 Jn 12).
B. Shun competition.
When a particular individual as Diotrephes seeks to establish or lead an autonomous church, he often declares the independence of his “church” from every other church in the community. Even if independence is not verbally declared, it is determined by not receiving anyone into the fellowship of one’s exclusive group that would preach against the independent behavior of the local preacher.
However, John warned that any group of disciples must not feel obligated to receive just any teacher without first knowing whether the teacher is preaching the truth of the gospel. We are to test the spirits with the word of God (1 Jn 4:1). The case of Diotrephes is not a case of determining whether a traveling evangelist is coming by to teach something that is false. 3 John is about a dominant leader who excludes those who are teaching the truth. John writes to deal with autocratic leadership, not doctrinal error.
John uses the plural pronoun “us” in his statement of judgment in order to indicate that neither he nor any of those who were traveling from group to group teaching the word of God were received by Diotrephes. We have witnessed this very thing which naturally happens among some fellowships. The leaders of some churches have moved into this scenario of independence that hinders the movement of teachers among the disciples in order that they build up the body through the teaching of the word of God. Those churches that have sought to work under a leadership that lords over them, are the churches that would be under consideration by John in 3 John. They are blocking the organic function of the body to build itself up through the ministry of those who teach the word of God.
Christians must certainly be independent from the world in their teaching in order to survive in the midst of a worldly environment. However, there is a difference between being independent from the world in reference to morals and teaching, and being independent from one another in an effort to survive the onslaught of error in the world. If a group of disciples does not declare its independence from the world, and specifically the world of false teaching, then that group will lose its identity as a church of our Lord (See Hs 4:6). If a church of disciples declares its independence from the ministry of other teachers who seek to build up the body through the teaching of the word of God, then they open themselves up to being led astray by a Diotrephetic teacher who does not know the word of God. At least their knowledge of the word of God will be limited to what the leader knows about his Bible.
When church groups practice independence from one another, they are actually falling into the hands of the world. By separating themselves from the fellowship of other disciples, they often lead themselves to shun those who seek their fellowship. We have witnessed this in house fellowships that are led by a strong leader. The group is encouraged to separate itself from other groups in the area much like the group that was controlled by Diotrephes. Diotrephes’ behavior manifested leadership that was not conducive to the unity of all the groups in the area, and thus in their isolation they presented to the world a divided church. The isolationist leadership behavior of the small group of disciples moved the group to shun any outsiders from coming by with teaching for their group. The group or groups led by Diotrephes became dysfunctional in reference to fellowship because they refused teachers and shepherds from coming by in order to build up the body with the word of God.
Diotrephes was the classic example of a leader who leads disciples into division by his own function of lording over an isolated group of the flock of God. He declared the autonomy of his group by his sectarian behavior to draw away disciples after himself. He entrenched his influence over the members of the group to the point that he personally determined who would teach in his group. At the time John wrote to Gaius, Diotrephes would not even receive the apostle John, the apostle of love.
We must keep in mind that John deals directly with Diotrephes, not with those over whom he was dominant. There were arrogant leaders in Achaia who drew away house fellowships from one another throughout Achaia. But Paul did not personally name these leaders as John personally named Diotrephes. The reason Paul did not name the individuals in Achaia was because the members were the ones who were behaving divisively. Under the influence of some leaders who even denied the apostleship of Paul, they were allowing themselves to be sectarian (See 2 Co 11:12-15).
In the case of Diotrephes as an individual, he was behaving divisively. Among the members in the area where Diotrephes had his influence, Gaius and Demetrius represented the normal organic function of a fellowshipping brotherhood. They were the ones who were being threatened with excommunication if they did not adhere to the demands of Diotrephes to shun any other leaders who might want to come by with teaching.
C. Slanderous competition.
In order to solidify the independence of the autonomous group, the Diotrephetic leader must go beyond his personal rejection of anyone coming to his group. He must progress to the point of convincing everyone in the group that the apostle John of love was possibly a false teacher, too liberal in his teaching because he had too much love for people. He possibly exercised too much mercy on others we would consider false. We are not told what the specific slander was that Diotrephes made against the traveling John and the evangelists. We can only assume that what he said through slander was meant to discredit John and other traveling teachers. His purpose was to bar evangelists from coming to teach in his autonomous group.
When John used the phrase “unjustly accusing,” he was speaking of some false accusations that Diotrephes generated in order to convince those of his group that John and the other evangelists must not be permitted to come to “their” group.
Slander is used to recruit others to one’s favor. It is a typical scheme by which independent church leaders bar teachers from approaching “their” church. All that Diotrephes and his group were doing was considered evil by John. John exhorted Gaius, “Beloved, do not follow what is evil” (3 Jn 11). Therefore, when one knowingly speaks that which is false against another in order to lead a group of disciples in order to reject one from the whole of the body, he is doing evil. He has involved himself in slander, and thus, condemned himself by his own speech. Diotrephes was practicing this evil in order to bar John and the other evangelists from coming to his group.
We must not ignore the fact that those who would come by with teaching were not local leaders in reference to the function of the group, or groups, over which Diotrephes exercised dominance. Diotrephes would be the local leader, and thus, in his slander of John and the traveling evangelists was evil. Through slander he sought to bar the traveling teachers from speaking to those over whom he exercised control. However, we must keep in mind that Gaius and Demetrius were also local leaders. The evil work of Diotrephes was to bar both the traveling evangelists and the local leadership of other groups. Through his slander, he was establishing a truly autonomous church that was separated, both from the universal and the local body of believers.
The foundation upon which Diotrephes was establishing the autonomy of His group was authority, not teaching. If Diotrephes’ problem were in reference to teaching, then surely John would have dealt with such in 3 John. But since the problem was one of lordship leadership, then John was coming as Paul was going to Corinth after the writing of the 2 Corinthian letter. If some in Achaia did not repent of their arrogant leadership, Paul warned,
I have told you before, and foretell you as if I were present the second time. And being absent now, I write to those who have sinned before, and to all the rest, that if I come again, I will not spare …” (2 Co 13:2).
Paul was headed to Achaia with the “rod” of discipline (1 Co 4:21). Some dominant and arrogant leaders were going to be delivered unto Satan for the destruction of the flesh (1 Co 5:5). Paul concluded his warning by stating:
Therefore, I write these things being absent, lest being present I should use sharpness according to the authority that the Lord has given me for edification and not to destruction (2 Co 13:10).
D. Do not receive others.
An independent group is formed under the direction of a leadership that seeks to be the dominant influence over the members of a particular group. Once the leadership restricts others from the group, then the members of the group usually follow the exclusive behavior of the leadership by being intimidated not to receive outside teachers. The preacher who withdraws himself into his own kingdom of disciples is fearful of receiving other leaders, lest they correct him for the evil sectarianism that he is practicing.
We must not confuse Diotrephetic leadership with those godly leaders who stand by the word of God in order to guard the flock from erroneous teaching and “wolves” who seek to come in among the flock. It is the responsibility of the shepherds of the flock to protect the flock from false teaching. The Holy Spirit wrote to Titus that “an elder must … be able by sound teaching both to exhort and refute those who contradict” (Ti 1:9). Elders must be able with the word of God to test those who come to the flock seeking to be teachers (1 Jn 4:1). However, there is a difference between a shepherd who is trying to guard the flock from false teaching and a shepherd who, because of selfish ambition, seeks to draw away disciples after himself. In this context of discussion, we are talking about the latter.
Diotrephes was a lordship leader among the sheep. He had withdrawn himself and his group from the fellowship of the universal body of Christ by his sectarian actions. Some in Achaia sought to do the same in reference to Paul’s coming. They first slandered Paul before the church. They then accused him of being weak and fearful about actually coming to approach his accusers (2 Co 10:10; see 12:10). Nevertheless, Paul was coming, and he was coming with the rod of discipline if some in Achaia did not repent of their arrogance (1 Co 4:21).
As in the case of Paul going to Achaia, John first wrote a letter of correction lest he be put in a situation where he would have to deliver Diotrephes unto Satan for the destruction of the flesh (See 2 Co 1:23; 13:2; see 1 Tm 1:20). John was expecting to go to Gaius, and thus did not write a lengthy letter (3 Jn 13,14). Because of the evil behavior of Diotrephes, John planned to deal with him personally.
Those who withdraw themselves from the body of Christ, often take their independent group of disciples with them. In this way, autonomy first lays the foundation for the division of the universal body of Christ that is divided into many independent groups. When preachers remain with a group of disciples year after year, it is only natural that the people are drawn to their favorite leadership. With this great influence over the people, the leader becomes the icon of his followers, and thus the leader is sometimes emboldened to declare the group of disciples to be “his church.”
Sincere leaders who understand and teach the universality of the organic function of the body of Christ are not tempted to follow Diotrephes. Such leaders focus the flock on Christ. If any leader of the church in all history could have easily started his own movement of churches that would be called after himself, it would have been the apostle Paul. But such did not happen. No such churches are known because Paul focused people on Christ, not on himself.
Unfortunately, some of the greatest reformers of past years were not so successful as Paul. Martin Luther cautioned his disciples about calling themselves “Lutherans.” Luther wrote,
I pray you leave my name alone and not to call yourselves Lutherans, but Christians. Who is Luther? My doctrine is not mine: I have not been crucified for anyone …. How does it then benefit me, a miserable bag of dust and ashes, to give my name to the children of God? Cease, my dear friends, to cling to these party names and distinctions; away with all of them; and let us call ourselves only Christians, after Him from whom our doctrine comes (Michelet, Life of Luther, p. 262).
Nevertheless, after Luther’s death, those who followed his teaching could not resist calling themselves Lutherans against Luther’s will. We were once in a gathering of preachers of different religious faiths. One preacher stood up and stated confidently concerning his particular denomination, “We are true Calvinists in our teaching,” indicating that they as a group had drawn themselves away after the teaching of John Calvin. When groups become sectarian by crystallizing themselves around a particular individual or particular code of traditions, or doctrine, then they can no longer state that they are “Christians only.” They are either Calvinistic Christians, Lutheran Christians, or whatever. But being Christian only is often much for those who are fearful of losing their identity with a particular religious heritage.
E. Crystallize the group.
At this stage of development in the denominated group, the leadership has assumed control by focusing on a particular individual who controls the group. In order to crystallize a group in separating it from other groups that are likewise following the same course of sectarianism, the leaders through intimidation enforce allegiance. If one would be a member of the sect, then he is forbidden to consider himself a part of any other group. In other words, one’s membership with a particular group is the signing of an allegiance with one group to the exclusion of working with or fellowshipping any other group. This is accomplished through a spirit of allegiance that is instilled within those who have agreed to identify with a selected party.
Diotrephes denominated his group of disciples from all other groups by violating one of the most important functions of the universal body of Christ. He denominated those over whom he exercised control by drawing them away under his own control. A denomination is defined by its refusal to fellowship those who are not a member of the denominated group.
In the historical environment of the function of the body in the first century, evangelists were traveling from city to city preaching the gospel to the lost. In any particular region where there were many Christians, shepherd/teachers were building up the body by going from house to house (See At 2:46; 20:20). Diotrephes, however, barred the members of his group from receiving these evangelists and shepherds. Diotrephes was thus working against the organic function of the body to evangelize the world, as well as the body growing itself spiritually through the teaching of the shepherds. What Diotrephes was doing was not simply forming his own denominated group of disciples, but hindering the preaching of the gospel to the world and the organic function of the body. Souls would be lost as a result of his sectarian behavior. It is for this reason that the Holy Spirit was calling his actions evil (3 Jn 11).
F. Instill cult fear.
The unity of the body of Christ is destroyed when the members of each denominated group of disciples are made to fear social expulsion from the fellowship of the group with which they have their membership. Diotrephes had made a sect out of the group over which he maintained control. He did so by intimidating any member of his group from participating in the fellowship activities of any other members of the body in his area.
What he did was to generate loyalty through fear of expulsion. He threatened to disfellowship those who would financially partner with others by supporting the traveling evangelists. He also instilled a sense of loyalty that always drew the members and their support to his group. He thus sought to stand between the members and Christ by socially intimidating the members into following his work and him as the leader of his independent church.
We do not miss the fact that John did not reproach the members of the church in Diotrephes’ move to create and maintain an autonomous group of disciples. The reason John did not is that he understood that sheep are sheep. Sheep naturally follow those who would be their shepherd, regardless of the motives of the shepherd they follow. The shepherd can lead the sheep to the slaughter house, and still they will be content to allow their shepherd to pronounce any dictate that would lead them to doom.
We have seen this behavior numerous times. For example, when the church in any area would have an area wide meeting, we have seen sheep pack up before the meeting is over in order to make sure that they returned to the regular meeting of their own group. This may have been what was happening in Achaia with some who were calling themselves after different personalties.
What is manifested in such behavior is that good-hearted sheep have a greater loyalty to their sect than they do to all other sheep in the area. They are more concerned about attending their own fellowship than enjoying an opportunity to fellowship the extended family of God. In their innocence, they have revealed that they are more loyal to their leader and their group than the extended church family in the area. We might call this “innocent denominationalism.” Whatever we would call such behavior, it is still calling oneself after a particular group or individual.
In reference to the character of Diotrephes, and such leaders who demand loyalty, they have forgotten Jesus’ mandate that there should never be authoritative leaders among the flock of God. Jesus reminded the disciples that there are “rulers over the Gentiles” who exercise authority (Mk 10:42). “And their great ones exercise authority over them” (Mk 10:42). However, Jesus clearly mandated, “But it will not be so among you” (Mk 10:43). What all leaders should do when there is an opportunity for all the sheep to manifest their solidarity is to encourage all the sheep to be present.
We have always found it quite interesting that a mandate of Jesus that was so clearly stated in reference to the leadership of the church is one of the first directives disobeyed by some who are leaders of the body of Christ. One must keep in mind that he may not think that he is lording over the flock. However, the behavior of the flock over which he is lording may manifest his lordship.
The reason Jesus gave the mandate that there should be no authorities among His disciples is revealed in the behavior of Diotrephes. When leaders rise up and claim authority, they are dividing the church of our Lord as Diotrephes denominated his group from all other groups. Diotrephetic leadership always leads to the denominating of the body of Christ. The division promoted by Diotrephes was based on him, not on a specific doctrine. And in this case, Diotrephes personally claimed authority over the group, and thus, denominated the group from other groups.
We must never forget that when someone claims authority among the disciples, it is always inherently divisive. Once a leader behaves autocratically, then he demands that the members of the group over which he has claimed authority must sign allegiance to him and his group. Some leaders may be somewhat naive in their leadership style. They may assume that the controlling nature of their leadership does not denominate the flock over which they innocently assume leadership. But we must not misunderstand what John was writing concerning the results of Diotrephes’ controlling behavior. His controlling behavior denominated the disciples over whom he exercised control from other disciples.
In very subtle ways, some leaders denominate their particular groups from all other groups. Their behavior is as Diotrephes who demanded allegiance to his group. If one would be a member of his group, then they could not be a part of any other group in the area. Diotrephes lorded over his group by intimidating the members into stating their exclusive membership (allegiance) with his group, which membership affirmed that they were a part of his group.
Leaders must understand that every time they require a member of the universal body of Christ to give allegiance solely to a particular group of the body, then they have in a very subtle way denominated that member from all other disciples of Christ that might be meeting with other groups in the same city or region. We must remember that our membership was registered in heaven when God added us to His people (At 2:47). It should never change from the time we signed up with Jesus when we were obedient to the gospel to the time we complete our journey of life. The New Testament nowhere teaches such a thing as a dual membership, one on earth and another in heaven.
When we give our allegiance to Christ, we have disconnected from any group or man who would stand between us and Christ. When we obeyed the gospel, we did not sign up with any exclusive group within the one universal church. Diotrephes demanded allegiance to himself because he loved to be first. But by demanding such allegiance, he was asking for the members to exclude other members from his congregation who did not give total allegiance to those over whom he assumed leadership.
We must never forget that the organic unity of the universal body of Christ can never exist if we set up a network of authorities either locally or universally who demand allegiance to the internationally organized network of authorities. When we walk freely in Christ, our walk in freedom is not only from sin, but also from anyone who would bring us into the bondage of their favorite group of disciples, or their Catholic order of hierarchal authorities.
[Next lecture: November 17]