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.
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