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]