The spirit of Diotrephes (2021)
An excerpt from “DIOTREPHES: THE CHURCH REGULATOR”
A.T. Robertson (Renowned Greek scholar 1863-1934)
“I wrote to the church, but Diotrephes, who loves to have the preeminence among them, does not receive us. Therefore, if I come, I will call to mind his deeds which he does, prating against us with malicious words. And not content with that, he himself does not receive the brethren, and forbids those who wish to, putting them out of the church. Beloved, do not imitate what is evil, but what is good. He who does good is of God, but he who does evil has not seen God.” (3 John 1:9–11 NKJV)
[…] Many years ago, I wrote an article for a denominational paper concerning Diotrephes. The editor told me afterward that twenty-five deacons had ordered the paper stopped as a protest against the personal attack in the paper. What I did in the article was to show that Diotrephes was a typical church “boss” who ruled the church to suit his own whims. In Kentucky, we have a phrase termed “the short-horn deacon” for this type of church regulator.
[…] The sin that John charges against Diotrephes is that he “loves to have the pre-eminence.” The word here employed by John is a very rare one and means “fond of being first.” A late scholion explains it as “seizing the first things in an underhand way.” The word occurs among the ecclesiastical writers to picture the rivalries among the bishops of the time. It is a sad commentary on human nature that even preachers of humility often practice the pushing of self to the front in an unbecoming spirit and manner.
One recalls that once Jesus found the disciples disputing among themselves who was the greatest among them, a spirit that Jesus sternly rebuked by placing a little child, possibly Peter’s own child, in the midst of them and by saying that the greatest was the one who served the most. And once James and John, with their mother, actually came to Jesus with the formal request that they are given the two chief places in the kingdom of Christ (the political Messianic kingdom of their expectation). And at the last Passover meal, Jesus had to rebuke the apostles for their unseemly conduct in scrambling for the post of honor at the meal. It was with this peril in mind that Jesus urged the apostles to love one another and prayed for unity among them and among all his future followers.
Ambition is not sinful in itself though our very word (of Latin origin) had a bad history, for it suggests politicians who would take both sides of an issue to get votes. This double-dealing is due to the desire for place and power. Jesus noted that the Pharisees loved the chief seats in the synagogue to be seen by men. Their piety was particularly punctilious if enough prominence could be obtained to justify the display and outlay of energy. A certain amount of ambition to excel is good for one. Ambition is a good servant but a bad master. It is dangerous for ambition to have the whip handle in one’s life.
Diotrephes loved the first place among the brethren. He was determined to be first at any cost. If any honors were to be bestowed, he assumed that they belonged to him as a matter of course. He must be consulted on a matter of church policy else, he was against it. The least detail of church life must receive his sanction else he would condemn it. If he was not the chairman of all the committees, he must be regarded as an ex officio member. If Diotrephes had been the sole pastor of the church, something could be said for such pre-eminence. But evidently, Gaius was also one of the elders. And Diotrephes may have been only a deacon. But the spirit of a man like Diotrephes does not depend on office. Such a man rates himself as the natural leader of the church because of his native gifts, family, money, and reputation. The only way for the church to have peace is for everyone to acknowledge this brother’s primacy.
Plutarch notes that Alcibiades wanted the first place. He got it, and he ruined Athens by the expedition to Syracuse. It is impossible to calculate the harm that has been wrought in the churches by church dictators like Diotrephes. Diotrephes drew the line on John. He “receiveth me not.” He refused to recognize the standing and authority of John the Elder and Apostle. The word here rendered “receive” occurs in the papyri in the sense of “accepting” a lease and in Maccabees 10:1 for “accepting” a king. Evidently, Diotrephes treated John as a heretic or as John is said to have treated Cerinthus when he rushed out of the bath when Cerinthus came in lest the house falls in because of God’s wrath.
One recalls the temperament of this “son of thunder” who came to be known as “the apostle of love.” It was John who in great zeal, reported to Jesus one day: “Master, we saw one casting out demons in thy name; and we forbade him because he followed not with us” (Luke 9:49). But Jesus rebuked John’s narrowness of spirit about the method of work. “Forbid him not: for he that is not against you is for you” (Luke 9:50). John and James were those who asked Jesus to call down fire from heaven to consume the Samaritans who “did not receive” Jesus (Luke 9:52-55). But Jesus “turned and rebuked them.”
John was now the aged apostle who went from church to church with the message: “Little children, love one another.” But he still had the old fire and vigor with more justification against Diotrephes than against the examples in the Gospel of Luke. Diotrephes was turning the tables on John (cf. 3 John 10) and was refusing to recognize or entertain John as a genuine minister of Christ. Besides, he said slighting things about John, “prating against us with wicked words.” The word translated “prating” occurs as an adjective in 1 Timothy 5:13 “tattlers” (verbosce, Vulgate). These idle, tattling busy-bodies excited Paul’s disgust. That is John’s word for Diotrephes. He seemed to have John on the brain and gadded around with idle tales and “wicked words” derogatory to John’s character and work, seeking to undermine his influence for good.
This sort of propaganda against preachers is only too common. It degenerates into idle gossip. One of the saddest spectacles in modern Christianity is to see the very forces that are designed to co-operate with the pastor in pushing on the work of the kingdom of God, engaged in pulling down all that the pastor and other church members try to do. The result is the paralysis of the work and the mockery of the outsiders who sneer at Christian love and unity. As a rule, the pastor can only suffer in silence and go on with those who have a mind to work in spite of the slackers and the hinderers.
Silence is the best answer to idle slander. But sometimes, the man of God has to speak. And then it should be to the point and very brief and in a way to help the cause of Christ, not to do harm. As a rule, well-doing is the best way to put to silence the ignorance of foolish men (I Peter 2:15). John does not mind ostracism by Diotrephes save as that leads others astray. But Diotrephes draws the line on all of John’s followers.
Diotrephes was “not content therewith.” He was not satisfied with his vindictive opposition to John the Elder. “Neither doth he himself receive the brethren.” Probably these missionary brethren had letters of commendation from John. That item would only anger Diotrephes all the more. It was now his habit to close his door against anybody aligned with the Apostle John.
He will not recognize the Elder. He will not recognize the followers or co-laborers of the Elder. Hence John pleads with Gaius to take special interest in those who “for the sake of the Name went forth” (3 John 7). One recalls the language of Luke in Acts 5:41, “Rejoicing that they were counted worthy to suffer dishonor for the Name.” This way of referring to Jesus became common, it is clear.
The problem of welcoming those who traveled from place to place and who claimed to be at work in the name of the Lord was a vital one for a long time as is seen in “The Teaching of the Twelve Apostles,” XII, 1: “And let everyone that comes in the name of the Lord be received and then after testing him ye will know.” The brother who claimed to be for the Lord had the presumption in his favor, but some wolves traveled in sheep’s clothing, and a certain amount of discretion was called for then and now. Even today, with all our publicity and modern facilities for information, people are only too often taken in by slick-tongued adventurers who make money out of gullible brethren and sisters and then move on to fresh pastures.
There is some advantage in having some sort of a line drawn. John is not here demanding that Diotrephes reform, but that Gaius see to it that John’s missionaries are taken care of when they come. One of my clearest childhood memories is that of Elias Dodson, a quaint and godly missionary of the old Home Mission Board of Southern Baptists. This gifted and consecrated man went from house to house on his mule and usually had only one suit of clothes. He asked for a dollar for the Indians, and he generally got it and wrote postcards ahead about his entertainment. It was common to send little notes to the denominational paper concerning his appointments and entertainment.
He was a modern example of John’s traveling missionaries from church to church. Elias Dodson did much to create a real missionary spirit in Virginia and North Carolina. Even those who were opposed to missions found it hard to put a ban on Elias Dodson and his mule. But Diotrephes sought to dictate to the whole church a line of conduct toward John and his missionaries. “And them that would (receive the brethren) he for- biddeth and casteth them out of the church.”
Here we see the rule or ruin policy of the church “boss.” This self-willed leader is not content that he shall be allowed to treat John and his missionaries as outsiders. He demands that everyone in the church do the same thing. He had the whip handle in the church and was determined to force his will upon the entire membership. It is not clear whether he actually succeeded or not. The tense in the Greek allows merely the threat and the attempt for “casts out.” In John 9:34 the Pharisees actually “cast out” (aorist tense) the blind man who stood out against them that Jesus was not a sinner, but a prophet of God. They turned him out of the synagogue and then Jesus met him and saved him, a grotesque picture of a synagogue that fought against God in Christ.
If Diotrephes actually compelled this church to expel those who dared to welcome the missionaries of John, it was an honor to be outside of that church. But the fact that Gaius was still a member of the church, an elder apparently, argues for the conclusion that Diotrephes was simply terrorizing the brotherhood by his threats. But it was bad enough for a church to have a “bulldozer” like Diotrephes who blocked the path of progress for the church. He had become the chief liability to the church instead of its chief asset. So John exposes Diotrephes plainly to Gaius. John is not afraid to face Diotrephes. He is anxious to do so, but he cannot come yet.
Meanwhile, he puts Gaius on his guard and urges him to break the power of Diotrephes over the church by daring to show him up as he really is. Gaius owes this duty to the church. But John hopes to come someday. “Therefore, if I come, I will bring to remembrance his deeds which he does.” One needs only to read 1 John 2 to see how plainly John can speak when the occasion calls for it. It becomes a sad duty sometimes to expose the wicked ambition of a man with the rule or ruin policy. It is better that such a man would drop out of the church than that the church withers and die. Our churches need leadership, but not domination. The difference is vital. Leaders lead, bosses drive their slaves under orders.
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