I wrote to the church, but Diotrephes, who loves to be first, will not welcome us.
By the time John got to writing the book of 3 John, it was understood that he was already very old, nearing a hundred. By then all the other apostles had been martyred – indeed, according to history (not the Bible), it was said that all the apostles except for John were martyred. Imagine living till that age? Almost ever single one of your peer would most likely have departed. While you will likely have a lot of friends, most of them would be a lot younger than you, and your friendship is based on your mentorship to them. Hence why the title of ‘the Elder’ that John calls himself by is doubly apt – whether or not he truly was an Elder in title or not, or simply in connotation. We know little about the Early Church except from what little the authors of the New Testament tells us, but most of those writers – Paul, Peter etc were all prominent leaders who regularly speak to different churches or visit different churches. Little is known about what goes on in a normal, regular church with a normal, regular leader. In 3 John we were given a glimpse of 3 obscure leaders in the early church days – Gaius, to whom John addressed the book of 3 John to, Diotrephes, who is our character of interest today, and Demetrius, who was the least mentioned but probably most commended. In this study we will focus on the very obscure Diotrephes from the very obscure book, and identify the common traits in a church leader that John has condemned as evil – that which we should not imitate.
I wrote to the church – the assumption here is that this was the same church that Gaius was most likely a part of. The idea here was likely, John wrote something to the church, most likely some greetings and teachings, only to be rejected by Diotrephes. In order to reject them, he would have to be of a certain ministerial position – a position of certain authority and leadership powers, at least within the church itself. As a result of Diotrephes, the letter was likely destroyed or not read out to the church, and hence, John was now writing to Gaius, most likely another church leader, so that his message can be passed on to the Church. This was perhaps also an explanation for what he did not bring up the matter of Diotrephes with the Church but with Gaius, as any letter to the church would probably end up with Diotrephes and not paid heed to.
but Diotrephes, who loves to be first – the love of preeminence is pointed out specifically by John here. If Diotrephes is, as we assumed, a man holding a certain office in the church, likely pastoral, and likely amongst a core few key positions, there will certainly be a certain importance to this man. Indeed, even till today, we do afford our pastors and ministers higher importance as a respect of their positions. However, Diotrephes was likely being too self-important, even to the point of abusing his authority. It was out of his own pride, ambition, and self-interest. There are some scholars who believe that Diotrephes preferred a different gospel to the one the apostles preached, and thus did not welcome John, but that is something I cannot speculate on.
will not welcome us – there are two possibilities here, firstly, that John was physically unwelcome when he tried to visit the church, and secondly, his voice and words were unwelcome as Diotrephes disregarded his letter, paid no heed to his words, and withheld the letter from being read to the Church. Either way, this emphasizes the tyrannical rule that Diotrephes has over the church. While a church leader was meant to lead while walking in the truth (like Gaius, as praised by John in v2), Diotrephes not only rejected them and sought preeminence, he also had malicious words for them and chased some of them out of the church. John had harsh words for Diotrephes, implying that he was evil, and he implores Gaius never to follow his example – do not imitate what is evil but what is good. Anyone who does what is good is from God. Anyone who does what is evil has not seen God [3 John 1:11].
Wow, this is like First Century AD Church politics, no? How dramatic, really. We see John, most likely a reputed figure in the Christian world and a mentor figure over several church leaders – the last of apostles, an old man with lots of respect reserved for him, being undermined by a pompous Diotrephes, who had some power in a church where Gaius, a commendable man, was also in. How complicated, but in truth, it happened in the first century, and it’s still happening today. Many times in the midst of our love for preeminence – let’s face it, we all like to be important – we lose sight of what is most important, what the church is about. We lose sight of God, and John’s warning is harsh – do good, or you are not from God.
As much as 3 John was a letter that commends Gaius, and as much as it reads, for a bit, like a complaint letter against Diotrephes to Gaius, the message is clear: lead the church properly, righteously, with the love of God. Do not imitate what is evil, but imitate what is good. And that Diotrephes?
For us modern day Christians, we may not be church leaders, but let us not become modern day Diotrephes, but instead imitate the good of Gaius and Demetrius.