Dealing with Diotrephes
written by Neal Thornton, Senior Pastor (December 10, 2023)
John the Baptist has been considered the last of the Old Testament prophets. Jesus considered him to be the fulfillment of Malachi 4:5-6, the promised “Elijah,” who would “turn the hearts of fathers to their children and the hearts of children to their fathers.” (cf. Matt. 11:13-14; 17:10-13; Luke 1:17) Surely marking the end of the intertestamental period, John’s ministry was to be a forerunner of sorts to the Lord Jesus. He was to arrive first, get things in order, only for the King to arrive (Mark 1:1-8, cf. Isaiah 40:3; Mal. 3:1) In military terms, John was the advance party.
Born of Mary’s cousin Elizabeth, John preceded Jesus in both birth and ministry. Through preaching a baptism of repentance, John the Baptist was to roll out the red carpet, if you will, for the Messiah. When Jesus made his public ministry appearance, John had only one thing to say —“Behold, the Lamb of God, who takes away the sin of the world!” (John 1:29) The Baptist declared the way, prepared the way, and now it was time for him to get out of the way!
So it should be for every Christian. We call people to Christ, we clear a path for ministry, and then we’re quick to get out of God’s way.
A Man Named Diotrephes
Yet tragically, that is not always the case. In fact, the New Testament shows that since the inception of the church, people have tried to stand in God’s way. Not good. One example is a man John (the apostle, not the Baptist) named as “Diotrephes.” In John’s third letter, he writes:
I have written something to the church, but Diotrephes, who likes to put himself first, does not acknowledge our authority. So if I come, I will bring up what he is doing, talking wicked nonsense against us. And not content with that, he refuses to welcome the brothers, and also stops those who want to and puts them out of the church. (3 John 1:9-10)
As we read the letter, John’s point is clear: the church is active in missional hospitality, a “faithful thing.” (v. 5-6) But Diotrephes is seeking to stop it, “refusing to welcome the brothers” and “stops those who want to.” (v. 10) Yikes. He is exhibit A of one standing in the way—in the way of those who we read of earlier, who “have gone out for the sake of the name.” (v. 7) Diotrephes is standing in God’s way.
Diotrephes must have loved himself and wanted to be first, a photo-negative of John the Baptist. (cf. John 3:30) Speaking of him, John Stott says, “Personal vanity still lies at the root of most dissensions in every local church today.” (TNTC, Stott, 235) The root of Diotrephes’ problem was not theological, but moral. And it was sin. He is against the mission and against the gospel, an inhibitor to gospel growth. Nothing grows around the Diotrephes of the church. He is like a polluted spring, contaminating everything he touches.
Those who have been around a while will tell you, every church has at least one Diotrephes in their midst. Such a person can often hold ministries captive and the people hostage. Yet, while Diotrephes may be present, it's what churches do with their Diotrephes that makes all the difference. Do they allow them to ride roughshod over members and ministry, or do they stand up to them, rebuking them with a Bible in hand? That Diotrephes is present is not the issue, it is his influence and impact upon the church that most certainly is. John makes his prescription for such people: “I will bring up what he is doing.” (v. 10) John will go to the source and confront him face to face. An exercise Jesus likely taught him, recorded in Matthew 18:15.
What Should Churches Do?
But not every battle is defensive, and not every example is negative. John instructs us to “imitate good,” following the example of a man whose name also begins with D: Demetrius. John writes:
Beloved, do not imitate evil but imitate good. Whoever does good is from God; whoever does evil has not seen God. Demetrius has received a good testimony from everyone, and from the truth itself. We also add our testimony, and you know that our testimony is true. (3 John 1:11-12)
To be sure, churches can have helpful leadership structures that keep Diotrephes from influence. But it takes more than structure; it takes strong members, those that lead by example while refusing to aid and abet the diabolical agents among them. A Diotrephes can be a wet blanket over the ministry and testimony of the church, even for generations. For such a church to ever flourish, they have to deal with Diotrephes.
There’s a long line of gospel offenders in the New Testament, “Alexander the coppersmith,” for example (2 Tim. 4:14). Each had their own way of blockading gospel ministry. Moreover their names went down in print. For men like Diotrephes, he will be known as the man who stood in the way. Let us be mindful that the annals of history are being written over us Sunday by Sunday, in the mind of members and in the records of heaven.
Don’t get in God’s way. That’s a major takeaway from this little letter we call, Third John.