Fraudulent Authority in the Local Church

brown wooden gavel on brown wooden table

The Case Against Diotrephes

“The elder unto the well-beloved Gaius, whom I love in the truth. 2 Beloved, I wish above all things that thou mayest prosper and be in health, even as thy soul prospereth. 3 For I rejoiced greatly, when the brethren came and testified of the truth that is in thee, even as thou walkest in the truth. 4 I have no greater joy than to hear that my children walk in truth. 5 Beloved, thou doest faithfully whatsoever thou doest to the brethren, and to strangers; 6 Which have borne witness of thy charity before the church: whom if thou bring forward on their journey after a godly sort, thou shalt do well: 7 Because that for his name’s sake they went forth, taking nothing of the Gentiles. 8 We therefore ought to receive such, that we might be fellow helpers to the truth. 9 I wrote unto the church: but Diotrephes, who loveth to have the preeminence among them, receiveth us not.” ~3 John 1-9

As the Second Epistle of John dealt with a specific problem, common to Christians in every generation, so does the Third Epistle of John. The issue was the problem of authority in the local assembly. Since no sin ever exits alone, a number of concerns had to be addressed. The epistle begins on a very positive note, as John refers to himself as “the Elder”. He is writing to the well-beloved Gaius. Four times John will call Gaius beloved (1, 2, 5, and 11), demonstrating great affection for his Christian brother. By using this word, John reflects a capacity to love and to be loved. Not all people are lovely. Not all people are capable of loving. In 3 John 2, John expresses a common ancient form of greeting with this exception. He desires that the physical health of Gaius might be equal to the spiritual health of his soul. The focus of attention is played upon the soul’s prosperity.

It may have been that Gaius had suffered either a financial or a physical decline. John would have his friend to be spiritually healthy, economically sound and physically fit. When the saints enjoy all three facets of prosperity there is balance to life. The word for prosper is made up of two words which literally means “a good road”. The good road is strength, spirituality, and financial soundness. May God grant such prosperity to all of His children. 

According to 3 John 3, the apostle had heard many good reports about his beloved Gaius. It was the testimony of the saints that Gaius continued to walk in the sphere of truth. The apostles saw far too large a number of men and women embraced Christianity, only to turn away. Gaius did not turn. He heard the gospel. He believed it and he gave heart, soul, and mind, to live up to the truth as he understood the gospel.  So delighted was John to hear of the steadfastness of Gaius, that he writes of the personal joy he received (3 John 4). For John, Gaius was one of his own spiritual children, or converts.

One form of evidence that Gaius was walking in the sphere of truth was based upon how he treated the saints (3 John 5, 6). From this we learn that it does not matter if a person is the greatest theologian, the wisest businessman, the most efficient organizer in the church, if that person mistreats others in the body of Christ. When another abuses a Christian by conduct, or by words, there can be no confidence of personal salvation for the individual who is deliberately hurting others. God’s people are more cautious, more gracious, and more generous than all others (Gal. 5:19-21). Beyond doubt, Gaius was a man of grace, for he was faithful to constantly make welcome in his home the people of God and strangers.

For a variety of reasons, the gift of hospitality is not spoken of much today, and yet it is a priceless gift. It is priceless because it is rare. It is rare because it is possible to enjoy our homes, our privacy and possessions too much. Nevertheless, it seems that in every congregation there are those who enjoy entertaining guests. They do not mind the inconvenience or the short notice. Home is home, and there is no need to unduly prepare things. “Come in,” such Great Hearts tell people, “and make yourselves welcome.” Many a person had been blessed by the hospitality of Gaius, and soon the word spread back to John (3 John 6).

Besides providing personal hospitality, Gaius also provided financial assistance to the ministers of the gospel. In a day and age where individuals can make a mockery of the gospel by swindling God’s people, it is forgotten that most ministers serve faithfully, and help people more than they hurt them. The church at large has always taken its responsibility seriously to provide for the work of the gospel.

In the Old Testament this was true, illustrated by the provisions for the priesthood. And in the New Testament there are many passages which remind the saints of their responsibilities to ministers such

“Let him that is taught in the Word communicate unto him that teacheth in all good things” (Gal. 6:6).

Of course, the Bible teaches that an Elder, or a minister, should not be “greedy of filthy lucre” (1 Tim. 3:3).

So, there is a balance. Ministers are to labor in the Word, both to study it, and to present it. God’s people are to take care of the needs of the minister under the guidance of 1 Corinthians 9:9-11. “For it is written in the Law of Moses, Thou shalt not muzzle the mouth of the ox that treadeth out the corn.” God will honor those who honor Him. One way to honor the Lord is to take care financially of those who minister to the church.

In 3 John 7 the apostle recognizes that since Gaius took care of the financial needs of the ministers, they did not have to take monies from the Gentiles, or from the non-professing community. The principle is that God’s people can find a way to take care of God’s work. The result is the joy of being a fellow helper, or co-worker, in the Kingdom of God.

Beginning in 3 John 9, the tone of this lovely letter takes a dramatic turn for the worse, as John feels compelled to publicly write about a man named Diotrephes. To expose in public the misdeeds of someone is a very serious matter and yet, church discipline is essential to Christian maturity.

One good guiding rule is that private sins should be dealt with privately, and public sins publicly. Since the sins of Diotrephes were before all, John addressed the problem accordingly.

The sin of Diotrephes was that he loved to have the pre-eminence among the believers in the local assembly. This was a very serious charge that John made against Diotrephes for several reasons. Self-promotion violates all the teachings of Christ to be humble in spirit and in actions. “Blessed are the meek: for they shall inherit the earth” (Matt. 5:5).

Self-promotion violates the example of Jesus who humbled Himself. “No man,” said Jesus, “is above His Master.” “The disciple is not above his master: but every one that is perfect shall be as his master” (Luke 6:40).  Self-promotion puts the philosophy of the world inside the church. The world says to look out for self. The world says that greed is good. The world says to get all the gusto you can get out of life. The world is in conflict with Christ, for the Lord would have His people co-operate and not compete with one another for position, power or prestige. 

Diotrephes is not an innocent victim. He has a real problem that is spiritual in nature. The first sign of the sin of this professing saint might have been that Diotrephes kept his names “Zeus-nourished” even after his conversion. It was a common practice in the early churches that when a person came to faith, they changed their name, especially if it represented the pagan world. Be that as it may, Diotrephes is called an ambitious man in the worst sense of the word for, says John, he loves to have the preeminence, he loves to be the leader in the local assembly.

This brings up the question of leadership in the local church.

That the church needs leaders is obvious. That individuals desire to be leaders is very biblical (1 Tim. 3:1). “This is a true saying, If a man desire the office of a bishop, he desireth a good work.” However, it must always be kept in mind that church leadership is ultimately based upon a divine appointment confirmed by specific qualifications being met. If individuals arise in the assembly such as Diotrephes, it is because the church does not hold the leadership to strict biblical accountability. What happens then? Unholy ambitions take hold of the heart. Unchecked attitudes and actions begin to take place, which always hurts someone else. Spiritual leadership becomes a test of friendship not faithfulness to biblical principles.

Power is subtle. There are situations where the real power lies not in the ordained leadership of God, but abides in well meaning, but unauthorized souls who have gained authority through time, money, or force of personality in the use of fear, and intimidation. There is trouble when the feet want to be hands or one part of the body wants to be another.

Power is addictive. The more a person feels in control of others, the more complete control the individual desires. The biblical antidote for this is to have a plurality of leadership, to have accountability, and to teach openly against this addiction.

Power is possessive. It wants to make all the decisions, while avoiding responsibility for any negative consequences. Diotrephes was a man consumed by the lust for power. The subtle influence of power had come to dominate him so that he was addicted to it. He was possessive of his position of power.

The evidence for John’s charge was that Diotrephes dared to reject the Apostle John’s authority. Nor would Diotrephes receive into the church fellowship anyone whom John sent. Such was the height of the sin of Diotrephes that the chosen leadership of the Lord was ignored. John was shown no respect, and he was resisted in every way. Because revolt against spiritual authority is still a tool of the Enemy to disrupt the fellowship of the local church some definite steps must be taken.

First, the local church must pray that no Diotrephes will ever dominate the congregation. The local church must pray that all who are united together will love, honor, respect, and esteem the leaders that God raises up.

Second, individuals in the local assembly must examine their heart and life so that any secret longing for pre-eminence, and unauthorized control, will be confessed as sin and forsaken. Only then will God’s people know peace in the local assembly.

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