3 John addresses a difficult situation in which a local church leader named Diotrephes has seized power, and refuses to allow any outside influences to affect his flock. He refuses to receive other brothers in Christ, and expels from the church anyone who does. Being expelled from the church for doing the right thing is traumatic, and believers often have a hard time knowing what to make of their situation.
By God’s providence, I’ve had occasion to interact with many such people, both victims and predators, through my peripheral contact with the “doctrinal movement.” Whatever its good points, that movement has certain habits and teachings that predispose it to becoming a vipers’ nest of petty tyrants — and many doctrinal churches are just that. Others are not, of course, and many good friends of mine — precious saints whom I dearly love–continue to consider themselves part of the movement. I hope they find this article a useful aid in helping refugees from their sister churches.
Of course, Diotrephes predates that movement, and his modern-day imitators can be found in every communion, movement, and denomination, sometimes on the periphery, sometimes at the very center. Wherever they are found, they savage the Lord’s sheep, bringing confusion, pain, and fear. Once upon a time, I had occasion to compose the following essay/letter to address a group of fellow believers savaged by a Diotrephes, in an effort to help them think biblically about what had happened to them.
I had a good bit of much-needed downtime during the last day or so, and spent much of it meditating on practical application of some of the passages we’ve discussed. Several things went ‘click’ that I’m hoping to share over the coming days, but one stood very clearly in the foreground: God’s hidden mercy expressed through Diotrephes. The exegetical points here are pretty obvious, so the emphasis here will be on careful application. This is going to take a little space to get all the relevant pieces on the table; please bear with me.
1. Diotrephes “loves to have the pre-eminence.” (3Jn. 9)
A good (under-)shepherd working in God’s flock preaches Christ, and when Christ is preached, people look to Christ, and He has the pre-eminence. Diotrephes cannot preach Christ, because every time he does, Christ gets the pre-eminence instead of Diotrephes. In order for Diotrephes to have the pre-eminence, he has to preach something else.
The distortions may be subtle and difficult to detect at a doctrinal/theological level, but the practical results are not: no matter what they say, in practical, tangible, day-to-day living, the sheep tend to focus on Diotrephes more than Christ, and Diotrephes couldn’t be happier about it.
2. Diotrephes “does not receive the brethren, and forbids those who wish to, putting them out of the church.” (3Jn. 10)
He divides the body, which is a practical denial of the unity of the body of Christ, and an offense to the unity which the Spirit has created (Eph. 4:1-6). Another way of describing this action would be to say that Diotrephes “cause(s) divisions and offenses, contrary to the doctrine which you have learned.” (Rom. 16:17) We can’t see Diotrephes’ heart with the eyes of flesh, but with the eyes of faith, we certainly can, because God has told us what is in it: “For those who are such do not serve our Lord Jesus Christ, but their own belly, and by smooth words and flattering speech deceive the hearts of the simple.” (Rom. 16:18) Diotrephes is serving himself and not Jesus. Romans also gives us his basic toolkit: deception through smooth words and flattering speech.
3. Two kinds of people in Diotrephes’ congregation.
Most obviously, there are the simple, who are deceived by his smooth words and flattering speech. This is not just an intellectual problem; ‘simple’ is a morally freighted designation in Scripture (get out your concordance and go through Proverbs on this point; you’ll see it). Proverbs repeatedly commands the simple to get wisdom, but notes that the simple man loves folly. Those who are deceived by Diotrephes are deceived partly because he’s slick — that’s the “smooth words” part — but also partly because he flatters them — that is, they are deceived willingly, from a desire to think better of themselves than God allows. Because they rebel against God in this way, they are unable to see Diotrephes’ sin, because to see it would be to see their own pride, and they will not allow themselves to do that. Thus they become culpable, and complicit in Diotrephes’ sin.
In evangelical Protestant circles, this flattery usually takes the form of the “Elijah mistake”: “I alone am left, and they seek to take my life.” (1Ki. 19:10) We love to think that we’re among the perceptive few who have attained the correct view, and everyone else is desperately, hopelessly wrong. The “correct view” may be defined morally (tithing, witnessing to X number of people in a week, avoiding dancing, alcohol, or other pet legalisms) or doctrinally (using certain terminology, insisting on agreement on all the minutiae, passing key litmus tests inflated to unbiblical prominence, etc.), or both; it doesn’t really matter, as long as it sets the anointed few apart from the common herd of imperceptive louts who don’t understand and won’t obey.
There is another kind of person in Diotrephes’ congregation: those who are not deceived. These people have a duty to confront the wrong that they see happening before them: Gal.6:1, Heb.10:24, Jam.5:19-20, etc., and note that there is no exception clause for church leaders.
Some of those who are not deceived refuse to do this. They will not confront the sin they see before them. They may tell themselves that it’s pointless, that Diotrephes will never change, etc., but that’s a rotten excuse, a balm to cover their cowardice. Gal. 6:1 says to restore a brother overtaken in any trespass. These people are falling down on the job, refusing to behave in the way that Christ calls them to, and they become complicit in Diotrephes’ sin, the more so because they are not deceived. Those who think in this way, but leave the church without biblically confronting the evil, are in the same category. They are refusing to do as God has asked them to do, and they are complicit in the sin.
Those who confront Diotrephes and refuse to bow to his demands are, of course, put out of the church.
I can hear someone asking “You’ve talked about those deceived and those not deceived as the two kinds of people. What about the deceivers?” It’s a good question. I believe the deceivers fall into the same two categories. Either they are deceived (and often self-deceived), or they are not. If not, they either confront the evil, in which case they stop being deceivers, or they become actively part of it.
4. Being in Diotrephes’ church is God’s judgment; being expelled is God’s kindness.
Those who refuse to see the truth, or refuse to act on it, suffer the consequences that come with that — they remain in willing bondage to Diotrephes. Those who are expelled are free from that bondage; being put out of Diotrephes’ church is God’s kindness to those who have done as He asks (or His mercy on those who have not done as He asks, but still wound up on Diotrephes’ bad side).
The average member of Diotrephes’ church remains there through cowardice or love of flattery. This is sin, and it leads to further sin. When God allows this person to remain in place, He is allowing this person to heap up judgment for himself — and make no mistake, God will judge. “Be not deceived; God is not mocked. For whatever a man sows, that he will also reap.” (Gal.6:7)
Being expelled from the church is tremendously painful, but we should remember the example of the apostles, who were beaten by the religious leaders, and afterward “departed from the presence of the council, rejoicing that they were counted worthy to suffer shame for His name.” (Ac.5:41) Suffering for Christ brings the reward of being a joint heir with Him (Rom.8:17), and in this case it also carries the benefit of not being in Diotrephes’ church, and therefore not becoming complicit in countless ways with Diotrephes’ sins. It’s a severe mercy to be sure, but it is mercy — consider the alternatives.
There are two qualifications I want to add to this point. First, this is a general characterization of the situation, not an absolute rule. For example, take a new convert that Diotrephes wins to Christ. Of course he doesn’t know any better, and we can expect that a gracious God will shelter that person until he grows to the point where he should know better — however long that takes for that specific individual. But when he grows to that point, then he is being willingly deluded by flattery just like anyone else in the church, or he’s failing to confront sin through cowardice — either of which will put him in line for judgment. Or, in rare cases, he stands up for the truth, and gets himself thrown out of the church.
Second, either being expelled from the church or leaving of one’s own accord is a blessing, but what the person makes of God’s blessing is up to them. A believer can leave Diotrephes’ church and forsake assembly, becoming bitter against the saints and — although he may not admit it — against the God whose severe mercy has blessed him. This person twists God’s blessing into the instrument of his own destruction. The proper way is to receive that blessing in faith, trusting that it is a blessing
5. Those who have been expelled from Diotrophes’ church should thank God for it.
I trust this is pretty well self-explanatory at this point in the discussion.
Of course, this thankfulness doesn’t preclude grief over Diotrephes’ sins, and it doesn’t preclude wishing that Diotrephes had repented rather than continuing in them. Obviously, the ideal is for Diotrephes to do what David did when Nathan confronted him over his sin with Bathsheba. But if that doesn’t happen, then it is better to be free to find a different church; being kicked out is a blessing.
6. It’s difficult to be properly grateful for this severe mercy without coming to grips with one’s own sin.
It occasionally happens that someone stands up to Diotrephes for the very first wrong they see, and gets bounced for it. More often, though, something is finally “the last straw.” But before the last straw, there is often a long history of complicity with Diotrephes’ sins, and this often becomes clear only over time, after getting out of the situation. Such a person often looks back at things that seemed right at the time and thinks “Yikes! What was I thinking?”
There’s a common temptation to just say “I was brainwashed” and leave it at that, with the attendant implication “I was a victim; it wasn’t my fault.” I’ve been helping such people for nearly 10 years now, so let me allow you to eavesdrop on my typical response, the way I’ll take the conversation after the person says something like “I was brainwashed.”
You’re partly right. You were indeed a victim, and a great deal was done to you that was not your fault. But are you really telling me that you never wondered if the story you were hearing from the pulpit wasn’t gossip? Are you telling me that you never enjoyed the frisson of knowing you were going to the only good church in your area? Are you telling me that it did nothing for your pride to know that your pastor was standing strong for the faith, while all others were defecting — and that your friends and neighbors who followed those other pastors couldn’t see as clearly as you could?
From your protest — “But I was deceived!” — I can see that my questions are striking home. Yes, of course you were. Eve made a similar complaint, and it didn’t remove her culpability any more than it removes yours. Like her deceiver, your deceiver will have much to answer for in the day of judgment. But by what means were you deceived? Scripture is not silent on this point, is it? It says that Diotrephes deceived you by smooth words and flattery, and therein lies your culpability. God demands that you walk humbly with him; flattery works in the opposite way, by inflating your pride. When you tell me that Diotrephes deceived you, you’re also admitting that to the extent of your deception, you were not humble, and he was making you less humble, and you were enjoying it — that’s how flattery works. A person who is deceived by flattery is not innocent. As God describes it, being deceived in this way is sin, specifically pride.
You object that Diotrephes didn’t flatter you at all; in fact, he shouted at you and berated you at every turn. Yes, of course he did. A Marine Drill Instructor does the same to his recruits; did you ever see anyone prouder than a newly-minted Marine graduating from boot camp? There are many ways of inducing people to believe that they are part of the chosen few; a combination of abuse and elitism is one of the more common ones. It has the side effect of producing people who follow orders without question and look down on everyone but their leaders — that’s why the Marines use it. This method creates immense quantities of pride, and that’s sin.
But the news is not all bad.
We are in Christ, and for us, consciousness of sin is not condemnation, but a time to exult in our redemption. God is just, and He delights to forgive His people, whom He has declared righteous while we were still sinners. So for us, addressing our sin opens our eyes, that we may be grateful for what God has done. What does that look like in this situation? No doubt you can think of your own examples, but let me offer one to get you started.
You were in a place where you were often tempted to pride, and often yielded to it, a sin that led you into the other sins about which you complain that you were deceived. Did you not pray many times, “lead us not into temptation,” as the Lord commanded His disciples to do? God has answered that prayer, and led you out of that place of temptation. But perhaps you did not pray that prayer (many neglect it, these days); if that’s the case, you have even more for which to be grateful. God has answered what you ought to have prayed, and saved you from trouble when you didn’t even ask.
Be deeply grateful, and thank Him for His salvation. Be compassionate, also, on those who remain. True enough, they are in darkness, and so were you before God rescued you. Having been rescued from a place where you were constantly tempted to pride, nothing could be less fitting than to become proud of how you’ve seen the light now, and to look down on those who have not. Remember the wise words of Psalm 119:67: “Before I was afflicted, I went astray, but now I keep Your word.” Resist the temptation to pride, and pray for their rescue. Where you have the opportunity to wisely stir them up to love and good deeds, by all means do so. Your encouragement may be the instrument God uses to give them the strength to do what they should.