How were some “fellow workers” (3 Jn. 8) received who had a commendation from the apostle John? While the “beloved apostle” commended Gaius, who “received” the church workers, others were censured for snubbing their noses, and treating the endorsed Christians like itinerate church cons.
The apostle had occasion to write about this “evil” (3 Jn. 11), having previously written to the church about their obligation (3 Jn. 8,9a). John elsewhere described the one who would “close up his heart” to a brother in Christ as a person lacking the love of God (1 Jn. 3:17). While he praised certain brethren for their loving support, Diotrephes, “who likes to put himself first, does not acknowledge our authority” (3 Jn. 9, ESV).
Diotrephes’ conduct was not above scrutiny, however. One of the strongest censures in the New Testament was forthcoming, and divine providence saw the need to prepare and preserve a small letter that likely was written on a single piece of papyrus more than 1,900 years ago — 3 John.
John’s commendation of certain preachers was disregarded, and Diotrephes dominated the situation through manipulation and deceit. D. Edmond Hiebert comments on 3 John 9 in the following way:
“It apparently was a brief letter, now lost, requesting assistance for the missionaries being sent out by John. If so, it is not impossible that Diotrephes suppressed the letter” (The Epistles of John, Greenville: Bob Jones University Press, 1992, p. 336).
Faithful brethren were deprived of needed help. Other faithful brethren were dispossessed of the blessings that come from supporting the Lord’s work.
Why would Diotrephes reject a legitimate request by known brothers for the spreading of the gospel? Maybe the more appropriate question is this: Why was Diotrephes making unilateral decisions? Unscriptural terminology notwithstanding, W.H. Griffith Thomas made a valuable point when he wrote:
“In some respects they [foreign missions] constitute a test of a clergyman’s [preacher’s] own spiritual life, because they show whether or not he has the genuine missionary spirit. It is an almost universal experience that there is no contradiction or incompatibility between interest in Home Missions and interest in Foreign Missions. The distinction thus drawn is merely one of convenience, because in the sight of God there can be no ‘Home’ or ‘Foreign’ work...It has been well and truly said that our greatest problem is not so much the ‘non-Church-going,’ as the ‘non-going Church,’ and it will probably be found in almost every instance that the extent and power of missionary work in a parish [congregation] will depend largely on the clergyman’s [preacher’s] own attitude to God’s great work of world-wide evangelization. It is unspeakably sad to contemplate the fact that there are still Churches where little or nothing seems to be done for Foreign Missions. It would be interesting, and perhaps spiritually significant, to discover what is collected each year in such churches for ‘Church Expenses,’ and how these expenses are made up. We happen to know two or three churches where one-tenth of every collection is devoted to the work of Foreign Missions, and we have yet to learn that these churches suffer financially or spiritually by putting God’s greatest enterprise first. Let every minister therefore settle it in his own heart that if missionary work is not of much interest to him he should carefully scrutinize his own spiritual life in the light of God’s Word...” (Ministerial Life and Work (1911), Grand Rapids: Baker, nd., p. 218).
Diotrephes obviously needed to do some “careful scrutinization.”
Other congregations had given in their poverty to brethren for physical needs in the first century (e.g., the Macedonians). Why would the apostle’s recommendation to support spiritual needs, i.e. preaching of the gospel, be discounted?
Was Diotrephes so concerned about “the local work”? Pehaps he simply had not yet had the opportunity to instruct the apostle on “church autonomy” (see “Congregational Autonomy — Not a Shield for Error”)? John Stott was correct when he said:
“To John the motives for governing the conduct of Diotrephes were neither theological, nor social, nor ecclesiastical, but moral. The root of the problem was sin” (The Epistles of John, Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1964, p. 226; emphasis added).
As the facts began to circulate, what followed was predictable. Diotrephes attacked the messengers (see v. 10), thus misdirecting the attention from his own conduct. But John was not voicing his opinion, nor was he trying to intervene in matters of judgment. He laid down the moral principle, “Therefore we ought to support people like these, that we may be fellow workers for the truth” (3 Jn. 8; emphasis added). Ability and opportunity equals a moral obligation.
Concerning the informative letter of the apostle, Hiebert noted, “In view of the self-seeking motive of Diotrephes just laid bare, it seems natural that he desired to establish the autonomy of his local church to enhance his own authority” (ibid., p. 337). In order to shore up his position, Diotrephes attempted to discredit those opposing him by “talking wicked nonsense.” He had a plan, and they were going to stick to it. “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 Jn. 10). Attacks against sound men whose primary interest was in the gospel, John called evil. It was then, and it still is today.
We do not know if Diotrephes repented. John determined that the church’s mission should not suffer at the hands of a domineering, self-centered man, and the public rebuke of Diotrephes was both right and necessary. Diotrephes’ blatant maneuvering and manipulation could not be hidden behind a misguided statement like, “You should have come to me privately.” John exposed the truth of the matter for the brethren to fairly consider.John also said, “I will bring up what he is doing” (v. 10). The facts will speak for themselves. The past actions of Diotrephes could not be explained away.
A.T. Robertson once wrote an article on Diotrephes, and it was printed years ago by a denominational journal. He recalled:
“The editor told me that twenty-five deacons stopped the paper to show their resentment against being personally attacked in the paper” (Word Pictures in the New Testament, vol. 6, Grand Rapids: Baker, 1933, p. 263).
“The wicked flee when no one pursues, but the righteous are bold as a lion” (Prov. 28:1).
Why would Diotrephes sever a relationship with one of the Lord’s closest companions? Why would he feel the need to “bad-mouth” the “apostle of love” whose only interests were in helping others? Only Diotrephes could answer those questions.
Even more perplexing, why did the Lord broadcast to the world such a distasteful church problem? Because he loves us, and wants us to learn some lessons that have eternal consequences. Our motives must be sincere; our decisions scriptural. And our conduct is not exempt from righteous judgment.