The thin little letter of 3 John punches well above its fighting weight when it comes to theological and pastoral insight. And I mean punches.
Third John further elaborates the conception of truth expounded in John’s Gospel and other letters. John identifies the truth as a way of life, and rejoices that his children are “walking in the truth” (3 John 4). John also identifies the truth as personal, indeed Christological. John, we might say, hypostatizes the truth. According to the Apostle, “the truth” (3 John 8) which missionaries serve has a “name” (3 John 7). Moreover, because Christ is the truth in person, John can not only say that the truth is that about which ministers testify. He can also say that the truth himself gives a good testimony on behalf of his ministers (3 John 12).
Along with its insights into the personal and practical nature of the truth, 3 John also imparts several important leadership lessons, by way of negative example, in what it says about a certain Diotrephes. According to the Apostle John, Diotrephes’ error lies in the fact that he “likes to put himself first” (3 John 9). What does this mean?
John’s evaluation should not be understood as a censure of those who aspire to leadership in the church. Scripture affirms a holy ambition to lead the church when such an ambition is motivated by zeal for the Lord’s name and love for his people (1 Tim 3:1). What John censures is the desire for leadership that arises from the love of personal preeminence. According to 3 John 9, Diotrephes is “φιλοπρωτεύων,” “fond of being first” (Danker).
A Diotrephen spirit arises from the judgment that one belongs at the top, whether it is because of one’s gifts, one’s background, or one’s resources. This overestimation of self arises, in turn, from a failure to acknowledge the Lord’s sovereign right to rule his people and a failure to regard oneself as a person among equals, equally humble, equally dignified by virtue of God’s goodness.
The person who is “fond of being first” enjoys holding the position of supreme authority and honor in the community. He likes to hear people whisper, “Who is that?” And he loves to hear the response, “Oh, that’s the Big Guy, the Man in Charge.” The person who likes to put himself first likes to be the decision-maker, likes to make the rules, likes it when people depend upon him, whether it is for his all-wise counsel or his ever-so-sympathetic care. When there’s credit to gain, he makes sure he gets it. When there’s blame to be given, he is merciless in assigning it to anyone but himself. The Diotrephen leader likes everything about leadership because he inordinately likes himself. He is both brand and brand manager in the competitive marketplace of personal reputation.
The person who likes to put himself first inhabits a world where everything revolves around himself. In the world of his own imaginative devising, God exists as a kind of cosmic endorser of his rightful preeminence, while other people exist to look to him, to follow him, and, yes, to serve him. After all, he thinks, who is like him?
According to 3 John, a Diotrephen spirit can be identified by certain characteristic activities. A spirit of vicious church leadership (1) does not acknowledge apostolic authority in the church (3 John 9), (2) does not support the ministry of the gospel (3 John 10), and (3) excommunicates those who desire to support the ministry of the gospel (3 John 10). These characteristic activities are anti-ecclesial, church-destroying activities. How so?
Reformed churches confess that the Lord Jesus Christ is the sole head of the church and that he exercises his sovereign authority in the church by means of the apostolic Word in Holy Scripture (Westminster Confession of Faith, 25.1, 6). Moreover, Reformed churches confess that, when a church submits to Christ’s supreme Lordship through faith and obedience to Holy Scripture, that church will bear certain characteristic “marks.” Among these marks are the pure ministry of the gospel and the right exercise of church discipline (Belgic Confession, art. 29). Because these “marks” of the church are also “means” of the church’s growth and maturation, when these marks are missing, the church fails to thrive and often ceases to exist (Westminster Confession of Faith, 25.3-5).
What does this have to do with a Diotrephen spirit? In opposing apostolic authority (as embodied in Holy Scripture), in refusing to support the pure ministry of the gospel, and in abusive practices of church discipline, the person possessed of a Diotrephen spirit undermines the God-ordained means of building and cultivating Christ’s church. The person who likes to put himself first is in effect an anti-leader: the enemy of Christ’s glory and the common good, the partisan of his own name and his own gain.
According to 3 John, such “wicked nonsense” (3 John 10) should not be trusted or tolerated in positions of church leadership. When a Diotrephen spirit arises in our hearts, or when we see such a spirit arising in the church, it must be rebuked, following the apostolic example. Such a spirit opposes the crown rights of “the truth” himself (3 John 8), which belong exclusively to the one who bears “the name” (3 John 7). The person who takes pleasure in putting himself first puts a stumbling block in the path of those who seek to walk in the truth (3 John 4). Such a person is not the kind that receives commendation from the truth himself (3 John 12). He should not receive our commendation either.