“I wrote unto the church; but Diotrephes …” Here we are introduced to a man of a very different type to Gaius and Demetrius. His name, it is said, means “nourished by Jupiter.” Whatever this may signify, it is certain he did not derive his nourishment from a divine source (Col. 2:19). Assuming the place of an overseer without scriptural qualifications, he lords it over God’s heritage apparently under the plea of “standing for the truth”. The predominant thought in regard to Diotrephes is that of mis-rule in the assembly of God. Let us observe a few important features.
The charge against him of mis-rule is made by the Apostle John himself, thus we notice:
Its sincerity. Neither malice nor jealousy on his part accounted for this outburst of indignation. The brethren had borne witness to him concerning the arrogance and overbearing attitude of Diotrephes in refusing them, thus John, governed by zeal for the Lord’s honor, feels compelled to speak out plainly and he does this in all sincerity and in truth.
Mr. John Rankin served the Lord for years in the British West Indies. More recently he has ministered throughout the United States and Canada. This message from his pen is most timely. It should be taken seriously by all; some quite unawares have acted as Diotrephes, and others because of the love of power have ruled an assembly of God to its loss and detriment.
Its Severity. The “ambitious proceedings” of Diotrephes must be exposed as a warning to others, therefore his motives, feelings, words and deeds all come under the severest censure. His ebullitions of malignity may have been extolled as expressions of faithfulness by his followers, but to the Apostle they are the index and evidence of a greatly blemished character. The pride, haughtiness, and vindictiveness of Diotrephes merited the rebuke that John meant to administer when he would meet him.
Its Solemnity. Solemn indeed that a man should so act as to incur the displeasure of God. Revenging as he did his insulted pre-eminence upon true servants of the Gospel was an evil of great magnitude when we consider it in the light of the words of Christ: “He that receiveth you receiveth Me, and he that receiveth Me receiveth Him that sent Me” (Matt. 10:40). Diotrephes, therefore, must be made to realize that God knoweth the proud afar off and that he that exalteth himself shall be abased.
The cause of mis-rule is obvious. It shows itself in Diotrephes in a threefold way.
First, in his love of pre-eminence. He is a man who will have the first place or none, a man who will “rule or ruin”. The only other place where the word pre-eminence occurs is Colossians 1:18 where concerning the Lord Jesus we read, “That in all things He might have the pre-eminence”.
Second, in his love of power. Preeminence is what Diotrephes seeks in order to exercise power over others. How unlike our blessed Lord who made Himself of no reputation; who came not to be ministered unto but to minister and to give His life a ransom for many. “Diotrephes”, one has said, “is the father of a long line of sons.” At Rome there has been permanent Diotrephes in the office of the papacy. But there are other smaller continuators of Diotrephes who occupy no Vatican — priests, arrogating to themselves the priesthood, “do violence to conscience and interpose rudely between God and the soul”. Priests in this sense are called by different names. They are clad in different dresses; some in chasubles, some in frock coats, some in plain dress. “Down with priest-craft” is even the cry of many of them. The priest (who abjures the name) who is the master of religious small talk. and winds people, to his own ends, around his little finger by using them deftly, is often the modern edition of Diotrephes.
Third, in his love of praise. The man of pre-eminence and power cannot proceed far without human praise. Such a man loves the praise of men rather than the praise of God. Godly men like John may censure, but that curbs not his self-will so long as he is king in his own realm, or is the object of congratulation by the members of his own party, however small that party may be. The firmer he stands, the bolder he speaks, the sterner he acts toward those who refuse his mandate, the more he is hailed as a champion and trustworthy leader. Thrice happy are those who, like the beloved Apostle, recognize only the authority of our “One Lord”, even Christ. Haman is hanged when Mordecai is the man whom the king delighteth to honor. Diotrephes sinks into oblivion when the Apostle is honored by the God of heaven; and all modern autocratic rulers in the assemblies of God, who by displacing Christ have put themselves upon the throne, will suffer loss while simple saints who have made it their sole aim to please the Lord will hear His “well done, good and faithful servant, enter thou into the joy of thy Lord.”
The curse of mis-rule. Overseers in the execution of their work, which is at times arduous and perplexing, will ever find sufficient resources in God and the Word of His grace. “Take heed to yourselves” was Paul’s word to the elders at Ephesus. In addressing all we have suggested the importance of fellowship and unity of action in the affairs of the assembly. Would many troubles not be avoided if brethren engaging in this “good work” ever sought to act in fellowship one with another, and also in fellowship with the assembly of which they form part? The spirit developed in Diotrephes is easily fostered when there is “undue individuality of action.” Diotrephes acting in an arbitrary manner is guilty of at least three evils.
First, he dishonors God. The presence of God is not sought by this man; His word is not consulted, His will is of no importance. He even rejects or suppresses the letter the Apostle addressed to the church. In the scriptural sense of the term was he not a heretic? The word heretic is of Greek origin, the root idea of which is to “choose”. It is choosing for one’s self independently of other considerations. Heresy is “chosen opinions.” (Tertullian).
Second, he defames the servants of Christ. Professing perhaps to belong to no sect yet manifestly as sectarian as could be. One has spoken of him as an “ill-conditioned dog-in-the-manger who in his touchy self-importance thought he was somehow aggrieved by the Apostle’s recommendation and sought to revenge his insulted pre-eminence upon innocent evangelists by refusing to receive them because he would not receive the Apostle.”
The Apostle says “I will remember his deeds which he doeth, prating against us with malicious words.” Terrible indeed is this picture! A railer in authority and no power in the church as a result of his overruling to deal with him or to put him in his right place! It is a sad truism. “One sinner destroyeth much good.” To come in contact with such a self-conceited, overbearing, ambitious man, no godly person’s reputation is safe, not even an Apostle’s. By Diotrephes the holiest and humblest ambassadors of Christ are maligned and persecuted: and doubtless by his hypnotic influence others became his supporters until time would reveal his true motives and they had leisure to repent.
Third, he divides the assembly. What disorder and nerve-racking experiences! What sorrows and tears on the part of godly souls do we read behind the words, “And not content therewith, neither doth he himself receive the brethren, and forbiddeth them that would, and casteth them out of the church”. Perhaps, saying as he does so, “The Lord be glorified” (Isa. 66).
Some there are who actuated by the Diotrephes spirit, having failed in their attempts to cast out the objects of their dislikes, have judged the assembly as unclean, and seceding therefrom have commenced what they call “a clean thing.” Such a company appearing to be loyal to the truth (what part of it?) may be recognized and built up by those of like mind, but does that mean it has God’s approval? Is it not significant that even although the best of the Christians were cast out of that unknown assembly there is no hint given to Gaius to set up another table. The Apostle still acknowledged that company as “the church”. He knew, as he tells us in the Book of the Revelation, that it was the Lord’s prerogative alone to remove the candlestick, and until that became evident he would not venture to express any contrary judgment. John did no more than to assure Gaius of his purpose to deal according to the Apostolic power which he possessed with the offender. If men are truly subject to the Lordship of Christ, they will never, because they find they cannot have things all their own way, lay hold of something as an excuse to separate from their fellow-believers and start another meeting. When men adopt this procedure are they not but witnessing to their own weakness, and to their lack of confidence in God as well as to their lack of brotherly love and devotion to Christ, and furthermore to their lack of real regard for the testimony of God and for the salvation of the lost?