3 John Commentary

WHAT WAS THE nature of the problem with Diotrephes? Why was he so antagonistic to John? The tense of the Greek verb in verse 9 translated “will have nothing to do” is present. This construction means that John is not referring to a single event but to an enduring attitude. The verb itself can mean two things, both of which are at work here. (1) Formally, it means “to receive or welcome” someone. Diotrephes was simply refusing to be hospitable to the missionaries. (2) But the verb also has a figurative meaning, carrying the idea “to accept or recognize” someone. Diotrephes was rejecting not merely his obligation to be hospitable, but John himself as elder. This rejection of the missionaries was his way of refusing to acknowledge the authority of John, and this attitude was going to continue.

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Third John suggests that the Johannine community was made up of scattered congregations (tradition suggests that they were all in western Asia Minor, near Ephesus). As they grew, they brought in converts who had no knowledge of the history of the church or the importance of apostolic tradition. Imagine young Christians believing in Jesus and not knowing much about his followers or their teachings! The names given in 3 John (Gaius, Diotrephes, and Demetrius) are all Greek; this fact suggests a cultural context far removed from Judea and Galilee. Thus when a traditional source of authority steps forward — an apostolic elder — some chafed at the thought of submission. “Our religion is working for us! It feels right! Why should we conform to a foreigner, someone who represents traditions and people we don’t even know?”

Therefore, 3 John raises some interesting questions about conflict resolution and pastoral leadership in the church that have an immediate value for us today. John knows he has a problem here. This letter is evidence of his strategy to solve it.

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(1) John’s first strategy. I am intrigued by the way John did not let go of this situation. He persisted, first by sending a letter (that was tossed out) and then by sending emissaries (who were rejected). But he did not allow this to discourage him. Third John is his second letter, sent with another emissary, Demetrius. I sense that John is determined not to let this church — or Diotrephes — go.

John’s first strategy for resolving this conflict, therefore, is not to retreat but to remain in contact. This should be our strategy too. All too often our impulse when we must confront people of strong will and ambition is to retreat. The prospect of losing or of being shamed is so apparent that it seems better to “wait and see” what will happen, to stay on the sidelines, or to keep away from the perpetrators. Others will muster support against someone like Diotrephes and be passive-aggressive, sabotaging him at every turn and discrediting his standing in the church. Those to take this approach use the very tools criticized in 3 John 10: “I will call attention to what he is doing, gossiping maliciously about us.”

Of course, the chief reason for remaining connected to the “Diotrepheses” of our world is to save the church! Many times they are confusing zeal for the body of Christ with personal ambition, and as their power grows, the church itself is harmed. But there is another reason for not giving up. Diotrephes needs to be saved from himself. Diotrephes needs John. For John to show weakness by retreating is to posture himself in a way that makes it impossible for Diotrephes to respect him. Diotrephes needs John to be strong and persistent because that is the only strategy that can penetrate his heart. This courageous role is one way in which John can love Diotrephes.

This first strategy seems clear enough, but in today’s church it also may seem idealistic. When pastoral leadership is challenged by a confrontive, aggressive Diotrephes, there is a great deal of risk involved.

(2) John’s second strategy. But there is more. John has found an ally in Gaius. This man is not called to manipulate the situation or to confront Diotrephes. Gaius knows Diotrephes well and could, of course, play this role. But John chooses not to work indirectly. Gaius is simply an objective foothold in the situation, someone who lives neither in John’s camp nor in that of Diotrephes. Gaius knows the situation but is not embroiled in the crisis and certainly is not infected with Diotrephes’s peculiar form of rebellion.

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Gaius becomes a point of reference that gives John pastoral objectivity in this remote congregation. Gaius no doubt could correct the apostle’s notions of the severity of the crisis, much like Titus counseled Paul during his conflict with the Corinthian church (2 Cor. 7:5 – 13).

(3) John’s third strategy. The final striking dimension of this letter is John’s willingness to talk personally with Diotrephes. When he cannot be there, he sends a letter. But when he has opportunity, he will come personally. This pattern is striking because the situation is clearly dangerous. Paul took this same risk when he went to Corinth on his “painful visit” (2 Cor. 2:1). And as the evidence of 2 Corinthians suggests, he was asked to leave the church against his will. Those in charge decided that Paul was not welcome. Fortunately, through the efforts of mediators such as Titus, the church repented and Paul returned. Nevertheless, such confrontations incur high risk.

The temptation to avoid Diotrephes and fall silent must have occurred to John. It is one thing to write a letter or even send a messenger. But it is altogether another matter to go personally and confront your opponent. We can successfully rationalize conflict avoidance in countless ways. I know Christian leaders who as children grew up with so much conflict that confronting a potentially hostile situation is virtually impossible. I know others who have an inherent sense of powerlessness that has been born through the destructive work of tyrannical parents. Such powerlessness often masquerades as Christian piety and meekness, but it is neither of these.

John is confident that he can enter this situation successfully because he is prepared. He has continued to communicate with those in the church; he has counseled with his couriers; he will talk deeply with Gaius when he gets there; and he knows that God is with him and that God’s desire is for the truth to win and for his people to walk in its freedom and joy. God wants his church — the Johannine churches and our churches — to grow in love and truth. If all parties — John and Diotrephes alike, pastors and lay leaders alike — fail to stand for the truth and to act in sincere, courageous love, the vigor of the church will be compromised.

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Note how in 1 Corinthians 5 Paul suggested such a tactic regarding an immoral man in that congregation. Should today’s church have similar resolve and courage? Are we in theory ready to reject an unrepentant Diotrephes? And would we in practice be able to do it?

*All commentaries drawn from: Burge, Gary M. “3 John” In The NIV Application Commentary: The Letters of John. By Gary M. Burge, 243-221. Grand Rapids: Zondervan, © 1996.

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