The third letter of John (3 John) is one of the shortest books of the Bible. With only 14 verses, it makes for a very quick and easy read. A simple personal letter from the Apostle to a friend, it was written to appreciate and further encourage Gaius’ generosity and hospitality to itinerant teachers of the gospel, even though they were strangers to him. John also briefly shares the good reports he’s received about Gaius and how that gave him great joy. Towards the end of his brief letter, John refers to two men who have contrasting personalities and impact on the local church to which Gaius presumably belongs – Demetrius and Diotrephes.
Although both are of pagan backgrounds as their names suggest (Demetrius = devoted to Demeter, goddess of agriculture; Diotrephes = nourished by Jupiter, chief Roman deity), they have clearly found their way into the Christian community, presumably having heard and believed the gospel of Jesus Christ. It is the contrast in their attitudes and others’ reports about them which now draws our attention. While Demetrius is clearly a good man, well spoken of by “everyone”, it is interesting how much influence “bossy” Diotrephes possessed in the church, and how the “little yeast” leavens the “whole bread”.
John’s grievance with Diotrephes was in multiple layers:
- He loves to be first: Ambitious as can be, Diotrephes is the kind who would do anything to ensure his pre-eminence among others is undisputed. Folks like this are either unsaved or have forgotten that only Christ deserves a position of pre-eminence in the church, and there are still many among us today, sometimes in the guise of leaders and administrators. They easily forget that Christ said, “the greatest is the one who serves”. Their definition of leadership is being most visible and most influential in determining what others do. They hardly lead by good example. They manipulate to achieve whatever their agenda is.
- He will not welcome us: This behavior of Diotrephes’ is directly linked to the first. Welcoming John would put his influence at risk. So, Diotrephes’ first agenda is to isolate the people around him from godly influences, who might challenge his own authority and beliefs and agenda. A Diotrephes does not lead by sound doctrine. He rules by imposing his beliefs and distancing himself and his followers (real or perceived) from anyone who disagrees with him. He would openly reject sound men of God, often slandering them or putting them down.
- He spreads malicious nonsense about us: Again, this follows from the previous behavior. Diotrephes’ only tool for manipulation and control is to spread wicked lies about other leaders in order to discredit them and “enthrone” himself. Men like Diotrephes spend a lot of time talking about others, and never have anything good to say about them. Because they are always in competition and live in fear of being exposed by the truth, they cannot say or even think anything good about other leaders, including their own followers.
- He even refuses to welcome other believers: This is concrete proof of a “Diotrephic” behavior. They often reject, not one or two persons based on doctrinal differences, but a whole lot of people, including everyone who does not agree with or defer to them on any issue. They are the kind always looking for loyalists, yet not loyal to anyone except themselves. In fact, they are not even loyal to the Lord Jesus, often undermining His purpose by their words and actions. Their sole agenda is to impose their own beliefs and ideas on others.
- He forbids hospitality and excommunicates hospitable members: As we have looked at Diotrephes’ character, we have seen a progression of behavior from being ambitious to becoming manipulative to becoming aggressive. Diotrephes was clearly a leader, having the power to “put people out of the church”. And he abused that power by “punishing” those who attempted to welcome others he himself did not welcome. I imagine he had laid down a rule that no one should welcome such and such person or they would face excommunication. It is a sad day for any church assembly when we see the likes of Diotrephes in leadership; terrorizing, confusing and manipulating young and old converts alike because of their own personal agenda.
We cannot say enough about the damage that the likes of Diotrephes among us have caused through the ages. But we can do well to examine and purge our own lives of these traits and firmly resist same when we see them in others. If a man loves to be first in the church, then let him learn to be the least. Only the least among us can faithfully serve the purpose of God.
Let us now turn briefly to Demetrius, and hear what John says about him:
- He is well spoken of by everyone: It is a difficult feat to please a few people, not to talk of everyone. But to have a good reputation among everyone who knows you, is an outstanding feat not many can boast of. Yet men like Demetrius quietly bear the testimony of Christ in their hearts, manifested through lives that cannot be condemned or faulted by many. They are often men of few words, but totally given to the pursuit of divine purpose. They are not usually boastful or loud, because “in the multitude of words, sin is not lacking”.
- He is well spoken of by the truth itself: This statement can be interpreted in two ways, both leading to the same understanding. It either means the Lord Jesus gave testimony of Demetrius to Apostle John (or another believer) by an inward witness or vision, OR that Demetrius’ life has been consistent with the common truth shared by all believers, that is, his life bears the fruits of the spirit and produces proof of the truth he believes. Either way, Demetrius has clearly lived a life that is above board and beyond reproach, testified to, not only by men, but by (workings of) the Spirit of God.
- John spoke well of him: First, it is amazing that all John has to say about Demetrius are just testimonies, from men and from God. The goal of the Christian life is to be witnesses, producers of proof that Christ is alive and working within us, and Demetrius has produced enough proof beyond doubt. Second, we will not appreciate the weight of John’s testimony except we understand his place in the Christian community of that day. His simple introduction of himself as “The Elder” does no justice to his reputation among the church. He was probably the last living witness of Jesus’ earthly life, one who has stayed true to the gospel and borne fruit beyond question. To testify to Demetrius’ life was the next greatest stamp after the testimony of Christ.
Demetrius and Diotrephes both came from being unbelievers to knowing the Lord. But while one has gone on impose himself on others and become a great “influencer”, another has produced enough proof to receive commendation from men, and from God. While one man has become a barrier to the progress of the gospel because of his own personal agenda, another has laid down his life and become an example for all the believers through the commendation of the beloved Apostle. There are many more things we can say about these two men, but the real question is, “Which one are you: Demetrius or Diotrephes?”
Dem OR Dio?
Toyin Taiwo, 2020