3 John: Lord It Over


John’s letter to Gaius most likely acted as a cover letter to accompany John’s treatise on living by faith in Christ. Gaius was beloved to John, as well as greatly respected and loved by the Christian communities that had been built up around John’s teaching and shepherding.

Now, John would rely upon Gaius to—with all love and wisdom—correct a concerning trend that had begun to tear the communities apart.


Diotrephes, First in Rank

Now came the issue that John wanted to address, and perhaps the reason why this letter—by inspiration of the Holy Spirit—would be included in the canon of scripture.

I wrote something to the assembly, but the one who loves to be himself first in rank, Diotrephes, does not receive us hospitably.

John to Gaius, 3 John 1:9 (my translation)

I had to sit on that for a while.

It still takes my breath away.

How in the world . . .? How, on God’s green earth, could there be any person who considered themselves a Christian, a believer, one who had put their faith in the Lord Jesus, Messiah, turn around and spurn one of Jesus’ own? Had they not read, did they not hear, were they not aware of what Jesus had said about exactly this!?

“Whoever listens to you listens to me, and whoever rejects you rejects me, and whoever rejects me rejects the one who sent me.”

Jesus to his disciples, Luke 10:17 (NRSV)

Jesus had said that to the seventy he had sent out as evangelists ahead of him. Matthew had recorded Jesus’ words in a positive way, speaking of the rewards of receiving one of the disciples as a prophet, even with the smallest acts of kindness. Luke had added the negative aspect of Jesus’ reassurance.

There was no in-between in this.

Either the gospel, and the ones who brought it, were received, or they were rejected. The message of the gospel represented more than a life philosophy, or a world view, or one of several ways to reach spiritual completion. The gospel—and those who brought it—represented God the Son, and God the Father.

To reject an apostle was to reject Jesus.

Whoa! You might be thinking, “Well, come on now. Diotrephes did not reject the gospel. He did not reject Jesus. He just rejected John. He rejected John’s take on the gospel, John’s way of teaching the faith, John’s authority.”

My only response is what John wrote at the beginning of his gospel, and at the beginning of his first letter. He was there. He knew what Jesus taught, and he knew what Jesus meant. John was saturated in the Spirit, he was the Elder of the communities that had grown up in the Lord through his teaching and shepherding.

Diotrophes, it seems, had gone far ahead of Truth, and was now rejecting the way that had been taught to him by the Apostle.

The Deadly Creep of GrecoRoman Rule

John, the last remaining apostle, was not the only elder battling on the frontlines of Gnosticism. His disciples Papias, Ignatius,[1] and Polycarp were also writing letters, traveling from community to community, appointing elders, leaving wise and seasoned teachers and shepherds as trustworthy overseers, and exhorting believers to listen to these leaders among them.

Ignatius of Antioch, as he was being led to his death in Rome, visited many of the assemblies along the way, and left letters with them to spread throughout the communities of faith. In these missives, Ignatius repeatedly exhorted the brothers and sisters to

Take care to do all things in harmony with God, with the bishop [επισκοπος | episkopos] presiding in the place of God, and with the presbyters in the place of the council of the apostles, and with the deacons, who are most dear to me, entrusted with the business of Jesus Christ, who was with the Father from the beginning and is at last made manifest.

Ignatius of Antioch — Letter to the Magnesians 2, 6:1

Wherever the bishop appears, there let the people be; as wherever Jesus Christ is, there is the Catholic Church. It is not lawful to baptize or give communion without the consent of the bishop. On the other hand, whatever has his approval is pleasing to God. Thus, whatever is done will be safe and valid.

Ignatius of Antioch — Letter to the Smyrnaeans 8 (J.R. Willis translation)

We now look back on the two-thousand-year legacy of those letters.

Much harm has come to the church because of this hard stop put upon the organic growth of the Body of Christ, which had been meant to be nonhierarchical in its life.

Jesus called them to him and said, “You know that the rulers of the Gentiles lord it over them, and their great ones are tyrants over them. It will not be so among you; but whoever wishes to be great among you must be your servant, and whoever wishes to be first among you must be your slave; 

just as the Son of Man came not to be served but to serve, and to give his life a ransom for many.”

Jesus to his disciples, Matthew 20:25-28 (NRSV)

Hierarchy’s Harm

There are three chief ways the creep of GrecoRoman rule affects Christendom today.

  1. Translation of scripture. The apostles all used the nuanced word ὑποτάσσω | hupotasso to connote willing cooperation and placing under the shelter of. However, very often this word is translated “submit” or “obey” or “be subject” in key texts where that connotation was not intended. As you do a search of these these words throughout the Christian Testament, note how the replacement of them with the phrases willing cooperation or placing under the shelter of changes the feel of the passage.

Here is an example:

Let every person [be subject] to the governing authorities; for there is no authority except from God, and those authorities that exist have been instituted by God. 

Apostle Paul, Romans 13:1 (NRSV)

Still, not every passage that uses these words was originally written with precisely hupotasso in Greek. Another passage that pertains specifically to this issue is found in the anonymous letter written to Hebrew believers.

[Obey] your leaders and [submit to] them, for they are keeping watch over your souls and will give an account. Let them do this with joy and not with sighing—for that would be harmful to you.

Hebrews 13:17 (NRSV)

The first verb in Greek is πείθω | peitho, meaning (in its passive form, as it is in this passage) to be persuaded by. There are secondary and tertiary definitions which include “obey,” but from the point of view of having listened to one who is believed and trusted. This is a far cry from the sort of blind obedience many leaders have insisted upon.

The second Greek verb is ὑπείκω | hupeiko, which, among its many nuances, is best described as meaning to relax and to yield to.

A much better rendition of the first phrase of this verse would be to say,

Be persuaded by your leaders as ones you listen to, believe, and trust, and yield to them . . .

Hebrews 13:17 (my translation)
  • Top-Down Leadership in Churches
  • Suppression of Most Congregants         

(I will talk about these in the next post)

It is hard to say whether Ignatius—and others of this second generation of leaders—was wrong in his thinking, in what he was asking of the Body of Christ. His letters did not become a part of the canon of scripture, so his instructions might rightly be called God’s direction for the people of that day, coping with the circumstances of their situation, a situation that would not last forever.

It seems Diotrephes, however, took advantage of this new movement and positioned himself as lord of the assembly he had been given oversight of.


[1] Eusebius wrote that Ignatius was martyred c. 108 AD as an older man, and that along with Papias and Polycarp, was a disciple of the Apostle John.


[Narcissus | By Caravaggio – The Yorck Project (2002) 10.000 Meisterwerke der Malerei (DVD-ROM), distributed by DIRECTMEDIA Publishing GmbH. ISBN: 3936122202., Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=148809

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