3 John: Hierarchy’s Harm


John the Elder had gotten to the issue he wanted to discuss with Gaius: Diotrephes’ usurpation of authority over the assembly. Diotrephes had refused to receive John, Apostle of the Lord, and his love of being “first in rank” was causing harm in the Body of Christ.

Diotrephes was taking advantage of a movement among the Christian communities to battle the influence of Gnosticism by bringing in a more hierarchical approach to church governance (despite Jesus’ instruction to the contrary). Perhaps this was the Lord’s leading, at that time.

But abuses were soon to follow.

And it left a two-millennia legacy of harm, beginning with poor translations of scripture which perpetuated wrong thinking about leadership, and the life of the Body.


Hierarchy’s Harm

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

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

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

  1. Translation of scripture. Greek words meant to convey willing cooperation between peers, words that held within them the sense of trust and oneness in purpose, faith, and love, have been translated without those nuances, and instead carry the sense of obedience done in subjection to superiors.
  1. Top-Down Leadership in Churches. Rank, status, and hierarchy in the first century GrecoRoman world was of paramount importance, and affected all of life in real and concrete ways. (You can read about that here). And from the first, jockeying for position became a regular source of conflict for Jesus’ disciples.

There are at least four references to these arguments:

Humility of a Child.

At that time the disciples came to Jesus and asked, “Who is the greatest in the kingdom of heaven?

Matthew 18:1 (NRSV)

Luke added that Jesus had been aware of their inner thoughts.

They had surely noticed Jesus’ extra attention on Peter, James, John, and to some extent, Andrew. However, Judas son of the Iscariot carried their common purse.

He called a child, whom he put among them, and said, “Truly I tell you, unless you change and become like children, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven.

Whoever becomes humble like this child is the greatest in the kingdom of heaven. Whoever welcomes one such child in my name welcomes me.

Jesus to his disciples, Matthew 18:2-5 (NRSV

The Last is First

Similarly, there was another occasion (I think, though it is often linked with the above story) when Jesus asked his disciples what they had been talking about.

Then they came to Capernaum; and when he was in the house he asked them, “What were you arguing about on the way?” But they were silent, for on the way they had argued with one another who was the greatest.

Mark 9:33-34 (NRSV)

Their reluctance to answer tells me this was a fresh argument. It prompted Jesus to sit a little boy on his lap (probably Peter’s son, which is why it is recorded in Mark’s Gospel) as an example of what he meant by his answer.

He sat down, called the twelve, and said to them, “Whoever wants to be first must be last of all and servant of all.” Then he took a little child and put it among them; and taking it in his arms, he said to them, “Whoever welcomes one such child in my name welcomes me, and whoever welcomes me welcomes not me but the one who sent me.”

Jesus to his disciples, Mark 9:35-37 (NRSV)

Good teachers are patient, persistent, and consistent. Jesus used the same illustration a second time in order to not only refresh their memory, but to anchor this icon in their minds. Be as a child.

The Son of Man Came to Serve

It seems James and John had taken their mother into their confidence on this issue. They must have talked about it so much she finally decided to take matters into her own hands.

Then the mother of the sons of Zebedee came to him with her sons, and kneeling before him, she asked a favor of him.

And he said to her, “What do you want?”

She said to him, “Declare that these two sons of mine will sit, one at your right hand and one at your left, in your kingdom.”

But Jesus answered, “You do not know what you are asking. Are you able to drink the cup that I am about to drink?”

They said to him, “We are able.”

He said to them, “You will indeed drink my cup, but to sit at my right hand and at my left, this is not mine to grant, but it is for those for whom it has been prepared by my Father.

Matthew 20:20-23 (NRSV)

Would James and John have still wanted those exalted positions if they had known it meant hanging on crosses to Jesus’ right and left, as Jesus was glorified on the cross?

When the ten heard it, they were angry with the two brothers. But 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 20:24-28 (NRSV)

Wash Each Others’ Feet

At the Last Supper an argument again arose.

A dispute also arose among them as to which one of them was to be regarded as the greatest.

But [Jesus] said to them, “The kings of the Gentiles lord it over them; and those in authority over them are called benefactors. But not so with you; rather the greatest among you must become like the youngest, and the leader like one who serves. For who is greater, the one who is at the table or the one who serves? Is it not the one at the table?

But I am among you as one who serves.

Luke 22:24-27 (NRSV)

It was then, I think, that Jesus took off his outer robe before their shocked eyes, picked up towel and basin, and began to wash their feet.

And the experience changed them all, as their letters and gospels clearly show. None of them asserted themselves ever again, though they accepted Peter’s and John’s leadership (who referred to themselves not as leaders but as elders) as first among peers.

The Apostles stood together in this. In the kingdom of God, all are equal, there is no rank, no status, no hierarchy. Instead, there is family, there is the organic working of the Body.

The servant may not be greater than the Master, and the Master had come as a servant.

But over the centuries, beginning with Ignatius’ letters in the early second century, this crucial aspect of the church gave way to the surrounding culture, so that one of Christianity’s distinctives became eroded from daily practice to mere words, tucked away here and there among the gospels and epistles.

  1. Suppression of Most Congregants.  

Because of this, if I come, I will call to mind the deeds he does: his badmouthing us [with] evil words, and he not being content, in addition to these things, neither receives the brothers and sisters hospitably [but] also forbids those who are willing to [welcome them] and throws them out from the assembly.

John the Elder to Gaius, 3 John 1:10 (my translation)

[Jesus took a child unto his lap | The Brooklyn Museum, James Tissot, Public Domain]

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