I’ve never heard anyone talk about the apostle John’s views about church discipline. The topic always seems to lead people into Matthew 18. But John, in his three New Testament letters, has a lot to say about discipline that ensures the church is strong and healthy. Despite the view of a church leader who told me, with clear certainty, that the sole purpose of church discipline is to make forgiveness happen, I think theologian Wayne Grudem has it right when he argues that, at its core, church discipline is to keep sin from the church (Ephesians 5:25-27; 2 Corinthians 11:3), cleanse sin in the church (1 Corinthians 5:1-13) and restore individuals in the church into healthy relationships (Galatians 6:1).
John’s three letters do not directly address church discipline. But John refers to himself as an elder twice—in 2 John 1 and in 3 John 1—and his letters point to the elders’ responsibilities to protect, cleanse and restore health to the Lord’s church.
When John, in 1 John 4:1, tells his readers to test the spirits to see whether they are from God, for many false prophets have gone out into the world, what is the follower of Jesus to do when he believes that a particular spirit within a person is not from the Lord? Beyond his own discernment, to whom should he turn for guidance or assistance in rightly responding to this person? Is he on his own? Or, in 2 John 10, John says the follower of Jesus should not welcome a false teacher into his home or even greet him. Is that where the issue ends? Does John intend to leave a false teacher and his doctrine unaddressed within the congregation? In 3 John 9-10, John says that Diotrephes does not acknowledge our authority in the church, (meaning the authority both of John and of Gaius, who was referenced in verse one). Is that where the issue ends? Although John says in verse nine that he had written something to the church, John indicates that Diotrephes has dismissed John’s message. John says that Diotrephes does not acknowledge our authority, and I will bring up what he is doing, talking wicked nonsense against us. John continues in verse 10, And not content with that, he refuses to welcome the brothers, and also stops those who want to (welcome them) and puts them out of the church.
When John says he will bring up what Diotrephes is doing in the church, John seems to be understating his intent. John asserts that he will respond to Diotrephes’ words and actions. Using his prominent position in the church, Diotrephes has bullied other believers to be inhospitable and, if they did not comply with his edicts, prevented them from gathering with the congregation.
Diotrephes almost certainly held an important position in the church. Otherwise, how could he have exacted such strong-armed control? If Diotrephes held a position of authority in the church, perhaps as an elder, and the apostle-elder John pledged that he would speak of his behavior, to whom would John speak? Who within the structure of the church would have the authority to deal with a sinning elder? The Scriptures teach that elders are the Lord’s undershepherds and have authority and responsibility to shepherd the church. Given their role, the church’s elders would have primary responsibility to deal with Diotrephes. And then, after they discerned what would be appropriate for the health of the church, they could present the circumstances to the broader congregation.
Elders are to honor the Lord by protecting and nurturing His church. Elders are to honor the Lord by being more and doing more than other congregants in the local church. They have a bigger assignment. The Lord will hold each elder accountable for the quality of his shepherding performance (Hebrews 13:17). Elders are undershepherds of Jesus Christ as they serve the church (1 Peter 5:1-4). They must be strong enough to ensure that the Lord’s honor is the foundational commitment of the church. Elders are to protect the church. From what? They protect the church from anything that would weaken, sicken or hurt her (John 10:11-15; Acts 20:28-31).
As I listed in an earlier blog article, among the most common attacks on the church are personality cults, divisions over music styles, heresies, legalism, license, syncretism, Gnosticism and its forms, Judaizing and its forms, Docetism and its forms. Sometimes, though, attacks on the church come from bullies like Diotrephes. What do you do about a Diotrephes in the church? I’ll talk about that in my next article, Diotrephes the Bully Versus Elder John.