The bully Diotrephes, noted in John's third letter, is headed for an unpleasant encounter with church discipline. Using what certainly was a prominent position in the church, Diotrephes diminished other leaders, spoke wickedly of them, bullied other believers to be inhospitable and, if they did not comply with his commands, prevented them from gathering among the congregation (3 John 9-10). The conduct of Diotrephes, repeated and cemented over time, should have disqualified him from shepherding leadership. But it did not. It would take someone such as the apostle-elder John to lead a flint-like, prophetic response to Diotrephes' abuses.
Given the list of his long-term sins, surely many witnesses could have attested to his behavior. In keeping with the requirement of 1 Timothy 5:19, the local congregation would have needed only two or three. Someone from within the congregation must have gotten word to apostle-elder John about Diotrephes’ abuses. The first accusations almost certainly would have been delivered to Diotrephes indirectly in a flanking approach. This indirect approach would have prevented Diotrephes’ from delivering a withering attack on his accuser. Despite the righteous accusations, Diotrephes persisted in his abuses. (I’m reminded of a friend who was stuck working with several bullies. In his misery, he said, These are the guys I hated in junior high school. Rightly said. My friend had painted a simple picture of the bully-tyrant Diotrephes and the relentless pain he and his ilk cause.) Apostle-elder John would lead the way in handling it. John’s pledge to speak of Diotrephes' offenses could rightly be assumed to include a public rebuke. A public rebuke, reserved particularly for unrepentant, sinning elders, would be in accordance with 1 Timothy 5:20.
As a good elder, John would have focused on protecting, cleansing and restoring the health of the church. He also would have looked with hope to the welfare of Diotrephes. In his third letter, John does not directly state concern for Diotrephes, but his concern is demonstrated in his promise to confront the sin. A crisis of confrontation sometimes is needed to break an entrenched pattern. Paul urges such a crisis of confrontation in 1 Timothy 1:3-7. He exhorts Timothy in verse three to stop those who are teaching false doctrine. In verses six and seven, he ridicules these teachers for their arrogance and incompetence. Sandwiched between these verses is his charge that love must be Timothy’s motivator as he confronts these teachers. Paul says in 1 Timothy 1:5 that the confrontation is to be done out of love that springs from a pure heart and a good conscience and a sincere faith.
Wayne Grudem, in his book Systematic Theology, argues that church discipline properly handled allows the sinning leader to begin the gradual process of rebuilding relationships and trust with the congregation. That truth is rooted in the biblical principle that church leaders are held to a higher standard than are other congregants. When leaders fail, they hurt the whole church.
Even so, could Diotrephes have a future in the local church? Given John’s emphasis throughout his letters on abiding relationships and fellowship, as well as grace, mercy and peace in 2 John 3, we can assume that even a persistently abusive leader such Diotrephes could be restored to fellowship after whatever disciplining rebuke John and the other leaders delivered to him. But Diotrephes would have been required to own all of his ugly sin patterns—not just a portion of it—that he had amassed over time.
A repentant Diotrephes seems a perfect fit for the person Paul describes in 2 Corinthians 2:5-8, If anyone has caused pain, he has caused it not to me, but in some measure—not to put it too severely—to all of you. For such a one, this punishment by the majority is enough, so you should rather turn to forgive and comfort him, or he may be overwhelmed by excessive sorrow. So I beg you to reaffirm your love for him. Even so, if Diotrephes refused to own all of the sin he had amassed over time and be reconciled in fellowship with the church, he could be, as John describes in 1 John 1:6, a liar who does not practice the truth.
Owning only a portion would be insufficient for Diotrephes. It also would be insufficient for the local elders, who failed to confront Diotrephes earlier, before his bullying metastasized like a cancer and severely harmed the church. Perhaps they were afraid of Diotrephes or were over-matched by his ability to bully. The reason does not matter. Owning their failure would be the elders' bitter fruit for feeding the growth of a bully-tyrant and for joining in his sin.
Forgiveness can be granted immediately, but restoration of relationships and position take time. Diotrephes took a long time amassing his sin list. An immediate or fast restoration of Diotrephes to authority and responsibility would be an egregious error. John and the other leaders certainly would not have accepted a spoken repentance of, Oops. Sorry about that. Glad that's over. Nothing more to do. Let’s move on. But re-building trust, responsibility and authority take time. Some sins are consumed like food. The eating of food cannot be un-done as if it never was eaten. The repeated and severe damage Diotrephes inflicted on other believers could not be paid back as if he had stolen a few measures of wheat. He could not un-do his actions like Zacchaeus, who repaid his financial victims fourfold to compensate for his sin (Luke 19:1-10).
In order to be restored to shepherding leadership, Diotrephes would need to demonstrate authentic, biblical repentance as a demonstration of his sincere grief for all of the damage he caused. That repentance would yield fruit to be harvested over time—of the type described in 2 Corinthians 7:9-13. That would be sweet, and would nourish an opportunity for restoration.
Words spoken do not by themselves prove repentance to be authentic. The words simply are an early step. Genuine repentance for Diotrephes would be a difficult process. That's why genuine repentance rarely comes from a Diotrephes.