Diotrephes the Bully Versus Elder John - Round 1

The letters from the apostle John, who refers to himself as an elder both in 2 John and in 3 John, have a lot to say about church discipline. In verse 10 of his third letter, John says he plans to bring up what he (Diotrephes) is doing. What was Diotrephes doing? Simply said, Diotrephes was a bully.

Handling a bully in the church is difficult, but handling a bully who also has immense and seemingly unassailable authority is a different level of difficult. The man with that kind of authority not only is a bully, he’s also a tyrant. He’s been allowed over time to build his own personal kingdom and becomes too big to discipline. Strong elders could have and should have dealt with his behavior far earlier, before it became a metastasizing cancer in the church. Now they have a major problem. Responding to it requires that the elders become a multiplied force of flint-faced prophets. Soft, feckless elders, failing to understand their job or lacking the courage or gifting to do it, unwittingly feed the bully and create the tyrant.

But, again, what was Diotrephes doing? In 3 John 9-10, John says that Diotrephes refused to acknowledge the authority of both John and of Gaius, who was referenced in verse one. John says in verse nine that he had written something to the church, but that Diotrephes disregarded John’s message. John says in verse 10, I will bring up what he is doing, talking wicked nonsense against us. 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. Using what certainly was a prominent position in the church, Diotrephes demeaned other leaders, spoke wickedly of them, and bullied other believers to be inhospitable and, if they did not comply with his commands, also prevented them from gathering among the congregation.

The conduct of Diotrephes, repeated and cemented over time, disqualified him from shepherding leadership. It would take someone such as the apostle-elder John to lead a flint-like, prophetic response.

As I noted in the article, Church Discipline According to John, elders are to protect and nurture the church. They look after her, build her, strengthen her, sacrifice for her. In his book, The Church, Edmund Clowney rightly says that discipline advances nurture. When John in verse 10 of his third letter says he plans to bring up what he (Diotrephes) is doing, he obviously intends not only to rely on his own authority to address Diotrephes, but also intends to bring the circumstance to the local church’s authority structure, i.e. to the local elders, and then likely to inform the entire congregation.

In 2 John 2, John links himself with all of the brothers and sisters in Christ by noting that the Lord’s truth abides in us and will be with us forever. With those words, John includes himself with all other followers of Jesus and claims nothing special for himself. Contrast that with the sinning elder, Diotrephes, in 3 John 9-10. In pledging to bring up what he is doing, talking wicked nonsense against us, John makes it clear that church leaders are to be held accountable for their behavior. If we presuppose that Diotrephes had an important leadership position in the local church, possibly as an elder, we can see that powerful church leaders are not exempt from the application of church disciplline. In fact, when a man has been allowed to become a bully-tyrant, the local church's elders eventually must gird up their loins to impose appropriate discipline against a most difficult target. Because of their authority and responsibility, elders are rightly more vulnerable to examination and public rebuke, as described in 1 Timothy 5:19-25. Diotrephes persisted in various sins, i.e. placing himself first, likely refusing to distribute an earlier letter from John, rejecting the authority of church leaders, sinfully talking about church leaders, refusing to welcome itinerant ministers, stopping others in the church who wanted to welcome itinerant ministers, and putting believers out of the church who refused to fall in the line Diotrephes had drawn. All of these sins are patterns that take time to cement and build upon.

John only says in 3 John 10 that he will bring up these matters. It seems clear, though, that Diotrephes is headed for an unpleasant encounter with church discipline. Next up: Round two of Diotrephes the Bully Versus Elder John.