Confronting Church Conflict
3 John 5–14
Editor’s Note: This concludes the series on John’s epistles, which began in the March/ April 2013 issue with the First Epistle of John. In the next issue, David will begin a series on 1 Thessalonians.
In the first century, itinerant Bible teachers traveled from church to church teaching God’s Word. Many were poor, receiving little financial compensation for their service. Churches responded in one of three ways.
Some welcomed all teachers. Others made sure a teacher was doctrinally sound before welcoming him. Still others rejected all teachers.
These Bible teachers stayed in homes. Showing hospitality to such men not only is commanded in Scripture (Rom. 12:13; 1 Tim. 3:2; Ti. 1:8; Heb. 13:2) but commended, as well (Heb. 6:10).
Third John focuses on three men, two of whom—Gaius and Diotrephes—were church leaders. Gaius was a committed servant, full of love and truth, and given to hospitality and service. Diotrephes, however, barred outsiders and refused to receive traveling teachers. He rejected the apostle John’s letters, refused to receive John’s emissaries, spread false accusations about him, and threatened to expel from the church anyone who sided with John or received those sent by him.
John’s purpose in penning this letter was to commend Gaius and condemn Diotrephes for his pride, selfishness, and brutal exercise of authority within the local church.
Commendation of Gaius
“Beloved, you do faithfully whatever you do for the brethren and for strangers” (3 Jn. 5).
This is the third time in five verses Gaius is called “beloved.” The word speaks of John’s deep affection for Gaius and reflects the respect others in the church felt toward him.
The word do is in the present tense, indicating Gaius’s hospitality was ongoing, extended continually to “brethren” and “strangers” whom John sent. Gaius exerted much effort in caring for these teachers, as indicated by the Greek words.
Upon their return, his guests gave glowing reports of Gaius’s ministry to them, “who have borne witness of your love before the church. If you send them forward on their journey in a manner worthy of God, you will do well” (v. 6). His ministry was motivated by love for Christ and a desire to meet the needs of his Christian brothers.
The reports were not given to John privately but to the entire church, probably in Ephesus where the apostle lived. Gaius’s ongoing hospitality was well known in churches throughout the area.
Gaius sent the Bible teachers on their journey in “a manner worthy of God” (in a godly sort). That is, he treated them as God would have treated them, opening both his heart and home, making his ministry “worthy of God” and His blessing.
John gave Gaius three reasons to support traveling teachers:
- Because of the purpose of their ministry. “They went forth for His name’s [literally, “the Name”] sake” (v. 7). They wanted to glorify Christ.
- Because of their personal needs. “They…[took] nothing from the Gentiles” (v. 7). They rejected financial support from the pagans to whom they ministered so that they would not be accused of profiting from their preaching, as many cultic religionists did. The gospel was provided freely for all to hear and receive.
- Because it was good to partner with them in the ministry. “We therefore ought to receive such, that we may become fellow workers for the truth” (v. 8). Since these men took no support from the pagan world, it was the church’s responsibility to help shoulder their expenses as they presented “the truth,” thereby making the church people “fellow workers” in the gospel.
Condemnation of Diotrephes
John told Gaius of Diotrephes’ opposition: “I wrote to the church, but Diotrephes, who loves to have the preeminence among them, does not receive us” (v. 9).
It is not known whether Diotrephes was a bishop, elder, powerful deacon, or merely a church member who usurped authority.
The apostle said he wrote to the church, but Diotrephes refused to receive his letter or an emissary whom the apostle later sent to him (v. 9). Diotrephes refused to acknowledge John’s apostolic authority.
The word us means Diotrephes refused to accept anyone John sent. His reason is not stated. Perhaps Diotrephes did not want anyone challenging his authority.
John never accused Diotrephes of heresy but of loving “the preeminence” (v. 9). The word preeminence means “fond of being first.” It describes Diotrephes’ opposition as ambitious, aggressive, assertive, and antagonistic; he challenged the apostle’s authority without accountability to anyone, and his self-seeking spirit revealed he was unworthy of church leadership.
Teacher A. T. Robertson illustrated this point. In his book Word Pictures in the New Testament, he said, “Some forty years ago I wrote an article on Diotrephes for a denominational paper. The editor told me that twenty-five deacons stopped the paper to show their resentment against being personally attacked.” In other words, many ungodly men like Diotrephes hold positions of authority within local churches.
The apostle told Gaius he would deal with Diotrephes personally: “Therefore, if I come, I will call to mind his deeds which he does” (v. 10). The word if means he was unsure about the exact time of his trip. Upon his arrival, he would confront Diotrephes publicly because Diotrephes’ actions and accusations were public.
John revealed Diotrephes’ evil deeds:
- “Prating against us with malicious words” (v. 10). Diotrephes babbled like a fool, talking nonsense against John. His words were filled with intent to injure.
- “Not content with that, he himself does not receive the brethren” (v. 10). Not satisfied with verbal accusations alone, Diotrephes refused to receive anyone from John’s church.
- “Forbids those who wish to, putting them out of the church” (v. 10). If someone tried to circumvent Diotrephes, Diotrephes had that individual expelled from the church, thus displaying outright hostility against John.
Abruptly, John addressed Gaius with loving counsel concerning those who practice evil: “Beloved, do not imitate what is evil, but what is good. He who does good is of God, but he who does evil has not seen God” (v. 11).
Although Gaius was not contemplating behaving like Diotrephes, John nevertheless issued the warning not only for Gaius, but for all who would read this letter. Gaius and others were to imitate godly leaders who were scriptural, spiritual, and scrupulous.
Someone who habitually practices evil “has not seen God” and lacks insight into His character (v. 11). Such a person’s speech and actions are contemptible, produced by a wicked heart.
Commitment of Demetrius
The bearer of this letter was Demetrius, whose Christian character John highly commended: “Demetrius has a good testimony from all, and from the truth itself” (v. 12). He was the opposite of Diotrephes.
There is no scriptural evidence that Demetrius was the silversmith who spurred the riots against Paul’s ministry in Ephesus (Acts 19:23–41). All we know about him is the little that John revealed. His testimony for Christ was known and accepted by all believers in Ephesus.
Furthermore, his testimony was grounded in “the truth itself,” meaning the entire body of truth in the Lord and His gospel (Jn. 14:6); and the truth was personified in Demetrius’s character. Demetrius’s life reflected this truth and substantiated John’s commendation of him.
John confirmed his testimony: “And we also bear witness, and you know that our testimony is true” (3 Jn. 12). The Ephesian church approved of Demetrius and bore witness to Gaius on his commitment. John’s recommendation gave Gaius assurance that John was sending Demetrius and expected Gaius to extend hospitality to him.
Conclusion of John
John concluded his letter by writing, “I had many things to write, but I do not wish to write to you with pen and ink; but I hope to see you shortly, and we shall speak face to face. Peace to you. Our friends greet you. Greet the friends by name” (vv. 13–14).
This letter ends much like 2 John, but there are differences. (See “Standing for the Truth” in the September/October 2015 issue.) Here John commented on the briefness of his letter, stated he planned a future visit, and asked Gaius to greet his friends as they greeted him.
John had a host of subjects he wanted to discuss with Gaius in person, “face to face [mouth to mouth].”
Instead of closing with a farewell or note of grace, John used a Jewish conclusion: “Peace to you.” Jesus often used something similar (cf. Jn. 14:27; 20:19, 21, 26). John knew Gaius’s confrontation with Diotrephes might be unsettling, and he gave Gaius his blessing.
John established how church leaders should support and receive missionaries when they come to a local church for ministry. How well are we following his instructions today?