The Diotrephes Complex

Study No. 124

  The shortest books in the Bible have a powerful message for us today. Written in the late 90ís A.D. by the aged Apostle John, his letters to the elect lady and Gaius, which we call II John and III John, contain a relevant warning for us.


A Period of Apostasy

The late first century A.D. was a time of doctrinal departure from the truth. Many if not most had already apostatized and given up the faith once delivered for a false counterfeit Christianity. John lived on into this degenerate period. He was grateful for the few who were still holding stedfast against the liberal tide of the day. John warned the faithful to keep on serving the brethren, and to be on guard against selfish apostates who loved to "Lord it over" their brethren, even casting them out of the church.

Eusebius (Ecclesiastical History, 3.25) says that John, after the death of Emperor Domitian in A.D. 95, returned from his exile on the Isle of Patmos to Ephesus. Then John went on missionary tours into Gentile regions, visiting the churches of Asia, ordaining bishops and elders. II John 12 and III John 10, 14 speak of Johnís visitation trips. Thus it appears that these letters are the last written portions of Holy Scriptures. They are living letters for the hard times of spiritual depression in which we live.


A Faithful Few

II John is addressed to "the elect lady and her children" (verse 1). With John were "the children of thy elect sister" (verse 13). Commentaries mention that "lady" may refer to a church or the proper name of a woman. The Greek kyriake or Kyria is equivalent to the Hebrew for "Martha." Kyria or kyrios means "belonging to the Lord" and is the source of Kurios, the word for Church.

III John is addressed to Gaius or Caius. He may have been Gaius of Macedonia, a traveling companion of Paul (Acts 19:29), Gaius of Corinth, baptized by Paul and his host (Romans 16:23, I Corinthians 1:14), or Gaius of Derbe who went with Paul from Corinth on his last trip to Jerusalem about 57 A.D. Or he may have been another Gaius. Regardless, this Gaius is commended for his faithfulness.

Another faithful believer is Demetrius (III John 11-12).

In a time of spiritual decay, the elect lady and her sister, their children, Gaius and Demetrius were among the few who had not followed false doctrine.


Importance of Doctrinal Truth

John knew his life was nearing an end. He had faithfully taken care of Mary the mother of Jesus in France (Gaul). He had been exiled on the Isle of Patmos by Emperor Domitian, where Victorinus says he had to labor in the mines of Patmos. He had returned to Ephesus and was involved in shoring up the faith of the faithful few who remained stedfast in the truth.

Time and again John emphasizes the importance of doctrinal truth. In his second letter, John rejoiced to know of even a few who were faithful to the truth, "because of the truth which abides in us and will be with us for ever" (RSV). John is saying nothing can take the Truth from us because it lives in us by the Spirit of the Savior the Messiah. Not Emperor Domitianís persecution, not apostasy by many, not false brethren following false doctrines, nothing can take that truth from us.

We must follow the Eternalís commandments, follow the way of love. What is that way? It is the Messiah. Many then, and many today (such as the New Age Movement) say that Jesus was just a good man, but not God, not divine, not our Master and Lord. This is the spirit of Antichrist. The way of love is shown in how we love the brethren. That is the primary doctrinal truth that John wanted to hammer home before he died.

"Anyone who runs ahead [instead of follows behind] and does not continue in the teaching of Christ does not have God; whoever continues in the teaching has both the Father and the Son" (II John 9, NIV). They place themselves ahead of God. They are a God unto themselves. They donít need Jesus Christ to return to judge the brethren, because they judge the brethren themselves. This is the primary warning John gives in both his second and third letters.

Those who depart from the doctrine and attempt to come into your house, you are not to receive, not even bidding them God speed (II John 10-11).


Those Who Put Others First

Third John continues Johnís final admonition for us to follow the way of love and truth.

He wishes that Gaius would be in physical health as he was spiritually healthy. Apparently, John knew of a health problem of Gaius. He knew Gaius was rock solid in the truth, and wished him physical health to match. It almost sounds like Gaius, like John, was an "old warrior" in the faith, and maybe was battle weary.

In spite of any physical problems, or possibly even old age, Gaius was a tireless servant of the Master. Traveling missionary brethren were being served well by Gaius. Some of them had told John of his love and friendship. These missionaries had accepted nothing from the Gentiles for ministering to them. "So we ourselves ought to support such people ó to welcome and provide for them ó in order that we may be fellow workers in the Truth (the whole Gospel) and co-operate with its teachers" (III John 8, Amplified).

Every person in the church should be DOING something to support the work of the faithful few. Hearing reports of faithful brothers such as Gaius gave John great joy. "I have no greater joy than this, to hear that my [spiritual] children are living their lives in the Truth" (III John 4, Amplified).

Realizing the context and time when John wrote this, it is utterly amazing to note his boundless optimism and vigor for hard work in the Almightyís cause. There was plenty of reason for gloom and depression because of all the false doctrine, false teachers, and persecution of the true believers.

Perhaps John knew that these two letters would be his last recorded testimony for the Savior. He doesnít hammer home the importance of keeping the Sabbath, Passover, Holy Days, tithing, etc. We know he kept these and all the commandments of God because of the testimony of his disciple Polycarp, bishop of Smyrna. But John gets right to the heart of the matter and gives a valedictory message for all time. The important thing John stresses in both his second and third letters is service to others. Put others first, serve the brethren, love the brethren, hold on to the doctrinal truths. And donít knuckle under and become like the false brethren who twist the truth and who may even put you out of the church.


Those Who Put Themselves First

There is another group associated with the church. John doesnít lambast them, but he cannot ignore them. These are they who have lost the things John and others worked to build in their lives (II John 8). They are deceivers who do not believe in the godhood of Christ, and have not stayed in the doctrine of Christ (verses 7, 9). They have departed from the true doctrines. They refused to assist faithful traveling missionary brethren who were keeping the truth alive.

When one reads about the many cases, in the New Testament church, of false teachers and false brethren, it is easy to get a wrong impression that these false prophets had thrown everything out and had gone back to the world. Nothing could be further from the truth. The apostate church, later termed "catholic" or universal, claimed to be "Christian," had a form of godliness, but denied the power thereof.

In Johnís day, this other group was dominant. They were in control of most of the public assemblies of brethren. One assembly near Gaius was led by a man named Diotrephes. His name means "nourished by Zeus." Nothing more is known of Diotrephes than Johnís reproof of him in verses 9-10 of III John:

I have written briefly to the church; but Diotrephes, who likes to take the lead among them and put himself first, does not acknowledge my authority and refuses my suggestions or to listen to me. So when I arrive I will call attention to what he is doing, his boiling over and casting malicious reflections upon us with insinuating language. And not satisfied with that, he refuses to receive and welcome the [missionary] brethren himself, and also interferes with and forbids those who would welcome them, and tries to expel (excommunicate) them from the church Amplified.

It is obvious that Diotrephes was one who "loves to be first" Verse 9, NIV. The Jamieson, Faussett and Brown Commentary says he was a "leading man" who evidently occupied a high place in the Church where Gaius was. Diotrephes had a domineering personality. His superior knowledge and ability no doubt led people to "look up" to him, and he relished in being "top dog." Quite a contrast to the spirit of humility expressed by John. Rather than appealing to who he was, John appealed to the love of Jesus. John could have said: "Follow me, because I was there, I knew Jesus Christ personally. I was his favorite disciple." Instead, John told the brethren, "Love and serve one another."

Diotrephes held "first place" in his local church. This may also indicate that he was the first one to receive Godís truth in his area. He may have been instrumental in helping others there come into the church. But the role of leadership went to his head. He did not have the character to lead. Instead, he became authoritarian, ruling over the brethren with an iron hand.

There were two objects to Diotrephesí attack: (1) the Apostle John, and (2) other true brethren who received and supported traveling missionaries. What was the problem of this man whose name means "nourished by Zeus"?

From 60 A.D. to 135 A.D. was a period of intense anti-Jewish sentiment. Roman literature and law condemned Jews and especially their Sabbath keeping. Roman armies crushed Jerusalem and destroyed the Temple about 70 A.D. A second Jewish revolt led by Barkokeba was crushed by the Romans. Emperor Hadrian (117-138 A.D.) outlawed Judaism and Sabbath keeping under punishment of death. Professing Christians, in order to save their skins, bent with the times and became anti-Jewish, eventually exchanging Passover for Easter and Sabbath for Sunday.

Neander thinks that the missionaries mentioned in III John were Jews by birth, since it was said to their praise that they took no financial support from the Gentiles, as some other missionaries abused the ministers' right to support (II Corinthians 11:7-8, Philippians 3:2, 5, 19). Diotrephes may have been the head of an anti-Jewish party in the church, thus explaining his not accepting the (Jewish Christian) missionaries, and putting out of the church those who did.

Diotrephes appears to be a forerunner of two infamous heretics. Ignatius, Bishop of Antioch (d. 110 A.D.) insisted that the church must be ruled by bishops. He taught that no Eucharist or baptism was possible without the bishop. "Wherever the bishop is, there let the people be, for there is the Catholic church." The church leader, or bishop, said Ignatius, "presides [is first in] the place of God."

The JFB Commentary says Diotrephes was a forerunner of Marcion (d. ca. 160 A.D.), a heretic who rejected the Apostle John. Son of the Bishop of Sinope, Marcion traveled to the Province of Asia where he met faithful Polycarp, a disciple of John, who said that Marcion was the "firstborn of Satan." Later, Marcion started his own sect in Rome. He maintained that the (true) Church was wrong in retaining the Old Testament and regarding Jesus as Messiah. Marcion required baptism and celibacy, enforcing a rigorous asceticism as a condition for salvation. He said that Paul alone had understood Jesus and the gospels and that the Jewish disciples such as John had carried too much Judaism into the New Testament church.

John, Polycarp and Polycarpís disciple Polycrates didnít listen to Diotrephes, Ignatius, Marcion or other heretics who were authoritarian, anti-Old Testament, and anti-Jewish. The faithful few continued to keep the annual Passover on the 14th of Nisan each year, with the bread and wine, as given by our Savior.



Finally, John tells us to imitate (RSV, NIV) good, not evil. He gives the example of Demetrius, whom everyone says has done well. Even the Truth itself testifies of him, as well as John himself. So we should not imitate wicked, harsh, judgmental people such as Diotrephes. Instead, be merciful, loving and kind.

Can we be like Demetrius?


Things Unwritten

Second and Third John end with similar statements. John had many more things to say, but felt it not best to write them down. He would speak personally to the elect lady and Gaius soon when he visited them. Why didnít John write these things down? Perhaps, as some have speculated, it would have revealed more details than God wanted about the origins and personalities behind the developing apostasy in the Church. We do not know the location of the lady and Gaius, but it must have been not far from Ephesus where John was.

There are many questions I want to ask John someday. But until then, I had better listen to what he wrote, which has been preserved for us today. He had received the Revelation of Jesus Christ and written it down. John was still writing letters, visiting the brethren, working to encourage the brethren to hold fast, to love and serve one another in an apostate era, warning them that "He that doeth good is of God: but he that doeth evil hath not seen God."

Johnís work is unfinished. Third John doesnít end with the usual "Amen." There are things unwritten.


The Diotrephes Complex

John has described a group of related spiritual diseases, which we call the "Diotrephes Complex." He also prescribes the remedy, but for some the medicine is too bitter to take.

Church leaders do not preside in the place of God. They are not first place in the church. They are last place. They are tireless servants of all. True brethren have callouses on their hands from serving Godís people, on their feet from traveling to visit Godís people, on their tongues from discussing spiritual principles, and on their knees from prayer. Their Bibles are worn and marked. They are DOING (Matthew 24:46).

Those who have the Diotrephes Complex love to be first. They love to rule over their brethren, at the same time not lifting a finger to help spread the good news of the kingdom to others. Johnís message of love among the brethren is foreign to them. If they were 80 or 90 years old, you wouldnít catch them writing spiritual letters, visiting the brethren, and optimistically encouraging others to keep the doctrines delivered by Jesus, keeping the annual Passover on the 14th of Nisan, and all the other commandments of God. Victims of the dreaded Diotrephes Complex disease are NOT doing anything except making themselves look good!

Father in Heaven, if we have to face the Black Plague, AIDS, or any other terrible disease, we know that you alone can heal us. But donít let us infect ourselves with the Diotrephes Complex. Help us to serve one another in all lowliness of mind (Ephesians 4:2, Philippians 2:3), following the example of Gaius, Demetrius, John and your son and our Savior. W

Thoughts To Consider:

"ME" is always at the bottom of all sin. One little word M-E. It may spell drink, lust, pride, covetousness, self-will; but it is some form of "me." ó Anonymous

"Selfishness is the greatest curse of the human race." ó William E. Gladstone

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