Wednesday, June 13, 2018

Dueling Diotrephes

“I have written something to the church, but Diotrephes, who likes to put himself first, does not acknowledge our authority. So if I come, 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 and puts them out of the church.”

John’s third epistle is thought to date from around AD65, and to be one of the last books of the Bible written. When the beloved apostle wrote it, local churches had been planted all over the Roman empire, had named elders or had them named for them, and many of these had had a decade or more to mature and to benefit from and share significant portions of what we now call the New Testament.

That’s when the wolves started coming out in force.

Turning ‘Too Tolerant’ on Its Ear

Paul’s first letter to Corinth, written a decade earlier, shows a church that was far too tolerant. The Corinthians needed an apostolic nudge to “Purge the evil person from among you,” and they got one. A decade later, Diotrephes had appointed himself gatekeeper of his own local congregation, unilaterally putting out anyone who stood in his way and brazenly defying apostolic authority.

A survey of the later NT epistles shows he wasn’t alone in wreaking havoc in the churches. Jude warns of “worldly people, devoid of the Spirit” who cause divisions. Peter warns of those who are “bold and willful” and despise authority. Paul warns Titus about “warped and sinful” people who stir up division. The church in Pergamum was divided over Nicolaitanism and Thyatira was divided over the false teaching and immoral behavior of a prominent woman referred to as Jezebel.

Power, Corruption and Lies

Not all these troublemakers showed their character in quite the same way, but the result was always division, the goal was always prominence and control, and the mechanism used most effectively was lying. Diotrephes talked “wicked nonsense”. He can hardly have been unaware of it.

If you think we haven’t got the same folks around today, you’re dreaming. Dealing with them, however, is not always a clear-cut matter. I’ve come across versions of these characters in every church I’ve ever attended, though of course some are much more extreme than others. You might not quite get to the level of calling them Diotrephes, but you would at least observe that they manifest certain Diotrephesian qualities.

Many of these individuals are absolutely poisonous, and few are ever asked to move on. A church will often suffer spiritual hit after spiritual hit without correctly identifying the problem and calling out the divisive person.

Why We Are So Slow to Respond

Let me suggest a few of the more common reasons we are reluctant to call Diotrephes by his name or take action against him:

1. Not all agents of division are immediately obvious. Paul says the servants of Satan “disguise themselves as servants of righteousness.” If every Diotrephes were transparently Satanic, we would have no trouble identifying them and dealing with them appropriately. More often it is the case that an individual’s deceptiveness and divisive tendencies are not completely unmitigated. Some are useful in certain areas: perhaps given to evangelism and pretty good at it, or personable, dynamic, well-spoken and able to draw others to themselves easily. Still others are very good at using scripture, but employ it deceptively.

2. Incrementalism is hard to fight. The political Left has been tremendously successful in the last century at moving the goalposts an inch at a time, and many would-be church dividers have learned their tactics. So the first shift in doctrine or policy they ask you to make will always be a small one, and may even sound reasonable. Perhaps that itinerant Bible teacher they don’t want you to put on the platform anymore once said something that offended a couple of people in the congregation, and you have no lack of other speakers you could invite instead of him. It’s a small point, and easily conceded. But it’s always the little foxes that ruin the vineyard. Rest assured the next “ask” will be a larger one, and before long, they won’t be asking anymore.

3. An excess of humility in leadership. One might wonder if it is possible to ever be too humble. The answer is yes, if your awareness of your own fallibility and past mistakes paralyzes you from dealing with the sins of others. There is a fine line between meekness and weakness, and the two are easily conflated. Paul certainly tells the Galatians, “Keep watch on yourself, lest you too be tempted,” but he also urges spiritual men to act when a brother is blatantly transgressing.

4. Identifying the conduct. Paul gives the Corinthians six good reasons to put a professing Christian out of fellowship: sexual immorality, greed, idolatry, reviling, drunkenness and swindling. It is not always clear to every Christian today exactly what these entail or whether the list was intended to be comprehensive or merely representative. (I am not suggesting for a moment that’s Paul’s fault; just pointing out that both prayer and considerable discernment are required to deal with divisive individuals. It is not merely a matter of checking boxes in most cases.) A man or woman can be tremendously disruptive in a local church without obviously transgressing any of these six. A man may talk wicked nonsense in dulcet tones, while divisive women rarely sport “warped and sinful” t-shirts. And when some in the church are in doubt about what should be done, the result is usually paralysis.

5. Unwillingness to step up. At work, I can’t count the number of times somebody new to the production team has gotten together what he thought was an enthusiastic coalition of employees disgruntled with management, then stepped out to speak on their behalf only to find he was all alone twisting in the wind; his most trusted allies suddenly back at their desks murmuring “Not me, I wasn’t involved” and “It’s not really THAT bad.” The same thing often happens in churches. When a man is as dominant and prominent as Diotrephes, many Christians are intimidated by him. If you plan to deal with him by some means more confrontational than ongoing, united prayer, you may have to pull a Phinehas, because you’re likely to find yourself on your own. Don’t be surprised if you find that in their desire for peace at any price, some in the church will draw a moral equivalence between your behavior and that of the troublemaker, or accuse you of having personal issues with him rather than matters of godly principle.

Prominence and Compromise

There are probably other reasons for our characteristic reluctance to duel Diotrephes, but it should be evident from scripture that the result of letting such individuals run roughshod over the people of God is a situation in which the authority of the apostles goes unacknowledged and the people who could most effectively solve the problem are kept from fellowship. The fact that apostolic authority now resides in our Bibles rather than in individuals who occasionally visit our churches changes nothing.

A wicked, divisive man cannot come to prominence in a church without some compromises having been made along the way. There is a reason for the qualifications given to Timothy and Titus for elders and deacons. They are designed to keep us safe from this sort of behavior. Where you find a Diotrephes in leadership, some quality on the list has almost always been ignored, whether it is “not a novice”, “not quarrelsome” or “not double-tongued”.

The latter is a huge red flag, as it is Satan’s very modus operandi. Where you find a man who characteristically misrepresents a situation, or speaks critically of others behind their backs while being sweetness and light to their faces, rest assured you are seeing the very least of his misbehavior.

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