John’s third Epistle shows how division in the church arose even in the days of the Apostle John. The root cause of such division in our own day, as also then, is the activity of un-judged self.
But it also demonstrates the formation of a new company, designated by the word ‘them’. ‘I wrote unto the church: but Diotrephes, who loveth to have the pre-eminence among them, receiveth us not’, v. 9. Here we have a particular church emerging from common church ground, and occupying a new and altogether unique position. A company is formed, claiming to be ‘the Assembly of God’, yet disclaiming all saints who are not of their fellowship.
A clear distinction was made, in John’s first Epistle, between ‘the children of God’ and ‘the children of the devil’; on one side were those who were ‘of God’, and on the other, ‘the whole world lying in the wicked one’; but here a third company rises up, not out of the world, but out of the church, who deliberately separate themselves from those who are ‘of God’, and glory in doing so. An inner circle is formed, having a particular basis of communion, more limited and narrow than the apostles of Christ made known as conveying the thoughts of God.
John proceeds to account for this strange departure from the truth, and we are thankful to get at the real root of the mischief at a stroke. ‘But Diotrephes, who loveth to have the pre-eminence among them, receiveth us not’. Ah! Here it is – Diotrephes loveth pre-eminence – the leprosy in the head!
We cannot say who now represents Diotrephes. Doubtless his name is legion, but ‘by their fruits ye shall know them’, Matt. 7. 20. Wherever there is a manifest tendency to self-assertion in the assembly, to rule the saints, to sit on the judgement-seat, there Diotrephes is to be discovered.
Without doubt he was a man of ability, with perhaps apparent spirituality, or he would not have secured a following in the church. Yet, ‘self’ was the object he was serving, not our Lord Jesus Christ but his own belly. In this way self becomes the real object of that which is done professedly for Christ and His people, and soon everything in the assembly is ruled according to its relation to selfish interest, under colour of outward separation from evil, zeal for the truth, standing for the honour of Christ, guarding the sanctity of His assembly, and many other kindred objects of a highly spiritual appearance.
Happily for us, the Spirit of God has anticipated this state of things, and provided for us a divine solution of the whole case, putting into our hands an able test wherewith to ‘try the spirits’ by pointing out the real root of the evil – Diotrephes ‘loveth to have the pre-eminence among them’. This is where the difficulty begins in almost every case where strife and division are found among saints. Christ will not share the affections. He will either gain the heart’s whole interest, or the love of other things will enter in and gain the ascendancy, nay, the supremacy.
When once this terrible object, self, has been enthroned, there is no lack of complaints against the brethren. The very best of them, viewed from such a standpoint, will soon have glaring deficiencies; for whilst love, according to God, will cover a multitude of sins, love, according to self, will uncover them, so that none can escape unless they bring themselves under the ruling spirit of the fault-finder, no, not even John ‘the elder’!
If we have seen the formation of this new company, it will be well to look at some of its leading characteristics, as described in verses 9 and 10. Notice the first thing in verse 9: ‘the church’. And the last thing in verse 10 is ‘the church’. This is a company strongly entrenched on so-called ‘church’ ground. This is their impregnable fortress. It is not simply an assembly, but the assembly of Christ, the only company of saints which can claim His presence in the midst.
But how all this fair show is shorn of its strength and dignity the moment that John unveils the facts of the case! They are then seen gathered together not in the name of the Lord, but unto the person of Diotrephes. Yes, gathered to a man who is pre-eminent among them!
It is instructive to see the attitude John takes up in relation to this restricted circle of fellowship. He does not propose to discuss the new position occupied, for he well knew it was not after ‘the old commandment’. Nor does he threaten to excommunicate Diotrephes, or cut off this troublesome assembly. He will not use his apostolic authority, but, he says, referring to Diotrephes, ‘I will call to remembrance his deeds which he doeth’. He will seek to convict him of his wrong and, if possible, to convert him, cp., Jas. 5. 19, 20.
We are thankful that we never read of a John party, or a Gaius party, or a Demetrius party. So far as we know, these godly ones never drew away disciples after them. May we ever have grace to say, ‘Peace be to the brethren, and love … grace be with all them that love our Lord Jesus Christ in sincerity’.
First published in 1954, a fuller version of this article can be found here.