Diagnosing the Spiritual Diotrephes – Part 1

If you have been in church long enough, you’ve probably seen him. Or maybe you have been him. He’s not always easily recognizable at first. But eventually, he will irresistibly make himself known. The apostle John dealt with him at one point:

I wrote something to the church; but Diotrephes, who loves to be first among them, does not accept what we say. 10 For this reason, if I come, I will call attention to his deeds which he does, unjustly accusing us with wicked words; and not satisfied with this, he himself does not receive the brethren, either, and he forbids those who desire to do so and puts them out of the church (3 John 9-10).  

Diotrephes. He was one of the guys who made it into the Bible because of sinful pride.

Diotrephes is a dangerous guy. He’s a hazard to himself. He’s a danger to new disciples. He’s a threat to the unity and purity of the church. So, how can we recognize him? Here are a few things that help us diagnose a spiritual Diotrephes. As we consider these things, it behooves not-yet-perfected believers to beware of a little bit of Diotrephes in ourselves.

  1. He lusts for recognition.

The inerrant Scripture tells a dark picture of him: “I wrote something to the church, but Diotrephes, who loves to be first…” (3 John 9). There is one word in Greek, which is translated “loves to be first.” It’s a compound word, that means “loves first.” And it’s not a good desire to want to excel at something.

Instead, it’s a devastating diagnose of pride’s plaguing of the soul. Here is the idea of the word: to have great affection for prominence. A craving for notoriety. Ambition for approval. Lust for recognition. Infatuation for importance. An adoration for appreciation. A passion for pre-eminence. To worship others’ applause. A devotion to superiority.

This is a catastrophic trait in a man. He lusts for recognition and has a sick infatuation with personal praise. It would be better to have anything said about you than, “he loves to be first.” The sin of Diotrephes was the same as Satan. “You said in your heart, ‘I will ascend to heaven; I will raise my throne above the stars of God’” (Isa. 14:13).

The spiritual Diotrephes lusts for recognition.

2. He thinks he is superior to other believers.

Next, Scripture says he “loves to be first among them” (3 John 9). Diotrephes might plug into a church. But he’s after an “among them.” He wants people near him; around him so that he can be first among them; so that he can be above others. He sees himself as above other believers.

If he wants to be with other believers, typically it is so that he can gratify his craving for significance. He wants to be around people, but not because he cares for them. Instead, he craves a following. He lusts for a following around whom he can pose as lord and king.

Paul said that this is also one characteristic of a wolf: “I know that after my departure savage wolves will come in among you, not sparing the flock; 30 and from among your own selves men will arise, speaking perverse things, to draw away the disciples after them” (Acts 20:29–30). One of the chief marks of a wolf is that he wants to draw away people after himself. Here is the sinister intersection between Diotrephes and wolves. A spiritual Diotrephes sees himself as superior to other believers

3. He uses the church and ministry to gain recognition for himself.

Diotrephes gets involved in churches. He professes to have a high, correct, and biblical view of the church.

But there is a dark reality behind it all. Here’s what can happen. At first, he seems like someone who sincerely wants to plug in and become a healthy functioning member of the body of Christ. He will enter a church and hang there for a bit. People might not notice that he’s a Diotrephes. Some might be impressed and mesmerized by how much he serves. But underneath it all, he has a burning passion for recognition. Because he is not crucifying his heart’s infatuation for importance, it will continue to grow.

Now, in a healthy, biblical church, it takes much time and testing before someone can become a leader. Sound New Testament churches understand that true, tested, and affirmed biblical character is shown, not in months, but years. They faithfully apply passages such as: “These men must also first be tested; then let them serve as deacons if they are beyond reproach” (1 Tim. 3:10). “The sins of some men are quite evident, going before them to judgment; for others, their sins follow after” (1 Tim. 5:24). So, healthy churches understand that potential leaders need to be observed for a while to see if their sins follow after.

However, this poses a problem with Diotrephes. His adoration for appreciation needs a platform. He craves prominence. And he will grow impatient when he doesn’t get it in his timing. He becomes frustrated and even bitter in his mind when he has to wait a while for his thirst for recognition to be quenched.

His high-mindedness moves him to preach to himself, “You know, I should be in this leadership position. I could do a way better job in this upfront role. I should be a teacher or leader.” Because he is proud, his is blinded to this dark guest inside him. And thinks that he is far more qualified and capable than others who are leaders.

Diotrephes then views those church leaders as getting in his way. He will prod and test, and try to move into a leadership role, all the while believing that he values the Lord’s church. But sadly, he uses churches as platforms to put himself in the spotlight.

There will be times when Diotrephes sees that he won’t get the spotlight he craves in a church. When it becomes clear that he won’t be put on a platform, he will oftentimes bolt from a church. He has to do so. His uncrucified flesh is too monstrous to endure necessary, biblical leadership testing over time. So, he may leave a church. And the way in which Diotrephes leaves churches is usually ungodly. Because his reasons for leaving are fleshly, it follows that the manner of leaving will also be fleshly, though he thinks otherwise. He is ruled by an adoration for prominence, which is fleshly. He doesn’t crucify that. So, when he leaves, it follows that he will continue in the flesh, though flattering himself that he is upright and noble in the process.

Tragically, Diotrephes uses the blessed blood-bought church of Christ as a means to fill his hunger for appreciation. If Diotrephes loved Jesus’ church more than his own recognition, he would die to himself, likely remain at a church where his pride would be slaughtered, or at least do everything possible to leave a church in a humble, mature, biblical way.

When Diotrephes moves on to another church, he’s looking for a place where he can slither into the spotlight. He will plug in and place himself in a position where is lust for recognition can be gratified.

One writer has wisely observed that, “The temptation to use a role in the Christian assembly as a means of self-gratification remains a real one that all servants of God need to resist.” This can be a temptation for all of us, because the root of Diotrephes syndrome is pride. And, every Christian will battle pride until they are glorified.

  1. He is unteachable to godly people in his life who challenge his pride.

John writes, “I wrote something to the church, but Diotrephes who loves to be first among them, does not accept what we say” (3 John 9). It seems that John wrote a previous letter in which he reproved Diotrephes. But, that letter is likely lost. Perhaps Diotrephes intercepted and trashed it.

Here is John, the apostle and an elder. He has loved Diotrephes enough to confront him and bring correction to his pride (cf. Prov. 27:5-6, Gal. 6:1-3). But Diotrephes can’t hear it. His immaturity is so extreme that when someone identifies areas he needs to grow, and he can’t take it. He “does not accept what we say.” This is a sure sign of Diotrephes. A godly person in his life lovingly points out his sin, and he refuses it. He won’t hear it. It is radical immaturity to be unteachable towards a godly believer in our lives who confronts our sin.

Where there is an unteachable spirit, there is often an infatuation with one’s importance and a lust for recognition.  

Caution is due here. We ought not to think of it as a minor thing if we get defensive and ruffled feathers when a godly believer in the church comes alongside us to identify areas we need to grow. That’s characteristic of Diotrephes.

“A scoffer does not love one who reproves him, he will not go to the wise” (Prov. 15:12).

Diotrephes believed that he could overrule the biblical authority of an elder and apostle. The spiritual Diotrephes has such a high-view of himself that he will spurn the God-given, biblically-defined shepherding in his life. Here is another place where Diotrephes abandons a biblical ecclesiology in favor of his self-promotion. God defines in his word how he wants every believer to be shepherded. It is, in part, by biblically qualified and affirmed elders in a local church. (1 Pet. 5:2-3). Every believer needs elders in their lives for shepherding-care; including elders. This isn’t from man. This is from God (Heb. 13:17, 1 Pet. 5:2-3, Titus 1:5).

But Diotrephes won’t have it. He can’t have actual, biblically defined shepherds in his life. Biblical shepherding would mean his idols would be exposed and eradicated; it would mean crucifying his lust for recognition. And that’s not something he’s prepared to do. So, he can tolerate superficial shepherding, just as long as so-called shepherds keep a safe distance from him. Diotrephes is fine with distance-shepherding, which is no shepherding. That way, leadership pose less of a threat to his self-exalting endeavors.

This is how Diotrephes operates. He is unteachable to godly people in his life who challenge his pride.

These are the first four characteristics of Diotrephes. We will look at six more in our next post.

In the meantime, the good news for all of us who have a bit of Diotrephes in us is that God has sent a Savior. The Lord Jesus Christ descended from heaven and came down to earth. He lived a life totally free from the sinful pride that plagues Diotrephes. Then, in the ultimate act humility, he willingly went to suffer and die on a cross. He was nailed to the wood, hanging there for our sins. He then died and rose bodily. In doing so, he swallowed up the condemnation due all who would put faith in him.

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