If I leave my office by the back door and cross the road I’m faced with a beautiful old building with swinging double doors and a gold name plate that reads: The Literary and Philosophical Society. It is the largest independent library outside of London and contains hundreds of thousands of books in its wonderful reading rooms. One of the books is an original of Chains of Slavery by infamous revolutionary Jean-Paul Marat. Marat practised as a veterinarian in Newcastle and wrote his first revolutionary material here; his words, as history so readily tells us, helped ignite uprisings in Europe and made him a key player in the French revolution. What we say can build or destroy, by writing as he did Marat chose to do the latter.
We are faced with a choice whenever we open our mouth, put fingers to keyboard or pen to paper. Do we build or do we destroy? Do we sow seeds of unity or discord? When John wrote the letter to Gaius that we now know as the Third Epostle of John he addressed an issue that is more common than it should be – someone who was letting their mouth run and causing problems.
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.
– 3 John 1:9-10 (ESV)
It would be easy to point to Diotrephes and judge, but first perhaps what we should do is look at ourselves and see whether we’re without sin on this particular topic. It’s easy to make wicked caricatures with exaggerated sins and no redeeming features but when we do that we risk missing part of the message; if we imagine leering villains, we paint a picture we can’t relate too and we’ll never see within it the ease with which we can do the same things.
Maybe Diotrephes was a swaggering braggart who hated the Church, but have you ever thought that he was potentially someone like us? Maybe he thought he loved the church? Maybe in his own mind he was just taking steps to get his opinion across? We all need to watch out because our words can be the difference between building the church and being an enemy of it.
The whole problem with Diotrephes seems to boil down to the first thing John writes about him, that he likes to put himself first. All of the other things spring from the central problem that Diotrephes is a legend in his own mind. Oh, he’s humble of course – and proud of it. He knows the scriptures, is vocal about the need for a good spiritual life, and likes to think that he has this whole church thing sussed. Not like those other plebs who roll through the doors with the wrong clothes on, or not having read enough that week, or having sinned, or just plain not been as righteous as he is.
A few people had commented on how he didn’t welcome those new guys but why should he? Does he look like welcome team to you? Clearly not. He was busy and had gotten out of the wrong side of bed; not his problem. And anyway, his greater level of spiritual discernment had foreseen that those people were trouble. Naturally he’d had a word in the ears of those other folks who wanted to be welcoming and warned them not too. We’d not want the wrong kind of people coming in now, would we?
There was that message from John that he didn’t pass on to the brethren, of course, but that was for the greater good. If John had been here in person he could have explained it better but as he wasn’t he’d had to make a decision and the people didn’t need to hear it. He’d explain when John arrived. Obviously John was in authority but he just didn’t have all the facts and couriers to Ephesus take so long, you know? And sometimes they get robbed on route, it’s not worth the risk.
And while we’re talking of authority, didn’t John say that other stuff about love that wasn’t quite hitting the mark? Of course, Diotrephes doesn’t gossip or slander but there were a few people who had to know that John had erred from good sense so that they didn’t join him in his error. It wasn’t gossip so much as pre-empting any problems in doctrine that could later embarrass John. He is old after all, been a long time since that foot of the cross thing and maybe he wasn’t thinking straight.
You see what I mean? Diotrephes probably didn’t start out intending to be a wicked man. He just suffered from that feeling that he knew best and always acted accordingly. There was no submission and no servant-hood. We have to be constantly aware of what we say and how we talk. Are we always welcoming? Or do we leave it to the team because we’re not in the mood? If a leader does something we don’t like do we have to say so, or do we submit to authority? We have to be always on our guard against the temptation to let our mouths run because at the heart of it is putting ourselves first and refusing to recognise authority.
Beloved, do not imitate evil but imitate good. Whoever does good is from God; whoever does evil has not seen God.
– 3 John 1:11 (ESV)
Thankfully, John gives Gaius some straight forward advice to avoid becoming a Diotrephes. He tells Him to imitate what is good, to look around at what people are doing and take after the good ones. To serve like the best servants, to welcome like the best host, to love like the most caring. We learn from the Third Epistle of John that it is so easy to let our mouth run and do damage but encouragingly? We learn how to live life in a way that will stop that happening. Do we choose to imitate evil or good?