“I wrote to the church, but Diotrephes, who loves to be first, will not welcome us. So when I come, I will call attention to what he is doing, spreading malicious nonsense about us. Not satisfied with that, he even refuses to welcome other believers. He also stops those who want to do so and puts them out of the church.” (3 John 9-10)
This particular passage has been on my mind quite a lot lately. I don’t remember ever hearing it growing up; in fact, I don’t think I even really paid any attention to this entire section of the Bible until I took a class on the “lesser-known” books of the New Testament a couple years ago.
And this particular character, Diotrephes. This is the only time he’s mentioned in the entire Bible, and the only things we definitively know about him are found in these few sentences hidden in one of the shortest, most vague, and most underappreciated books in the whole Bible (like, literally, you can read the entire letter of 3 John in less than a minute).
In attempt to simplify the context and purpose of this passage as best as I can (remember, my friends: Context: It’s Important), Diotrephes was [likely] a leader in one of the first Christian churches, which, in those days (roughly somewhere between 90 and 100 A.D.), took place in different houses and each consisted of around 10, mayyyybe 15 people at the most. The letter in which we find this passage is part of a [possible] 3-pack of theological/instructional letters (conveniently known now as 1 (First) John, 2 (Second) John, and 3 (Third) John) that has traditionally been attributed to (written by) one of Jesus’s closest followers–the apostle, John–and written to one or several churches now forever lost in history, aside from what we see in these letters.
3 John, however, appears to have been written for one specific congregation, the one in which Diotrephes led with a rather large amount of authority–and exclusivity. While John (who refers to himself as “The Elder”) is sending missionaries to stay with the congregation during their travels, Diotrephes refuses to allow these people–or anyone who is considered to be a stranger to him or the church–into the home, and even goes so far as to kick those who are hospitable to these people out of the church altogether.
It is clear that Diotrephes does not always see eye-to-eye with John, as not even he is welcomed into the church. Instead, Diotrephes chooses to “spread malicious nonsense” about him and the people seeking community with the church.
We do not know why Diotrephes is this way; however, we can see that he represents a much larger story both within this 3-pack of letters and Christian history in general.
1 and 2 John were both written in regards to a schism within the churches. Due to doctrinal and philosophical differences, several leaders ended up leaving the church in order to form their own congregations, which John, who was no fool, considered to be founded in false teachings and taught by false teachers. He even called these secessionists “anti-Christs” (1 John 2:18-22 and 4:3) and “deceivers” (2 John 7).
Likewise, throughout church history (and really, all of history), we see an endless number of ways in which Christianity has been formed (and reformed) by division: the Arian conflict, the aptly named “Great Schism,” the Protestant Reformation, and even within my own tradition (the Stone-Campbell movement), which was, ironically, created in an attempt to seek unity among Christians.
Diotrephes, however, is different from what we see in these above examples. He is not like the secessionists in the other two letters. Nor is he any sort of “rebel” or “revolutionary” seeking to break from the status quo like Martin Luther. He is still very much a part of the church, and is even a leader. However, what makes him distinct is his pride and xenophobia. He loved to be first, and he was afraid of people he did not know. In fact, he never even sought to know these strangers in the first place, and rejected anyone who dared suggest anything that varied from his own opinion.
Perhaps Diotrephes was an incredible leader and an incredible verbal witness to the gospel of Jesus Christ. The truth is, we will never know. But what John ultimately cared about was not Diotrephes’s beliefs, but rather his practices.
Jesus taught constantly about loving not only one’s neighbors, but also one’s enemies. He embraced the strangers and the outcasts, and told his followers and opponents time and time again about this world known as “The Kingdom of God” in which the homeless person receives justice over the rich person, the wolf lies down with the lamb*, the firsts are made the lasts and the lasts are made the firsts, and the foreign Samaritan is shown more favor than even the great religious leaders**.
So why is Diotrephes, a supposedly devout follower of Christ, so reluctant to welcome strangers (other Christ followers, even!) into his own home?
Diotrephes, I’ve come to realize, expresses a sentiment that runs deep in our own humanity. He is afraid of the Unknown, and seeks to put himself first over others. But John says that Diotrephes is wrong to indulge in these kinds of fears, desires, and behaviors. He abhors his tribalism, and praises instead the actions of those who show hospitality to others (3 John 5-8, 11-12).
Hospitality, I would wager plenty to say, is a virtue every Christian should value, and it’s one rooted deeply in not only the teachings of John, but also Jesus (Matthew 25:31-46), Paul (Philippians 2:1-11), James (1:19-27), the prophets (Amos 5, Micah 6… really, all of the prophets) Moses (Exodus 22:21-27), and Abraham (Luke 16:19-31, though via Jesus). However, it is a value that most Christians have, much to the world’s dismay, lost sight of. Though we are called to welcome in the stranger and love our enemies, we are instead excluding others and forming governments that literally build walls to keep people out of a land that was never ours to begin with, and are keeping innocent refugees from finding a place to lie their heads (“Foxes have holes, and birds have nests….”).
How have we fallen so far from the teachings of our God? How have we let ourselves become Diotrephes?
Personally, I know how much I struggle with this temptation, as well. But I also know I have changed for the better after having housemates who demanded showing hospitality and kindness to our homeless neighbors–some of whom eventually became our friends–and I pray that I continue to seek the sense of humility and hospitality that they have always possessed.
I know I’ve done this before, but I want to end with a passage from 1 John 4:7-8, 16b-21. I pray that both I and my fellow Christians strive to follow this teaching more and more every day of our lives and that we seek to imitate not what is evil, but rather, what is good.
Dear friends, let us love one another, for love comes from God. Everyone who loves has been born of God and knows God. Whoever does not love does not know God, because God is love….
Whoever lives in love lives in God, and God in them. This is how love is made complete among us so that we will have confidence on the day of judgment: In this world we are like Jesus. There is no fear in love. But perfect love drives out fear, because fear has to do with punishment. The one who fears is not made perfect in love.
We love because he first loved us. Whoever claims to love God yet hates a brother or sister is a liar. For whoever does not love their brother and sister, whom they have seen, cannot love God, whom they have not seen. And he has given us this command: Anyone who loves God must also love their brother and sister.
Christianity is not only a belief; it is a lifestyle of love. And this love does not keep others out, but rather, it welcomes them in.
Thank you for reading. Until next time.
*This passage is actually not from one of the gospels, but from the prophet, Isaiah. Its message, however, is similar enough to that of the Kingdom of God that I don’t see much issue in including it here.
**The story of the schism between the Israelites and the Samaritans is also a notable example of how division has created a false sense of identity among God’s people.
Sources (SBL with a bit of my own touch because it’s my blog and not a paper):
Johnson, Luke Timothy. The Writings of the New Testament: An Interpretation. Fortress Press: Philadelphia, 1986. Pgs. 501-507.
Thompson, Marianne. 1-3 John in the Interpretation commentary series. InterVarsity Press: Downers Grove, IL, 1992. Pgs. 13-21, 158-164.