There are three saints who were a big part of the message of John’s third epistle – Gaius, Diotrephes, and Demetrius. While commendable things are said about “the beloved Gaius” (1:1) and Demetrius had “a good testimony” (1:12) among the brethren, Diotrephes was a different story. That guy was trouble.
Sadly, we remember Diotrephes for the wrong reasons. Read for yourself everything that is recorded about him in the Bible. Here is the text:
(9) I wrote to the church, but Diotrephes, who loves to have the preeminence among them, does not receive us. (10) Therefore, if I come, I will call to mind his deeds which he does, prating against us with malicious words. And not content with that, he himself does not receive the brethren, and forbids those who wish to, putting them out of the church.
It is obvious that Diotrephes was bad news for the church. When we break down what John wrote about this strong-willed brother, what do we see?
He loved to have the preeminence (1:9). The expression “loves to have the preeminence” is from one Greek word, “φιλοπρωτεύω/philoprō teuō ,” which means “to aspire to pre-eminence, to desire to be first” [Thayer, word no. 5383 via e-Sword]. Brother Diotrephes wanted to be counted as “the top man.” The truth is, the Bible teaches that Jesus, as the sole Head of the body, is to have the preeminence “in all things” (Colossians 1:18). No Christian, regardless of his/her clout among men, has the right to compete with Jesus. Diotrephes overstepped his authority.
He loved to have the preeminence “among them” (1:9). This specifies the realm in which Diotrephes wanted to be first. John says Diotrephes did his haughty works with “the church” and “the brethren” who composed it (1:9,10). It is not pleasant to deal with someone in society who arrogantly wants to “run the show.” When we encounter such an individual in God’s church, it is especially distasteful.
He did not receive John and others (1:9). The indication is that the others were faithful saints. We understand that we are not supposed to welcome with open arms those who do not teach the pure doctrine of the Christ (2 John 1:9-11). However, when God’s children are walking in the light with Him, we need to receive them (1 John 1:7).
He prated against John and others with malicious words (1:10). To “prate against” is a translation of the Greek word “φλυαρέω/phluareō ,” which is defined as “to utter nonsense, talk idly, prate; to bring forward idle accusations, make empty charges; to accuse one falsely with malicious words” [Thayer, word no. 5396 via e-Sword]. Such language comes from a wicked heart (Luke 6:45).
He not only did not receive the brethren himself; he also forbid others to receive those brethren (1:10). His bullying tactics influenced others not to do the right thing. It is an abomination to put a stumblingblock before others (Luke 17:1,2).
He put out of the church anyone who desired to receive the brethren (1:10). Diotrephes was a one- man destruction crew to the church’s work and harmony. It is proper for a congregation to take disciplinary action against a rebellious member (1 Corinthians 5:1-3), but it is not God’s will for one person to “take over” and try to kick people out of God’s family. Who appointed Diotrephes as the dictator? It sounds like he appointed himself!
He was the epitome of evil. In the context of this epistle, the words “do not imitate what is evil” (1:11) apply first to Diotrephes, who was evil to his core. This brother had spiritual issues which were at least three-fold: attitude, words, and action. His attitude was evil: he wanted to have the preeminence. His speech was evil: he spoke malicious words. His action was evil: John spoke of his improper deeds (1:10).
He was a leader of men. No, he was not a godly leader, but since he was able to get others to follow his lead and act like he desired for them to act (being unreceptive of John and other brethren), his influence definitely made him a leader. Does this example not remind us that it is extremely unwise to follow blindly after other humans in the spiritual realm? Many do that, to their own destruction. When the blind lead the blind, the results are disastrous (Matthew 15:14).
The spirit of Diotrephes lives on today in the hearts and lives of some cantankerous, overbearing brethren who are bullies. Some of them are gospel preachers, others are brothers who try to elevate themselves to be the chief elder, and yet others are those who try to dominate the decisions and activities in a local church which has no eldership to lead it.
When a Diotrephes arises among us, we ought to treat him with courtesy, but he needs to be resisted, rebuked, and disciplined. In the church of the living God, we do not need folks who aspire to be bosses over other members. What we need are people who want to be servants of all (Mark 9:35).
— Roger D. Campbell