We can all imagine how things played out in Diotrephes’ church, in 3 John. The bullying. The power games. I remember some people who had just escaped from just such a setting with a rigorously dominant leader. They were in a new members’ class I was running, and I had to stop because it was obvious that they were extremely damaged and vulnerable Christians. They were clearly worried by my talk of expectations of those who belong. They were like jittery gazelles on an African plain, spooked by anything that looked or sounded like a lion. ‘I can’t even read the Bible without hearing his voice”, one of them said. “I don’t trust anything I hear any more.”
It was a sobering moment for me, as they told me about people who had moved home to avoid bumping into the pastor on the street – or even seeing him drive past. It reinforced what a damaging thing ambition can be, if it becomes malformed.
Now in itself that is a valuable lesson. Paul encountered people who sought to evangelise in such a way that their work simultaneously undermined him, and he responded with remarkable grace:
It is true that some preach Christ out of envy and rivalry, but others out of goodwill. The latter do so out of love, knowing that I am put here for the defence of the gospel. The former preach Christ out of selfish ambition, not sincerely, supposing that they can stir up trouble for me while I am in chains. But what does it matter? The important thing is that in every way, whether from false motives or true, Christ is preached. And because of this I rejoice. (Phil 1:15-18)
That is an astonishingly generous reaction, and if that Christ-centredness was the only lesson to learn, it would be enough.
But there is an even bleaker aspect to this, and we can get there by asking, if Diotrephes shouldn’t have been first, who should have been? We have to travel back to Genesis 3, and the temptation to eat the fruit on the tree. The woman resisted at first, but the snake repeated and underlined the offer
‘You will not certainly die,’ the snake said to the woman. ‘For God knows that when you eat from it your eyes will be opened, and you will be like God, knowing good and evil.’(Gen 3:4-5)
Do you see the offer, which was offered to Diotrephes as well? On the largest scale, as long as the fruit stayed on the tree, God remained God and his Word remained law; when they take the fruit, they have acted as if they, not God, ruled the world. But the poison is also buried in the temptation itself, as a little sliver of dazzling fools’ gold: ‘You will be like God…’
That’s what Diotrephes heard – that he would be first, that he would be like God. That he would rule the church, that he would be its saviour, that he would be its sole source of truth, that he would be the exclusive centre of its relationships, and that he would be worshipped.
I remember another church with yet another damaging pastor. He made the ruinous connection that disagreement was the same as opposition – and then made the second connection that opposition to him was the same as opposition to God.
And here’s the punch for me: I knew both these pastors. They would both see themselves as faithful bible teachers. They would find these descriptions of themselves unrecognisable. And yet their godly ambition (for they were both preachers who were ambitious for God) left a trail of wreckage like a hurricane ripping through an unprotected town.
Yet there is more. There is another, even more alarming, biblical picture of ambition turned into a power play against God, this time found in the book of Ezekiel. It is a description of the Prince of Tyre – a leader of one of the enemies of God’s people, and the had of a mighty naval trading port. This is a picture of ice-cold hatred against God – so much so, that many readers find it compelling as a description of the deepest rebellion the universe has seen.
Look at the surface first, and see the pride, and its now familiar desire:
The word of the Lord came to me: ‘Son of man, say to the ruler of Tyre, “This is what the Sovereign Lord says:
‘“In the pride of your heart you say,
‘I am a god;
I sit on the throne of a god
in the heart of the seas.’
But you are a mere mortal and not a god,
though you think you are as wise as a god.
Are you wiser than Daniel?
Is no secret hidden from you?
By your wisdom and understanding
you have gained wealth for yourself
and amassed gold and silver in your treasuries.
By your great skill in trading
you have increased your wealth,
and because of your wealth
your heart has grown proud.
‘“Therefore this is what the Sovereign Lord says:
‘“Because you think you are wise,
as wise as a god,
I am going to bring foreigners against you,
the most ruthless of nations;
they will draw their swords against your beauty and wisdom
and pierce your shining splendour.
They will bring you down to the pit,
and you will die a violent death in the heart of the seas.
Will you then say, ‘I am a god,’
in the presence of those who kill you?
You will be but a mortal, not a god,
in the hands of those who slay you.
You will die the death of the uncircumcised
at the hands of foreigners.
I have spoken, declares the Sovereign Lord.”’ (Ezek. 28:1-10)
So he, a mere political ruler, decked up in the bling and pomp of human politics, thought he could sit of God’s heavenly throne. But Ezekiel then begins to discern another shadowy figure behind this princeling, who was more gloriously dressed, with a higher status and a longer history, but who has also come to a ruinous end. As you read it, notice the double focus, as if Ezekiel keeps flicking his eyes from one person to another, from the puppet to the puppeteer:
The word of the Lord came to me: ‘Son of man, take up a lament concerning the king of Tyre and say to him: “This is what the Sovereign Lord says:
‘“You were the seal of perfection,
full of wisdom and perfect in beauty.
You were in Eden,
the garden of God;
every precious stone adorned you:
carnelian, chrysolite and emerald,
topaz, onyx and jasper,
lapis lazuli, turquoise and beryl.
Your settings and mountings, were made of gold;
on the day you were created they were prepared.
You were anointed as a guardian cherub,
for so I ordained you.
You were on the holy mount of God;
you walked among the fiery stones.
You were blameless in your ways
from the day you were created
till wickedness was found in you.
Through your widespread trade
you were filled with violence,
and you sinned.
So I drove you in disgrace from the mount of God,
and I expelled you, guardian cherub,
from among the fiery stones.
Your heart became proud
on account of your beauty,
and you corrupted your wisdom
because of your splendour.
So I threw you to the earth;
I made a spectacle of you before kings.
By your many sins and dishonest trade
you have desecrated your sanctuaries.
So I made a fire come out from you,
and it consumed you,
and I reduced you to ashes on the ground
in the sight of all who were watching.
All the nations who knew you
are appalled at you;
you have come to a horrible end
and will be no more.”’ (Ezek. 28:11-19)
I think it’s inescapable that Ezekiel is describing some being who is, or was, more gorgeous, more powerful, and more proud and more rebellious, than the ruler of Tyre. With a wider biblical lens we can name him as the Evil One, the great serpent, the Accuser, the devil himself – a fallen angel.
The poet John Milton picked up these hints from Ezekiel, and drew his great portrait of Satan’s proud rebellion and fall, in Paradise Lost. But, biblically, all we have are hints, indications, that Satan’s flaw was pride. He too wanted to be like God.
Is it any wonder that he shaped our fundamental temptation in the same warped way, and that he tries to make any pastor fall into the same trap by offering the same fruit over and again. It is our default sin.
We are not God. It is not ‘our’ church. They are not ‘our’ people. It is not ‘my’ ministry.
- What part does pride play in your leadership?
- Are you tempted to want to be like God, and rule the church?
- Are you tempted to be like God, and save the church?
- Are you tempted to be like God, and be the sole source of truth for the church?
- Are you tempted to be like God, and be the exclusive centre of relationships for the church?
- Are you tempted to be like God, and be worshipped?
- Are you able to fool yourself?
I wrote a whole chapter on 2 John and 3 John in The Message of the Church (Bible Speaks Today)
You can order it (discount) from 10ofthose here,
Aussie? Koorong has it here.