Diotrephes. It’s not a name you hear much these days. Which is a shame, because he has a moment in the spotlight in the Bible, and we need to notice why.
Actually, you’d think anyone would be proud to be in a biblical spotlight, and be remembered 2000 years after your death. It’s not given to everyone. And of all the people who would love it, Diotrephes is your man.
Except that it’s not to his glory, but to his millennia-long shame.
He appears in a few sentences in the little letter of 3 John – and is probably the main reason for its being written.
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)
Notice first the word ‘us’: Diotrephes.. will not welcome us. That’s the Apostle John writing that sentence. The disciple Jesus loved. And ‘us’ means John and his team. Diotrephes was refusing fellowship with an apostle.
Why? Has Diotrephes turned to some dangerous heresy, perhaps? Gone back on his claim to be a Christian? Turned the church into a place of immorality?
Nope: none of the above, as far as we can tell.
Diotrephes, who loves to be first… That’s the nub of it. Its about power, and status, and who gets to be in charge. Diotrephes will not take the second chair, not even to John.
That doesn’t mean he’s on his own – far from it. There is a church, but it is tightly ring-fenced. Diotrephes is spreading malicious nonsense about us. Diotrephes even refuses to welcome other believers. Diotrephes stops those who want to do so and puts them out of the church. Diotrephes, Diotrephes, Diotrephes.
It’s all about him, isn’t it? And here’s the centre of it: Diotrephes, who loves to be first.
It’s a radically misplaced affection. It’s self-love disguised as leadership.
Maybe you’ve seen it in others. Maybe you see it in yourself.
There’s a certain kind of Christian leader who is only happy when they – alone – are in charge. Their name on the letterhead. Their name on the book cover. Their books on the bookstall. Their name on the conference programme. Their ideas on the agenda. Their vision played out. Their resolutions carried.
They dominate, argue and control. And if they can’t win, they leave and form another group which they can lead.
It’s not that they want to be the only person in the room but they need to be the leader in the room.
They love to be first. It’s not that they want to be the only person in the room – Diotrephes needed that church he could control – but they need to be the leader in the room. They will spread malicious nonsense, and refuse to welcome others, and do a host of other things in order to win that place. And he’d even break fellowship with an apostle to get it.
How did Diotrephes do it? We’re not told. Maybe he made it a truth issue, or a purity issue, or a pragmatic issue, or a financial issue – there’s no end to what could fit in that bucket, ‘nonsense’. Because there’s no way the apostle John could have gone soft on those issues. But you can bet your bottom denarius that Diotrephes made it look like it.
So, Christian leader, take a long hard look at Diotrephes, and then take a long hard in the mirror. And when you see it, be like John: call attention to it, name it, and refuse to let it win.
Process question: how would I know the extent to which my leadership was poisoned by ‘loving to be first’?