Diotrophes’ Disease: The Love of Preeminence

“Every talks about Jezebel, but nobody talks about Diotrophes.”

I once heard a preacher say something like that. This was at a time when it was very common to hear or read a message about the Jezebel spirit. The point the preacher was making was that Jezebel is not the only bad example in the New Testament.

There are others. In fact there are many: Demas, Alexander, Simon Magus, to name a few.

Diotrophes is mentioned only once, in 3 John 9-10:

“I wrote to the church, but Diotrephes, who loves to have the preeminence among them, does not receive us. 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.” (NKJV)

So if John didn’t get his letter delivered and read to the church, whatever happened to it?

Maybe it’s in our Bible, in the form of 2 John.

I first saw this argument made in a brief article by Robert W. Orr, published in 1961. (The following link is to a pdf. If you are reading this on a phone or tablet, it might automatically download: Diotrophes: The First Gnostic Bishop?)

The connection between 2 and 3 John is speculation. But it makes sense to me. Once I saw it, I couldn’t believe I didn’t realize it before. It explains why the letters are so similar.

The “elect lady and her children,” to whom 2 John was written was a church. Orr suggested that John used the cryptic language for security reasons, to avoid trouble with the government.

John saw that his letter was going to be blocked, so he went around Diotrophes. He wrote a private letter to Gaius.

Were these letters really written by John the apostle?

I believe they were. At first, it might seem hard to believe that any church leader would refuse a letter from such a person. But once you have encountered people with even a touch of Diotrophes’ disease, and have seen what it can do to a person, it’s not so hard to believe.

Preeminence addiction can destroy a person’s judgment; it can drive them insane.

Here is Robert W. Orr on why the author of both letters identifies himself only as “the elder”:

“Why did St. John (taking the question of authorship for granted) refer to himself as ‘The Elder’ in this pair of epistles? Of course, if we are right in supposing that the destination of the letter was concealed for security reasons, it is only consistent that the writer’s identity should also be concealed. But the epithet chosen suits well the purpose of the epistles, reminding one of St. Peter’s words: ‘The elders among you I exhort. who am a fellow-elder…’ (1 Peter 5: 1).”

Diotrophes’ disease can’t be organized away.

Some people see Diotrophes as the beginning of what developed in the second century: the church in each city was ruled by a single bishop.

However, no system of church government can, by itself, prevent Diotrophe’s disease. It is an affliction of the heart.

Besides, Diotrophes wasn’t just power-hungry, he was a heretic.

If 2 and 3 John really do share the same background, then 2 John sheds light on Diotrophes’ method. In 2 John 9, John says, “Anyone who runs ahead and does not continue in the teaching of Christ does not have God” (NIV).

Diotrophes “ran ahead.” In other words, he started making stuff up so he could sound like he knew more than others, so that he could keep the preeminence.

Again, it was John the Apostle who supposedly didn’t know as much about Christianity as Diotrophes did. But again, that is what preeminence addiction will do to a person.

In fact, a lot of false teaching can be traced to people with Diotrophes’ disease.

Other translations of 2 John 9 gives us a good idea of what it means to “run ahead” of the teaching:

“The man who is so ‘advanced’ that he is not content with what Christ taught, has in fact no God.” (J. B. Phillips)

“Anyone who gets so progressive in his thinking that he walks out on the teaching of Christ, walks out on God.” (The Message)

“For if you wander beyond the teaching of Christ, you will leave God behind” (The Living Bible)

John won.

The fact that we have the second and third letters of John in our Bible is a good indication that Diotrophes was thrown out of the church.

3 John 12 says this about a man named Demetrius, who probably delivered both of the letters:

“Demetrius has a good testimony from all, and from the truth itself. And we also bear witness, and you know that our testimony is true.” (NKJV)

Orr used this verse to fill out his picture of what is happening in these two short letters. He really is speculating a lot here, but it also sounds reasonable. It could be close to what happened:

“The conjecture then stands thus: St. John sent 2 John to the church, but Diotrephes suppressed it (3 John 9); so St. John next wrote to a trusted believer in that church, himself converted through St. John (v. 4). He censured Diotrephes’ behaviour, and commended Gaius in the very matters in which Diotrephes was offending (walking in the truth, and receiving and helping the brethren in a worthy manner). Thus the church is advised by apostolic authority that Diotrephes is no longer worthy of his place as an elder; Gaius is provided with a testimonial as to his fitness to succeed Diotrephes; and Demetrius is commended as a suitable fellow-elder for Gaius. The autocratic rule of one man is to give way to the joint administration of two well-proved men.”