The Threefold Secret of Life

Study Guide to 1,2,3 John
by Francis Foulkes ©


'I have written something to the church; but Diotrephes, who likes to put himself first, does not acknowledge my authority. So if I come, I will bring up what he is doing, prattling against me with evil words. And not content with that, he refuses himself to welcome the brethren, and also stops those who want to welcome them and puts them out of the church' (3 John 9-10).

In the earlier part of this letter a great deal has been said about the faithful Christian life of Gaius. Now another person in the church congregation is mentioned, Diotrephes. As with Gaius, we know nothing about him except what is said in this letter. That is enough, however, to show that Diotrephes was a very different kind of man from Gaius. All that is said fills out this main thing that must be said about him: he 'likes to put himself first'. Many unchristian things must follow when that is true in a person's life. For the Christian is called to put God and not self first, to love God with all his heart and soul and mind and strength; and the Christian is called to love others and not just self. Notice the four things that followed in the case of Diotrephes' desire to put himself first.

a. The rejection of the leadership and authority of others.

Diotrephes may have had some position of leadership in the church where he was, but there were also those with spiritual authority over him. 'The elder', whether as apostle or in his special eldership position, had a spiritual authority in the whole life of the church. Diotrephes did not accept his authority. Probably he was jealous of it, just as we read in Philippians 1:15-17 of those who were jealous of the position of the apostle Paul. 'The elder' had written a letter to the church, perhaps this was 2 John or even the letter that we call 1 John. It seems that Diotrephes had not allowed this to be read to the church. The person who wants to put himself or herself first is always unwilling to accept the leadership and authority of others.

b. The use of evil words against others.

The next thing that is said about Diotrephes is the way that he spoke 'evil words' about 'the elder', who, in writing this letter to Gaius, says that when he comes to visit, Diotrephes must be shown up for the kind of person he was and for the wrong things that he had been doing and saying. `When I come ... I will call attention to everything he has done: the terrible things he says about us, the lies he tells!' (Today's English Version). When a person wants to put himself first, he has to put down others. Truth will not matter to him, as long as others are put down and he is put first. It is a sad thing indeed when that happens in the life of a Christian fellowship.

c. The refusal of hospitality to others.

Gaius was caring and generous in his hospitality Diotrephes - the 'self-first' man - was not. He wanted to have the position and importance of a leader in the church; but he did not want to carry the responsibility of a leader. In 1 Timothy 3:2 and Titus 1:8 it is made very clear that Christian leaders must be given to hospitality. Verse 10 says that Diotrephes refused to welcome fellow-Christians ('the brethren') and to give them hospitality. He was much too concerned for himself to be concerned for others in this way

d. The hindering of others in good works.

The final thing that is said of Diotrephes is that he not only failed to do the good things that he should have done but he stopped others from doing them. He would put people out of the church rather than welcome them. In this way, as in the other ways, this man did the very opposite of what he, as a Christian, should have done: accepting leadership and the authority of leaders, speaking the truth and love, giving hospitality to fellow-Christians, encouraging others in Christian service.

These verses are a fearful description of what soon happens in the life of the person who 'likes to put himself first'.


Use Philippians 2:1-11 as a meditation and think of what our Lord Jesus Christ did, as described there, and the kind of life to which we are called.

For further thought and study.

1. With the things that are said of Diotrephes compare the ideals of leadership that Jesus Himself gave to His disciples in Mark 10:35-45 and Luke 22:24--27 and that are given also in 1 Peter 5:1-6.

2. The fellowship and unity of the church is spoilt when people try to put themselves first instead of their Lord or when human leaders are exalted instead of Christ. This happened in New Testament days. See 1 Corinthians chapters 1 and 3 and consider what lies behind the words of the apostle in Philippians 2:1-4. Do you see it happening in the church today?

Note. Diotrephes does not seem to have been guilty of giving wrong teaching nor does he seem to have acted with authority to support false teaching. He was just a man with a love of his own position and importance. What is said of him, however, may help us to understand what was happening in the life of the early Church. At first the apostles were the ones with a specially important task and authority for it was given to them by their Lord., They had been with Jesus throughout the time of His earthly ministry and they were witnesses of His resurrection (Acts 1:21, 22). It was the apostles' teaching that had to be followed by others (Acts 2:42). When the gospel was preached and churches were founded, the apostles appointed elders (for example Acts 14:23). Apostles and representatives of apostles, like Timothy and Titus, had real authority in these churches, in their teaching and oversight and in the appointment of elders (see 1 Timothy 1:3, 4, 4:6, 11, 2 Timothy 2:1, 2, 4:1, 2, Titus 1:5).

There does not seem to have been a great church organisation in those days, but there was a fellowship amongst the different congregations. It is clear that the apostles did all that they could to encourage this fellowship, especially where there was the danger of disunity, as when they found people following the old divisions between Jews and Samaritans (see Acts 8:14-25) and between Jews and Gentiles (see Acts 15, Romans 15:25-27, Ephesians 2:11-22). At the same time it was inevitable that leadership and authority in each local church would become more and more important as these churches were finally established. They had a group of elders who might also be called bishops (a word that means 'a person with oversight') and in Philippians 1:1 and 1 Timothy 3:8-13 we read of deacons. At least in some cases, like that of James, the brother of our Lord, in the church of Jerusalem (see Acts 12:17, 15:13, 21:18, Galatians 1:19, 2:9, 12) one person seems to have become a kind of president of the elders.

This led to the situation that we find in the early part of the 2nd Century that each church had one bishop as its president or leader and then it had a number of elders and deacons. Some think that this development was due to the guidance of the Holy Spirit; others do not think so. At least it is clear that more leadership and authority and oversight were given from inside the local church and less was needed or accepted from outside. We may compare the situation in our day where a church has been established through missionaries from another country and then its local leadership takes over control. We may have this kind of position reflected in this letter. Diotrephes is resisting the influence and spiritual authority of 'the elder' and he resisted the influence of traveling preachers or missionaries visiting the church. Unfortunately, he resisted this influence and authority in an unpleasant and unloving way. He also did it for the wrong reasons, not for the strengthening of the local church, but that he might have first place and that no one should take it from him.