It doesn’t take a sledgehammer to break a rock into little pieces. Obviously, a sledgehammer will do the job but it’s not the only way to do it. Fascinatingly, it really only takes a little bit of water and temperature variation to do the trick. In a process known as weathering a small amount of water can seep into the crack of a rock, and if the temperature gets cold enough that water will freeze. As it freezes it expands and begins to widen the cracks and split the rocks. I’ve read before that there’s no rock on earth that’s hard enough to resist the forces of weathering.
What’s true in geology is also true in ecclesiology. Churches aren’t always broken by big things — overt false teaching, moral scandals, or leadership failure. They can do the job but it’s not always what happens in the life of a church. Rather, it’s the little things that seep into the worship and fellowship of the church that, given the right conditions, often fracture a congregation. When people’s attitudes, personalities, preferences, and opinions meet with the coldness of lovelessness congregations break. Big sins have slain a thousand churches and little sins have slain ten thousand.
This is why the example of Diotrephes is so interesting. Remember him? I suspect not. Tucked away in what is probably one of the most neglected books of the Bible the Apostle John has to write to Gaius to condemn the behavior of Diotrephes. Not only, however, does he condemn the behavior he warns Gaius — and others who would read his third letter — not to imitate him: “Beloved, do not imitate evil but imitate good.” Why does he have to write that? Because John understands that the innate direction of our hearts is to imitate evil. He knows that Diotrephes example easily influences and persuades others to follow him. The result would be catastrophic! Like a little water seeping into a rock it could fracture and break the church apart.
What’s Diotrephes’ sinful behavior? First, he’s arrogant: “[He] likes to put himself first” (v 9). The real force of the word John uses is that Diotrephes loves to be first. In his case it was most clearly seen in his unwillingness to be a man under authority: “[He] does not acknowledge our authority.” He was a lone wolf — speaking, doing, and living as a man without accountability. That’s arrogant. It’s assuming far better of yourself than you should. Arrogance has no place in Christian discipleship (see Mark 9:35), and no place in Christian love (see 1 Corinthians 13:4). An arrogant attitude is destructive to the church.
The second sinful behavior is Diotrephes’ sinful words: “Talking nonsense against us” (v 10). The Bible cautions a hundred times over about the use of our words. We are to speak in a way that offers grace to those who hear us (see Ephesians 4:29). Sadly, the tongue often burns with the fires of hell speaking in anger, bitterness, slander, gossip, deceit, and falsehoods. Wisdom teaches us: “Death and life are in the power of the tongue” (Proverbs 18:21). A deadly tongue is a good way to sow death in a congregation.
Third, Diotrephes is divisive. John said: “And not content with that, he refuses to welcome the brothers, and also stops those who want to and puts them out of the church” (verse 10). Simply, he excluded those who he should have accepted and he tried to kick out those who disagreed with him. He treated the church like a clubhouse whose criteria centered on his opinions and preferences. This type of divisiveness isn’t the fruit of the Spirit but a work of the flesh (see Galatians 5:20). This kind of behavior is so damaging to a congregation that Paul almost circumvents the normal procedure of confronting sin when he told Titus: “As for a person who stirs up division, after warning him once and then twice, have nothing to do with him, knowing that such a person is warped and sinful; he is self-condemned” (Titus 3:10-11).
John doesn’t mince words and he isn’t afraid to name names. The diabolical opposition Diotrephes gave not only to the aged Apostle but to the church of Jesus Christ could only be dealt with in the severest language. Under the inspiration of the Spirit, John immortalizes the example of Diotrephes for every generation. I’ve often wondered if Diotrephes even blushed when he heard that John had called him out. I suspect he probably didn’t as he continued to show himself to be one that didn’t know God. For all time Diotrephes stands alongside of those who have most troubled the church — Cain, Balaam, Korah, and even Judas Iscariot.
Sadly, despite the cautionary tale which has been read and preached in the Christian church for centuries there are many who have walked in the footsteps of Diotrephes. Those who do the most harm to the church aren’t always those who fall from grace in an extravagant display of immorality, or those who come preaching another gospel. But often the worst fracturing is done by arrogance, wicked speech, and divisiveness slowly seeping into the fellowship of the church and breaking it apart.
If you’re a Christian the church is either encouraged or fractured by you; it is either strengthened or broken by your attitude, speech, or conduct. Choose which of the two it will be!