This small letter is the tale of two house-church leaders, Gaius and Diotrephes. One demonstrates love for God’s family while the other seeks a preeminent place in the family. One supports those who are traveling “for the sake of the name” while the other refuses to welcome them.
“The elder”—the same one who authored 1 & 2 John—is connected to both of them. He writes Gaius to commend him but was recently rebuffed by Diotrephes. Gaius welcomes the leadership of “the elder” while Diotrephes resents it and seeks to limit it.
This brief letter is part of “the elder’s” attempt to deal a situation where Diotrephes has abused his leadership position. Rather than loving the family of God, he has dominated his own house-church.
Apparently, “the elder” ministers to a number of churches from a central location. Tradition places John in Ephesus where he spent the last years of his life. From Ephesus, it seems, John exercised pastoral care over a number of house-churches in the region. The letter suggests that “the elder” would send out “brothers” among the churches “for the sake of the name,” and he hoped that the house-churches would welcome them, give them a hearing, and support them. He expected that family would show hospitality to other family members (“brothers”) even if they were “strangers” (personally unknown to the host church). John expected churches to support them because they are “fellow workers for the truth.”
Gaius did exactly this. He did the “faithful” thing, as he loved the “brothers” who came to him. His church welcomed them and supported their work. He accepted John’s pastoral care and sent the “brothers” on their way that they might continue to minister among the churches.
However, Diotrephes did not welcome the “brothers” and apparently resented John’s pastoral care. He not only refused to help but prevented others from helping as well. The “elder” sees this as a power play between him and Diotrephes.
So, the question is whether a house-church and its leadership should support the mission of these “brothers” whom the “elder” sent as his representatives.
The “elder” regards Gaius as one of his “children.” Whether this means Gaius was brought to Jesus by the elder or whether it simply means Gaius is under John’s pastoral care is uncertain. Whichever the case, the “elder” assumes a strong relationship between them. He writes to him, prays for him, rejoices over the news of his physical and spiritual health (he is concerned about both!), and praises him for his good works.
Gaius is characterized by several significant phrases, which are absent from the characterizations of Diotrephes and, in fact, stand in strong contrast with how Diotrephes is described. Gaius “walks in the truth” (2x in 3-4), is “faithful” in his efforts (literally, works), and acts in love.
The elder stresses the act of love, a reflection of his “walking in truth.” Gaius acted to support the traveling ministers (“fellow workers”). In this the ministers testified to Gaius’s love as well as his devotion to the truth. The focus of verses 5-8 is his support, which is his act of love for the “brothers.” The question is not one of heresy (that is, truth versus the antichrists of 2 John). Rather, the question is the practice of Christian hospitality that supports the mission of the “elder.” The contrast is not between heretics and faithful believers but between faithful believers and “Gentiles” (unbelievers). The brothers, apparently, are engaged in both pastoral care and evangelistic mission.
There is some debate about the nature of the problem Diotrephes represents. Some think that Diotrephes is one of the “antichrists” (Docetics) that 2 John condemns. The emphasis on “truth” in the brief letter may support this as the noun is used seven times. However, the “truth” here may not refer to orthodox teaching but rather loving praxis. To “walk in the truth” is to love the family and support the mission. Further, when John describes his problem with Diotrephes he does not use the term “truth” and neither does he point to any particular doctrinal teaching by Diotrephes. The “elder” is not skittish about identifying heretical teaching (as 2 John demonstrates) and consequently it seems unlikely that he would not identify a specific heresy in this letter if that were the problem.
Instead, the “elder” specifically identifies his ambition as the problem. Diotrephes (whose name means “nourished by Jupiter”) loved to be first. The verb John uses to describe him makes its first appearance in known Greek literature here—philoproteuon. He loves being first; he loves the preeminence. (Paul uses the term proteuon [first] to describe Jesus in Colossians 1:18.) The problem is not his doctrine but his abuse of power, his selfish ambition. Rather than loving the family, he loves himself.
Apparently, he has some position of power or influence already. We may presume that he leads a house-church. He occupies a position that can refuse John’s emissaries, prevent others from supporting them, and excommunicate (disfellowship or “cast out”) those who do. He seems to exercise autocratic power within his community. We do not know the nature of this position though some think it is the sort of authority selflessly exercised by Timothy or Titus, and others think it may be something similar to the one-Bishop practice of Asia Minor congregations in the early second century (called monoepiscopate). Whatever the nature of his position, he wields an authority that rejects “the elder.” And he exercises it with an authority driven by ambition.
“The elder” will deal with this problem face-to-face when he visits Diotrephes’s house-church. But until then he wants Gaius to know that Diotrephes is headed down the wrong path. While he may be a renowned (or infamous) leader—since Gaius knows him—this is not the person Gaius should imitate.
God and Evil
The problem is not superficial, according to “the elder.” It is the difference between “good” and “evil.” Gaius has acted well but Diotrephes has done evil. The former reflects a relationship with God but the latter is disconnected from God. To live within the love of God is to love the “brothers,” but “whoever does evil has not seen God.” This language reminds us of 1 John where the writer tells us to love not only in word but in deed, and whoever fails to love the family of God does not know God. One cannot say they “have seen God” if they do not love God’s family.
John offers Gaius a different model than Diotrephes. Perhaps Diotrephes was creating quite a name for himself in the region through his own self-promotions and creating doubts in Gaius about his course of action. Whatever the case, John points Gaius to Demetrius who also, apparently, was well known in the region. Not only does John commend him but also everyone commends him. He has the “testimony”—he has the witness of the church, John, and the truth.
Diotrephes, while no doubt claiming to love the family of God, loved himself more. Selfish ambition shaped his decisions. He abused his power; he abused the love entrusted to him.
John concludes his brief letter with a mutual greeting: the friends (philoi) greet Gaius and Gaius is to greet the friends (philoi). The one who loved to be first lost sight of the reality that love and friendship are a communal reality. It is not about preeminence but about shared love in the truth.
- Identify the positive descriptions of Gaius in this letter. What does this say about the character and life of Gaius?
- Who are the traveling “brothers”? What are they doing? Why is it important to support them?
- What problem does John have with Diotrephes? What motivates Diotrephes? What power/position does he have within the church?
- Is “abused love” a good, helpful or problematic, unhelpful characterization of the situation Diotrephes represents?
- Identify some analogous situations in the church or home where love is abused by selfish ambition. What is the root problem? How do the Epistles of John address this problem?