The Heresy of Diotrephes
Lord Acton wrote, “Power tends to corrupt and absolute power corrupts absolutely.” This man of wisdom knew something of the deceitful heart of man. He wrote these words when the Catholic Church was considering declaring the pope infallible. He knew that a man given power could be corrupted by that power and that the gift of absolute power would bring absolute corruption. Yet, learned men of the church mistakenly think they can wield this power without being corrupted. For many years, that misconception has wreaked havoc on the church. God has provided a way to prevent the soul of His spiritual leaders from succumbing to the corruption of power. It is time for His people to seek out that way of wisdom and live in its protection. I have written a book The Heresy of Diotrephes, providing an extensive scriptural analysis of this error.
John wrote the book of 3 John to expose this tendency of power to corrupt. It reveals a heresy that was creeping into the body of Christ during the ministry of the apostle John. Written toward the end of the first century, this letter from John to a Christian brother named Gaius, is evidence that this heresy was beginning to become a serious issue in some churches. In the book of Revelation in the letters to the seven churches, the word alludes to this developing problem. I call it the heresy of Diotrephes.
Before we identify this heresy we need to be sure we understand what the scriptures mean when they speak of a heresy. Many people think that the word heresy refers merely to a false teaching. According to this notion, those who teach these false doctrines are heretics.
A heresy is a teaching that produces division in the body of Christ
The Scriptures use the word differently. Paul uses the word in his first letter to the Corinthians: “…there must be factions among you in order that those who are genuine among you may be recognized” (1 Cor. 11:19). The word translated here as “factions” is the Greek word for heresies. A heresy is really a faction or a teaching that produces a faction or the breaking apart of the body of Christ. The people Paul was referring to were in the church in Corinth and they were causing factions or divisions in the body of Christ.
It is God’s will that the body of Christ express oneness in spirit and practical expression. Paul tells this same church, for example, to strive for unity: “I appeal to you, brothers, by the name of our Lord Jesus Christ, that all of you agree and that there be no divisions among you, but that you be united in the same mind and the same judgment” (1 Cor. 1:10). The church is destined by God to be one as an expression of the unity between God the Father and His Son, the Christ (John 17:21). God considers it a grievous error to break apart the body of Christ for selfish reasons.
Diotrephes commits an act that causes a faction in the body of Christ. He was, then, a heretic and his action, which caused this division, was a heresy. It is my belief that this heresy has been maintained down through the ages through the selfish activity of those who think more highly of their ministries than they do of the unity of the body of Christ. What was this heresy of Diotrephes that so grievously affected the body of Christ and aroused the spiritual anger of the beloved disciple? The third epistle of John holds the answer.
John was writing the letter to a friend named Gaius in a church he, no doubt, had founded. John was an apostle who ministered to the churches at large in much the same way as Paul. He traveled to the churches as the Spirit directed, and sent his apostolic helpers to churches to minister to them the word of God. Gaius was probably a leading brother in this church to which John refers in his letter.
John commends Gaius for his receptive attitude toward these helpers he had sent to the church: “Beloved, it is a faithful thing you do in all your efforts for these brothers, strangers as they are, who testified to your love before the church” (vv. 5,6). Gaius apparently had been hospitable to these brothers from John and had received them and the ministry they came to offer.
Diotrephes liked to put himself first
Diotrephes, on the other hand had a different attitude. Apparently, John had written something to the church but this man had not allowed his letter to be read in the church. John wrote to Gaius, “I have written something to the church, but Diotrephes, who likes to put himself first, does not acknowledge our authority” (v. 9). Diotrephes had taken a controlling position over the church and did not receive these brothers or John’s ministry. Apparently, he did not want anyone else having an influence over the church because he had taken control of the church and did not want interference.
John tells us that Diotrephes, “likes to put himself first” (v. 9). These words explain the motivation of this controlling leader of this church. With all due respect, he is like many pastors of modern churches who place themselves in the number one position and begin controlling every activity of the saints of the church. In the early days of the church, when John and the other apostles ministered, a plural group of men called elders or overseers led the church. Diotrephes had obviously usurped the authority of the elders and claimed it for himself. For most of the first century, this one-man control was unheard of and not tolerated in the churches. John wrote this letter late in the first century indicating a subtle change that was beginning to take place in the churches.
Diotrephes rejected apostolic ministry
In his move to take control of this church, this man had rejected the authority of the apostle John. John said, that Diotrephes “does not acknowledge our authority.” In rejecting the authority of John this man was also refusing to receive and recognize the brothers he had sent to minister to the church. John wrote, “…he refuses to welcome the brothers.” So, this manipulating leader had taken control of the church and was rejecting any influence of the apostle or his helpers on the church. In this way, he could maintain his place of preeminence in the church. To be number one in the eyes of the church he had to reject the ministry of all others with authority and influence.
The heresy of Diotrephes, which is still prevalent in the church, tends to reject the apostolic ministry for this reason. John said of him, “…he refuses to welcome the brothers, and also stops those who want to and puts them out of the church” (v. 10). “The brothers” represent John’s apostolic authority and the equipping ministries of apostle, prophet, evangelist, pastor and teacher. Some people refer to these ministries as the “five-fold,” and others use the term “ascension gifts.” I prefer to use the term “equipping ministries” because Paul says that the purpose of these gifts is “to equip the saints for the work of ministry” (Eph. 4:12).
The "equipping gifts" of Ephesians 4:11
These five ministries were gifts of Christ to the church following His ascension to the right hand of God. Paul says, “And he gave the apostles, the prophets, the evangelists, the pastors and teachers to equip the saints…” (Eph. 4:11). These gifts are not spiritual gifts in the sense of prophecy or miracles, but gifts of people with a special anointing for equipping the saints for their ministry in the body of Christ. They are Christ’s special emissaries for equipping His saints during the age of the church in which we live. It is important to understand that people who follow in the footsteps of Diotrephes will always quench the ministry of these gifts because those gifts are a challenge to those who would exercise political control over the body of Christ.
Diotrephes refused “to welcome the brothers” because he wanted control of the church for his own glory. He wanted a ministry and that required people who would submit to him and provide him a stage for his personal performance. The purpose of Christ in providing the equipping gifts was and is to equip the saints to fulfill their respective ministries so that the body of Christ may be built up spiritually and prosper in unity, faith, knowledge and spiritual power. Jesus declared, “I will build my church, and the gates of hell shall not prevail against it” (Matt. 16:18). Christ went to the cross for this purpose and for this purpose He rose from the grave and ascended to the right hand of God. He gave gifts to men and poured out His Holy Spirit for empowering His church for her commission in God.
Diotrephes wants to build his ministry, not the church of Jesus Christ
Where Jesus declares, “I will build My church,” Diotrephes declares, “I will build my ministry.” So this controlling person “who likes to put himself first” stopped those in the church who wanted to support the equipping ministries and “puts them out of the church” (v. 10). Anyone who comes against his plan to have his way was ostracized and eventually dismissed from the church. No one was going to stand in the way of him exercising control over the church and using it for his own purposes.
The result of this self-centered action is largely what we witness in much of Christianity today. In most churches one person functions in his ministry week after week, year after year, while the equipping gifts lie dormant in the church. Most people today do not even know what the equipping ministries look or sound like. They are in our midst because Christ gave them to the church. They are a permanent provision for the church during the church age and yet they are not allowed to do what God commissioned them to do because people like Diotrephes rule the church with an iron fist.
God has commissioned apostles, for example, to work between the churches to maintain fellowship and unity in the church at large. Because they are not recognized, strife and disunity exist in the body of Christ, which is divided into splinter groups ruled by the heresy of leaders corrupted with power. This is not the only reason for lack of unity in the church, but it is one of the primary causes of division.
God has assigned prophets, also, to the body of Christ for equipping the saints. They release the spirit of prophecy into a church so that it does not grow stagnant with yesterday’s truth but is constantly invigorated with the present word of God for His people. Because prophets are stifled or completely absent, the church recycles the same doctrinal truth repeatedly primarily through one man without a sense of newness. Paul warned us, “Do not quench the Spirit. Do not despise prophecies” (1 Thess. 5:19,20). We quench the Spirit of God by despising the gifts He has placed in our midst. We do this with all five of the equipping ministries and the church suffers because of our shortsightedness. These ministries are sacrificed on the altar of one man’s desire to have the ministry in the local church all to himself.
The church is not equipped because the "equippers" are rejected
Today’s church is attempting to equip the saints with one-fifth of the equipping ministries. The person called “the pastor” is usually a teacher or a pastor and may even be an evangelist, prophet, or apostle, but he is just one man who is trying to do the work of five ministries. This is why the church remains in a child-like state year after year without spiritual growth and without the subsequent unity, faith and power that come from maturity. We are like a hand with only a pinky trying to do the effective work of a whole hand. A hand needs all five fingers. A church needs all five equipping ministries. Christ gave them all to us, so why do we reject them?
The heresy of Diotrephes lives today
I believe the answer is Diotrephes. The heresy of Diotrephes lives. It allows a man to put people out of the church who disagree with him so he has a platform for his ministry. It allows one man to de-emphasize the five equipping gifts to the church so that no one challenges his preeminence in the church. He splinters the church with his selfish motives. Church after church is split over someone wanting control, someone wanting to have the first place, someone who wants a ministry at the expense of the Lord’s glory. The church is his stage and he will not be upstaged. Meanwhile, the church suffers, and the testimony of Christ is diminished. It is time for a change at the hand of God.
The churches of the Lord are local expressions of the body of Christ and thus are to be led by the plural leadership of elders (Acts 11:30; 13:1; 14:23; 15:2; 20:7-28; Phil. 1:1; 1 Tim. 3:1-7; Titus 1:5-9; 1 Peter 5:1-4). The plurality of leadership guards against the abuse of power that comes with one-man leadership. The elders are to lead the church primarily by example (1 Peter 5:3). As mature, spiritual believers, they demonstrate true discipleship by pursuing the Lord and walking by the Spirit. Through the manifestation of the fruit of the Spirit, they model the Christian life for all to see.
The elders do not use their position to gain prominence or to promote their own personal ministries, but are committed to leading believers in following the Lord. Because their purpose is to see the growth of the church, they facilitate the ministries of the five equipping gifts. They allow the apostles, prophets, evangelists, pastors and teachers to function openly in the body under their oversight so that the saints can be equipped for their own ministries and thus the body of Christ is built up (Eph. 4:11,12).
Most churches today avoid the equipping ministries because they demonstrate the Spirit of God and His power (1 Cor. 2:4). We reject apostles and prophets because of their obvious supernatural ability in the Spirit. We see evangelists as mere traveling preachers, and pastors and teachers are generally one person with a seminary degree and a penchant for speaking. We relegate the entire equipping ministry of the church to the work of one person whose primary activity is teaching once a week or so. It is no wonder the church is not being built up.
For more information see the book The Heresy of Diotrephes.