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Fight Valiantly! Asymmetrical Warfare

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Posted by Lee Gatiss, 2 Apr 2019

As we continue to think about contending against false teaching, Lee Gatiss concludes from 3 John that we should not fight fire with fire, even to counter leading names or strong personalities. Watch the video podcast of this episode on our YouTube channel.

The problem in John’s third epistle is in some ways the opposite of the problem in 2 John. Someone is denying hospitality or authority to the apostle John himself, seeking preeminence in the congregation for themselves. John says,

“I have written something to the church, but Diotrephes, who likes to put himself first, does not acknowledge our authority. So if I come, I will bring up what he is doing, talking wicked nonsense against us. 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. Beloved, do not imitate evil but imitate good. Whoever does good is from God; whoever does evil has not seen God” (3 John 9-11).

Diotrephes seems to have perverted apostolic teaching about the limits of fellowship by applying it wrongly to the apostle himself and his coworkers. Like those who loved the places of honour in Jesus’s day (cf. Mark 12:38-40), he wished to be preeminent himself. So in a power struggle with John, he excluded true brothers in Christ from fellowship in the church or hospitality as they were passing through on a mission “for the sake of the name” (verse 7) — the name of Jesus.

Diotrephes even excluded those who disagreed with this policy, and spread malicious gossip against John. As David Jackman says, “It is characteristic of those whose only concern is for their own personal power to denigrate their opponents by any means possible.” Diotrephes may not have taught unorthodox doctrine, although he may possibly have been trying to keep John out in order to let false teachers in. More likely, he was just another petty tyrant, bullying others to satisfy his longing for power, control, and status. If he wanted to make a name for himself (cf. Genesis 11:4), he succeeded: his name is immortalised in the Bible, though probably not in the way he had hoped.

After exposing this man, John immediately says, “Beloved, do not imitate evil but imitate good” (3 John 11). We must fight asymmetrically. That is, don’t imitate the tactics of Diotrephes in an attempt to counter Diotrephes. People like him often seem to be unassailable, perhaps because they are so adept at using the weapons of the world. Yet John says we should not play them at their own game.

God chooses whose name will be made great (cf. Genesis 12:2), and he frowns upon bullies and liars who throw their weight around for the sake of self-aggrandizement. On the other hand, Demetrius, mentioned in verse 12, receives a good testimony from everyone, including John, and even Jesus himself. It seems John is commending him as a good example to follow, in distinction from Diotrephes. Imitate good not evil, as you contend against such “strong personalities.”

Questions for Reflection

1. Why are we susceptible to the tyranny of “big personalities” in the church?
2. Why is rejecting apostolic authority such a problem in a minister?
3. In what ways are we tempted to imitate the tactics of leading heretics, as we seek to promote the true gospel?

Catch up on the whole series here.

Lee Gatiss is Director of Church Society and the editor of Gospel Flourishing in a Time of Confusion, the latest book from Church Society.

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