There’s a well-known story about an ardent admirer who once asked Leonard Bernstein, celebrated conductor, what was the hardest chair to fill. He replied without hesitation: “Second fiddle. I can always get plenty of first violinists, but to find one who plays second violin with as much enthusiasm, or second French horn or second flute, now that’s a problem. And yet if no one plays second, we have no harmony.” In the orchestra of life, “second fiddle” is also a difficult role to play, particularly in Christian leadership.
The Epistle known as Third John is the shortest in the New Testament and a vivid portrait of early church life and missionary work. While it is a widely held opinion that the Second Epistle of John was written to a community, there’s little doubt that this Third one from “The Elder” is addressed to an individual, Gaius, whom John called “The beloved” four times in this little letter.
Three persons are clearly sketched here – Demetrius, the loyal, kindly messenger; Diotrophes whose name means, “nourished by Zeus,” was a domineering local official and Gaius, the dependable layperson. He was obviously a man of supreme integrity evidenced in the fact that the “brethren testified of [his] truth” especially that he was “walking in truth,” (verses 3 & 4). To “walk in the truth” is another way of saying that Gaius followed in the footsteps of the Lord. He acted “faithfully,” caring for the believers and extending hospitality to strangers (verse 5). His deeds were also underscored by unconditional love expressed in every facet of his life so powerfully that he not earned the admiration of others who spoke of it continuously “before the Church” (verse 6). Anyone who has been a parent, teacher, guide, coach or mentor can resonate with the Elder’s expression of joy in one who advances his or her legacy with outstanding characteristics every believer should emulate.
On the other hand, we find one of the minor characters in the New Testament, Diotrophes (whose name is mentioned only once, here) who never succeeded in playing second fiddle. He loved preeminence or “to be first” (verse 9). Perhaps a popular, influential layperson in the early church, this ambitious man represents a type of all vain, self-asserting, pompous church leaders who struggle for power. Their main objective is to get their own way by abusing authority and controlling others. These attributes not only exposed his imperfections, they are also the kind from which everyone who wants to be recognized as a “saint” should flee, as Joseph from the seductive attempts of Potiphar’s wife (Genesis 39:7-8). Here are some areas of power struggle in that ancient sympathizer of the “Jewish faction” that continues to plague our modern, sophisticated communities of faith.
Diotrophes was beset by a desire for dominance – The passion for pre-eminence is such a constant feature in human nature that it is frequently mentioned and illustrated in the Bible (Isaiah 14:13-14). It first appeared in the courts of heaven and reared its pernicious head in the lives of those who walked closely with Jesus. Although they were companions of the One who made Himself of no reputation (Phil. 2:5-8), the disciples often argued about who was the greatest among them (Mark 9:35-37 & 10:35-44). This spirit and attitude has never left the Christian Church. In every age and century there have been those who profane the name of Christ, mar the beauty of holiness, and disturb the peace of their community with their struggle for power and desire for dominance.
He resented the authority of John – Resentment is always a close companion in the struggle for power. It uses experience, age, wealth, social standing and elected church office, among many other perverted influences, to claim the right to dictate policy and dominate activity. It always gives rise to criticism of those in authority and resentment of their decisions and actions. Those who operate like that ancient “church-boss” often hide behind a Christian façade. They misuse the name of God, proof text His Word to inflict misery on members who are compelled to endure them and pollute the atmosphere of peace with their aggressive, legalistic assertions.
A Christian author once told of how he wrote an article on Diotrophes for his denomination’s magazine. The editor told him that 25 deacons on the editorial Board stopped its publication because they resented being personally attacked in the article that was written with no thought of them in mind. The resentful spirit of Diotrophes lives on. The fact is that anyone who adopts this demeanor may be successful and even win the allegiance of admirers, but it is always short-lived because God hates ugly and will always expose doers of darkness by shining His marvelous light of grace on them.
He refused to receive the messengers of John – As a leader, perhaps only in the eyes of those he controlled in the congregation, Diotrophes imagined himself to be more than he really was by opposing and expelling John’s emissaries. The lust for power that afflicts those who teeter on the ledge of godliness, like Diotrophes, produces fruits of bitterness and resentment instead of the gifts of the Spirit (1 Cor. 12:7-31). As a result, when others with authority pass them by, they fall into a natural progression, a spiraling downward into defiance and rejection of the true spokespersons for God.
He aligned himself with the Judaizers – Although he may have sympathized with some of the Gnostic doctrines that were popular in his day, Diotrophes, a Jew, aligned himself with the Judaizers. An extreme group among Hebrew Christians, these Jews demanded the full observance of all Jewish laws, especially the rite of circumcision, a painful surgery for adult males (Genesis 34:22-25). They believed that if a Gentile desired to become a Christian, he or she must first become a proselyte Jew. In addition to their rigid adherence to the laws of Moses, Judaizers also loved wearing rich temple vestments with an air of arrogance; they expected to intimidate opponents and influence those whom they wished to accept their word as the final truth. They were a thorn in the flesh of the Apostle Paul and this one, at least, was most disrespectful to John. In concert with the Judaizers, even as he claimed to follow Christ as His agent of grace, Diotrophes brought the Church to the brink of anarchy by his persistent criticism and unrestrained, public opposition of the beloved Apostle.
Practical Lessons for twenty-first-century Judaizers and their victims – Jesus said that the greatest among us must be servant of all (Mark 9:35). Those who will not serve cannot fully experience the freedom of salvation bought with His blood. The hope of our Church and the beauty if its diversity, is not just in its nations, tongues and people, but particularly in its respect, if not acceptance, of another’s point of view. The evil spirit of domination or struggle for power will only be eliminated from among the people of God when we love one another as Christ loves us (John 15:12), without selfish concern (Phil. 2:3-7), and look at life through His eyes.
This is a companion discussion topic for the original entry at http://spectrummagazine.org/node/1859