no fear
decisions, decisions

good guys and bad guys

When we’re kids, we tend to see life in absolute terms.  There are the good guys and the bad guys.  People are either pure good or pure evil.  It’s two dimensional and quite cartoonish.  As we get older, we realize people don’t simply wear white hats or black hats.  We see that the hats we wear are shaded in gradations of gray.

1 3 jnTo be sure, some are lighter shades, and some are darker shades.  And it seems like some folks change hats, depending on which way the wind blows.  But life becomes much more three dimensional than it was when we were young.  (And if you’re in tune with physics, it can have up to eleven dimensions!)

In the Third Letter of John, the author calls himself “the elder.”  The word in Greek is πρεσβυτερος (presbuteros), where we get our words “presbyter” and “Presbyterian.”  This is no doubt someone other than St. John the Apostle.  But for simplicity’s sake, I’ll just call him “John.”  (Although, it would be just as fitting to call him “the presbyter.”)

He praises Gaius and Demetrius, but he castigates a fellow named Diotrephes.  In verse 11, in a back-handed sort of way, he suggests he is “evil.”  If we were to read 3 John in a quick and superficial manner, we might think we’re getting one of those two dimensional renditions of human behavior.

Certainly, there’s a lot more to it than that.  We shouldn’t think the conflict pictured here is just a question of clashing personalities.  Even though 3 John only has fifteen verses, there’s plenty going on below the surface.  There are issues of love, hospitality, and power.

What prompted the writing of this letter are a couple of things.  First is a desire to thank Gaius for his hospitality.  Some missionaries have come to John and told him how well Gaius treated them.  That really made his day!  “I was overjoyed when some of the friends arrived and testified to your faithfulness to the truth,” John says, “namely how you walk in the truth.”  And if he hasn’t made his point, he follows with, “I have no greater joy than this, to hear that my children are walking in the truth” (vv. 3-4).

Unfortunately, there’s something else that has compelled John to write the letter.  He feels the need to issue Gaius a warning.  As I just said, he alerts him about Diotrephes.  John’s relationship with Diotrephes has become…let’s call it “problematic.”  Gaius needs to keep his eye on him.

He says, “I have written something to the church; but Diotrephes, who likes to put himself first, does not acknowledge our authority” (v. 9).

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Last week I asked, “Has anyone here ever been bullied?”  I mentioned a certain fellow in high school who, for some reason that escapes me, decided I would be a good person to harass.  He never openly challenged me to a fight, but I knew he would welcome any aggressive response on my part.  It would be a case of “make my day”!

It seems that Diotrephes might fit the profile of a bully.

John calls him out.  “So if I come, I will call attention to what he is doing in spreading false charges against us.”  Another version says, “nonsensical and spiteful charges.”[1]  Diotrephes spouts nonsense, but he’s not happy with that: “he refuses to welcome the friends, and even prevents those who want to do so and expels them from the church” (v. 10).

This guy is a pain in John’s rear end!

All of this needs to be seen in context.  We have a glimpse of the early church as it’s moving out of the apostolic era.  This is at the end of the 1st century—maybe early 2nd century.  Churches are becoming more structured.  Offices like “presbyter” and “bishop” are emerging.  Some believe Diotrephes is a bishop.  And, not surprisingly, as things get more structured, there are more opportunities for power plays.

It’s very likely the conflict pictured here isn’t an isolated event.  It seems almost inevitable that when a movement enters into second and third generations, its nature begins to change.  Questions of authority arise.  Who has the right to do what?  Questions of identity arise.  Who are we?  Who are we not?

In verse 9, John gets to the business of naming names.  He does not say, “There’s a certain person I’m thinking of.”  No, it’s “Diotrephes, that low down dirty dog!”

This is where it might be helpful to hear Diotrephes’ side of the story.  It may or may not be convincing, but at least his voice would be heard.  And there are those who say he’s not completely out of line.

In any event, this speaks to a problem with our own culture.  We have a tough time in listening.  We’re slow to listen and quick to speak.  We’re slow to listen and quick to judge; we’re quick to put labels on people.  It’s difficult for us to pray because we don’t want to listen.  We drown our spirits with noise: with mindless chatter, with the television, with the phone, with the computer, with all kinds of gadgets.

3 3 jnNow, going back to hearing the other side of the story, I want to take Diotrephes out of his context.  I want to use him as a model—a model of someone who doesn’t listen.  He doesn’t listen because he’s too busy pushing his own agenda.  He’s the one “who likes to put himself first.”  He spreads “false charges,” and prevents others from welcoming those he doesn’t like.  He’s the bad guy!

Within all of us lurks the spirit of “Diotrephes.”  It’s the part of us that wants to “imitate what is evil” and refuse to “imitate what is good” (v. 11).  It’s the part of us that hesitates “to support [our brothers and sisters], so that we may become co-workers with the truth” (v. 8).

How do we support each other?  Obviously, there are lots of ways: with words of loving encouragement—and with words of loving correction.  We support each other with open hearts…and with open wallets, to the extent we can.  We don’t give to the church simply to pay salaries and pay the bills.  We give because we love God.  And here’s a crazy thought.  We give in order to support ministry and mission beyond these walls.

The spirit of “Diotrephes” is portrayed as willful and pushy.  The spirit of “Gaius” is portrayed as open and unpretentious.

Henri Nouwen told a story highlighting the difference in these two approaches.[2]  A friend of his had recently died, and someone sent to him a tape of the service.  At the funeral, one of the readings was the following story about a little river.

“The little river said, ‘I can become a big river.’  It worked hard, but there was a big rock.  The river said, ‘I’m going to get around this rock.’  The little river pushed and pushed, and since it had a lot of strength, it got itself around the rock.

“Soon the river faced a big wall, and the river kept pushing this wall.  Eventually, the river made a canyon and carved a way through.  The growing river said, ‘I can do it.  I can push it.  I am not going to let down for anything.’

“Then there was an enormous forest.  The river said, ‘I’ll go ahead anyway and just force these trees down.’  And the river did.

“The river, now powerful, stood on the edge of an enormous desert with the sun beating down.  The river said, ‘I’m going to go through this desert.’  But the hot sand soon began to soak up the whole river.  The river said, ‘Oh, no.  I’m going to do it.  I’m going to get myself through this desert.’  But the river soon had drained into the sand until it was only a small mud pool.

“Then the river heard a voice from above: ‘Just surrender.  Let me lift you up.  Let me take over.’  The river said, ‘Here I am.’  The sun then lifted up the river and made the river into a huge cloud.  He carried the river right over the desert and let the cloud rain down and make the fields far away fruitful and rich.

4 3 jn

“There is a moment in our life when we stand before the desert and want to do it ourselves.  But there is the voice that comes, ‘Let go.  Surrender.  I will make you fruitful.  Yes, trust me.  Give yourself to me.’

“What counts in your life and mine are not successes but fruits.  The fruits of your life you might not see yourself.  The fruits of your life are born often in your pain and in your vulnerability and in your losses.  The fruits of your life come only after the plow has carved through your land.  God wants you to be fruitful.

“The question is not, ‘How much can I still do in the years that are left to me?’  The question is, ‘How can I prepare myself for total surrender, so my life can be fruitful?’”

Those are questions and words of wisdom that came to Nouwen as he mulled over this story.

We can see John as portraying Diotrephes as the river when it wasn’t ready to listen and Gaius as the river when it’s receptive and wants to work with, rather than to work against.

As I prepare to conclude, I want to include one last quote.  This is from Madeleine L’Engle in her book, The Irrational Season.[3]  She speaks of how she betrays her Lord in her “strange love affair.”  She says, “Not only do I listen to wiles of the dragon, I become the dragon, and then I remember [Rainer Maria] Rilke’s words:[4]

“‘How should we be able to forget those ancient myths [that are at the beginning of all peoples, the myths] about dragons that at the last [moment] turn into princesses…who are only waiting to see us once beautiful and brave.  Perhaps everything terrible is in its deepest being something helpless that wants help from us.’

“I know that when I am most monstrous, I am most in need of love.  When my temper flares out of bounds it is usually set off by something unimportant which is on top of a series of events over which I have no control, which have made me helpless, and thus caused me anguish and frustration.  I am not lovable when I am enraged, although it is when I most need love.”

5 3 jnIn Banu’s and my article for the May newsletter, we include these words: “Deal gently with each other.  Be forgiving—we all have heavy loads.”  That, more than any clever ideas any of us can concoct, shows the Spirit of the Lord in our midst.

Just like Madeleine, when our temper gets the best of us, we are, more than any other time, demonstrating our need for love.  Although at such times, we are far from easy to deal with!

I once did a devotional in which I mentioned Hazel Bryan, the young white woman who in 1957, shouted insults at Elizabeth Eckford, the young black woman walking toward the Little Rock high school which was being desegregated.  The two are pictured in one of the iconic photos of that era.  I asked the question, “What if the photo of that outburst is all she’s remembered for?”  Would that sum up her entire life?

(As it turns out, years later the two met and had a sense of reconciliation, although they didn’t exactly become best friends.)

The point is, as I mentioned earlier, we all have the spirit of Gaius and the spirit of Diotrephes within us.  And Jesus Christ welcomes all of us, that is, everything within us.  We present our willfulness and pushiness to Christ, the one who welcomes those good guys and bad guys.

For those in our lives we deem as “good guys and bad guys,” as people of the new creation, we are called to “be kind to one another, tenderhearted, forgiving one another, as God in Christ has forgiven you” (Ep 4:32).

6 3 jn

[1] Revised English Bible


[3] Madeleine L’Engle, The Irrational Season (New York: HarperOne, 1977), 153.

[4] Rainer Maria Rilke, trans. M. D. Herter Norton, Letters to a Young Poet (New York: W. W. Norton), 69.


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