When we’re little kids, we tend to see life in absolute terms, at least I did. There are the good guys and the bad guys. People are either pure good or pure evil. It’s two dimensional and in my opinion, rather cartoonish. As we get older, we realize it’s not simply a question of black and white, but shades of gray.
To be sure, some are lighter shades, and some are darker shades. Life becomes much more three dimensional than it was when we were small. (And if you’re in tune with physics, it can have up to eleven dimensions!)
It seems like we fall back into a childish view in every election season. I love the way commercials are designed. (That is, love in a sad way!)
Here’s a template on how to make your opponent look like a jerk. First of all, portray them in black and white images, or maybe use muted colors. An ominous sound effect is a nice touch. Make sure they are speaking in slow motion. That really looks sinister. Equally effective is taking their words out of context, so it seems like they’re agreeing to something terrible.
Also helpful is a voiceover going along the lines of, “If So-and-So is elected, this is what you can expect.” In the background show a car engulfed in flames. Perhaps use a distraught family who can’t pay their medical bills.
If your commercial includes the candidate you’re promoting, change to bright, shining colors. Include happy and triumphant music, people smiling and hopeful.
I think that’s a sufficiently cartoonish way to produce a commercial. It is also depressingly cynical. Clearly, there will be policy differences, but if you could speak to the person alone—with no cameras, no listening, in complete confidence—I think you’d find no one honestly believes their opponent favors the horror show we’ve just seen.
Why begin with these stark portrayals? Hold that thought.
The author of the Third Letter of John calls himself “the elder.” The word in Greek is πρεσβυτερος (presbuteros), where we get our words “presbyter” and “Presbyterian.” This is very likely someone other than St. John the Apostle. But for simplicity’s sake, I’ll just call him “John.” (Although, we could also call him the “Presbyterian.”)
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.
[This fellow with the dreamy green eyes wants to know.]
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, he wants 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!
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 say, “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).
Here’s a question. “Has anyone here ever been bullied?” There was a certain fellow in high school who, for some reason that escaped me at the time, decided I would be a good person with whom to, let’s call it, display unfriendly behavior. He never challenged me to a fight, but I knew he would welcome any aggressive responses. It would be a case of “make my day”!
In retrospect, I understood he fit the profile of someone who was bullied at home, maybe by an older brother or a father.
It seems that Diotrephes might fit the profile of a bully.
Although, we’re told “bully” originally had a very different definition. “‘If you called someone a bully in the sixteenth century, you were crushing hard on them. The word bully was initially a term of endearment. Bully comes from Dutch boel “lover” and evolved to mean sweetheart. But it came to mean “blusterer” or “harasser of the weak” by the seventeenth century.’ So next time you get trolled, just tell your bully sweetheart that you love them too.”
In any event, 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.” 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).
“Are you going to do what I say and tell these people to hit the road? If not, you might find yourself hitting the road!”
We need to see this in context. This is at the end of the 1st century—maybe early 2nd century. The church is becoming more structured. Offices like “presbyter” and “bishop” are emerging. Some believe Diotrephes is a bishop.
It’s 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.
Now, 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,” to shove people out of the way. He spreads “false charges,” and keeps others from making friends with those he doesn’t like (vv. 9-10). He actually is 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 sisters and brothers who want to work with the truth (see 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 our 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. 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.
“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.’
Those are questions and words of wisdom that came to Nouwen as he mulled over this story.
We can see 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.
So 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).
 Revised English Bible
 Strecker, 262.