I’m grateful for God’s emphasis on both sound doctrine and sound living for Christian leaders. That’s why Paul commanded Timothy to watch his life and doctrine closely (1 Timothy 4:16)—a Christian leader needs to live a holy life to back up the message of God’s holy Word.
Unfortunately, many leaders have sound doctrine on paper, but fail to live it out—to the peril of their church and their church’s gospel witness. In the oft-neglected letter of 3 John, we hear about Diotrephes, a leader causing great harm for the church he serves. John writes to Gaius in 3 John 9–10:
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.
From John’s description of Diotrephes, we see at least five marks of a spiritually abusive leader.
1. A spiritually abusive leader displays selfish ambition.
Diotrephes “likes to put himself first.” May that never be said of us! Selfish leaders who crave attention and adulation are fleshly leaders, for our calling isn’t to exalt ourselves, but Jesus Christ as Lord and we as His servants (2 Corinthians 4:5). We are to “do nothing from selfish ambition or conceit, but in humility count others more significant than ourselves” (Philippians 2:4). When we push ourselves to the front of the line, we cut in front of Jesus and rob Him of His glory. Godly leaders are humble servants who humbly shepherd the flock, knowing God will hold them accountable and reward them (1 Peter 5:1–4).
2. A spiritually abusive leader does not respect authority.
Diotrephes did not acknowledge the apostolic authority of John or other leaders in the church. Rejecting the authority of God’s apostles is tantamount to rejecting God’s authority and trying to exert our own. These days many reject the apostolic authority by rejecting Scripture. Others reject God-given leaders of the church due to pride and selfishness. If you or anyone you know brushes off clear commands of Scripture for church life, the qualities of leadership found in 1 Timothy 3 or Titus 1, or directly undermines the words of another leader without Scriptural warrant, beware. You may have a Diotrephes on your hands.
3. A spiritually abusive leader spews unjust accusations.
Talking wicked nonsense is a serious charge as it reveals the lies and malicious intent of Diotrephes’ actions. Spouting unjust accusations can work like poison in the life of a congregation, turning friends against each other and causing them to choose sides and attack each other. Instead of letting harmful words do such damage, Jesus gave clear instructions in Matthew 18:15–20 of what to do if we have a problem with our brother or sister in church. This is especially crucial for leaders who serve as examples to the flock.
4. A spiritually abusive leader lacks hospitality for those who differ.
We don’t know why Diotrephes refused to welcome the traveling itinerant missionaries, but the letter makes it clear that he should have welcomed them. His selfish ambition and desire for power kept him from practicing Christian hospitality to his fellow laborers in Christ. There is clearly an issue between Diotrephes and John and the itinerant brothers. Instead of working to resolve conflict, Diotrephes digs his heels in and lets his “enemies” know the battle is on.
The “one anothers” in Scripture aren’t void if we have a disagreement (assuming it’s not a major theological difference), they exist to help us remember our identity as the one body of Christ by exhorting us to serve one another. If there are people you don’t welcome in your church, don’t play into the devil’s hands, but rather make every effort to reconcile and welcome them as Christ has welcomed you (Romans 15:7).
5. A spiritually abusive leader creates division.
Diotrephes not only refused to welcome the brothers, he makes sure others didn’t either. He also excommunicated those who disagree with him! This “my way or the highway mentality” may work in the business world, but it has no place in the leadership of a church. A church and her leaders are to work hard to “maintain the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace” (Ephesians 4:3).
A Better Example
In writing 3 John, John wants Gaius to understand God’s desire for leaders which is to model the truth and grace of the gospel in every action. The negative example of Diotrephes flies in the face of this. There is no room for selfish ambition, stirring division, and power grabs in the church. Following his description of Diotrephes, John points to a positive example:
Beloved, do not imitate evil but imitate good. Whoever does good is from God; whoever does evil has not seen God. Demetrius has received a good testimony from everyone, and from the truth itself. We also add our testimony, and you know that our testimony is true. (11–12)
When abusive leaders like Diotrephes discourage you, don’t think there aren’t any good examples. There are also many Demetriuses out there, each characterized by humility, godly discernment, and love. Follow them as they follow Christ.