The First Church Bully-Diotrephes

There is a lot about bullying in the headlines these days! Bullying on school buses. Bullying on the internet. Bullying in the work place. But bullying in church? It is as old as the New Testament. The Apostle John wrote in his third letter about a man named Diotrephes.

“I wrote to the church, but Diotrephes, who loves to be first, will have nothing to do with us. So if I come, I will call attention to what he is doing, gossiping maliciously about us. Not satisfied with that, he refuses to welcome the brothers. He also stops those who want to do so and puts them out of the church.” (3 John 1:9-10)

We learn four things about Diotrephes:

  1. “He loves to be first” – His life is filled with pride and an unhealthy craving of power.
  2. “…will have nothing to do with us.” – He refuses and discounts outside help or spiritual authority.
  3. “..gossiping maliciously about us” – He not only refuses but also verbally attacks other spiritual leaders.
  4. “He refuses to welcome the brothers” – He is unwilling to acknowledge and is abusive to other workers in the gospel, even those desiring to help them in their mission.

“The Bible warns us here about those people who are power-hungry in the church. Arrogance is where it all starts. It starts with arrogance. Arrogance produces ambition, ambition produces accusations. And accusation leads to annihilation. You start out driven by pride, your pride produces the desire to be preeminent. Preeminent then leads you to falsely accuse everybody else so you can clear the field of all other claimants. And then eventually you have to annihilate them and put them out if they don’t roll over. So sad when this happens in a church and many churches aren’t willing to deal with it, they aren’t willing to face it. They aren’t willing to overturn such a man because many of them have been deceived, others in the name of love and church unity allows this to be perpetuated.” (MacAuthur)

Mark Driscoll wrote, “The sin of Diotrephes is, I don’t want to be on the team, I’ve got to be the face of the team. I don’t want to just humbly serve, I want my name to be famous. I want them to talk about me, not Jesus.”

How does the Apostle John deal with a bully?

  1. Courageously – “I will call attention to what he is doing.” Someone needs to stand up to a bully. John was willing to be that man. When one man stands up others usually follow (cf. Titus 3:10-11).
  2. Calling others to a higher standard – “do not imitate what is evil but what is good” (3 John 1:11). You never get anywhere using the same tactics of an evil man. Using those same tactics says, “I don’t trust God enough to handle this crisis!

Eddie Hammett of the Columbia Partnership offers excellent advice on how to deal with the Diotrephes in your life:

  • Be prayerful and intentional as the situation, personalities involved are discerned while following principles in Matthew 18.
  • Invite a neutral outsider to help with the process so decision-making is clear and the bully does not feel an insider has their agenda.
  • The issue has to be dealt with by the trusted lay leadership who have earned the right to talk and be heard and are willing to step up to the challenge of leadership.
  • The clergy are the target and need to enlist and empower the lay leadership to determine next steps and carry out the desires of the congregation.
  • Go to the bully and face them with perceptions, realities and giving focused opportunity for lay leaders, pastors and staff, if appropriate, to respond to issues asking, “What do you need from me that you are not getting now?” Following this, negotiate with lay leadership and congregation if their demands are in line with the congregation’s mission.
  • Inviting trusted friends and colleagues of the disgruntled bully to become an advocate for furthering conversation, being careful not to get triangulated in the relationship.
  • Scripturally, there is some support, that if these ideas do not work, then you take it to the congregation. This can be done in some church governance, but depending on a possible pathology of the bully it could become detrimental and destroy, or certainly scar deeply, those involved and the reputation of the congregation in the community at large.
    When you allow a bully to hijack the church you are allowing them to move the church out of God’s redemptive mission and onto their personal agenda. When you allow a bully to control the church you are robbing it of the blessing of receiving good outside assistance. What if a church bully existed in the Antioch church when Barnabas came to visit in Acts 11:19-30? They would have missed the opportunity to become home-base for reaching Asia Minor and Southern Europe. Standing up to bullies courageously is essential in keeping churches healthy and engaged in the mission.

Bullying in the church is a tough subject because is touches us all. A.T. Robertson wrote, “Some forty years ago I wrote an article on Diotrephes for a denominational paper. The editor told me that twenty-five deacons stopped the paper to show their resentment against being personally attacked.”

Reflective Questions:

  • Am I the bully in my church? (Matthew 7:3)
  • Can my leadership style drift into bullying?
  • Is there someone in my church I need to stand up to?
  • Is our church being hijacked by a personal agenda?
  • Could I even bring this subject up in my church

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