The DNA of a Diotrephes, Part 1

Growing up, I never knew my biological father and was totally clueless about my paternal bloodline. Scientists can match with 99 percent accuracy a person’s DNA with others with the same genetic ancestry. So, for roughly $90, I mailed my saliva to a DNA testing place. I learned I am 40 percent British and 33 percent Irish, with the rest being mostly eastern European. It was amazing to find out who I really am, at least from a physical and historical standpoint.

The Christian’s Spiritual DNA

Christian believers have a unique and powerful identity: we are adopted (Gal. 4), justified (Rom. 4; 5; Gal. 2), forgiven (Rom. 8), righteous (2 Cor. 5; Rom. 5), and secure (Rom. 8; John 10).

The list can go on and on. But we also read about the spiritual DNA of those outside of Christ: they are dead in sin (Eph. 2), spiritually blind (1 Cor. 2; 2 Cor. 4), separated from God (Isa. 59), and unable to be fruitful (John 15).

It is important to be aware of this DNA, because both groups of people will manifest who they are. Saved people who are growing will produce godly fruit. Those disconnected from God’s grace will produce spiritually rotten fruit.

Diotrephes

It would have been nice if 3 John could have ended at verse 8. But there was someone John needed to address, Diotrephes. John indicts Diotrephes’s character with these pointed words, “who likes to put himself first” (3 John 9). This word “first” is only found in one other place in the New Testament. In Colossians 1:18 Paul shares his desire for Christ to have “preeminence” or “first place” in all things. John uses this same word to describe the position of importance Diotrephes desired—to be first or preeminent. His desire resulted in disruptive consequences for this church:

  • Diotrephes refused to acknowledge the leadership of John and other authorities in the church, revealing an obvious lack of humility.
  • He refused to be welcoming to traveling Christians, revealing a lack of hospitality.
  • He tried to create daylight between John and the other believers in the church, revealing a divisive spirit.

The text doesn’t tell us if Diotrephes was a truly regenerate believer, but it does reveal that he wasn’t in a good place spiritually. The text also does not identify the conflict that Diotrephes had with John. But it implies that John was correct, while Diotrephes was out of place. We see here a few of the consequences of someone who always has to be first.

The big takeaway from 3 John 9–11 is that those who love to be first cause serious damage to Christ’s church. This is the economy, or administration, of a heart disconnected from the grace of God. Jesus’ economy, on the other hand, is that the first will be last and the last will be first. If we want to be great, we’ll be great servants of God and of others (Mark 10:31, 45).

Here’s the real difference between Gaius, whom John wrote glowingly about (3 John 1–8), and Diotrephes, whom John warned people to stay away from: Gaius loved, served, and put others before himself. In turn, people were blessed and encouraged. But Diotrephes loved to be first, resulting in harm to individuals and the church.

The DNA of a Diotrephes

One of the main characteristics of DNA is that it makes copies of itself. What we read about Diotrephes in 3 John might make us wonder if he replicated himself in people today. Even in churches today. You might have just read about Diotrephes and wondered if he’s going by a pseudonym in your church!

Those who always have to be first will have a hard time serving and loving others. Why? For starters, they’re more interested in serving and loving themselves. But be hopeful. The gospel has the power to change individuals infected with a divisive spirit.

Below is a list of the characteristics of Diotrephes’s DNA. If you see any characteristics that reflect your own heart, remember that the gospel is powerful enough to change any pattern of destructive behavior.

1. Those with the DNA of Diotrephes always want to be the center of attention.

Always wanting to be first or preeminent means an individual will go to great lengths to ensure people notice him. This could entail being loud and obnoxious. It could mean wanting to spread juicy gossip. It means not serving and loving others, because a person can’t be preeminent and put others first at the same time. It’s difficult to love and serve others when we’re climbing over them. Having to be first means wanting to control or dominate a situation and stopping at nothing to be the center of all things. Someone with the DNA of Diotrephes isn’t content with being unnoticed or not getting the credit he thinks he deserves.

It’s interesting that in a few places in the New Testament, godliness isn’t associated just with being holy or doing good works, but also with being quiet and not being a busybody. Notice how Paul intertwines brotherly love with minding our own business and leading a quiet life:

About brotherly love: you don’t need me to write you because you yourselves are taught by God to love one another. In fact, you are doing this toward all the brothers and sisters in the entire region of Macedonia. But we encourage you, brothers and sisters, to do this even more, to seek to lead a quiet life, to mind your own business, and to work with your own hands, as we commanded you, so that you may behave properly in the presence of outsiders and not be dependent on anyone. (1 Thess. 4:9–12, CSB)

Christlike maturity is often demonstrated by contentment with quietly promoting others and not always having to be in the limelight.

2. People with the DNA of Diotrephes must always be right.

Experience has taught me that this kind of people want the whole world to know how right they are. They are under a lot of pressure, so they may back themselves into a corner. When it comes to proving a point, they may offend, raise their voices, or even become angry. They may even resort to having what I will politely call “a tenuous relationship with the truth.” Even when they might be right on the merits, they may use demeaning words, attacking a person instead of a problem. But always having to be first comes at a high relational cost.

3. Those with the DNA of Diotrephes center their conversations on themselves.

Every sentence seems to be filled with I, me, my, and mine. That’s the working vocabulary of someone who “likes to put himself first.” No matter the subject, such people will find a way to make it about themselves: their accomplishments, their hobbies, their interests, their family, their marriage, their ministry, their profession—not that referring to those things is wrong in a give-and-take conversation. But it is wrong not to prioritize others or to not consider them more important than ourselves.

4. Those with the DNA of Diotrephes are self-absorbed on social media.

This is the thing about someone who loves to have first place: that love doesn’t isolate itself to just one sphere of life. It spills over into relationships, work, finances, and even our keyboards. I wonder how Diotrephes would have used social media. Would he have built others up? Would he have exalted himself or tried to paint an unrealistic picture of himself?

I fully realize that social media is the language of today. And I’m not saying that it’s never appropriate to post a pic of ourselves, our families, or our activities. But it would be wise for us to take a step back and humbly consider what conclusion people might go away with after scrolling through our pages. We need to ask, Is this all about me? Or does this at least tacitly point to God’s glory and building others up?

Reposted with permission from Baptist Bulletin © Regular Baptist Press, all rights reserved.


Mike Hess serves as national representative of the General Association of Regular Baptist Churches. This article is an edited excerpt from his book No Contest: Overcoming a Competitive Spirit, published by Regular Baptist Press.

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There is 1 Comment

Bert Perry's picture

....for the filings "The Crisis of Christian Celebrity", really. 

My take, without trying to distract from the thoughts Mike makes, is that the "Diotrephes" is regrettably common, and in 3rd John is really a man who wasn't interested in the ordinary processes of discipleship, either on the giving or the receiving end.  If indeed those who were being denied hospitality were itinerant teachers of the church, then Diotrephes was denying this ministry first to himself, and then to his flock, no?  And in the same way, we would infer that those itinerant teachers also might have benefited from the pastoral experience of men like DIotrephes.

And back to "The Crisis of Christian Celebrity", we often see that a first step towards moral failure is a refusal to interact with the flock.  The descent into sin is enabled by isolation from those who would provide accountability.

Aspiring to be a stick in the mud.

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