I was saved in May, 1971, in a Church of God service at the age of 18. Although I attended other Sunday schools growing up and had no Church of God background, I was saved to the Church of God and it is all I have known in my Christian life. I believe in her message. I see her as the bride of Christ. As the songwriter says,
“O Church of God, I love they courts,
Thou Mother of the free.
Thou blessed home of all the saved,
I dwell content in thee.”
That having been said, I’ve been troubled, at times, about the animosity that exists between various organizations who call themselves Church of God. It’s obvious there’s more to being Church of God than the name. Some have a name that they live and are dead. (Revelation 3:1) Furthermore, there are plenty who use the name who are charismatic tongues people, and other independents who have no conception of the reformation movement of 120 years ago…and have a sectarian spirit. That there’s no fellowship with these, is no struggle, rather it’s scriptural. (Ephesians 5:11) But, I’m convinced that there are many children of God who have been forbidden fellowship with other children of God, because of something which I term, the Diotrephes Syndrome.
For years, I’ve felt that the modern Church of God suffered with a unique set of problems…stemming from “power struggles.’ There have been divisions and splits over a myriad of issues, some justified…by a departing from the faith, but many unjustified…using insignificant differences as excuses. More times than not, these have resulted, because someone or ones have wanted the preeminence. When these breaks have occurred, someone has divided God’s flock; for it’s not the sheep, who have separated themselves from each other, but rather the pastors. Jeremiah 23:2, “Therefore thus saith the LORD God of Israel against the pastors that feed my people; Ye have scattered my flock, and driven them away, and have not visited them: behold, I will visit upon you the evil of your doing, saith the LORD.” Many times, 99% of the doctrine is identical, the standards are very similar, and most importantly, the saints who were scattered were each genuinely “saved and sanctified.” But, because of the Diotrephes Syndrome, the progress of God’s church is hindered to this day.
I consider it somewhat interesting that John the apostle, faced the same type of problem in his day. Interesting, because, this “disease,” is not unique to our generation. Neither is it incurable. As I reflect on it now, this syndrome has manifested itself across generational lines, and through all human relationships. I’m sure the Church of God is not alone in its suffering because of the self-exaltation and pride of a few. But, the shame is in the fact that of all places and of all relationships where one could expect to see the absence of such manifestation, it should be where people are saved, sanctified, and consecrated to do God’s will. Having unity, oneness, humility…in honor, preferring one another ---as the songwriter said, “No power of earth or hell, withal, can rend us from each other.” Really?
So what is this Diotrephes Syndrome? Let’s see, in the third epistle of John. The apostle John said his joy was in the fact that his “children walk in truth.” (verse 4) So he was no compromiser. We point out here that often when someone speaks out concerning the lack of working together, he’s accused of advocating “compromise.” Well, this was the great “apostle of love” speaking out on an important matter. He commended the saints, for their charity towards brethren and strangers. These strangers, could be referring to Gentiles, nonetheless, he spoke of receiving such as fellow laborers in the Lord. I don’t believe he spoke of giving these strangers the “third degree.” We must know those who labor among us, but biblically, the basis for fellowship is having the same Spirit of God. Romans 8:16 says, “The Spirit itself beareth witness with our spirit, that we are the children of God. “ Following that…we must walk in the light. 1 John 1:7, “But if we walk in the light, as he is in the light, we have fellowship one with another, and the blood of Jesus Christ his Son cleanseth us from all sin.” Nowhere in the Scriptures, does it say, that in order to have fellowship, we must see 100% eye to eye on every given point of consideration. In fact, Ephesians 4 tells us in verse 3, “Endeavoring to keep the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace.” Then down in verse 13, “Till we all come in the unity of the faith, and of the knowledge of the Son of God, unto a perfect man, unto the measure of the stature of the fullness of Christ.” To ever arrive at the unity of the faith (doctrine), we must first build on the unity of the Spirit! That takes some “endeavoring.” It’s easier for some to break apart and build their own little fiefdom, than to put forth that great effort to work through difficulties and disagreements to keep the unity of the Spirit.
Let’s use the marriage relationship, as an example: For the marriage to work, there must be a commitment to one another. In practical terms, as wonderful as that woman is, she cannot be 100% exactly what the man would desire in every single circumstance. Neither is that man, the wife adores, going to always say the right thing or do the right thing in every circumstance. To expect such, is not reality. But, in a proper marriage, a commitment exists which overcomes disagreements, bears with each others shortcomings, and allows the love they have for each other to prevail. The longer they live together, the more they learn what each partner likes and dislikes, and the more they learn, to please one another. The first few years may be a little rocky because, though they love one another, they are different individuals, who have different ideas about some things, different habits---they’ve been brought up in different circumstances and do things differently. But, with the commitment to each other, and a genuine love for one another, they stay together and work out their problems “one by one” as they arise.
Comparatively, the Church is made up of different individuals with different ideas, etc., who are tied together by the blood of Christ and the experience of salvation. But, without a commitment to unity, without a determination to stand together and work together, without a love that desires to work through any problems that arise, there will undoubtedly come, a break in fellowship. In marriage, the commitment is required but from the two individuals. With the Church, the commitment to each other and to God is required by each member of the body. That means: that the forbearance required for a successful relationship must be between not just 2, 3, 10, or 100---but throughout the body of Christ. This doubtless explains in part why there have been so many “divorces” in the spiritual sense.
Think of it. Several groups of holy people, living holy lives, serving Christ to their best, however, they have nothing whatsoever to do with each other, because their leaders don’t get along. To add insult to injury, not only is there a lack of working together, but animosity compels certain ones, to use their pulpits to degrade and slander other Church of God congregations. Some almost seem obsessed with labeling anyone who is not in their good graces, “Babylon.” What is Babylon? Revelation 18:2, “And he cried mightily with a strong voice, saying, Babylon the great is fallen, is fallen, and is become the habitation of devils, and the hold of every foul spirit, and a cage of every unclean and hateful bird.” To put this accusation in prospective: if one understands what Babylon is---the habitation of devils---he is standing on very dangerous ground, if he labels a congregation such, and in reality the Holy Ghost is working among that people. Too many have loosely tossed around such accusations, without realizing the consequences of such. People labeled Jesus Christ as being “full of devils.” (Matthew 12:24-28) We all agree: that was blasphemy. Then, each one of us ought to be very careful, before we label someone or some place, as the habitation of devils.
Is Division sin? Who is causing division and why? If we know the truth about Christ’s will concerning: the oneness of His people, yet we knowingly refuse to do our part---where does that leave us? Are we not responsible and condemned by the Word? Yet, fellowship cannot be forced. The scripture says, “If it be possible, as much as lieth in you, live peaceably with all men” (Romans 12:18). Some people refuse any effort toward unity. But, on our part, we must be clear before God.
Back to Third John: Little is said in the Scriptures about Diotrephes. In fact, our text is the sole reference to him. Yet, in this brief mention we can glean a lot about the man. First of all, he loved the preeminence. In this he was not unique. Self-exaltation has plagued man from the beginning. But in the Church of the living God, man is not to rule. Colossians 1:18, “And he [ Christ] is the head of the body, the church: who is the beginning, the firstborn from the dead; that in all things he [Christ] might have the preeminence.” This testimony of Diotrephes alone was enough to condemn him. This attitude drove him to do what he did.
Was this a power struggle? Verse 9 also says that he would not receive John and others. He evidently felt threatened. He thought that he himself was just as good as this “John.” He didn’t have to play second fiddle to anybody! Nothing is said about a difference in doctrine. Was this a “personality clash”? In what way would he not receive John? Obviously, Diotrephes didn’t receive John as a brother. It wasn’t a sure thing that John would personally come in contact with Diotrephes, for verse 10 says, “Wherefore, IF I come…” So…“receiveth us not” had to mean Diotrephes didn’t fellowship them or acknowledge them as brothers in Christ. Sound familiar? Let me ask you, did the fact that Diotrephes didn’t receive John have a bearing on John’s standing before God? Of course not! Some Church of God ministers, today, spend more time on condemning other Church of God ministers and works than they do on winning the lost. In fact, the hostility of some professing Church of God people toward other Church of God people, supersedes their animosity towards anyone or anything else. It’s amazing! It’s sad! Verse 10 says of Diotrephes, “Prating against us with malicious words.” We have no record of Diotrephes ever meeting John, yet he was using malicious words against him. Perhaps he had heard something. But from the wording we can assume this whole attitude was the result of jealousy---he loved to have the preeminence! This is so applicable to the last 50 years of Church of God history, it’s ironic. The malicious words that have been said---many times by individuals who have never even met the ones they are slandering! Some have behaved themselves in such a rude and despicable manner that the world laughs at the Church of God, professing to represent Christ… professing to be “the “ church, yet manifesting a spirit of malice and contempt toward people, which are virtually a carbon copy of themselves. The apostle Paul proclaimed the warning to the church centuries ago, “But if ye bite and devour one another, take heed that ye be not consumed one of another (Galatians 5:15)
But, the Diotrephes Syndrome doesn’t stop there. Oh, no…It wasn’t enough to refuse to receive John as a brother personally. It wasn’t even enough to use malicious words against him. The Diotrephes Syndrome is much more destructive than that. Let’s read on in verse 10 of 3 John, “And not content therewith, neither doth he himself receive the brethren, and forbiddeth them that would, and casteth them out of the church.” Not content therewith. Some people seem driven---not to see sinners saved or to see nominal religion exposed. Rather they seem driven to malign other Church of God groups, often ones they used to associate themselves with, in essence try to prove themselves as wise prophets with ample justification to close forever any possible reconciliation. How about this: Diotrephes not only refused the right hand of fellowship to the brethren himself, but forbid them that would. This attitude, unfortunately, is still at work in our generation. Again, if the ministry would humble themselves, and endeavor to keep the unity of the Spirit in the bonds of peace, then the general laity undoubtedly would. What could we see done if we would unite our forces together instead of bickering amongst ourselves? But, alas, someone may lose their preeminence.
One final thought on the Diotrephes Syndrome. He “casteth them out of the church.” I don’t believe this is talking about the church building. Diotrephes was so deceived by his own self importance that he thought he had the power to kick people out of God’s church. I don’t doubt that he condemned some to the regions of the lost, because they didn’t give him his “rightful respect.” If people---even renowned saints, like the apostle John---did not meet Diotrephes’ measured approval, then, they were not saved---pure and simple. And if anyone dared to express confidence in John or those John worked with, Diotrophes felt he had the authority to excommunicate such an one. Sound familiar? Thank God, no man can put you in the Church and surely no man can kick you out---even if he thinks he can. Salvation makes one a member of God’s church, whether people approve of that individual or not. We don’t vote people in! We don’t vote people out! Only sin can separate a saved soul from God. Therefore, only sin can cause one to lose membership in the Church of God. This is the basis of Bible teaching. Men ought to be extremely hesitant to make public statements---or private statements, for that matter---which banish individuals and entire congregations to eternal damnation. This Diotrophes did to his own detriment.
I believe the Bible message is what the world needs at this present hour. Those who know the truth, need a vision greater than one, which sees its own clique’ as the entirety of God’s work on earth. Every redeemed soul is part of God’s work on the earth. Every congregation that’s walking in all the truth it knows, is part of God’s work in the earth. It’s high time we build and unite rather then divide and separate. I’m not saying everything and anything is acceptable. But, “try the spirits whether or not they are of God…” If two or more individuals or two or more congregations have the same Spirit, there’s basis for fellowship and working together. If there’s a spirit other than the Spirit of God involved, then, it matters not whether the doctrine is alike or contrary, the basis for fellowship is eliminated.
Oh, that we see in these last days a moving of the Holy Ghost as in days gone by. May this be the time that finds men less interested in their own preeminence than they are in the progress of the work of Christ. As John the Baptist, our attitude should be, “He [Christ] must increase, but I must decrease.” (John 3:30) Rather than the Diotrephes Syndrome, rooted here than there, may we see the spirit of Epaphroditus evident, who “for the work of Christ” suffered, not regarding his life, to supply “the lack of service” present in his time. (Philippians 2:30) For the work of Christ. That’s what’s at stake! What are we willing to do for the work of Christ? What are we willing to suffer for the work of Christ? We, as saints of the living God, are part of something greater than ourselves. Our local congregation is part of something greater than itself. The congregations we are presently working with, are part of something greater than themselves. In the overall scheme of things, we are only a part of the greatest work on the face of the earth. My personal likes and dislikes are nothing. My personal position in the Church, is nothing. God is everything. The Word of God is everything. Providing a united front to a godless world is everything. Oh, that Jesus’ prayer in the seventeenth chapter of St. John be answered, “That they all may be one; as thou, Father, art in me, and I in thee, that they also may be one in us: that the world may believe that thou hast sent me.”
These few comments about the Diotrophes Syndrome may appear rather blunt, but they are shared with the reader…in sincerity of motive and with the humble prayer that the future be more fruitful for the Church of God and that all true children of God work together for the advancement of the gospel of Christ.