The first century Church was not immune to congregational difficulties. For the most part, church leaderships countered division with a call to peace.
There were, of course, those occasions when expulsion of a member (we’d probably call it “shunning”) was practiced. Sometimes, it involved a persistent moral failing of a member who refused to change his life (1 Corinthians 5). At other times, it involved members who misunderstood scripture and whose lifestyle brought shame on the whole congregation (2 Thessalonians 3). And at times, it involved church members who were, for whatever reason, just looking for power (Romans 16:17ff).
In an unnamed first century congregation, there was just such a power struggle and we find the story in 3 John. A Christian named Diotrephes had, over time, become a respected church leader. He had become so powerful that he successfully forbade his church to listen to the apostle John (we are not given the reason). Anyone who did so, Diotrephes “put out of the church.” Gaius, another Christian in the same congregation, was at a loss as to what to do. Everyone respected Diotrephes. Gaius did as well. But Gaius also respected John. Gaius had no power and no influence. He wasn’t taking sides, he just didn’t know how to respond.
In his letter, Third John, John could have written to him: “You need to take my side. After all, I am an Apostle.” But he didn’t. That would have just exacerbated the division. Instead, John encouraged him to continue to live in the Christ-like manner he’d been following, and if he had any questions at all, to refer them to another member, Demetrius, who was well spoken of “by everyone.”
Jesus said: “You know that the rulers of the Gentiles lord it over them, and their high officials exercise authority over them. Not so with you. Instead, whoever wants to become great among you must be your servant, and whoever wants to be first must be your slave– just as the Son of Man did not come to be served, but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many” (Matthew 20:25-28). Later Paul wrote: “We who are strong ought to bear with the failings of the weak and not to please ourselves. Each of us should please his neighbor for his good, to build him up. For even Christ did not please himself but, as it is written: “The insults of those who insult you have fallen on me” (Romans 15:1-2).
There are those times when harsh discipline must be meted out in any family, and the family of God is no exception. But when that happens, we must be sure we’ve done all we can to follow these words first.
In difficult times, we all look for someone with a level head whose walk is closer to Christ’s and further from the world’s. Demetrius had such a walk. Someone may be looking for just such an example in you. How’s your walk going?