I don’t remember what the issue was since it was a few years ago, but our children could tell that Claire and I didn’t agree about something. We weren’t yelling or screaming, but after a few minutes they interrupted us and said, “Mom and Dad are fighting!” How did they know? We were talking to each other clearly, calmly and ever so slowly. That’s how we handle conflict in our marriage. I guess we assume that if we just say it clearly and slowly enough, the other person will see the logic in it and agree with us.
There is conflict everywhere. There is conflict in married relationships, in our work places and conflict in churches as well. Three weeks ago in our study of 2 and 3 John, we looked at verses 1-8 of 3 John and read a stirring commendation of Gaius for his willingness to accept and extend hospitality to traveling teachers and evangelists. Now in verses 9-14, we see the other side of what was happening in the churches there where Gaius was. Not everything was smooth and wonderful. There was conflict there as well. What is most important is how the conflict is resolved. Today we look at an example of conflict and at some principles that may help us in resolving conflict in the church. Let’s read 3 John1-14.
I. The Problem with Diotrephes
John describes the problem first in general terms. John says simply, “Diotrephes will have nothing to do with us.” This means that Diotrephes refused to accept John’s apostolic authority. John says that he wrote a letter to Gaius’ church, but evidently Diotrephes refused to read it. So now John writes to Gaius, a member of that church, hoping to get his message through. In fact, the personal greeting at the end of the letter, “Greet the friends there by name,” may be John’s way of saying that he wants Gaius to spread the word to everyone.
John, however, also lays on the line what the real problem with Diotrephes is: he loves to be first! It’s not that Diotrephes always wanted to be first in line at dinner pot-lucks so he can eat first. Diotrephes must be THE leader of this church. He wants to call all the shots and wants to be in total control of everything. The New Testament teaches that there should be leadership by a group of elders, not just one person. The root of the problem was that Diotrephes was a victim of pride and the desire to have power. This was not a theological dispute or a heresy or problem with false teaching. Moreover, his methods of attaining such power were totally out of Christian character.
Verse 10 describes what was going on: Diotrephes was spreading malicious gossip about John. Literally, the word means he was “babbling nonsense.” He was making up irrational stories about John for the sole purpose of discrediting him. Moreover, he refused to extend hospitality. He refused to welcome or accept any of the traveling missionaries that were associated with John who were going through the area of his church. Even more, if anyone in his church did welcome one of these missionaries, he would “put them out of the church.” In some way Diotrephes was excluding them from the fellowship in the church. His leadership was powerful, strong and clearly wrong as well as quite ineffective in the long run.
Psychologist David McClelland, in his exhaustive study of power, writes that slaves are the most inefficient form of labor ever devised by man. If a leader wants to have a far-reaching influence, he must make his followers feel powerful and able to accomplish things on their own.
First, verse 10 says that if John comes to that church, he will “call attention to his actions.” That is really too mild an interpretation for what it really means is that when John comes to the church he will talk to him personally and try to correct his actions so that the problem will be resolved. Diotrephes’ actions cannot go unchallenged or undisciplined. And that is something that churches today must learn to do more. Unchristian actions demand Christian discipline that is exercised in love. But it must be done in love because discipline without love can lead to bigger problems.
In a “Truth is Stranger Than Fiction” item, I read that Salt Lake City has been threatened for a number of years by a teenage gang, called Straight Edge, whose members don't smoke, drink or do drugs, and forcefully enforce their moral standards on others. Sgt. Chuck Gilbert of the Salt Lake City Police Department’s gang unit told the Salt Lake Tribune: “They'll get four or five of them in a car to look for someone smoking cigarettes and then they'll beat the tar out of them.” Some vegetarian Straight Edgers have firebombed leather stores, vandalized egg trucks and torched a McDonald's.” We must discipline but discipline in love just as John was going to discipline Diotrephes!
And in verse 11, John also gives some good advice to Gaius as to what to do in the meantime. He tells Gaius to consider carefully whom he should imitate. We all imitate others, either consciously or subconsciously. Small children often imitate their older siblings. The same thing happens in a church. Young people may try to imitate older and more mature members in the church. I think I sometimes try to imitate a former Banner editor from when I was in seminary in his preaching style. We look to others as we shape our thoughts and our conduct.
Instead, John says that Gaius should imitate what is good, but how can he do that? Consider the Apostle Paul who often encouraged his readers to follow his example. In 2 Thessalonians 3:7, Paul urges his readers by saying: “For you yourselves know how you ought to imitate us, because we were not idle when we were with you...” 1 Corinthians 11:1, Paul says that they should follow his example because he himself is following the example of Christ: “Be imitators of me, as I am of Christ.” Gaius must follow those that follow the truth of Jesus Christ.
Then in verse 11, John provides Gaius with a test for him to use: what a person does or his actions will tell you if you should imitate a person or not. Simply the one who does good is from God, or is literally on the side of God. She is moved by the power of God through the Holy Spirit so that she can produce the fruit of the Spirit that are listed in Galatians 5. Such a person shows that she is truly committed to the truth of Jesus Christ.
But on the other hand, verse 11 says, “He who does what is evil has not seen God.” In 1 John 3:17, John gives an example of this: “But if anyone has the world's goods and sees his brother in need, yet closes his heart against him, how does God's love abide in him?” Jesus himself in Matthew 7:16-20, says, “By their fruits or their actions, their teachings, you will recognize them.” The test is to look carefully at their actions and that will determine their Christian commitment.
III. Then John turns to the example of Demetrius as an example of a good person for Gaius to imitate.
Demetrius was likely the one who brought this letter to Gaius from John. It is also likely that Gaius did not know him personally. John here endorses Demetrius so that Gaius would extend hospitality to him as well. John says three things by way of giving a testimony about Demetrius. First, everyone who knows him recognizes that Demetrius was a good solid Christian in character and truth; he is greatly respected by his peers. Second, John says Demetrius is also commended by the truth itself. Even if others could not see or accept his Christian character, God will see it and know that Demetrius’ actions were in full agreement with God’s will. Finally, John himself gives a personal recommendation of Demetrius’ good Christian character. So John seems to be saying: “Here is Demetrius! He has full and good credentials. Imitate him and others like him and you will do well.”
And then once again as we saw in 2 John, John’s page is full. In verses 13-14, he expresses his desire to speak to Gaius face to face to discuss these things further. He pronounces peace to Gaius and what a beautiful pronouncement and blessing it is. It is peace that only Jesus can give. It is a peace that will give strength to a very troubled situation within that church. Finally, verse 14 gives John’s personal greetings. He gives greetings from all the individuals associated with John to all those who are associated with Gaius. Each person is important for the church is composed of persons, not problems. And with that John brings his letter to a close.
The place to begin is for us to apply the test of Christian character as described in verse 11. But we must be sure that we do not apply it only toward others. We shouldn’t say, “This person does this or that, talks badly about others or gossips or is rude; maybe he or she is not from God. No, we must apply this test first of all to ourselves. We should look in the mirror so to speak and carefully examine ourselves using this test. We must ask: “Does my life produce the fruit of the Spirit or the fruits of a sinful nature?” Perhaps it would help if we viewed ourselves as others may view us. What is my conduct like to my children, to my friends at school, to my husband or wife or to my neighbors?
If the people around you were asked to evaluate you using one of two categories, what would they say? “Here is a man or a woman of God for it is obvious from what he or she says and does that he or she is a Christian.” Or “There is a person who has not seen God for his actions show that all he cares about is himself and no one else.” If your actions are inconsistent with being a Christian, you had better work on it. Pray for God’s grace and forgiveness and also pray for God’s guidance. And imitate those who have seen God and are from God.
That is a second way to handle potential conflict is for all of us to imitate those who are good. Select models of consistent Christian character and follow their example in life. This will help you develop your own unique Christian character. It also will reduce the occurrences and potential for unnecessary conflict since we are building each other up and caring for each other.
Now what if there is a Diotrephes that you know of in the church? If someone offends you by his or her actions, follow the principle of Matthew 18:15-17. Don’t talk about him or her to others. Go and talk to him or her and try to resolve it! If nothing can be resolved, take one or two others along as witnesses to help you resolve it. And if still nothing is resolved, bring it to the attention of the elders and let them handle it. That is the biblical way of handling conflict but do so with love and with the goal of restoring. Abraham Lincoln was once criticized by a friend for his attitude toward political enemies. The man said, “Why do you always make friends of them? You should destroy them!” Lincoln replied, “Am I not destroying my enemies when I make them my friends?” We must speak the truth in love to everyone around us.
And above all, let’s be reminded of the fact that this church belongs to Jesus Christ. Many conflicts arise because individuals want to do things their way because they believe it is “their church,” but the church belongs to Christ! It is not my church, the charter members’ church, the Council’s and it’s not even ours jointly! The church belongs to Jesus. Let us work together to be good stewards of the gift he has given us to take care of.