The Agora
Biblical Fellowship

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8. Diotrephes (3 John)

The Scriptures do present at least one picture of mass disfellowship, but it is in a bad light, and instigated by an entirely undesirable character.

During the last generation of the first century, the “fellowship situation” can best be described as chaotic. Paul’s last writings are far from optimistic, and John’s letters show an elderly apostle — the last of his generation — contending against the practices of men who scarcely if at all deserve the name “brother” (A. Eyre, “Problems of Fellowship in the First Century Ecclesia”, The Christadelphian, Vol. 108, No. 1283 — May 1971 — p. 210).

Such a man was Diotrephes — emblematic of a certain spirit within the ecclesias. Diotrephes was domineering, self-assertive, and arrogant. Defying the loving authority of the aged John, he could — so it seems — “cast out” of fellowship (contrast John 6:37) with impunity those associating with the apostles, or, for that matter, anyone of whom he disapproved. Like some modern brethren of the same stamp, he also “cast out” those who failed to “cast out” the brethren he had “cast out” — in the ultimate extension of the “guilt-by-association” syndrome.

Brother Eyre in his article points out that, with ease of communication in the Roman Empire, it was common for preachers to travel from ecclesia to ecclesia on lengthy missionary journeys. Such activities posed problems of fellowship then as now. Wherever the ecclesia was to which Diotrephes belonged, it included as members both those who rejected these preacher brethren, and those who welcomed them. John appears, then, to be presuming on his almost universal standing in the brotherhood, when he “interferes” in a tricky internal affair of another ecclesia. Notice, however, that his “interference” — if it may be so termed — is not for the disfellowshiping of any individual, but rather is for the acceptance of “the brethren” (v. 5). And John does not even counsel the disfellowship of the despicable Diotrephes!

The phrase “casting out” (v. 10) is a very harsh and cruel term, as Brother Eyre explains:

“If the Master himself was able to conduct most of his preaching within the synagogue system, however grudgingly received by those in power, he had no illusions as to the long-term fate of the church following his ascension to the Father. ‘Beware of men; for they will deliver you up to councils (Greek Sanhedrins, i.e. local courts) and flog you in their synagogues’ (Matt. 10:17, RSV)” (Ibid., No. 1279 — Jan. 1971 — p. 16).
Examine closely and without prejudice this first-century picture of inter-ecclesial affairs. How similar it is to our own day: an imperfectly joined network of congregations, with no universally recognized leader (even the apostles met frequent opposition); an arrangement calling for forbearance and patience and tolerance, not to mention the occasional compromise! Certainly not the place for fallible would-be leaders to issue “bulls” of excommunication either against or on behalf of uninformed brethren.

Notice that even the apostle John does not declare, “Disfellowship Diotrephes”. Notice also the presumed “conflict”: Gaius will receive “the brethren”; Diotrephes will not receive them. And yet they are considered — by no less than an inspired apostle — to be “in fellowship” with one another. What a “field day” some Christadelphians have with similar unfortunate yet unavoidable situations in the twentieth century! Little do they realize that their scorn is also directed, by extension, against the “disciple whom Jesus loved”.

“Wherever there is intolerance; wherever we find conditions of communion among Christians imposed, which Christ hath not clearly enjoined; wherever creeds and modes of worship are enforced by human power, and men made to forfeit any of their civil rights, or are stigmatized on these accounts, there is the spirit which is not of God. Wherever one Christian, or a number of Christians, assumes the seat of authority and judgment in the Church of Christ, wherever they call for fire to destroy those who dissent from them, or only exclude them from their communion and affection, there is a portion of the spirit of Anti-christ, which has so long opposed itself to the benign principles of the Kingdom of the Prince of Peace, has been the cause of so many evils to humanity, and the occasion of making the inconsiderate esteem the amiable yet distinct and uncompromising religion of Jesus, as a source of mischief, instead of benevolence.

“Alas, how much of this spirit remains amongst us all! How few have learned that, ‘In Christ circumcision is nothing, and uncircumcision is nothing, but the keeping of the commandments of God’ “ (J. Thomas, Herald, 1850).
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