By Mike Hess
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.
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?
5. Those with the DNA of Diotrephes are a divisive presence in the Body of Christ.
Since Diotrephes always had to be first, the interest of unity in Christ took a back seat to his desire for preeminence. Mark it down, when our agenda usurps the greater good of the Body of Christ, we inevitably end up causing great harm to the unity of God’s people.
Wanting to be first means having to tear down others to make ourselves look good. That could possibly mean making others look less intelligent than us. Thinking others aren’t as gifted as us. Belittling the input of others because in our hearts, we think we have the situation figured out better than they do.
Consider for a moment how much having to be first gets in the way of God-mandated unity within the local church. Take your time and ponder the truth of the following verses and how much God prioritizes the pursuit of unity:
For as in one body we have many members, and the members do not all have the same function, so we, though many, are one body in Christ, and individually members one of another. (Rom. 12:4–5)
So then let us pursue what makes for peace and for mutual upbuilding.” (Rom. 14:19)
May the God of endurance and encouragement grant you to live in such harmony with one another, in accord with Christ Jesus, that together you may with one voice glorify the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ.” (Rom. 15:5–6)
Only let your manner of life be worthy of the gospel of Christ, so that whether I come and see you or am absent, I may hear of you that you are standing firm in one spirit, with one mind striving side by side for the faith of the gospel. (Phil. 1:27)
So if there is any encouragement in Christ, any comfort from love, any participation in the Spirit, any affection and sympathy, complete my joy by being of the same mind, having the same love, being in full accord and of one mind. Do nothing from selfish ambition or conceit, but in humility count others more significant than yourselves.” (Phil. 2:1–3)
Finally, all of you, have unity of mind, sympathy, brotherly love, a tender heart, and a humble mind. (1 Pet. 3:8)
If you care about unity in your local church, you’ll go to great lengths to avoid the temptation to be first in all things.
6. Those with the DNA of Diotrephes have a bad attitude toward God-ordained authority.
According to 3 John 9, Diotrephes “does not acknowledge our authority.” John didn’t just have authority; he had apostolic authority—the kind we don’t see outside the canon of the completed and sufficient Scriptures. Those with the DNA of Diotrephes have a pattern of disdain toward the leaders God has sovereignly brought into their lives.
When it comes to authority, here’s a great way to bless your church: be easily pastored. Here’s another way to say it: be easy to shepherd, teach, and even lovingly rebuke. Being a thorn in your pastor’s side will only hurt you and your church’s overall ministry. (See Hebrews 13:17 for reference.)
When Christina and I were young in the Lord, we visited a new church that used a different Bible translation, worshiped with music we weren’t used to, and had a pastor who dressed differently than what we expected. Our first few weeks there, I waited for the pastor to say something unbiblical. But as the weeks went on, I realized that he was preaching the Word. This Word began to pierce my heart. The more I heard this Word, the more I realized my own heart needed critiqued more than the pastor’s performance did.
God used that experience to teach me that I was most blessed when I found less fault with the pastor and more fault with my own heart. That’s not to say pastors shouldn’t be called out on sinful patterns or actions. They should be. But overall, we would serve ourselves and families more if we were easier to pastor, if we would be quicker to examine our own spiritual shortcomings, and in turn be a blessing to our God-ordained leadership.
7. Those with the DNA of Diotrephes make baseless accusations.
John calls what Diotrephes was saying about him “nonsense” (3 John 10), conveying that Diotrephes’s words were painful or worthless. Apparently, what Diotrephes said about John and others in leadership caused great pain. John also said that Diotrephes spoke “unjustly” (NASB). This word in Greek gives the sense of “accusingly,” as in making some sort of allegation against them.
Why would Diotrephes do such a thing? Especially to an apostle who had been personally called by Jesus during His earthly ministry? John wasn’t just anyone. He was held in high regard for his strong stand against heresies. He dubbed himself “the disciple whom Jesus loved.” He was faithful to the Lord for decades, boldly proclaiming the gospel and standing for the truth of the Word.
But for someone with the DNA of Diotrephes, that doesn’t matter. Wanting to always be first means being willing to hurt whoever stands in the way, even if that means slandering another’s reputation. It’s easier than ever today to slander someone. With a data plan or a Wi-Fi connection, along with a free social media account, a slanderous heart can have free rein. That’s a scary thought. But it happens every day in the Twittersphere and Facebook world.
We must be careful about buying into every claim we read on social media when someone is going after another person’s character. James gives us wise counsel when he tells us we should be “quick to hear, slow to speak, slow to anger” (James 1:19). It’s also important when we hear scuttlebutt about someone to carefully follow the wisdom we read in Proverbs 18:13, “The one who gives an answer before he listens—this is foolishness and disgrace for him” (CSB). This truth hits home even more a few verses later in verse 17, “The first to state his case seems right until another comes and cross-examines him” (CSB).
This would be a good time for us to consider whom we listen to. It seems as if some speakers and writers want to make every church leader sound like a district manager for the Antichrist. If we find ourselves listening to them, we should reconsider whom we choose to be influenced by. We should carefully choose not only what we say, but also to whom we’re listening (Prov. 13:20).
8. Those with the DNA of Diotrephes have an unwelcoming spirit.
Third John 10 says, “He [Diotrephes] refuses to welcome the brothers, and also stops those who want to and put them out of the church.” Diotrephes’s desire to be preeminent produced an unwelcoming attitude. This is in direct contrast to Gaius, who was known for his hospitality and generosity. Hospitality was a contributing factor to the church flourishing in the first century; believers were hospitable and generous, especially with their homes.
A good way to measure believers’ Christlikeness is to examine how hospitable they are to God’s people. Are they welcoming? Are they generous? Do they welcome certain people? Do they shun others for reasons such as educational background, age, their neighborhood, ethnicity, marital status, political affiliation, or personality?
9. Those with the DNA of Diotrephes get in the way of others’ service to God.
Diotrephes was so self-absorbed that he went from being unwelcoming to actually stopping those who wanted to serve God. We don’t know from the text exactly the reason Diotrephes did this, but we do know that his contrarian heart was so set against these brothers that he tried to excommunicate them. No doubt, removing them from the church could pave the way for Diotrephes to have the influence he so craved. John, however, planned on setting the situation straight when he arrived.
When we spend any time around those who love to have first place, we will notice that while they claim to be godly, they’re hindering godly activities, such as making disciples and seeing local churches thrive. So we must be on guard and not allow their poison to bring us down. If someone has to slander or act ungodly toward God’s servants to get his own way, that’s a good sign that the person is bad news.
Protect Yourself and Your Church
Ministry is not for the faint of heart. Satan is a master at scheming how to destroy the church, and he often uses Diotrephes-like people to do it. The Biblical way to identify a Diotrephes is simple: look for those who demand to be preeminent in all things, to be in the place where only God belongs—on the throne of preeminence.
Do you want to protect your church? Your family? Your relationships? Guard your heart against loving to have first place.
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.