He can’t have actual, biblically defined shepherds in his life. Biblical shepherding would mean his idols would be exposed and eradicated; it would mean crucifying his lust for recognition. And that’s not something he’s prepared to do. So, he can tolerate superficial shepherding, just as long as so-called shepherds keep a safe distance from him. Diotrephes is fine with distance-shepherding, which is no shepherding. That way, leadership pose less of a threat to his self-exalting endeavors. This is how Diotrephes operates. He is unteachable to godly people in his life who challenge his pride.
If you have been in church long enough, you’ve probably seen him. Or maybe you have been him. He’s not always easily recognizable at first. But eventually, he will irresistibly make himself known. The apostle John dealt with him at one point:
I wrote something to the church; but Diotrephes, who loves to be first among them, does not accept what we say. 10 For this reason, if I come, I will call attention to his deeds which he does, unjustly accusing us with wicked words; and not satisfied with this, he himself does not receive the brethren, either, and he forbids those who desire to do so and puts them out of the church (3 John 9-10).
Diotrephes. He was one of the guys who made it into the Bible because of sinful pride.
Diotrephes is a dangerous guy. He’s a hazard to himself. He’s a danger to new disciples. He’s a threat to the unity and purity of the church. So, how can we recognize him? Here are a few things that help us diagnose a spiritual Diotrephes. As we consider these things, it behooves not-yet-perfected believers to beware of a little bit of Diotrephes in ourselves.
1. He lusts for recognition.
The inerrant Scripture tells a dark picture of him: “I wrote something to the church, but Diotrephes, who loves to be first…” (3 John 9). There is one word in Greek, which is translated “loves to be first.” It’s a compound word, that means “loves first.” And it’s not a good desire to want to excel at something.
Instead, it’s a devastating diagnose of pride’s plaguing of the soul. Here is the idea of the word: to have great affection for prominence. A craving for notoriety. Ambition for approval. Lust for recognition. Infatuation for importance. An adoration for appreciation. A passion for pre-eminence. To worship others’ applause. A devotion to superiority.
This is a catastrophic trait in a man. He lusts for recognition and has a sick infatuation with personal praise. It would be better to have anything said about you than, “he loves to be first.” The sin of Diotrephes was the same as Satan. “You said in your heart, ‘I will ascend to heaven; I will raise my throne above the stars of God’” (Isa. 14:13).
The spiritual Diotrephes lusts for recognition.
2. He thinks he is superior to other believers.
Next, Scripture says he “loves to be first among them” (3 John 9). Diotrephes might plug into a church. But he’s after an “among them.” He wants people near him; around him so that he can be first among them; so that he can be above others. He sees himself as above other believers.
If he wants to be with other believers, typically it is so that he can gratify his craving for significance. He wants to be around people, but not because he cares for them. Instead, he craves a following. He lusts for a following around whom he can pose as lord and king.
Paul said that this is also one characteristic of a wolf: “I know that after my departure savage wolves will come in among you, not sparing the flock; 30 and from among your own selves men will arise, speaking perverse things, to draw away the disciples after them” (Acts 20:29–30). One of the chief marks of a wolf is that he wants to draw away people after himself. Here is the sinister intersection between Diotrephes and wolves. A spiritual Diotrephes sees himself as superior to other believers
3. He uses the church and ministry to gain recognition for himself.
Diotrephes gets involved in churches. He professes to have a high, correct, and biblical view of the church.
But there is a dark reality behind it all. Here’s what can happen. At first, he seems like someone who sincerely wants to plug in and become a healthy functioning member of the body of Christ. He will enter a church and hang there for a bit. People might not notice that he’s a Diotrephes. Some might be impressed and mesmerized by how much he serves. But underneath it all, he has a burning passion for recognition. Because he is not crucifying his heart’s infatuation for importance, it will continue to grow.
Now, in a healthy, biblical church, it takes much time and testing before someone can become a leader. Sound New Testament churches understand that true, tested, and affirmed biblical character is shown, not in months, but years.