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The Diotrephes Syndrome:
A Strategy for Using Church Discipline as a Weapon
Copyright © 2004 - All rights retained by author
Written by: C. W. Booth


How do you stop the discerning faithful in the church from disrupting your plans to sneak in a false doctrine or two? Your biblical model is Diotrephes. He found an ideal mechanism to silence those whom opposed him and was even able to make it seem as though his approach was spiritual. Even grander, this approach can be used in personal relationships. We will explore how.

I wrote something to the church; but Diotrephes, who loves to be first among them, does not accept what we say. 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. Beloved, do not imitate what is evil, but what is good. The one who does good is of God; the one who does evil has not seen God. (3 John 1:9-11)

Ambition

It is unclear whether Diotrephes was the formal elder (overseer/pastor) of the church or whether he simply desired to be especially prominent. In reality, this is irrelevant because it is equally true of pastors or laymen that they can become "ambitious for the place of first distinction." Ambitious for preeminence in the church is entirely different than being desirous to do the work of shepherding/pastoring. Ambition for prestige and control is what leads to "lording it over the flock" (1 Peter 5:3), that is, to become the monarch of the flock and the object of adoration, and it might be added, some small amount of intimidating influence. Contrast that with being desirous to do the work of pastor, which is to dedicate oneself to service, to study, to counseling, and to openly debating and refuting doctrinal errors.

Poor Doctrine

Diotrephes did not accept the teaching of the apostles (v.9). Given his standing of prestige in the church it should be readily evident that he was likely a Christian, and maybe even the majority of his doctrine was "orthodox." Nonetheless, some aspect of Diotrephes’ doctrine, probably the specific "something" to which John refers when he says he "wrote to the church," was not aligned with the apostles’ teaching.

Now, the problem for Diotrephes is that he had run out of arguments and Scripture to justify his stance. Some do-gooder in the body was obviously pressing Diotrephes to give a biblically sound defense for his corrupted doctrine and he was unable to do so. In short, he was trapped. How do you shout down the discerning individuals who just will not shut up and who refuse to stop demanding an answer for the false hope you have articulated so well?

But a Really Good Strategy

Diotrephes used a wonderful and almost unassailable two-pronged attack. An almost perfect strategy. First he attacked the character of the apostles, not their doctrines or theology, but their character, "unjustly accusing us with wicked words." This is so precious. For it should be noted that Diotrephes was able to sidestep his real problem. He could not address the doctrines because he had no Scriptural leg to support him, so he attacked the character of those with good doctrine in order to discredit them and by association, everything they said.

How beautiful that strategy is. How do you counter a character assassination? He said, she said, someone said, all leaves impressions in the minds of the hearers and truth becomes secondary and ultimately lost. The focus is no longer doctrine but whether the person has a good reputation, which by the way was just defamed by the very accuser who is trying to hide his doctrinal failings in the first place.

Prong two is the stroke of genius to the master plan. Cut off fellowship between those who have true biblical discernment and those on whom you are trying to impose the erroneous doctrine. Once fellowship is broken, it becomes impossible for anyone to contradict you. Those who remain in fellowship are those whom you have already won to your point-of-view (who lack appropriate discernment) or are those who are too intimidated to invoke the Word of God against you or against your faulty doctrine. The result is that no one is left to raise any dissent or to contradict you, or worse, raise a valid biblical debate.

In other words, you win by default. You have silenced all your detractors and you win. You do not have to be right, because you win. And by winning, you do not mean that you have attained good doctrine but that you have retained control in spite of your lack of answers and in spite of your poor doctrine. You win, the others lose.

How do you break fellowship between the discerning and the deluded? This requires careful scheming and impeccable execution. You must "put them out of the church" just as Diotrephes did. The only known mechanism that has the appearance of Scriptural and ethical propriety is by using "church discipline." Not genuine "church discipline" however, but pseudo (fake / imitation) church discipline.

Genuine church discipline is all about bringing the sinner back into fellowship by encouraging his repentance from a sin. To encourage his repentance you must privately rebuke him, publicly rebuke him in front of the church, then ultimately treat him as you would any sinner on the street (Matthew 18). Of course, this means no longer inviting him to your breaking-of-bread church services, asking him to take on deacon duties, or allowing him to teach, pray, or read Scripture during meetings of the church. Every interaction will be polite, filled with quotations of Scripture that entreat him to confess his sins and turn from them, always inviting him back to fellowship with God and the church.

This, of course, will never do for your purposes. You goal is not restoration to fellowship, but to permanently sever it. You do not want the Bible-thumpers being lovingly confronted with Scripture because you have none to offer. And frankly, you are the sinner (introducing improper doctrine—remember?), so you do not want or need the discerning ones to repent from any sins, you just want them to go away and not come back. OK, you would also settle for them to just stay quiet and let you run things, but you know that someone who has sufficient discernment to know the Word also knows he is obligated to speak the truth in love, always and often, so you know they will not stay silent.

Executing an Evil Strategy Well

The solution is to level a charge that is improvable, and most importantly, is impossible from which to repent. Among church power brokers the favored charge is "factiousness" (Titus 3:10). Paul says that you should reject a factious man after one or two warnings. Issue these warnings generically from the pulpit, offer no names or specifics, just make generalized warnings—later you can refer to those warnings as already being issued and streamline the entire process.

Then defame and slander their character by adding the charge of anger because those who are passionate about the Word always express emotion sooner or later out of frustration at not being heard so you will always be able to point to some tangible public display of emotion. Oh, never mind that Titus 3 actually defines a factious man as being the one who is introducing destructive and error laden doctrines and who is dividing the fellowship of the church based on improper motives because almost no one is discerning enough in the church to look up the passage on their own, much less properly interpret it in context (hmm, the irony is that while you are falsely accusing the righteous man of being factious Titus 3 actually defines the real factious man as being you). The charge of factiousness itself is sufficient to win the day.

Then, out the door the trouble-making Bible-quoting discerners will go. Most will leave of their own accord anyway, having had enough of their characters being maligned. The few that stick around can easily be sent through a pseudo-church discipline meeting and they too will soon be gone. And since they have nothing they can repent from, they will never return to plague your fellowship again. In fact, this form of ungodly "discipline" might best be characterized by the term "shunning" because its sole goal is to irrevocably destroy fellowship. However, you must never use that term in public because it might draw attention to fact that what you are doing to these innocent individuals really is shunning which is strictly an illegitimate act; we are nowhere called to destroy fellowships but to restore them.

Only One Complication

There is one down side to the tactic. John calls the Diotrephes strategy both "wicked" and "evil." To implement such an approach in the church, in a personal relationship, or in a family setting requires that you leave your interest in obeying the Word of God behind, that you stop loving the victims (love is defined as doing things for their benefit not yours--1 Corinthians 13:5), and that you determine that you are willing to tolerate living in a state of perpetual sin. This is a hard thing for a true believer and follower of our Lord to do, but if you want to act on your ambition to become preeminent in the local church, able to implement whatever doctrine strikes your fancy, and not have to answer to those who insist on biblical accuracy, what choice do you really have?

Really, what choice do you have?

Beloved, do not imitate what is evil, but what is good. The one who does good is of God; the one who does evil has not seen God. (3 John 1:11)



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