Toxic Leadership

John LathropBlog


The third letter of John gives us a glimpse into a situation that took place in a local church in the first century. The letter was written by the elder (the apostle John), to his friend, Gaius (verse 1), in it he describes a problem that took place in a local church. The text does not tell us where this church was located. Although the letter is only 14 verses long we are given enough information to know that at the center of this problem was one man: Diotrephes. He was the cause of the problem (it doesn’t take many people to create a problem in a church). This is the only time that he is mentioned in the Bible and he is not presented in a positive light. His actions created misery for a number of Christians. Some of the believers who were impacted by his actions were travelers and others were members of the local congregation (verse 10). The text tells us Diotrephes had a heart problem, not a physical heart problem, but a spiritual one, John said that he “loves to be first” (verse 9 NIV). The thing that makes this story especially tragic is that Diotrephes appears to have been be a leader in the church. He is never called an elder or overseer but he seems to have a lot of power in this local church.

The problem that the book describes was basically this: Some Christians were traveling through the area where the church was located, in addition to being Christians they seem to have been involved in ministry (verses 5-8). The apostle John asked the church to provide hospitality for these travelers (food and lodging) but Diotrephes refused to give it (verse 10). Not only did he refuse, he also stopped people in the church from welcoming the travelers. As if that were not bad enough, he also expelled from the church members who wanted to help the travelers. He was against everyone! In addition to these things he also spoke ill of the apostle John and others associated with him (verse 10).

As we consider the behavior of Diotrephes some contemporary terms that we could apply to him are “abusive” and “toxic;” we might say that he was a bully.  His behavior was not helpful to the church, nor was it Christ-like. His mindset seems to have been “my way or the highway.” He was a law unto himself and seemed to exhibit absolute rule over this particular church, in short, he was a dictator. He was very big on authority, being in charge, but not on servanthood. Jesus said that His leaders are to be characterized by love (John 13:34-35) and servanthood (Matt. 20:25-28). As noted above, the apostle John said that this man “loves to be first” (verse 9). John must have known him well enough in order to make this assessment of him. The apostle recognized this man’s thirst for power because at one time in his life John also sought power and recognition. He and his brother, James, sought to have the two seats closest to Jesus in His kingdom (Matt. 20:20-23; Mark 10:35-37).

Another biblical principle Diotrephes violated was that of hospitality. We don’t know where this church was located nor do we know how much New Testament Scripture they had access to. If they were familiar with the teachings of Jesus, and assured they knew some, they might well know that Jesus requires His followers to meet peoples’ physical needs (Matt. 25; Luke 10:25-37). John may have shared these teachings with them. In addition, if the criteria for elders/overseers that the apostle Paul set forth in the pastoral letters were known then they would know that hospitality is specifically mentioned as a requirement for elders (1 Tim. 3:2; Titus 1:8).

One question that the book of 3 John raises for me is: Where were the other elders from this church? Unfortunately we do not have an answer to that question. The churches in the New Testament usually had multiple elders in each congregation, we see this in a number of biblical texts. Paul and Barnabas appointed elders in churches in Lystra, Iconium, and Antioch (Acts 14:23). Paul instructed Titus to appoint elders in the churches on the island of Crete (Titus 1:5). Elders are also mentioned as being in the church in Jerusalem (Acts 15:2, 6), the church in Ephesus (Acts 20:17), and are mentioned in 1 Timothy 5:17 and James 5:14. The references to church leaders in these texts is always plural. It would seem that there would be multiple elders in the church where Diotrephes (who appears to be an elder) was. Having multiple elders should prevent a situation such as is described in 3 John from happening. The check and balance of having multiple leaders should keep any one leader from rising to this level of control.  

The case of Diotrephes is admittedly an extreme one, but it is a warning for us. Since this happened once it is possible that a situation like this could happen again, but hopefully not in our churches. As leaders it is our responsibility to see that it doesn’t. 

First, we need to make sure that we do not become this kind of individual. We need to watch our attitudes, our sense of importance, our thoughts of entitlement, and our grasp for power. Harmful thoughts and patterns can creep into our lives slowly and subtlety and grow almost undetectably. Taking a personal inventory from time to time is a good idea. 

Second, we need to do all that we can to ensure that no one else in the church, leader or otherwise, gets to this level of arrogance and control. No one’s financial giving, charismatic gifting, or length of time in the church should allow them to ascend to this level of control. 

If your church is part of a denomination that association may help counter this kind of problem (although as we saw Diotrephes disobeyed the apostle John). If your church is independent then you need to at least have a plurality of elders. The shared leadership model, which we find in the New Testament, will help curtail such a rise to power of an individual. 

Diotrephes leadership style is not God’s way, nor is it in the best interest of His church. Jesus is the Head of the church (Eph. 5:23; Col. 1:18). He is its ultimate authority; He is the “Chief Shepherd” (1 Pet. 5:4 NIV), pastors and elders are under shepherds. May the Lord keep His church out of the hands of people like Diotrephes.

John P. Lathrop is a graduate of Zion Bible Institute and Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary and is an ordained minister with the International Fellowship of Christian Assemblies. He has written articles and book reviews for a number of publications including: the Pneuma Review, the Africanus Journal of Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary, Christian Trends Magazine, in India, and  Berita Mujizat and Jurnal Jaffray, both in Indonesia. He is also the author of four books.