I [John] wrote to the church, but Diotrephes, who loves to be first, will have nothing to do with us. So if I come, I will call attention to what he is doing, gossiping maliciously about us. Not satisfied with that, he refuses to welcome the brothers. He also stops those who want to do so and puts them out of the church.” —3 John 9-10
John, the apostle of “love,” is being blocked from having any influence or spiritual authority in the congregation shepherded by Diotrephes. That shepherd’s name means “nourished by Jupiter,” and thus reveals the mentality behind his use of authority. Jupiter, the most preeminent god of the Roman pantheon, was regarded as King of the gods and the Roman equivalent of the Greek god, Zeus. No wonder Diotrephes carried a king’s chip on his shoulder, wanting preeminence so desperately in the church that he shared his pulpit with no outside influences. Sound familiar? Did not Satan act to obtain preeminence over God?
Diotrephes required submission like a little Caesar, substituting self in his church above Christ, who is the only Chief Shepherd and Bishop of our souls (1 Peter 2:25; 5:4). To maintain such control, Diotrephes refused John’s apostolic authority to enter his purview, or anyone else John had sent to impart some blessing to them. Diotrephes wanted to be the top dog in his congregational domain—so if anyone allied themselves to John, or his colleagues, they were put out of the church. Imagine living under that kind of fear for wanting to learn from John?
It has been my experience to measure the health of a leader through how he [or she] makes you feel when you’re with them. Do they make you afraid or excited to be near them? Do they make you feel inspired to serve God and others, or duty-bound to serve them? Do they make you feel shame and guilt to be near them, or are you encouraged by them in their Christ-likeness? Do they make you feel you are the most important person in the moment, or give you the sense you’re a distraction from their immediate agenda? Do they empower you, equip you, make you feel better than you are in your gifting and lift you up, or do they make you feel like a disappointment—never measuring up?
To be around a leader with a Diotrephes style can become unhealthy, unless God has you there for a “season” to learn to serve humbly in that place “as unto the Lord,” all the while the Lord is teaching you—by that leader’s unhealthy style—how not to lead and, also, how to serve under an oppressive leader, which in the case of some, cannot be altered by freewill. But if you’re free to choose the leader you wish to follow, it must be the Lord and not fearing the leader that’s demanding or shaming you into remaining until he releases you. We must understand that it is the Lord we serve and not man, and it will be the Lord who will release you in due time according to his perfect timing and your assignment there is finished.
It’s important for leaders and future leaders to hear this, because where there is fear-based leadership, there is an insecure leader who relies not on the Lord, but upon the brute force of their own strength to accomplish the mission they believe God has called them to do. So in their own fear of failing, they will bind, they will shame, they will guilt, and they will make you afraid to leave for fear of being “out of the will of God” and, therefore, have God’s judgment and condemnation hanging over any possibility of future success. When leaders promote allegiance to themselves above that person’s allegiance to God’s purpose and plan, then they’re missing the point that God’s kids belong to him and, therefore, within his prerogative to rotate his soldiers or to deploy them to a new mission. The leader who holds on to God’s people with a clenched fist wind up binding people to a legalism unhealthy for growth and maturity in those they lead. They wind up leading the people they’re called to serve into co-dependency—very much in the way some parents never let their children grow up and learn how to make their own choices in life.
At the end of the day, for the child of God, though we are to be in a community of believers with accountability and spiritual leaders, we are not bound to follow any man or woman in positions of authority if they don’t possess the qualities of a healthy leader. First and foremost, we are to steward our own lives [i.e.—self-govern] according to the Lordship of Jesus over us, and submission to his teachings in the Word. We are to mature in discerning the Lord’s voice in our lives. So submission to a spiritual leader is not a random thing—it’s voluntary. It means finding someone I can entrust my soul [and family] to, and to find such a leader requires doing my homework. I must measure [not judge] the man or woman who serves in a role leadership. And I must measure their fruit by the leadership qualities seen in Jesus—that is, what his style looked like. And if I feel those traits are there in that leader, and the Lord confirms that I am to attach myself to that leader, then the healthier my walk in Christ will be by virtue of a healthy impartation of anointing from healthy leadership. After all, by virtue of osmosis, leaders reproduce their style into the emerging leaders who follow them.
So here’s the Lord’s leadership style [in contrast to Diotrephes]. He invites us to take his yoke upon us and learn from him, for he is gentle and humble in heart, and [the result is that we] will find rest for our souls [not fear]. Why? Because his yoke is easy and his burden is light (see Matthew 11:29-30). The apostle Paul echoes this, too, in his own leadership style when he says, “[We do not] lord it over your faith, but we work with you for your joy (2 Cor. 1:24). And again, he says, “The authority the Lord gave us [was] for building you up rather than pulling [or tearing] you down (2 Cor. 10:8; 13:10).” Peter, too, echoes this when he says, “Be shepherds of God’s flock that is under your care, serving as overseers…; not lording it over those entrusted to your care, but being examples [of Christ-likeness] to the flock (1 Peter 5:2-4).”