"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. Demetrius has received a good testimony from everyone, and from the truth itself; and we add our testimony, and you know that our testimony is true. I had many things to write to you, but I am not willing to write them to you with pen and ink; but I hope to see you shortly, and we will speak face to face. Peace be to you. The friends greet you. Greet the friends by name." (3 John 9-15)While John usually tried and exhort the churches to holiness and obedience, he was not above using his authority when times called for it. A showdown was looming between him and the renegade Diotrephes. Diotrephes loved to be "first" and to have preeminence in the church. This very letter of John's gives evidence that this was not the normal case in the church of the first century. While most churches were overseen by the elders, there was not one person who "was first" or "above the rest." These overseers, or elders, were there to watch over the flock, provide instruction, and to protect the flock from outside influences. However, they lacked the single leader model that most american churches follow today.
This passage from John should give us reason to be concerned over, and wary of, our pastor-lead church model today. Most american churches have a single pastor who is elevated to "first place" among the flock. Loyalty to the church is often interpreted as loyalty to the pastor. The church's vision and mission often are dictated by the pastor's vision and mission. The pastor ceases to be an overseer and becomes a leader and governor. From this elevated position it is easy to be tempted towards autonomy, autocracy, and, in the worst of cases, tyranny. I have seen churches where it was very much a "me pastor, you sheep" system. I have even been in churches where pastors discouraged people from listening to teachings from other churches and leaders. When the love for being first and the insecurity of maintaining first place mingle in the same heart, disaster is not far away.
Diotrephes also participated in partisan politics; black-balling certain apostles, refusing to receive certain ministries, putting pressure on people to be loyal to him, and expelling those who refused to conform to his rule. All this, done under the cloak of spirituality and a feigned concern for the truth. From a personal standpoint, this is, in part, what has concerned me with John MacArthur's teaching on "Strange Fire". I have seen its results in churches in our area. One particular church that has embraced his teaching has "cleaned house"; firing pastors who did not agree with MacArthur and closing in the ranks along MacArthur's teachings. They have become isolated much like this church that the Apostle John tried to write to. We may not agree with everything that is happening in every corner of Christianity, but when we actively and purposefully seek to separate ourselves from others in the Body of Christ, then we are being lead down a pathway towards error. When we can no longer walk side-by-side with those who disagree with us, and insulate ourselves from their influence, then often we are insulating ourselves from the very influences of Christ. We need those who disagree with us and those who see things differently. We need to remember that as "Iron sharpens iron, so one man sharpens another." (Proverbs 27:17)