3 John – A Letter Between Friends

Petty infighting or kind conviction?

The elder,

To my dear friend Gaius, whom I love in the truth.

Dear friend, I pray that you may enjoy good health and that all may go well with you, even as your soul is getting along well. It gave me great joy when some believers came and testified about your faithfulness to the truth, telling how you continue to walk in it. I have no greater joy than to hear that my children are walking in the truth.

Dear friend, you are faithful in what you are doing for the brothers and sisters, even though they are strangers to you. They have told the church about your love. Please send them on their way in a manner that honors God. It was for the sake of the Name that they went out, receiving no help from the pagans. We ought therefore to show hospitality to such people so that we may work together for the truth.

I wrote to the church, but Diotrephes, who loves to be first, will not welcome us. 10 So when I come, I will call attention to what he is doing, spreading malicious nonsense about us. Not satisfied with that, he even refuses to welcome other believers. He also stops those who want to do so and puts them out of the church.

11 Dear friend, do not imitate what is evil but what is good. Anyone who does what is good is from God. Anyone who does what is evil has not seen God. 12 Demetrius is well spoken of by everyone—and even by the truth itself. We also speak well of him, and you know that our testimony is true.

13 I have much to write you, but I do not want to do so with pen and ink. 14 I hope to see you soon, and we will talk face to face.

Peace to you. The friends here send their greetings. Greet the friends there by name.

As a 21st century woman married to and mother of minority individuals, I must admit I read the Bible with a highly skeptical eye: one that seeks out the less than noble impulses of the writers and compilers.  I am quick to find the sexist, racist, and power-hungry undertones in a passage.  I’ll be honest: the first impressions I got from this book were that it was divisive, complaining, and controlling.  But the longer I sat with it, the more I was able to see God’s true message of love and friendship shine through.

This little book is fascinating from a historical point of view:  We get a glimpse of how the early church was working and forming, how different people and factions were jostling for control.  First, the Gnostics. Remember, a theme throughout John’s letters is his concern that Gnosticism might infiltrate the wider church.  While not as directly referenced here as in 2 John, that concern is still indirectly visible.  Basically John is saying,”Hey, don’t accept those doing evil, like those Gnostics. Instead, here’s my letter of recommendation for Demetrius – someone with a message I personally approved.”  Second, this Diotrephes guy.  John almost sounds like a little old church lady here, doesn’t he?  Maybe that’s just a fault of translation, but accusing someone of “loving to be first” and of spreading “malicious nonsense” just sounds like church lady accusations. That, coupled with the sending of a warning letter and promising to call Diotrephes out in person makes me picture John in a Sunday hat and a jello-salad in hand, quivering from head to toe in self-righteous anger.  Clearly, I’m poking a little fun at John here, but as discussed in 2 John, these early factions were of real concern, as they often did lead to schisms in the church.  There were people (including John) who knew Jesus personally still living at the time of this writing, and even with that close-to-the-source knowledge, we already see these factions – like Gnosticism and Cerinthianism – peeling away.

But why was this letter included in the Bible? It seems rather petty, doesn’t it?  John accuses Diotrephes of gossiping, but it doesn’t seem like John is doing much better here.  This short letter is a catalog of various in-fighting. Were there no other more uplifting and noble letters left behind by any of the other apostles?

There were lots of books left out of the New Testament, as it turns out.  Some of clearly dubious authorship, and others that required more debate. It seems generally accepted that the New Testament wasn’t canonized (aka set in stone, if you will) until the first half of the fourth century.  And the truth is, we may never know why, exactly, early church leaders decided to include this letter instead of, say, the Gospel of Thomas.  Perhaps these books are truly divinely inspired, which is where many online articles on the subject of New Testament canonization leave it.  Maybe it’s a little faithless of me, but the inclusion of 3 John just seems more like something man would do than God. My guess is that early church leaders liked the historical aspect of the book, and can claim that “true Christianity” won out over the warring factions that John faced.   This is a letter in which church leaders can point to and say, “See? We’re winning!  We are right and they are wrong!  John faced this sort of resistance, too, and our [insert any cause, belief, or crusade here] is righteous and justified.” In short, I worry that this book is one that can be used by those doing harm, by those so convinced that their way is right they have become blind to the love and guidance of God, to justify their bigoted beliefs.  It’s a book that encourages Christians to feel at war with anyone who doesn’t share their beliefs, especially to be at war with other Christians who don’t share their beliefs.

That sounds awfully jaded, I know.  But one of the amazing things about Jesus is his message can transcend petty human politics.  So even if this book was included in the New Testament for more worldly than divine reasons, God can still speak to us through it.  Let me tell you what else I got out of this book, and what I believe we should focus upon. It is, above all else, a letter of encouragement between friends.  John opens his letter with a kind wish: “Dear friend, I pray that you may enjoy good health.” He calls Gaius “dear friend” four times in these fourteen short verses.  He offers Gaius encouragement in the face of adversity, and sends help in the form of Demitrius.  He praises, advises, and commiserates with Gaius.  In short, John is an exemplary friend in this letter.

Also, it’s critical to point out that even though John disagrees with Diotrephes, he is still reaching out.  John mentions having already sent Diotrephes a letter.  He has sent emissaries to Diotrephes’ church.  John even plans on addressing the problem in person (health and time permitting – remember, he’s an old man at this point). “If I come,” John says in v. 10, “I will call attention to what he is doing.”  This, I think, is so different than many warring factions within the church today.  We would rather hurl insults at each other than reach out to each other and try to resolve our differences.  As I’ve said before, I don’t think anyone should suffer toxic abuse, and it is 100% okay to cut vitriolic, hateful people out of your life for the sake of your own mental well-being (and definitely for your personal safety, should it sadly come to that).  But if we continue to reach out to those different than us, my firm belief is that we will, eventually, win them over.  “Kill them with kindness” was one of my grandmother’s favorite sayings.  Somebody will always manage to do so, but it’s generally hard to hate someone who is warm and open and caring, even if they are completely different than you.

This week I encourage you to be firm in your beliefs while at the same time being caring towards others.  That’s a hard balance to strike.  But kindness, coupled with strong conviction, can go a long way towards making a difference.  Just look at John: his conviction in Jesus Christ helped shaped the Christianity we know today.   The next question is, how will our belief in Jesus shape the world going forward?

Author: Annie Newman

Radically Liberal Christian. Autism/Toddler/Pitbull mom. FarmHER. Incurable maker of things.

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