The First Division in the Church

Ephraim Venn

Part 1 of 2 of the series The FirstDivision in the Church

" I wrote unto the Church; but Diotrephes, who loveth to have the pre-eminence among them, receiveth us not" {3 John 9).

It is noticeable that of the three Epistles of John the -*- first only is general, the two latter being addressed to private persons. This seems to indicate that the points touched upon in them have a special bearing on the last sad days of the Church's history on earth, and are par­ticularly applicable to the closing moments of the last hour.

These two epistles (i.e. 2nd and 3rd John) would thus prepare us for particular and local difficulties, just as 2 Peter and Jude help us to understand the general state of things in a corrupt Christendom as her last sands are sinking.

From the first, Satan's great object has been to separate truth and love, to attack them by open assault, or undermine them under cover of a profession of superior light and advanced truth ; but this comes out especially in the two later epistles. In the Second Epistle of John the attack is upon the truth touching the Person of Christ. " The doctrine of Christ " had been surrendered by many deceivers, and the saints needed a word of warning as to that (see verses 7-11). Anything touching the honour of Christ must be guarded with jealous care by every child of God; not merely by the " elders of the assembly," but by every one who is loyal to Christ. " For whosoever transgresseth, and abideth not in the doctrine of Christ, hath not God " (verse 9). Such an one is not to be received, even into the house, nor to be saluted with " God speed " (verse 10).

Thank God for such a warning—so much needed in our day ; but let us not be led into an erroneous use of it, for we know too well how ready the enemy is to per­suade us to turn the edge of the sword against those who do abide in the doctrine of Christ, and to cut off those who arc walking in the truth. Therefore, before giving the warning of verse 10, the Apostle recalls the command­ment which we had " from the beginning," that we love one another ; " Walking in truth, as we received command­ment from the Father " (ch. 1. 4, 5, R.V.).

In the Third Epistle of John it is not the deceiver or transgressor abandoning the doctrine of Christ, but the overbearing brother lording it over God's heritage; " he receiveth not the brethren, and casteth out of the church them that would." This is an attack on our fellowship one with another from within, whilst in the previous epistle our fellowship with the Father and with the Son is undermined from without. It will be well to look more closely into the contents of this short third epistle.

Some of the peculiarities here are most striking. Here only in John's Epistles do we get the word " church," and it occurs three times. In the first Epistle, the common life of all God's children is the theme; in the second, family life ; in the third, it is church life ; but in all three the life is assailed. In the first, the danger is a spurious profession ; in the second, false teaching; and in the third, unscriptural fellowship. In each case it is some­thing human in place of that which is divine —the fleshly and natural seeking to rule out the godly and spiritual. Therefore, in all three epistles, truth is the only path for our feet, and love is the only bond of our fellowship among saints.

Everyone who understands this will know how per­fectly the facts of recent years accord with this feature of John's third epistle. At the close of an apostate age our gracious Lord brings back a handful of His own to simple Scriptural teaching and order, according to Matt. 18. 20 and kindred passages. It is thus that the assembly appears here; it is rather in its local aspect, and not as the whole " church, which is His Body." A number of children of God gathered together unto " His Name" (verse 7) are called " an assembly," a called out and called together company.

An examination of the epistle reveals that there are now two parties. The hateful seed of discord sown among brethren has produced a terrible harvest of division in the assembly. The weakening of brotherly love, at first allowed, makes way for difference of judgment; self-assertion follows, and we are staggered by the acknow­ledgment in Scripture, for the first time, that actual division has taken place. And now we have the two ominous words, " them " and " us," to describe the two separated parties. On the one hand there is the party headed by Diotrephes, " who loveth to have the pre-eminence among them "—that is, the church to which John had previously written without effect (verse 9). We have also those described by the word " us," including the writer, Gaius, with the " brethren " of verse 5 and Demetrius, all of whom are in happy association and love as brethren.

A further distinction is, that in reference to the " us " who are not received, the word " church " is used without the definite article—it is only an assembly. In his book, " John, whom Jesus loved," Dr. Culross renders it " an assembly." But in reference to " them " over whom Diotrephes is pre-eminent, who " receive us not," the word is prefaced in each case with the definite article—it is the assembly. Many of us are but too well acquainted with the modern display of this ancient picture.

The central point of the letter is "The Reception Question," touching the brethren who ought to be received by one assembly from another (verses 5-8). Here " the church," where godly brethren would not be received, is conspicuous (verses 9 and 10). John does not inculcate a peace-at-any-price fellowship, but dwells upon the char­acter, walk and service of such as " we ought to receive," and then proceeds to unearth the carnal spirit that would not receive them. It is helpful to see how the character of those who are "not received " is given in detail.

First, Gaius, who seems to be of weakly bodily con­stitution, is in a prosperous state spiritually ; of him it is said, " thy soul prospereth." " Ah," it may be said, " but that is not everything." No, it is not everything; but, my brother or sister, if your own soul is really prospering at this moment, you will readily admit that it is a very blessed tiling, and a very great thing—a very good begin­ning to go on with—in any child of God.

It is to be feared that some would make this a secondary consideration, or even one to be put last in the case of a brother to be received. Intelligence, gift, or perhaps a correct judgment as to the right " assembly position," would be made the first qualification. But there is not a word about the abilities of Gaius—though he might have had them—the great thing which he sought to maintain was soul prosperity.

No doubt Diotrephes looked down on him as only a simple-minded believer, and since he was so untaught and weak as to help forward the brethren objected to, Dio­trephes had small scruple in casting him out of the church. But it is further testified by the brethren who came back to John, that the truth is in him (verse 3).

It is most satisfactory to be able to meet every malicious accusation with such a testimony as this. But not only has Gaius the truth in him, he is also walking in the truth (verse 3). He is an exponent of the truth in his life, an epistle of Christ manifestly declared, before all men. Again, this report brings with it such joy to the apostle that he says he has no greater (verse 4).

Now let us look at the way of Gaius with his brethren. He who prospers in soul, who has the truth in him, and who walks in the truth, will never become a leading man in the divisions of the Lord's people, for " everyone that loveth Him that begat, loveth him also that is begotten of Him " (1 Jn. 5. 1). Therefore it is just what we might expect in Gaius, when we read that the brethren who came and testified of the truth that was in him should bear witness also of " his love before the church " (ver. 6). His love was shown not only to well-known brethren, but to strangers likewise, i.e. to brethren coming from a dis­tance. " Beloved Gaius," would that more of us were like thee!

The doctrine of love was doubtless well known in the church out of which " those that would" receive the brethren were cast.

As regards brotherly love, the Apostle John and all the brethren might be loved in a sense, but this was not merely a question of love but a matter of fellowship, and here none could be received except upon agreement on certain ques­tions considered to be of greater importance ; and if Gaius or others would receive such, they must be cast out of the church (verse 10).

This may be called " true love " exercised with great spiritual insight, but it is not according to God.

Doubtless reasons could be urged for these strong measures, for the Diotrephes spirit can always support its own side of the question.

It only remains for us to look at Demetrius (verse 12) to complete the list of rejected ones (whom John associated with himself under the term " us "), as outside the company With Diotrephes (designated by the word " them ").

" Demetrius hath good report of all men." This is no mean qualification for a servant of Christ, as we see in 1 Tim.1. 7 ; but when we are further assured that he had the commendation also " of the truth itself," we should expect such a double testimony to secure his acceptance among godly ones anywhere. But John proceeds to add his own personal testimony which, he takes the precaution to assure Gaius, is true—not for the sake of Gaius probably, but of some others who would be less ready to trust even the record of John.

We have seen that a good testimony is given to all the brethren in question, and that no laxity of truth or doc­trine is referred to about them.    It was no mere largeness of heart or liberal-mindedness in their case. They had love without laxity, and it is most satisfactory to find the word " truth " seven times in this short epistle in con­nection with these excluded brethren. Is it not exceed­ingly solemn that brethren should be prated against with malicious words, who, when the facts are truly stated, are found not only free from every charge, but in every way godly and commendable ? Not a single flaw in one of these brethren is pointed out, yet are they all cast out as unlit for fellowship!

But surely there must have been something terribly wrong somewhere to produce such disastrous results. The enemy must have sadly prevailed when the honour of the Lord, the desire of His heart, the truth of His Word, the oneness of His Body, and the reality of His Headship were so set aside by this separating process !