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The Conflict between the Elder and Diotrephes

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One of the ironies of the Johannine epistles is that the advice about not extending hospitality to false teachers in 2 John 1:10-11 is used as a weapon against the emissaries of the “elder” in 3 John 1:5-8. There seems to be too little in 3 John to get a sense of what exact roles the elder and Diotrephes had among this network of communities and what was the nature of their dispute. Further, there are still questions about what order the epistles were written in, so did Diotrephes’s actions occur after or before the schism in 1 and 2 John over what the author regarded as foundational claims (e.g. Jesus is the Christ and came in the flesh) and does 1 or 2 John represent the earlier or later stages of this conflict. Here are a few issues:

  • Was the anonymous author of the Johannine letters and Diotrephes both “presbyters” among the same network of household congregations (in Asia Minor or elsewhere)? Was Diotrephes a leader of a domestic congregation while the “elder” carried an informal authority based on his venerable age, connection with the first-generation of the Jesus movement, or charismatic teaching? Or was Diotrephes trying to usurp an authoritarian leadership, perhaps as one of the group’s wealthy patrons?
  • Did the conflict between the “elder” and Diotrephes revolve around theological or Christological issues, around ecclesiastical hierarchies (e.g., leadership structure versus charismatic communal decision-making since they all had an “anointing”), or around a personality clash?
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