Power Struggles in the Congregation

Tug of War

Have you ever experienced power struggles in your congregation? I received a call one day. My pastor-friend was distraught. He had received a written letter from a female staff member. She accused him of sexual harassment. The letter demanded he resign immediately. Otherwise, she would tell the church. It was an hour’s drive, but I went straight there to be with him.  

Once I arrived and collected the facts, I told him, “Frame the letter. It will be the visible reminder of reformation in this congregation.” The truth was: He never touched her or harassed her in any way. He contacted an attorney and demanded a written retraction. She admitted she had lied. She offered a full retraction and immediately resigned. When the dust settled, that situation revealed a deeper issue: A power struggle within the congregation, and she was at the center of it.  

3 John provides practical wisdom on how to deal with power struggles in the congregation. Let’s assume you have completed an exegetical study of the letter. Work through your hermeneutical and homiletical conclusions.

Hermeneutical Conclusions

What does the canonical analysis tell us?

This is one of the last letters written in the NT. Before this, John also wrote the Gospel of John, 1 John, and 2 John. We can consult John’s prior writings if we run into difficulties on a particular issue. 

What does the book analysis tell us?

  • Who is the author? Most scholars consider the Apostle John is the author. 
  • Who is the audience? The recipient is Gaius. We know nothing of him for certain, other than he was a faithful Christian “walking in the truth” (v. 3). Likely, he was a convert of the Apostle John (v. 4).  
  • When was it written? Most scholars date it in the late 1st century. 
  • Are there any unique syntactical markings? After a short greeting (v. 1), John builds his letter around four personalities:1See Daniel Akin, 1, 2, 3 John, vol. 38, NAC (Nashville:  B&H, 2001), 237-238.
    • Gaius: Strive to Set a Christly Example (vv. 2-8)
    • Diotrophes: Stop Divisive Behavior (vv. 9-10)
    • Demetrius: Build a Godly Testimony (vv. 11-12)
    • John: Show Genuine Care (vv. 13-15). 
  • What is the author’s purpose? John doesn’t state his purpose outright. However, the letter’s structure makes his purpose clear: To address a power struggle disrupting the congregation. He contrasts the godliness of Gaius and Demetrius against the ungodliness of the main culprit who must be confronted: wicked Diotrophes. Simply put: John gave biblical instruction on how to address power struggles in the congregation.  

What is the sectional context? 

A division in the congregation centered around one person: Diotrophes. Therefore, John gave counsel on how to confront this agitator.

What is the immediate context? 

John heard this troublemaker was causing problems (even preventing growth, v. 10). He calls them to faithfully follow Christ in love by addressing a divisive personality. 

Homiletical Conclusions

Single Meaning:        

John gave biblical directives on how to address a power struggle plaguing the congregation.  

Timeless Principle:    

Combat division in the congregation by faithfully applying Christ’s truth-principles.  

Major Objective:        

Focus on overcoming evil by doing the right things for the right reason in the right spirit.

Sermon Title:

“Power Struggles In The Congregation”      


I. Strive To Set A Christly Example (Gaius) (vv. 2-8)

II. Stop Divisive Behavior (Diotrophes) (vv. 9-10)

III. Build A Godly Testimony (Demetrius) (vv. 11-12)

IV. Show Genuine Care (John) (vv. 13-15)

Closing Thoughts

Notice, this sermon sets-up nicely for strong, imperative outline points. Such imperatives offer the listener practical biblical truths to apply to his/her life. Of course, you can split the letter into smaller preaching-units, but it also is short enough to preach as a whole.

The emphasis of the letter is on stopping the rabble-rouser, Diotrophes. Settle-in on Point 2 in the sermon. Track his actions as detailed in the biblical text. Most power mongers unconsciously follow the same pattern. Here is how you will recognize a modern-day Diotrophes (or Jezebel):

  • Pride: “he [or she] puts himself [or herself] first (v. 9). C.S. Lewis once said, “Pride is the mother hen under which all other sins are hatched.” Power struggles always begin with pride. From human pride springs forth all manner of other divisive sins: greed, gossip, slander, covetousness, rebellion, idolatry, etc.  
  • Rejection of authority: “does not acknowledge authority (v. 9). A divisive person will rebel against authority: God’s authority, Scriptural authority, or pastoral authority. It doesn’t matter to him or her. He or she will seek to establish himself/herself as the greater authority.  
  • Gossip: talking wicked nonsense (v. 10). This person will engage in private conversations, lurking from house to house, saying things in private they would never say in public; or nowadays, weaponizing social media for disingenuous purposes. They never call names outright. They are too cowardly for that. Rather, they speak in general terms or allegorical terms, but everyone knows who they are talking about: typically the Lead Pastor. God sees all his/her iniquitous ways, and He never forgets.
  • Group control: refuses to welcome the brothers, and also stops those who want to (v. 10). The last stage will be to build-up a coalition. They will prey upon a group of vulnerable people, convincing them to join rank through soothing words, half-lies, bribes, and tall tales. If you disagree with the group-think, they will alienate/shun you. Don’t get caught-up in their power struggle politics. Stay above the fray. 

In light of this, the question looms, “How do you deal with such vipers?” First, expound Holy Scripture: This is the “truth” God mentions 5 times in this letter. The preaching of Holy Scripture will accomplish 2 things: (1) it will expose their wicked behavior and (2) it will embolden mature Christians to purge-out devilish activities corrupting Christ’s Bride.  

In light of this, the question looms, “How do you deal with such vipers?” First, expound Holy Scripture.

Second, “bring up what he [or she] is doing” (v. 10). God grants us permission and authority in this letter to expose those who are dividing the congregation. We have permission to call names, to present any false (or misleading) statements made, and to cast light on evil behavior. Notice, though, John didn’t excommunicate the malcontent from the congregation. He had the authority to do so, but refrained in this instance. On the other hand, Paul did excommunicate malcontents on occasion (1 Tim. 1:20). Remain cautious, careful, patient, and allow God time to act before you do. At the same time, don’t keep things hidden: “bring up the things causing division. The time may come to confront and discipline, but be extremely careful in the meanwhile. While you wait, encourage the members (as John did) to support the direction of the congregation (so long as it is scriptural) and keep confronting those who won’t. 

God grants us permission and authority in this letter to expose those who are dividing the congregation.

Ultimately, you may need to exercise congregational discipline in accord with Matthew 18:15-20. This is not always easy to accomplish because such vipers are cunning, clever, and almost always cover their tracks. It may be difficult to prove their sin against you. What’s worse, you may be outnumbered in the short-term. Be patient. Keep preaching. Keep shining sunshine on the wicked deeds. At some point, the tyrant will expose himself/herself, and the truth will out. In the meanwhile, handle yourself with the grace of Demetrius: Keep doing the right thing for the right reason in the right spirit. Just as Jannes and Jambres opposed Moses, the folly of these present-day evildoers will be plain to all (2 Tim. 3:8-9). 

Stand strong. Above all else, stand strong. 

Stand strong. Above all else, stand strong. 

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1 See Daniel Akin, 1, 2, 3 John, vol. 38, NAC (Nashville:  B&H, 2001), 237-238.
Author Tug of War

Chip Thornton

Pastor of FBC Springville, Alabama. Chip is a graduate of The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary where he earned his Ph.D. in expository preaching. He enjoys spending time with his family, has a passion for discipleship, and is committed to biblical exposition.