In the gallery, among the many people crowded together, a young student at the University of Paris peered at the dignitaries doing the work of peace. He’d come to Paris to learn about government, to learn about leadership; specifically, to learn about democracy. He intended, and expected, to lead his country one day and wanted to do so in the best way possible.
So he studied David Lloyd George, Woodrow Wilson, and Georges Clemenceau as they worked on the Versailles treaty. These three, the prime minister of Great Britain, the president of the United States, and the president of France, hashed out their differences as they decided what to do at the end of World War I. Germany and her allies were defeated. Russia was embroiled in its own revolution, just now starting to end, with Vladimir Lenin coming out on top with his Bolshevik form of Communism.
Here, George, Wilson, and Clemenceau worked to preserve democracy. Wilson had one vision, a gracious plan that would restore Germany and her allies quickly so that they could move on as free countries. George and Clemenceau, worn down by four long years of war and many deaths from their countries, had a different idea in mind: punish Germany and her allies as harshly as possible.
In the end, George and Clemenceau won more than Wilson did. Germany was severely punished, a fact that set it on a course toward the Naziism that would lead to World War II.
Back in the gallery, as the Versailles Treaty that ended WWI was signed, our young University of Paris student left disgusted. His experience watching democracy work through these three leaders left him with the distinct impression that democracy was not for him and not for his country. He studied communism instead and returned home to lead his country in that direction.
Ho Chi Minh, legend has it, came close to becoming a democratic leader of Vietnam. Instead, because of his experience at Versailles, he became a communist and the rest is history.
Politics have wide-ranging and unintended consequences. George, Wilson, and Clemenceau had no idea who was watching them in the gallery and could have had no knowledge of the civil war that would break out some thirty years later in Vietnam in part because of Ho Chi Minh’s experience with them.
Conflict and discord are a part of life. They happen to us all. But when in the midst of conflict, or when it comes time to resolve conflict, how are we to act? How could George, Wilson, and Clemenceau have acted differently that might have not led Ho Chi Minh to communism?
Above all, what does it mean to act faithfully, as a disciple of Christ, in the midst of political conflict?
Let’s read together 3 John, the first in our small books of the Bible series.
What does it mean to act faithfully, as a disciple of Christ, in the midst of political conflict? It’s a question relevant to all of us, and not just because of national news that leads us to heated conversations about the hot button topics of our day. It’s relevant because politics is just a fancy word for relationships.
Specifically, politics is the name for the power dynamics at play in our relationships with each other. There’s politics when we, as a child, think through how to approach our parents when we want to ask for something. There’s politics when we think through how to go to our boss, or our board, or our colleagues, asking for permission for something. There’s politics whenever we recognize a power dynamic in a relationship. There’s even politics in our relationship with our husband or wife.
Politics isn’t bad; it’s just a fact of life. We have more power in some relationships and less in others. Recognizing that fact enables us to live better together, for if we know we have some power in a relationship, we can exercise that carefully and with grace. If we know we do not have as much power in a relationship, then we know better how to approach that person and live in harmony with them.
Regardless, awareness of the power dynamic in a relationship gives opportunity to exercise that power carefully, so that we can live together in harmony.
Such is exactly what’s not happening in 3 John. There’s a power struggle. The Elder, the author whom I’ll simply refer to as John, is writing to Gaius to tell him that he has a message for the church that Diotrephes leads. This was common practice. John is a leader among many churches, an apostle who writes letters to various congregations just as Paul did. Emissaries, messengers, carry those letters to the churches with letters of reference attached. Almost certainly, 3 John is a reference letter for 1 John.
As such, when the emissaries arrived at the home of Gaius, he would have read 3 John first. That would have led him to 2 John, a cover letter for 1 John, which would have told him what this was all about. Then, if allowed by Diotrephes, he would have read 1 John to the congregation. 3 John is a letter of reference; in other words, it’s a letter in which John defends his right to speak to this congregation.
He needs to make such a defense because Diotrephes won’t let him speak. He clearly states that Diotrephes doesn’t recognize his authority. There’s some sort of dispute here. We don’t know if it’s ecclesial, relating to church politics, or if it’s theological, relating to beliefs and convictions, or if it’s personal, but whatever it is, there’s a power struggle. Who has the right to speak to this congregation?
John clearly believes he has that right and is hopeful that Gaius, Demetrius, or perhaps someone else, can convince Diotrephes to allow a reading of 1 John in the congregation. And yet, John also defends himself. He notes that those who are engaged in the work of the truth, like Demetrius and, by extension, himself, are known by their works. These demonstrate either evil or good, with the inference that what Diotrephes demonstrates is, in fact, evil.
That’s not exactly the best way to win friends and influence people. Saying that someone you disagree with, have a conflict with, someone who is causing you trouble, is representing the ways of evil isn’t a strategy most leadership coaches would recommend.
But John is being true to himself, true to his understanding of things, and true to his relationship with Diotrephes.
And that, indeed, is the answer to the question we posited before and after reading the scripture. What does it mean to act faithfully, as a disciple of Christ, in the midst of political conflict?
The answer is to be true to Christ in you. In other words, to maintain integrity.
John shows integrity by not seeking to undermine Diotrephes. There’s no indication that he seeks to work around Diotrephes, seeks to get his letter read without Diotrephes permission, or seeks to remove Diotrephes from power. John recognizes that Diotrephes has the power and simply makes his case for why he should be allowed to be heard in the congregation and why he thinks Diotrephes is wrong. Here, he shows integrity by not trying to manipulate, control, or otherwise act mischievously.
Thus, John also shows integrity by being true to himself. So often in conflict, we say whatever we think will most quickly lead to peace, whatever will most quickly end the conflict, whatever we think the other person wants to hear. But we die to ourselves when we do that by denying a chance for the truth to be heard. John does the right, but hard, thing when he airs his grievances, speaking his truth.
John shows integrity. Which is a difficult thing to do in the midst of conflict. It’s highly tempting to engage in behavior we know is wrong. It’s tempting because we’re willing to think that the ends justify the means. Consider John: perhaps he could have written private letters to sympathetic members of Diotrephes’ congregation to convince them to overthrow him as their pastor.
Maybe he could have started a whisper campaign by gossiping about Diotrephes. “Did you hear what our pastor is doing now?” Or “Can you believe what the pastor wants to do?” I bet you’ve heard similar things in this church. Gossip is always damaging and always has, as it’s desire, the undermining of power. John could have engaged in this kind of behavior, but he didn’t.
He could have also started to publicly attack Diotrephes’s character. He comes close in this letter, but never seems to cross the line. He could have engaged in character assassination or what we, today, would call negative advertising. But he doesn’t.
He could have sought to gain more and more allies and then tried for a hostile takeover of the churches he feels he should rightfully lead. But he doesn’t do that.
He doesn’t do any of these things. That’s what stands out the most to me in this letter. There’s conflict, there’s discord, but John maintains integrity. He is faithful to Christ in him.
That’s a difficult thing to do, but that’s the call on our lives. Conflict and discord are a natural part of life. The politics of our various relationships will naturally lead to arguments, differences of opinion, and conflict. That’s just part of living life. We cannot avoid them and, indeed, working hard to avoid them leads to dying inside as we have to shut down more and more of how we feel and what we think.
But while we cannot avoid politics and the conflict it engenders, we can faithfully decide how to live into conflict when it comes. And the number one rule for how we respond, the number one rule that John demonstrates here, is to do unto our opponent as we would have done unto us.
Following the golden rule will transform our conflicts from divisive, hurtful, affairs to resolutions capable of powerful transformation.
When embroiled in conflict, take a moment to ask yourself if you’re treating the person the way you would want to be treated. No matter how evil they may seem, for certainly Diotrephes seemed evil to John, they’re still deserving of fair treatment because your opponent is a beloved child of God.
Your coworker is a beloved child of God. Your aunt, uncle, cousin, brother, sister, mother, father, niece, or nephew is a beloved child of God. Your spouse is a beloved child of God. Your fellow church member is a beloved child of God. I am a beloved child of God. Whomever your opponent is, he or she is a beloved child of God.
We are all beloved children of God. Yes, there are power dynamics among us, yes those give rise to conflict, but that doesn’t mean we need to abandon the golden rule. It doesn’t mean that we have been given permission to treat others poorly. Nothing reveals our inner character, nothing reveals how much or how little we know Christ, than how we handle ourselves in conflict.
There is no political reality that justifies the mistreatment of each other. I hear both sides in our national politics saying that this is not true: Democrats are so evil, republicans are so evil, trump supporters are so evil, socialists are so evil, that any means justifies the end of defeating a hated political movement. Such is not Christian.
There’s no political reality that justifies the mistreatment of each other. I hear both sides in our denominational politics saying that this is not true: the WCA is so evil, RMN is so evil, those who want full inclusion are so evil, those who want to preserve traditional teachings are so evil, that any means justifies the end of defeating a hated political movement. Such, even though it’s happening in church, is not Christian.
There’s no political reality that justifies the mistreatment of each other. Here in our community and in our church, there’s no political reality that justifies gossip, that justifies whisper campaigns, that justifies character assassination, that justifies the cowardice of not confronting someone face to face. Such, even though it happens all the time around here, is not Christian.
There’s no political reality that justifies the mistreatment of each other. Conflict is not a license to act in ways different than Christ treats you.
For, at a fundamental level, there is always conflict between us and Christ. We do the wrong things, we act in ways contrary to who he is and who he is raising us to be. That’s part of discipleship; conflict undergirds it as we recognize our faltering ways and seek Christ’s grace that allows us to do better the next time.
Power dynamics characterize this most essential of relationships. Christ has all the power, but we want to take some of it for ourselves. We want to be the powerful one. And so we are often in conflict with Christ. That leads us to do evil things toward Christ; hurtful, wounding, mean-spirited things as we decide we know best.
And in the midst of all that conflict, Christ never treats us with evil intention, never does anything to hurt or damage us, never seeks to do anything except love us, no matter how evil we might be toward him.
And so it should be for us. In your conflicts, how do you handle yourself? Be honest with yourself.
When you’re frustrated by someone with power over you, what’s your typical response?
Whenever you want more power, how do you handle yourself?
How much integrity do the answers to those questions demonstrate? How much are you like like Christ in the midst of conflict?
Let us live by the golden rule. Power dynamics, politics, need not drive us to bad behavior. We can lead lives of integrity, even in the midst of conflict, as 3 John demonstrates to us. Nothing so reveals who we are on the inside, nothing so powerfully exclaims our character, than how we handle ourselves in conflict.
Does how you handle conflict reveal Christ in you?
In the name of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit; Amen.