Third John – Hospitality in the Early Church

Third John is a letter thanking Gaius for his hospitality in accepting several traveling teachers sent by John to Gaius’ church. 3 John calls these itinerant teachers “strangers” who ought to be given hospitality in “a manner worthy of God.” Like 2 John, this is more of a “note” than a letter, likely filling a single small sheet of papyri (v. 13). It is possible that this letter was delivered by Demetrius as a kind of “letter of introduction” indicating that he in fact has the blessing of John the Elder.

Didache 12 gives instructions on how a church ought to handle a traveling teacher. If a person visits the church and “comes in the name of the Lord,” he is to be welcomes. But, the writer warns, he ought to be examined to find out if he has true insight. If he “merely passing through,” the church ought to assist the teacher, but only if he stays no more than a day or two. If he is a genuine prophet, he is “worthy of his food,” the church ought to share with him and help him with his ministry (13:1-3)

One of these teachers was apparently refused by Diotrephes, another believer in the church. Diotrephes’ behavior is condemned by John as being “un-brotherly.” Gaius is praised for his kind treatment of another teacher, Demetrius, who probably was the deliverer of this letter. We have no idea why Diotrephes refused a teacher. Perhaps he examined him and judged him unworthy to teach. It is also possible that shabby treatment of Demetrius is a reflection on John’s authority – Diotrephes disrespects John as the elder / bishop and therefore refused to give hospitality to his representative. Jobes suggests that Diotrephes is “on the side of the antichrists,” although this cannot be proven conclusively (Letters to the Church, 445).

This letter gives us an insight into how the small house churches of the first century functioned, and to some extent the problems with a house church. An individual could see the church as very much their own and “run things” far too autocratically. Diotrephes is free to make decisions about who may speak to his congregation, trumping John’s authority in this case. There is no “committee of elders” in the church to discuss and decide the matter. The idea of a “church board” is very much a modern congregational church invention.

John the Elder clearly believes has authority over this church and authorized teachers to visit the churches from time to time. He expects his elders to accept the teachers and give them proper hospitality when they visit. Perhaps we can describe him as a “bishop,” but if the tradition of equating John the Disciple / Apostle with John the Elder is correct, this might be an example of apostolic authority.

This teaching on hospitality in Third John also is difficult to apply in a modern context.  I suppose it might be “applied” by being kind to traveling missionaries when they visit your church, but I think that is a rather limited application.  There is a rigorous “testing” of the visiting teacher implied by this letter – how does that work in a modern context?

12 thoughts on “Third John – Hospitality in the Early Church

  1. Any thoughts on whether Gaius was a Roman citizen, his name being a Latin praenomen?

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    • I think that there is a fairly good chance on Gaius being a citizen, I think that you probably have more knowledge on the names than I do. I think that if he or his family were freed slaves given that particular name, they would have been granted citizenship as well.

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  2. I think in modern context when someone comes to your church you offer your hospitality. For most churches I am sure that if there was someone traveling in there area that the people of the church would let them in. I know that in past times it was common for someone to stay in a church if they were just passing by. Now in modern times security is such a high priority. I know for a fact though that the church that I go to they would at least find a place for the missionary to stay.

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  3. I find it interesting that there was a whole set of writing on how a church should handle a traveling teacher. I guess today we have written rules on how to handle guest speakers and what not, but not in the same sense that things were handled back then. I do like the fact that the church leader had the choice to allow specific people to speak at his church, but at the same time that could get messy quickly if you don’t have the right person in the place of leadership. 3 John is short, and I very much agree with the idea of a “note” rather than a full blown letter. It makes sense to be a smaller section and explain things briefly.

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  4. Hopefully I am not going off on another tangent and straying away from your topic because I am not sure I fully grasp the question, but I will do the best to answer it as I understand it.
    I also agree, that the hospitality mentioned and spoken of in the book of 3 John should not be “limited” to merely missionaries and such. It is written as an encouragement to all that we should live according to God and His will. Whether it be working or writing papers for college, all you do should be done to bring glory and honor to Christ. In saying this, we should be caring and hospitable to all of God’s creation… not only to the believers. I think about the movie… who’s name escapes me… but with Iam Neeson, set in an older time period. Iam Neeson goes into the church and asks to stay the night. The preacher understands he is not the safest of men, but let’s him in. Turns out, Iam steels from the church, but gets caught and must return it, but even then, the preacher is not judgmental and cruel. Yes, he is strict because of Iam’s track record, but he continues to show the love of Christ, and through that, the hospitality that God encourages to show to all. That is how I think about the letter of 3rd John.

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  5. It is difficult to take the regulations of hospitality and apply them to our churches today. I do believe that we can be careful who we invite into our homes and into our churches. There are deceivers in the world and we need to be careful not to fall into their traps. I also believe that we can take what third John says and apply to our lives. Verse 11 says “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.” We should imitate what is good. We should show hospitality to those who need it, such as traveling missionaries or visiting pastors. We should, however, be careful about who we let in.

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  6. I wonder if the application can be drawn from some of the cautions that John the elder makes towards Gaius. He is encouraged to not be swayed by the Diotrephes and his attempt to convince others to not give in to hospitality of these people. Jobes also suggests, “Diotrephes may be practicing the elder’s message of 2 John, turning the elder’s exhortation against him by refusing to welcome those he believes teach an errant gospel.” (Jobes, 445). This could very well be likely because it sounds to me like this Diotrephes character is out to get this elder and is doing everything he can to persuade others to join him in this quest.

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  7. I also find it interesting of how the times have changed. Considering the times of the letters it was common to give hospitality to most travelers especially those concerning the church. But I also find it common for the modern church to offer hospitality to those concerning the church especially in the sense of missionaries. I do not believe that the hospitality should be limited to those only concerning the church, but the hospitality and love should be shown and stretched to all of those “travelers” that God brings our way. 3 John 6 says “They have told the church about your love. You will do well to send them on their way in a manner worthy of God”. Therefore we should not hold back our love, our agape love of Christ, to anyone.

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  8. It seems to me that a modern application would be for more than just church. This seems to be talking to be nice to any of those who come in to the church or any place and want to teach. In a modern sense we are to be nice but also carefull in who we let talk.

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  9. I agree that as the body of Christ we should be kind and hospitable to travelling teachers and missionaries. But as you questioned; does John suggest that there should be more than just a general outgiving of kindness? This may in fact be a limited application. What is meant by rigorously “testing” of the visiting teacher? I believe that we are called to admonish one another and to shed light to false teaching. If a teacher professing to proclaim the Truth, yet his teachings go against the Word, that we are responsible to show the error of his ways. We are to examine everything. Furthermore, we are to admonish. Maybe it is not a false teaching but rather a hypocrisy they are living. If they are not living the life that a Christian should be living it is our responsibility as a brother or sister in Christ to show them where they are lacking in their Christian walk. We should show them where they are wrong and encourage them to change their ways. I believe that we are not to blindly follow teachers but to always question and to verify what they are preaching to God’s Word. In this way, I believe we are to test the visiting preacher, teacher, or missionary.

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  10. I think it is wise to measure everything that we hear, are taught, and believe up against scripture. Even though we will not find all specific situations that arise these days, in the Bible, the basics of what we believe should be in sync with what scripture does reveal. The more we are in sync with God’s heart through scripture and prayer and as we do become more sanctified, the easier it will be to see the world through God’s eyes and know what is of him and what is not. And then we can act accordingly to that. “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”(1 John 3:11).

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  11. The idea of testing a “traveling teacher” or missionary as they are called today was an act of reassurance of the beliefs of the traveling teacher. The problem of false prophets and teachers is just as much a problem today as it was in John’s time. It is not good to associate yourself with a person who twists the word of God into a different meaning than what it is intending for. As Christians, we should show hospitality and care to our fellow believer and traveler in Christ. If they have a different belief then we do, we should still show them hospitality and try to understand what they believe and explain what we believe. The world can be a dangerous place when it comes to false prophets, but it through the love of Jesus Christ that we show hospitality to everyone and spread the word of God when doing it.

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