Third John and Hospitality

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.

Pompeii_family_feast_painting_NaplesDidache 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?

6 thoughts on “Third John and Hospitality

  1. I think that it’s harder now to deal with missionaries staying in your home, in Biblical times, missionaries were traveling, however they would walk from church to church, house to house, but they would go so far out of the way. Now, we have missionaries that go to Asia or Africa or other places. They fly in and fly out, but they stay longer than a week. Most missionaries don’t have to money to stay at hotels, so they stay at the homes of those in the church who are willing to offer a place for them to stay. However, there is a certain period, if they stay longer than a week or two, that would be when you would question what they are really there for.

  2. This week has been the week of the Grace Gospel Fellowship Leadership Conference. One of the many undertakings of this conference was the commissioning and ordination of several pastors within the GGF. This process requires an individual to undergo a thorough scrutiny of biblical, theological, and spiritual matters by an approved panel of GGF pastors. The panel either approves or denies the individual’s commissioning, licensing, or ordination status that authorizes official GGF leadership, teaching, and preaching.

    Modern day missionaries conduct a similar process. Prior to being accepted by a mission organization, they are required to field several questions relating to their faith. This ensures their beliefs align with those of the mission.

    The early church did not have the organizational leadership of today. The Bible states after his death Jesus appeared not only to his disciples but to several other people as well (Mark 16:14). It is understood that even Jesus’ closest disciples (Peter, James, and John) had difficulty understanding Jesus’ message to them. Is it possible there were “lay” people to whom Jesus had spoken who may have misinterpreted what Jesus said? Perhaps these people created an incorrect message and attempted to spread it among early believers?

    Church members today do not have to worry so much about housing and showing hospitality to fraudulent teachers so much. However, maybe the challenge could be to stretch oneself and demonstrate hospitality to those who are in need and require support or assistance.

  3. I have never been big into hospitality. In fact, i have had to work very hard over the last several years in order to cultivate an attitude of love and gracious towards others in my care. I lived with two missionary kids in an apartment last year, and our unspoken motto quickly became, “what is mine is yours.” This of course typically resulted in all of your left over pizza being consumed before you knew it, but it generated a different attitude and spirit in my being. I became hospitable. I learned hospitality. I began to realize that i don’t have to hoard my things, and what is mine is everyone’s. Guest in our care quickly found to much to do and eat because of this mantra and i began to enjoy all that this hospitality entails. It is hard to speak to direct modern parallels in 3rd John because there just aren’t that many. Our whole church and missionary system is different and we don’t find the same circumstances that we do in this book. What i do think that we can glean from this text is an attitude. This attitude is a result of the light of Christ in our lives, and is that of love (which cultivates an attitude of hospitality). If we cannot treat others with love in the form of our hospitality, we are losing the basic thought process behind the light of Jesus. If we are not willing to accept others into our homes or lives to share what we have, how can we claim to be Christians? I find it particularly interesting that John addressing this problem, not in turning away “sinners”, but in turning away a brother in Christ. I believe that this has direct implications into our lives. We need to, with arms wide open, welcome people into our homes and lives to show them the love of Jesus Christ. And this is why Gaius is commended, and Diotrephes is rebuked (by the way, how awkward would it be to be called out by an apostle and have that same book studied for thousands of years…) because Gaius is living out the gospel in daily life. Of course the issue of apostolic authority also plays a big part in the grand scheme of this book, and yet the fact still remains: We need to be hospitable to others and show the love of Christ in any way that we can. But in the light of Didache, let us not be naive and allow someone to abuse us and spread a false gospel. And so, we must pray for both love and a discerning spirit when opening our arms to our brothers and sisters in Christ and the world.

  4. It’s tricky to apply this concept of “testing” a traveling teacher to modern-day Christianity because so many are sent out on behalf of or with the authority of some larger organization. To question the teacher would be to question those very people who sent him or her. But along the lines of what Adam and John mentioned, this letter was written during a time when theology was still forming. This made it all the more important for the people involved to question teaching and discern the truth. Today, we have the whole of Scripture, so testing the credibility of teachers is based on the Bible instead of on word-of-mouth testimony and eyewitness. As for hospitality, I think Adam summed it up nicely in that it is a very vulnerable way to show Christ’s love to others and that principle of the content of 3 John certainly has an effect on the way we live our lives.

  5. It may be limited, but I think this letter is a great representation of what we, as the current Church, should do for visiting teachers/missionaries. I think there’s a hidden lesson in this passage about taking care of other members of the Body, not just teachers. We may have some differences, but we are all members of the Body of Christ, and we need to treat each other like that is the case. As far as the “testing” is concerned, I think that is another applicable lesson from 3 John. Just as we need to take care of our fellow Christians, we also need to hold them accountable. I think that is a better term than “testing” in todays context. It is important to make sure that teachers, whether home or visiting, are consistently preaching the Word of God, not something else.

  6. Since the Romans associated Christianity with a sect of Judaism and the general population saw them as atheists, it was hard to develop a complex system of church government like we have today. It was simply easier for teachers to travel from home church to home church rather than stay at one for the majority of their ministry. Like arenberg93 said in his reply, the circumstances simply were not the same.

    As to the testing procedures that each teacher went through, I see that every time a minister is ordained or a pastor/teacher assigned to a church. These people cannot just come in and begin ministering if their beliefs do not hold to sound biblical truth as upheld by orthodox Christianity. These teachers were approved and sent by John who had been given authority by the Jesus Christ Himself.

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