The apostle John lived longer than the other eleven disciples. Later in his life, one of his greatest battles was against this separation between Christian leaders and the rest of God’s people.
He wrote of one such skirmish in 3 John when he said:
I wrote something to the church; but Diotrephes, who loves to be first among them, does not accept what we say. For this reason, if I come, I will call attention to his deeds which he does, unjustly accusing us with wicked words; and not satisfied with this, he himself does not receive the brethren, either, and he forbids those who desire to do so and puts them out of the church.
3 John 9–10
Apparently an insecure leader, who wanted to be exalted above the rest, seized control of a church and censured input from anyone else. This contrasts with other leaders who remain anonymous out of respect for their servants’ hearts and are mentioned in verse 8. John writes of these heroes with flattering terms, encouraging the church to support such men who “went out for the sake of the Name [of Christ], accepting nothing from the Gentiles” (v. 7).
The issue is not receiving support for ministry. The issue is in developing a separate class of Christians who are elevated to a higher stature. It is becoming professional Christian leaders who have seemingly greater responsibility and therefore more privilege and respect than other Christians that is the problem. I believe that Diotrephes is not the only one who is such a threat at this time.
In John’s last writing, the Revelation of Jesus Christ, he addresses the seven churches of Asia Minor. In a few of the churches the rise of the clergy is addressed. It is called the deeds of the Nicolaitans. Scholars disagree over what this group is. Some believe it is a band following some false teaching of Nicholas, but the only Nicholas that they can point to is the one mentioned in Acts 6:5. This is one viewpoint, but I see another view that is probably more consistent with the whole of Scripture.
Nike, a word made famous by athletic shoes, means “victory.” It comes from the word nicos, which means “to conquer” and is the prefix in the word Nicolaitans. Laos is the Greek word for “people” and is the term from which we get the word laity. I believe the Nicolaitans were an emerging professional class who ruled over God’s people in the church. From their name we can say they were the ones who “conquered the people.” And Revelation 2:6 says that Jesus hates “the deeds of the Nicolaitans.”
To the church in Pergamum, Jesus writes that the Nicolaitans were guilty in the same way as Balaam, a professional prophet for hire, whom Balak bought (the highest bidder) and sent to curse God’s people with his special spiritual authority (vv. 14–15). It is interesting that the name Balaam in Hebrew is made up essentially of the same combined words as Nicolaitan in Greek—meaning to conquer or destroy the people. Nicolaitan may be a good Greek translation for the Hebrew word Balaam.
Our very language betrays that we have fallen victim to the deeds of the Nicolaitans—those who would “conquer the people.” Some people have a special “call to ministry.” We refer to them as “ministers.” They are “ordained for ministry.” We even call them “reverend” as though they are more holy than the rest and deserving reverential respect. The New Testament does not use language like this, in fact, quite the opposite. Leaders in the church are not to do the work of the ministry, but to equip the ordinary saints to do the work of the ministry (Eph. 4:11–16). The ministers in the New Testament are all those who are of the family of God. No one but God is to be revered.
Jesus took this idea way beyond our comfort zone. He said we should not call anyone our leader, our father, or even our teacher, because God is all of these things for us (Matt. 23:8–12). God is the only one to be revered or worshiped. To do otherwise is clearly blasphemous. The idea that some people are more holy than others is not found in the New Testament. The people, whom the leaders are supposed to equip, are called “the saints,” which, as we have seen, means “holy ones.” They are the ministers—the ones “called to the ministry.” These ordinary Christians are set apart, called to be holy and to serve.
The idea of professional Christians who are for hire is something that Jesus hates. He refers to leaders who are for hire as hirelings (John 10:12). They are not only “for hire” but, like Diotrephes, they have ambitions to be higher than the rest. This is what Jesus says clearly that he hates, and so should we.