Ambition can be destructive

The church, wrote Joel Gregory, a former pastor of First Baptist Church, Dallas, Texas, “is an institution divine in its original foundation but tethered to this celestial ball by every frailty to which humans are subject. Covetousness, littleness, jealousy, lust for power, ego, sacrilege, and a hundred other demons all lurk within the hallways”. Joel Gregory was writing out of his bitter experience of a church fight – a fight which in essence was between two pastors: an older pastor who found it difficult to give way to a younger pastor.

Last week I wrote about godly ambition – but this week I want to write about ambition that is rooted in the personal ego. The example I want to look at is found in the pages of the New Testament. For in 3 John 9 we read of “Diotrephes, who likes to put himself first” (NRSV), or in the words of other translations: the man “who loves to be first” (NIV), “who likes to be their leader” (GNB), or “who loves being in charge” (The Message).

We know very little about what had gone wrong. We do not know to what church John ‘the Elder’ (3 John 1) was writing. Nor do we know who exactly Diotrephes was: his name, which means ‘nurtured by Jupiter’, suggests that he was a Gentile convert. All we know is that there was a major breakdown in relationships between ‘the Elder’ and Diotrephes. The older man accuses the younger man of usurping his authority, of refusing to give hospitality to some of his friends, and of spreading “false charges” (NRSV) or “malicious nonsense” (NIV). The love between Christian brothers and sisters which forms a major theme of the letters of John is singularly lacking.

It is difficult to know what precisely had gone wrong; and, of course, all we have is the Elder’s account of the situation. It may be that the Elder himself was not entirely blameless. Howard Marshall, for instance, has speculated that

The old man may have been standing in the way of younger men; he may have held on to his position instead of in effect resigning in favour of younger men; he may have seemed conservative and even reactionary in his ways when the times were demanding new and vigorous measures.

However, instead of trying to work things through with the older man, Diotrephes seems to have declared ‘UDI’ – instead of honouring the experience and standing of the older man (and we need remember that the ancient world operated by a code of ‘honour’ and ‘shame’), Diotrephes had declared himself to be ‘in charge’. Almost certainly up until that point Diotrephes had already been in a leadership position: he may have even hosted the church in his house. But, how he was asserting his church’s independence from the Elder’s sphere of influence.

This is the context in which the Elder writes that Diotrephes “loves to be first”. It would appear that Diotrephes’ actions were being driven not by ‘godly’ ambition for the Gospel, but by a lust for power which had its roots in the desires of his own ego. In the words of Marshall:

Diotrephes is a standing warning against the danger of confusing personal ambition with zeal for the cause of the gospel.

Sadly, down through the centuries there have been many church leaders who, consciously or unconsciously, allowed themselves to engage in power struggles where the ego and not the Gospel has been the issue. I can think of churches where leaders, both lay and ordained, have been driven not by ‘godly’ ambition, but by personal ambition – the former can build a church, the latter alas only destroys a church.

Jesus by contrast spoke of the need for servant leadership, which constantly seeks the welfare of others rather than of self. He said to his disciples: “Whoever wants to be first must be last of all and servant of all” (Mark 9.35). Similarly on another occasion he said: “Whoever wishes to become great among you must be your servant, and whoever wishes to be first among you must be salve of all” (Mark 10.43, 44). Jesus was not saying that leaders need to first prove themselves in a ‘lowly’ place before they can rise to the ‘heights’ of leadership; rather true greatness is found in service. In the words of the great New Testament scholar, T.W. Manson wrote:

In the Kingdom of God service is not a stepping-stone to nobility; it is nobility, the only kind of nobility that is recognised.

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