Recently I wrote on Diotrephes–a man whom the apostle John writes about in the little letter of 3 John. This is the only mention of Diotrephes in the Bible. But it is not a flattering one–John condemns him as a man “who likes to put himself first.” The resulting actions of Diotrephes putting himself first seems to be two fold: one, he refuses to acknowledge John’s apostolic authority; and two, he is mistreating missional laborers and those who wish to welcome them. Upon further reflection in the original language a certain verb has caught my attention. The verb in Greek is φιλοπρωτεύω. This is the only place it is used in the New Testament–but can mean “the desire to be first”, “a love for having the highest rank or position“, or “the striving to be first.” Obviously, in this context, the connotation of the verb is a negative one. And it seems to stand opposed to Christ-centered leadership. The most obvious example of this is recorded for us in Matthew 20 and Mark 10 where James and John (interesting to note that the apostle once wrestled with this issue) make a request of Jesus to hold the 2nd and 3rd most important positions in His kingdom. In other words, James and John were striving to attain rank and status. Jesus counters with a pointed treatise on true leadership in His kingdom. He unequivocally states that leading in His kingdom is not about being first, but about being last. A Christ-centered leader serves, “slaves”, and sees himself as a ransom. There is a ton we could unpack from those three ideas–but we will save that for a later time. What Diotrephes–and for that matter, James and John before the resurrection–were exhibiting could be called selfish ambition.
But here is a critical question–how does this notion line up with what Paul says in 1 Timothy 3:1–“If anyone aspires to the office of overseer, he desires a noble task”?What is the difference between “aspiring” to leadership and “desiring to be first?” The Greek word for “aspire” can mean “strive to attain”, “long for”, or “aspire to.” The actual definitions don’t sound very different from what John says about Diotrephes. The true meaning always depends on the context–this verb is only mentioned three times in the New Testament–twice positively, as here an in Hebrews 11:16–and once negatively as in 1 Timothy 6:10. Paul goes on in 1 Timothy 3 to very carefully describe what type of overseer a person should “aspire” to be–the description could stand as a list of qualities for a true Christ-centered leader. In this list there are a couple of qualities that are the exact opposite of what Diotrephes was exhibiting (hospitality and respectable). We might label this quality as godly aspiration.
If a leader decides “to put himself first” it will most certainly lead towards discrediting other leaders and ostracizing your followers–it’s the only way to remain the top dog. If a leader decides to put Christ at the center it will lead towards serving and empowering others and an atmosphere of grace and truth.
Therefore to aspire to be a Christ-centered leader is a worthy aspiration–because the Christ-centered leader begins by always seeing himself or herself as one under authority. And when one is truly under the authority of Christ they will begin to exhibit the qualities Paul describes in 1 Timothy 3.