What if you spent years faithfully and earnestly praying for revival to come to your community, and then one day, seemingly out of the blue, God dramatically answered your prayers?
All across your city, every day people begin crowding into the church to hear the gospel from God’s Word. On the streets, in their workplaces, in classrooms and homes all over town, previously timid church members are faithfully declaring the gospel and fruit is coming fast. Lives are transformed, marriages are saved, and most of all, one after another God’s enemies are laying down the weapons of their rebellion and are taking refuge in his glorious and merciful Son.
What if all this happened in your own town, right in front of your eyes, in that other guy’s church, just a few blocks down the street from yours?
I suspect we all know what we ought to say in response, but the words of praise and joy are likely to get caught in the backs of our throats.
This has happened before. In 1839 Robert Murray M’Cheyne learned that a great revival had broken out in his church under a guest preacher while he was away on a months-long mission trip. When the Spirit of God seems to bless the ministry of others rather than our own, some pretty important things about the real nature of our loves become glaringly visible.
“DIOTREPHES, WHO LOVES TO BE FIRST”
Of course, this battle between envy and rejoicing is nothing new. The Apostle John writes about the issue in his third letter (3 John). There, in verses five to eleven, he introduces us to two men: Gaius and Diotrephes.
Gaius loves to welcome and support faithful missionaries sent out from other churches because he loves Jesus (vv. 5-8).
Diotrephes, well…not so much. Diotrephes refuses to welcome these workers from other churches for one simple reason: John tells us plainly that Diotrephes “loves to be first” (v. 9). He has no desire to see gospel work done unless he does it. He will rejoice in no fruit unless it’s his fruit. He will tolerate no competition. Diotrephes’ actions and attitudes are, John bluntly says, “evil” (v. 11).
Evil—that’s a strong word. And frankly what frightens me most about Diotrephes is that we’re not told of any lack of doctrinal orthodoxy to justify that label. There is no mention of heresy or inadequate views of Christ. For all we know, Diotrephes’ theology looked just right on paper. But his competitive spirit exposed his supposed love for the gospel as merely love for his own group, his own ministry—ultimately love for himself. Just like any other pagan.
THE NOT-SO-SUBTLE POINT
So here comes the not-so-subtle point of this article: Do not be like Diotrephes! Instead, imitate what is good, meaning the gospel-exalting, non-competitive spirit of Gaius.
But why is this such a big deal? Because not only your heart but the very worth of the gospel in the eyes of the world is at stake.
Listen, you can talk all day about how you praise God for the blessings of gospel prosperity in your church—and you should, to some extent. And yet there will always be a lingering scent of self-interest; it’s your church, after all.
But what if you genuinely praise God for the gospel prosperity in some other church, whether in another country or even (gulp) right across town? What if you demonstrate the same delight to see Jesus’ work held up and delighted in as a result of someone else’s ministry? If you do, that shows that you love Jesus and his gospel and his glory—not just your group, your club, your ministry, your church.
That’s why it’s so important that we cultivate an attitude like Gaius’ in our hearts and in our church members’ hearts. Our love for Jesus and for his glory may never shine brighter than when we rejoice in the progress of the gospel even when there isn’t the slightest chance of us getting any of the credit.
HOW TO CULTIVATE THE SPIRIT OF GAIUS
How can you cultivate this kind of spirit in your church and in your own heart? Here are a few ways.
1. Pray and Read
First, pray and read. Start by reflecting on passages like 3 John that show the unique glory of what we might call a “disinterested delight” in the prosperity of the gospel. And pray that God would grow in you a heart that loves to encourage gospel progress, wherever it happens and whoever it happens through. Why? Because you love to see Jesus glorified.
2. Model and Teach
Second, model and teach. Show your church what this looks like by regularly praying for other faithful churches, by name, in public, from your pulpit, on Sunday morning. Praise God openly for the prosperity he may be giving to other churches that preach the same gospel, even right there in your own town. And pray for Christians and gospel work in other places around the world, too. Teach your people by this that the kingdom of God is much, much bigger than your local church.
3. Support and Celebrate
Third, support and celebrate. And, like faithful Gaius, go all the way and take money you could really use for your own church and give it away. Give it to bless other churches and to support faithful workers who have been sent out for the sake of the name (3 John 7). Again, when your church sends its money to bless and support external gospel work it’s like a megaphone announcing, “We love Jesus and his glory, not just our own group and our ministry.”
Certainly you have to keep some money to responsibly care for your own congregation. I understand that. But do you really need all the money God gives you? Really? Might it not be wonderfully liberating and gospel-clarifying to write a check that declares your church is free, through the grace of God, from the bondage of exclusive self-interest? True churches are not in competition with each other for dollars, or members, or glory. After all, all the money, all the people, and all the glory belong to God.
MAY WE PRAISE GOD FOR OTHER CHURCHES’ SUCCESS—AND MEAN IT
God has a big plan for his whole world, and God will accomplish his work in the world. He will save his children, and secure them in the faith, and grow them in holiness.
Sometimes he may do that through us. Sometimes he may do it through the church down the street. May we grow in our love for the glory of Christ so that either way we can say “Praise God,” and really mean it.
Andy Johnson is an associate pastor of Capitol Hill Baptist Church in Washington, DC.
(Editor's note: For more on why and how pastors should work for the progress of the gospel beyond their churches, keep an eye out for the next issue of the 9Marks Journal, coming soon.)