The Heresy of Self-Centeredness

by

Self-centeredness has no place in the church. That ought to go without saying. But from the dawn of the Apostolic era until today, self-love in all its forms has plagued the fellowship of the saints. A classic early example of out-of-control self-centeredness is seen in the case of Diotrephes. He is mentioned in 3 John 9–10, where the Apostle says: “I have written something to the church, but Diotrephes, who likes to put himself first, does not acknowledge our authority… . He is talking wicked nonsense against us. And not content with that, he refuses to welcome the brothers, and also stops those who want to and puts them out of the church.”

Diotrephes aspired to be the preeminent one in his assembly (perhaps even beyond that). Therefore, he perceived everyone else with any teaching authority — including the beloved Apostle — as a threat to his power. John had written a letter of instructionand encouragement to the church, but because of Diotrephes’ desire for personal glory, he rejected what John had to say. He evidently withheld John’s letter from the church. He seems to have kept its very existence a secret; perhaps he even destroyed it. Thus, John wrote his third inspired epistle in part to tell Gaius about the earlier letter’s existence.

In effect, Diotrephes’ selfishness made him guilty of the most pernicious kind of heresy: he actively suppressed and opposed Apostolic doctrine. John, therefore, condemned Diotrephes on four counts: he rejected Apostolic teaching; he made unjust accusations against an Apostle; he was inhospitable to the brethren; and he excommunicated those who did not agree with his defiance of John’s authority. In every conceivable sense, Diotrephes was guilty of the darkest heresy, and all his errors were the fruit of his self-centeredness.

In our fleshly, fallen state, we are all beset with a tendency toward selfishness. It is no minor infraction, no petty character flaw, and no small threat to the soundness of our faith. Diotrephes illustrates the truth that self-love is the mother of all heresies. Every false teaching and every rebellion against God’s authority is ultimately rooted in a fleshly desire to have preeminence — in effect, to claim for oneself the glory that properly belongs to Christ. Every heretic the church has ever seen has tried to supplant God’s truth and God’s authority with his own overblown ego.

Indeed, self-centeredness itself is heretical because it is the very antithesis of everything Jesus taught or exemplified. And it produces seeds that give rise to every other heresy imaginable.

Therefore, there is no room for selfishness in the church. Everything about the gospel, everything the church is designed to be, and everything we learn from Christ’s example strikes a blow at the root of human pride and self-centeredness.

Koinōnia

As a matter of fact, the biblical descriptions of fellowship in the New Testament church employ the Greek word koinōnia. The gracious spirit that word describes is the polar opposite of egocentricity. Variously translated as “fellowship,” “sharing,” “communion,” “partnership,” and “contribution,” the word is derived from koinos, the Greek word for “common.” It connotes the ideas of sharing, community, joint participation, sacrifice for the sake of others, and the giving of self for the common good.

Koinōnia is one of the four core activities that drew the early church together: “They devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching and the fellowship [koinōnia], to the breaking of bread and the prayers” (Acts 2:42). The heart of “fellowship” in the New Testament church was service and sacrifice for one another, not festivity or social functions per se. The word itself made that clear in Greek-speaking cultures. It is used in Romans 15:26 to speak of “some contribution for the poor” (see also 2 Cor. 9:3). In 2 Corinthians 8:4, Paul commends the churches of Macedonia for their “taking part [koinōnia] in the relief of the saints.” Hebrews 13:16 says, “Do not neglect to do good and to share [koinōnia].” Clearly, self-centeredness is hostile to the biblical notion of Christian fellowship.

The One Anothers

That fact is further stressed by the many “one anothers” in the New Testament. We are commanded to “love one another” (John 13:34–35; 15:12, 17); “not pass judgment on one another any longer, but rather decide never to put a stumbling block or hindrance in the way of a brother” (Rom. 14:13); “pursue what makes for peace and for mutual upbuilding” (v. 19); and “live in such harmony with one another … [and] welcome one another as Christ has welcomed you, for the glory of God” (15:5, 7). We are told to “bear one another’s burdens” (Gal. 6:2); to “be kind to one another, tenderhearted, forgiving one another” (Eph. 4:32); and to be “submitting to one another out of reverence for Christ” (5:21). In sum, “Do nothing from rivalry or conceit, but in humility count others more significant than yourselves” (Phil. 2:3). There are many similar New Testament commands governing our relationships to one another within the church. All of them call for selflessness, sacrifice, and service to others. Combined, they definitively rule out every expression of self-centeredness in the fellowship of believers.

Christ as the Head of His Body, the Church

That’s not all, though. The Apostle Paul commonly compared the church to a body with many parts but just one head: Christ. Immediately after emphatically affirming the deity, eternality, and absolute preeminence of Christ, Paul wrote, “He is the head of the body, the church” (Col. 1:18). God “put all things under his [Christ’s] feet and gave him as head over all things to the church, which is his body” (Eph. 1:22–23). Individual Christians are like body parts, existing not for their own sakes, but for the good of the whole body: “The whole body, joined and held together by every joint with which it is equipped, when each part is working properly, makes the body grow so that it builds itself up in love” (Eph. 4:16).

Moreover, each part is dependent on all the others, and all are subject to the Head. The Head alone is preeminent, and beyond that, “if one member suffers, all suffer together; if one member is honored, all rejoice together” (1 Cor. 12:26).

Even the seemingly insignificant parts of the body are important (vv. 12–20): “God arranged the members in the body, each one of them, as he chose. If all were a single member, where would the body be?” (vv. 18–19).

Any hint of selfishness is a betrayal of not only the rest of the body but also the Head. That imagery elevates humble selflessness to high virtue in the church — and it completely rules out self-centeredness of every kind.

Slaves of Christ

The slave language of the New Testament likewise underscores this truth. Christians are not only members of a body, subject to one another and called to the fellowship of sacrifice. We are also slaves of Christ, purchased by His blood, owned by Him, and therefore accountable to His lordship.

I wrote a whole book on this subject. There is a tendency, I fear, to try to tone down the terminology Scripture uses because — let’s face it — the imagery of slavery is offensive. It was no less disturbing in New Testament times. No one wanted to be a slave, and the institution of Roman slavery was notoriously abusive.

Nevertheless, throughout the New Testament, every believer’s relationship with Christ is portrayed as a master-slave arrangement. That entails absolute submission to His lordship, of course. It also rules out every hint of pride, egoism, independence, or self-centeredness. This is simply one more reason no brand of selfishness has any legitimate place in the life of the church.

Jesus Himself taught this principle clearly. His invitation to prospective disciples was a call to total self-denial: “If anyone would come after me, let him deny himself and take up his cross daily and follow me” (Luke 9:23).

The twelve were not swift to learn that lesson, and their interaction with one another was peppered with disputes about who was the greatest, who would have the chief seats in the kingdom, and similar expressions of selfcentered bickering. So on the night of His betrayal, Jesus took a towel and basin, and He washed the disciples’ feet. His admonition to them on that occasion is a powerful argument against every whisper of egocentrism in the heart of any disciple: “If I then, your Lord and Teacher, have washed your feet, you also ought to wash one another’s feet. For I have given you an example, that you also should do just as I have done to you” (John 13:14–15).

It was an argument from the greater to the lesser. If the eternal Lord of glory was willing to take up a towel and wash His disciples’ filthy feet, then there is no way those who claim to be His disciples should seek preeminence for themselves. Christ is our model, not Diotrephes.

I cannot close without pointing out that this principle has a particular application for those in positions of church leadership. It is an especially vital reminder in this era of superstar religious leaders and young pastors who act like rock stars. If God has called you to be an elder or teacher in the church, it is not for your own celebrity and self-aggrandizement. It is for His glory. Our commission is to “proclaim not ourselves, but Jesus Christ as Lord, with ourselves as your [slaves] for Jesus’ sake” (2 Cor. 4:5).

We Recommend

© Tabletalk magazine
Permissions: You are permitted and encouraged to reproduce and distribute this material in any format provided that you do not alter the wording in any way, you do not charge a fee beyond the cost of reproduction, and you do not make more than 500 physical copies. For web posting, a link to this document on our website is preferred (where applicable). If no such link exists, simply link to www.ligonier.org/tabletalk. Any exceptions to the above must be formally approved by Tabletalk.

Please include the following statement on any distributed copy: From Ligonier Ministries and R.C. Sproul. © Tabletalk magazine. Website: www.ligonier.org/tabletalk. Email: tabletalk@ligonier.org. Toll free: 1-800-435-4343.