Assembly Rivalry: When A Man Desires The Preeminence8 min read


We have dealt with strife (“variance” in the KJV) as pertaining to contention and disunity between or among God’s people. Now we, in the King James at least, come to the word “strife,” which actually denotes rivalry in terms of prominence, preeminence, or position. The NIV translates the word “selfish ambition.” Young’s Literal translates it “rivalries.” The ASV translates it “factions.” The Jaimeson, Fausset, and Brown Commentary defines it as being “unworthy means for compassing ends, factitious practices.” It is implied that when there are factions, there is a group leader trying to gain preeminence. Surely when this happens in the assembly, it is one of the worst forms of division.

The Effects of Rivalry in an Assembly

Perhaps the most serious example of a man’s wishing to rise to the top of assembly “rank” is Diotrophes in 3 John.  He was described as one “one loves to have the preeminence” or as Darby puts it “who loves to have the first place.” There may not have been rivalry in the sense of two men fighting for the head position, but in a sense Diotrophes was a rival against God’s pattern for assembly role and headship. Because John follows his estimation of this wicked man with “the one who does evil has not seen God,” we could conclude that this was an unsaved man who sadly made his way amongst God’s people.

With that in mind, notice his affect on the assembly. “I wrote unto the church: but Diotrephes, who loveth to have the preeminence among them, receiveth us not. Wherefore, if I come, I will remember his deeds which he doeth, prating against us with malicious words: and not content therewith, neither doth he himself receive the brethren, and forbiddeth them that would, and casteth them out of the church.” (3 John 9-10). Basically, he made himself “a lord over God’s heritage.” His word became truth, and God’s Word meant nothing to him, unless he was able to twist it according to his corrupt mold. This resulted in (1) a disparaging of God’s laborers, (2) a disposing of God’s laborers and (3) a forcing of everyone else in the assembly to do the same. His goal seemed to be a complete cutting off of Biblical assembly teaching. Truly this turns out to be the case when one enjoys being lord in God’s assembly. His arguments may seem Biblical at first, but as believers progressively find out what he does to manipulate others, they realize too late this his agenda was a fleshy one, not a spiritual one. We need to realize that if a man disregards the Biblical pattern of humility, unity, and headship in the assembly, his motives will certainly not be Biblical in his lording over the flock. The patterns of humility and unity are just as important as are order and elderhood. If a man will disregard the former in the name of upholding the latter, we can know his motive is not to preserve pattern, but rather his perversion of it that suits his flesh-based means and desires.

Consider also James 3:14-18. “But if ye have bitter envying and strife in your hearts, glory not, and lie not against the truth. This wisdom descendeth not from above, but is earthly, sensual, devilish. For where envying and strife is, there is confusion and every evil work. But the wisdom that is from above is first pure, then peaceable, gentle, and easy to be intreated, full of mercy and good fruits, without partiality, and without hypocrisy. And the fruit of righteousness is sown in peace of them that make peace.” This was written following the simple words that a wise man shows out of a good conduct “works with meekness of wisdom,” not “condemnations with authority of self-centeredness.” Truly wisdom is a peaceable thing, and without it there can only be chaos. “Where envying and strife (rivalries) are, there is confusion and every evil work.” There has never been such a thing as having a beneficial “Diotrophes” in our midst. It cannot happen. A man (or men) who strive(s) to gain preeminence will always sacrifice true godliness to get there. Oh, he may think himself to be godly, but the truth is that he is really devilish, to use Biblical terms. There is a very fine line drawn between godly wisdom and false wisdom; we know them by what they produce. And if we see signs of pseudo-wisdom in our so-called “righteous rivalry” (what we want to think of it as), we cannot disregard the signs as if meaningless. If it has signs of ungodliness, it is ungodly and will produce confusion, division, and heartache. If it is godly wisdom, then it will always be peaceable, gentle, and easy to be entreated, FULL of mercy, without partiality, and above all without hypocrisy. This is where all people rise or fall in their leadership. We could add a very bold period to the end of that statement. It is from God’s final Word. So then, in all, let us remember both the signs and the consequences of rivalry: it is all too common in our assemblies.

A Right Understanding of Biblical Positions

The problem with desiring preeminence in the assembly is that it fails to agree with Biblical doctrine regarding Headship, Lordship, Leadership, and Spiritual Gifts, all of which require Christ as preeminent One in order to be successful in their Biblical place. Often in God’s assemblies a man will make himself preeminent under the guise of spirituality and doctrine. Perhaps an elder would rise to preeminence under the impression that he is actually fulfilling God’s pattern, when he really only wants to abuse the assembly on account of his legalism and/or pride. Perhaps two brethren would be seem competing within the assembly to “prove” who is more spiritual or who has the better spiritual gift, when in truth all are vital. Perhaps, not in an assembly, a man in a home would lord over his family in the name of “Headship,” when really he is not acting as head, but a tyrannical lord. To prevent these problems in our hearts, we must examine Scripture to see what God says.

  1. Lordship. This truth belongs to Christ. There is “one Lord, one faith, one baptism, one God and Father over all.” Scripture does not describe one Lord over the assembly, except Christ. To be Lord implies sovereignty. To be Lord implies right to subdue. To be Lord implies ownership of another. This belongs to no man, regardless of his place in the assembly. In fact, the place that mentions men being lords in the assembly is a negative mention: “Neither as being lords over God’s heritage, but being ensamples to the flock.” (1 Peter 5:3).
  2. Headship. This truth does not imply servitude, but rather submission: Ephesians 5 lays this out. This truth does not imply reign, but rather roles: 1 Timothy 2 lays this out. This truth does not imply dominance, but distinction: 1 Corinthians 11 lays this out. The first is in context of a husband and wife at home. The last two are in context of a local assembly, with male and female being the subjects. In either case, Christ is the ultimate Head, that is, of His Body: man does not have any final word.
  3. Spiritual Gifts. Anyone who would flaunt his gift as if making him more important than another believer is not a Biblical man, but rather a man who manifests illiteracy in His Scriptural knowledge. First Corinthians 12 says that we are diverse yet unified in the same Spirit; it says that every member is of tremendous value. A knowledge of this would help us understand our lack of worth in terms of desiring preeminence by means of putting others down.
  4. Leadership. It is not about being sovereign: that is Lordship. Leadership, rather is about shepherding one’s followers, graciously exemplifying the pattern of a godly man, and overseeing the affairs of the assembly. This is not some “job” that gives a man freedom to do what he wants, when he wants, and how he wants. It is not about telling others what to do simply because of the leader’s preference.  It is about accountability for a certain people, and for a man to abuse this is to abuse his own self: he will give account someday. “Be not many teachers, my brethren, knowing that we shall receive greater judgment.” James 3:1.

Having a grasp of these four foundational doctrines pertinent to our subject will keep us from rivalry, because we will then understand the great accountability accompanying abusive or neglectful leadership. They will also provide us a pattern for peaceable operations as a collective group. These will show a man that he is not the center of the assembly (or family): life does not revolve around him. Men who strive for overseership as an office while disregarding the work are not true leaders, but rivals to God’s truth and pattern. May we so respect God’s order that we submit ourselves to it, not because we see ourselves worthy or capable of the task, but obligated to humbly fulfil it by His grace. There is tremendous value in those who serve for Christ and not for themselves.