Trying to diagnose the theological position of the author’s opponents in 1 John is a little like trying to reconstruct a telephone conversation by listening only to the party at one end. There are several important factors to consider before attempting an analysis of the views of the adversaries:
(1) The presentation of the opponent’s views by the author of 1 John can hardly be a sympathetic one, and it is not common for people to feel that their views have been accurately represented by an adversary intent on an unfavorable presentation. Thus we cannot be absolutely sure that the opponents would agree with the way their positions were being portrayed. (This has nothing to do with whether the author of 1 John was accurate in his portrayal; it only concerns whether the opponents would have agreed with his portrayal of them.)
(2) It is also difficult to tell when the quotations of the opponents’ views are direct (i.e., verbatim) and when they are being paraphrased or placed in the idiom of the author of 1 John for his own purposes in the debate, or perhaps to bring out implications of the opposing view that the opponents themselves might not have realized.
(3) When the opponents’ views are being quoted directly, it is without the benefit of context, so that we are completely dependent on the author of 1 John for clues as to how the opponents’ claims should be understood.
(4) Furthermore, it may be asked whether we are correct in assuming that in areas not mentioned by the author of 1 John he would be in general agreement with his adversaries. This is probably the case, but it is difficult to prove.
With all these qualifications and warnings in mind one may wonder about the possibility of success in constructing any portrait of the opponents and their teaching as addressed by 1 John. But it is necessary to keep in mind the difficulties in reconstructing the opponents’ views lest we become overly dogmatic about the accuracy of our exegesis in regard to their positions.
It will be helpful in discussing the views of the opponents in 1 John if we start with a list of passages in the Johannine Epistles which appear to describe the opponents and their teachings.
Note: English verse quotations from the NET Bible are given here in order to make analysis of this summary easier for the reader. The relevant portions of the text are highlighted in italics.
(1) [1 John] 2:18 Children, it is the last hour, and just as you heard that Antichrist is coming, so now many antichrists have appeared. We know from this that it is the last hour. 2:19 They went out from us, but they did not really belong to us, because if they had belonged to us, they would have remained with us. But they went out from us to demonstrate that all of them do not belong to us.
(2) [1 John] 2:22 Who is the liar but the person who denies that Jesus is the Christ? This one is the Antichrist: the person who denies the Father and the Son. 2:23 Everyone who denies the Son does not have the Father either. The person who confesses the Son has the Father also.
(3) [1 John] 4:1 Dear friends, do not believe every spirit, but test the spirits to determine if they are from God, because many false prophets have gone out into the world. 4:2 By this you know the Spirit of God: every spirit that confesses Jesus as the Christ who has come in the flesh is from God, 4:3 but every spirit that does not confess Jesus is not from God; and this is the spirit of the Antichrist, that you have heard is coming, and now is already in the world.
(4) [1 John] 4:6 We are from God; the person who knows God listens to us, but whoever is not from God does not listen to us. By this we know the Spirit of truth and the spirit of deceit.
(5) [1 John] 5:5 Now who is the person who has conquered the world except the one who believes that Jesus is the Son of God? 5:6 Jesus Christ is the one who came by water and blood—not by the water only, but by the water and the blood. And the Spirit is the one who testifies, because the Spirit is the truth.
(6) [1 John] 5:10 (The one who believes in the Son of God has the testimony in himself; the one who does not believe God has made him a liar, because he has not believed in the testimony that God has testified concerning his Son.)
(7) [2 John] 7 For many deceivers have gone out into the world, people who do not confess Jesus as Christ coming in the flesh. This person is the Deceiver and the Antichrist!
(8) [2 John] 9 Everyone who goes on ahead and does not remain in the teaching about Christ does not have God. The one who remains in this teaching has both the Father and the Son.
(1) [1 John] 2:15 Do not love the world or the things in the world. If anyone loves the world, the love of the Father is not in him; 2:16 because all that is in the world (the desire of the flesh and the desire of the eyes and the arrogance produced by material possessions) is not from the Father, but is from the world.
(2) [1 John] 4:1 Dear friends, do not believe every spirit, but test the spirits to determine if they are from God, because many false prophets have gone out into the world.
(3) [1 John] 4:5 They are from the world; therefore they speak from the world’s perspective and the world listens to them.
(4) [2 John] 7 For many deceivers have gone out into the world, people who do not confess Jesus as Christ coming in the flesh. This person is the Deceiver and the Antichrist!
(1) [1 John] 1:6 If we say we have fellowship with him and yet keep on walking in the darkness, we are lying and not practicing the truth.
(2) [1 John] 1:8 If we say we do not bear the guilt of sin, we are deceiving ourselves and the truth is not in us.
(3) [1 John] 1:10 If we say we have not sinned, we make him a liar and his word is not in us.
(4) [1 John] 2:4 The one who says “I have come to know God” and yet does not keep his commandments is a liar, and the truth is not in such a person.
(5) [1 John] 2:6 The one who says he resides in God ought himself to walk just as Jesus walked.
(6) [1 John] 3:3 And everyone who has this hope focused on him purifies himself, just as Jesus is pure). 3:4 Everyone who practices sin also practices lawlessness; indeed, sin is lawlessness. 3:5 And you know that Jesus was revealed to take away sins, and in him there is no sin. 3:6 Everyone who resides in him does not sin; everyone who sins has neither seen him nor known him.
(7) [1 John] 3:7 Little children, let no one deceive you: the one who practices righteousness is righteous, just as Jesus is righteous. 3:8 The one who practices sin is of the devil, because the devil has been sinning from the beginning. For this purpose the Son of God was revealed: to destroy the works of the devil.
(8) [1 John] 3:9 Everyone who is fathered by God does not practice sin, because God’s seed resides in him, and thus he is not able to sin, because he has been fathered by God. 3:10 By this the children of God and the children of the devil are revealed: everyone who does not practice righteousness—the one who does not love his fellow Christian—is not of God.
(9) [1 John] 5:18 We know that everyone fathered by God does not sin, but God protects the one he has fathered and the evil one cannot touch him.
(10) [3 John] 11 Dear friends, do not imitate what is bad but what is good. The one who does good is of God; the one who does what is bad has not seen God.
(1) [1 John] 2:9 The one who says he is in the light but still hates his fellow Christian is still in the darkness.
(2) [1 John] 3:10 By this the children of God and the children of the devil are revealed: everyone who does not practice righteousness—the one who does not love his fellow Christian—is not of God.
(3) [1 John] 3:11 For this is the gospel message that you have heard from the beginning: that we should love one another, 3:12 not like Cain who was of the evil one and brutally murdered his brother. And why did he murder him? Because his deeds were evil, but his brother’s were righteous.
(4) [1 John] 3:14 We know that we have crossed over from death to life because we love our fellow Christians. The one who does not love remains in death. 3:15 Everyone who hates his fellow Christian is a murderer, and you know that no murderer has eternal life residing in him.
(5) [1 John] 3:17 But whoever has the world’s possessions and sees his fellow Christian in need and shuts off his compassion against him, how can the love of God reside in such a person? 3:18 Little children, let us not love with word or with tongue but in deed and truth.
(6) [1 John] 4:8 The person who does not love does not know God, because God is love.
(7) [1 John] 4:20 If anyone says “I love God” and yet hates his fellow Christian, he is a liar, because the one who does not love his fellow Christian whom he has seen cannot love God whom he has not seen. 4:21 And the commandment we have from him is this: that the one who loves God should love his fellow Christian too.
As we attempt to draw a picture of the opponents based on the statements above, several key factors and observations emerge, as follows:
It has been suggested (among other things) that the author of 1 John was faced with an outbreak of charismatic Christian prophecy run amok, with some similarities to 1 Cor 12-14. True, there are references to putting the Spirits to the test and to false prophets (1 John 4:1), but I can find no indication of ecstatic or uncontrolled behavior like the spiritual enthusiasts at Corinth appear to have exhibited. The false prophets are challenged on their Christological views (what they assert or fail to assert about Jesus, 1 John 4:2-3) rather than on their ecstatic practices, and their statements do not seem to be spontaneous, but rather a settled and perhaps organized doctrine which contradicts the doctrine of the author.
The author accuses the opponents of failing to listen to him (1 John 4:6), and if we are correct in our conclusion that the author was the Apostle John, this would amount to a denial of apostolic authority (note especially in this regard the prologue, 1:1-4, which appears to assume not only an authoritative tone, but eyewitness testimony about who Jesus is).
The opponents appear to have withdrawn themselves from fellowship with the author’s community, since they are constantly referred to as “having gone out from among us” (1 John 2:18-19, 4:1, 2 John 7). This withdrawal appears to be voluntary on their part, since no mention is made of their being forced to leave the community. For the author of 1 John, the withdrawal of the opponents demonstrates conclusively that they had never really belonged in the first place (1 John 2:19).
The secessionist opponents still constitute a threat to the author’s community, however, because they appear to be sending out teachers (1 John 2:27, 2 John 9, 10, 11) to try and win over more of the author’s followers (resisting this missionary effort by the opponents constitutes a major purpose of 2 and 3 John). Such attempts by the opponents to proselytize others suggest an organized effort on the part of the adversaries. There is good reason for thinking that a split has taken place (1 John 2:19), and the author’s opponents now constitute a community of their own, just as thoroughly committed as the author’s to spreading their understanding of who Jesus is.
Although it is difficult to be certain, there are hints in the text of 1 John that the opponents’ community may be at least as numerous as the author’s (1 John 2:18 [“many”]; 4:5 [hints at the success of the secessionists, cf. John 12:19; also note negative connotations in John 8:23]) and possibly more well-to-do (1 John 2:15-16; 3:17-18).25
We have divided the statements in the Johannine Epistles pertaining to the opponents into four major categories, listed above: (1) Their attitude toward Jesus; (2) Their attitude toward the world; (3) Their attitude toward sin; and (4) Their attitude toward the brothers and sisters. We may now ask: do these attitudes reflect a single group of adversaries, or multiple groups?26 Some have even suggested a variety of Christological heresies are being addressed, based on the statement in 1 John 2:18 that “many antichrists have appeared.” Others see no relationship between the Christological discussion in 1 John 4:1-6 and the ethical commands of 4:7-13 to love one’s fellow Christian, so that again more than one group of opponents is being addressed. It would seem preferable, however, to see only one group of adversaries, fairly well organized and perhaps as numerous as the author’s own community, if we can arrive at a plausible statement of their position which would explain both the Christological emphasis in 1 John and also the ethical stress on avoidance of sin and love for the brothers and sisters.27 To this we will now proceed.
My own understanding of the sequence of the Gospel of John and the three epistles is that the Gospel of John was produced first, followed by the three epistles in the canonical order (1, 2, 3 John). In order for what follows to be plausible, however, it is not necessary for the Gospel of John to have been in written form, or written in its final form, at the time 1 John was written—only that there was a community of Christians (probably in Asia Minor in the vicinity of Ephesus) who generally subscribed to the theology (especially the christology) which has been handed down to us in the Gospel of John.28
It seems likely that if the secessionist opponents went out from among the author’s community (1 John 2:19) they held the same “high” christology reflected in the Gospel of John. But the opponents had gone too far: they were putting so much stress on the preexistence of Christ that they were neglecting or downplaying the humanity (or the earthly career) of Jesus (1 John 4:2-3, 2 John 7).29 This would also explain the author’s charge that the opponents were ‘progressives’ who had not remained in the apostolic teaching but had “gone too far” (2 John 9).
The purpose statement of the Gospel of John (20:31) is “that you may believe that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God,” and this is repeatedly worked into the assertions of the author of 1 John (1:3, 2:22-23, 3:8, 3:23, 4:9, 4:15, 5:1, 5:10-12, 5:20). How could adversaries who held a higher christology than that of the Gospel of John or the author of 1 John have possibly objected to such a statement? It seems to me the opponents would have had problems not with the predicates (Christ and Son of God) but with the subject (Jesus). When the author of 1 John talks about Jesus, he is talking about Jesus come in the flesh (1 John 4:2-3, 2 John 7), that is, the importance of the earthly career of Jesus, including His sacrificial death (“the blood,” 1 John 5:5-6).
Note: Although the opponents have sometimes been identified with the Docetists against whom Ignatius of Antioch wrote, the stress of the author of 1 John does not seem to be on the reality of Jesus’ humanity (as if against the Docetist view) but on the importance of Jesus’ earthly career, especially His sacrificial death on the cross.
How does all of this relate to the second major area of dispute between the author of 1 John and his opponents, that is, the insistence on ethical commandments and avoidance of moral error (points 2, 3, and 4 of the list above)? The author warns about walking in the darkness (1 John 1:6), not acknowledging sin (1:8, 1:10), not keeping the commandments (2:4), not following the example of Christ (2:6, 3:3-6), and committing sin (3:3-6, 3:7-8, 3:9-10).
We might draw the conclusion from the statements in the previous paragraph that the opponents were libertines or antinomians who were insisting on their right to live immoral lives while claiming to be Christians. It is interesting, though, that the author of 1 John never names any specific immoral behavior of his opponents. In fact we may infer that the opponents themselves were not consciously aware of living in an ungodly manner. They claimed to be in fellowship with God (1 John 1:6), to know God (2:4), to abide in God (2:6), to be born of God (3:9-10), and to love God (4:20).
This, combined with the lack of mention of any specific sins other than failure to show Christian love to the brothers and sisters (1 John 3:17-18), leads to the conclusion that the opponents were probably not libertines or antinomians but moral indifferentists, holding that one’s moral behavior has no importance whatsoever as far as the Christian life is concerned. The fault the author finds with his opponents is more with their theory than with their practice. At least at this point their theory has not been fully translated into practice in the moral realm. Perhaps the opponents themselves have not seen as clearly as the author of 1 John where their faulty christology will ultimately lead them. As moral indifferentists, the opponents may have been denying the need to confess post-conversion sins (1 John 1:8, “If we say that we have no sin, we are deceiving ourselves…”, and 1 Jn 1:10, “If we say that we have not sinned…”).
An ethical theory of moral indifference (that what one does in terms of moral behavior as a Christian really does not matter) would be consistent with the christology of the opponents, which put so much stress on the preexistence of Christ and the incarnation as central to salvation that what Jesus did in His earthly existence (including even His death on the cross) contributed nothing to the salvation of Christians and thus did not matter. Denial of the significance of Jesus’ work on the cross is a serious matter, but this seems to be the point of the author’s dispute with his opponents in 1 John 5:5-6, where the opponents affirmed that the significance of Jesus Christ’s coming lay “with the water only” (referring either to physical birth or to baptism by John the Baptist), while the author insists that Jesus came “not with the water only, but with the water and with the blood,” which constitutes an allusion to John 19:34 where both blood and water flow from the wound in Jesus’ side, and thus constitute a reference to Jesus’ sacrificial work on the cross.
Understanding the opponents as former members of the author’s community who have withdrawn from fellowship also helps to explain the author of 1 John’s emphasis on love for the brothers and sisters. By withdrawing (1 John 2:19) and splitting the community the opponents have shown that they do not love the brothers and sisters, in spite of the fact that they say they do. If they had really loved the brothers and sisters (i.e., those loyal to the author) they would not have gone out into the world, and would not be attempting even now to seduce those brothers and sisters loyal to the author with false teaching (1 John 2:27, 2 John 10-11).
Thus in conclusion I would say the opponents of the author of 1 John are schismatics from within the author’s own community who have put forward a christology which the author has judged unacceptable (4:1-3). The christology of the opponents appears to minimize the importance of the earthly career of Jesus (including His sacrificial death on the cross) in the plan of salvation, which has produced in the opponents (or in the judgment of the author of 1 John will inevitably produce in the opponents) a moral indifferentism in which the ethical value of one’s behavior and deeds as a Christian is minimized and sins committed after conversion do not need to be confessed. I suspect (though I cannot conclusively prove) that the opponents held a high christology which went beyond that reflected in the Gospel of John, to the point of saying that it was the act of incarnation itself (cf. John 1:14) which had redemptive value for Christians, not the sacrificial death of Jesus on the cross. There are a lot of similarities between this portrait of the opponents and Christian forms of Gnosticism found later, in the mid- to late second century (more so than to Docetism, in my judgment).30 Although there are also some significant differences between the picture of the opponents we have been able to draw and the later Gnostic systems, I suspect this is where the schismatics (they would not have called themselves ‘heretics’ and to do so would be somewhat anachronistic before the later Church Councils which determined what ‘orthodox’ christology was) and their followers eventually ended up.
These schismatics, after putting forward their variant christology and meeting with resistance, have seceded from the Christian community represented by the author of 1 John (2:18-19). After their departure, however, they have continued their efforts to influence the author’s community (2:26) and have even sent out itinerant missionaries to influence outlying congregations (the situation as reflected in 2 John).
Additional Bibliography: The Opponents and Their Teaching
Bogart, John. Orthodox and Heretical Perfectionism in the Johannine Community as Evident in the First Epistle of John. SBLDS 33. Missoula, MT: Scholars Press, 1977.
Brown, Raymond E. “Origin of I and II John in a Struggle with Adversaries.” In The Epistles of John: Translated with Introduction, Notes, and Commentary, pp. 47-68. Vol. 30 of The Anchor Bible. Garden City, NY: Doubleday, 1982.
Edwards, M. J. “Martyrdom and the First Epistle of John.” NovT 31 (1989): 164-71.
Klauck, H.-J. “Internal Opponents: The Treatment of the Secessionists in the First Epistle of John.” Concilium 200 (1988): 55-65.
Painter, J. “The ‘Opponents’ in 1 John.” New Testament Studies 32 (1986): 48-71.
Stagg, Frank. “Orthodoxy and Orthopraxy in the Johannine Epistles.” Review and Expositor 67 (1970): 423-32.
Vorster, W. S. “Heterodoxy in 1 John.” Neotestamentica 9 (1975): 87-97.
Weiss, Konrad. “Orthodoxie und Heterodoxie im 1. Johannesbrief.” Zeitschrift für die Neutestamentliche Wissenschaft 58 (1967): 247-55.
Wengst, K. Hresie und Orthodoxie im Spiegel des ersten Johannesbriefes. Gütersloh: Mohn, 1976.
25 Based on these texts H.-J. Klauck has argued that the secessionist opponents were much better off financially than the remnant who stayed behind in the author’s community, possibly providing the church’s meeting places and hospitality for itinerant missionaries (“Internal Opponents: The Treatment of the Secessionists in the First Epistle of John,” Concilium 200 : 56-57).
26 S. Smalley proposed that there were three groups within the community of the author of 1 John: those who were holding to the apostolic teaching, those of Jewish background who had not yet acknowledged Jesus as Messiah, and those from pagan Hellenistic backgrounds who had been influenced by dualistic (i.e. Gnostic) ideas. When the tensions in the community became too great, some of these seceded from the community (1, 2, 3 John, xxiii-xxv). While Smalley cites Ignatius’ Epistle to the Magnesians 10:3 as evidence for a Jewish-Christian group in the community of 1 John, thus raising the possibility of a Jewish element in the opponents’ teaching, it should be noted that there is no real evidence for this in the text of 1 John.
27 See also J. Painter, “The ‘Opponents’ in 1 John,” NTS 32 (1986): 48-71, and H.-J. Klauck, “Internal Opponents,” 55-65. Schnackenburg felt there was general agreement that only one christological heresy was involved in 1 John: “The author is fighting on a single front. Even though there may be different groups among the many antichrists (2:18) or false prophets, they are united in their denial of the church’s christological confession (2:22; 4:2-3). “Antichrists” and “false prophets” are only different terms arising from particular perspectives, depending on whether it is eschatological (last hour, antichrist) or pneumatic (distinguishing of spirits)” (The Johannine Epistles, 17).
28 R. Brown argues more specifically that the split between the secessionists and the addressees of 1 John arose from different interpretations of the Gospel of John. The author of 1 John viewed the opponents as theological innovators (cf. 2 John 9) who had departed from the apostolic eyewitness testimony about who Jesus was, presumably claiming the teaching/revelatory ministry of the Holy Spirit within the Christian community in support of their views (The Epistles of John, 69-71).
29 According to R. Brown, the secessionist opponents did not deny the incarnation as such, but denied that Christ’s incarnation was salvific (The Epistles of John, 67-68, 505).
30 R. Schnackenburg points out that the christological views of the secessionist opponents in the Johannine letters “can no longer be described with certainty or precision” (The Johannine Epistles, 23). However, R. Brown also observes, “While the Johannine adversaries have some points in common with all the proposed candidates, differences militate against a precise identification with any of these groups. In any case, to have so identified the epistolary adversaries would not have been particularly enlightening; for granted the little we know about such groups, it would have been tantamount to explaining ignotum per ignotius. Yet it remains useful to know that the views attacked in I and II John were not without parallel in Asia Minor at the beginning of the second century” (The Epistles of John, 67-68).