THE WORK OF OVERSEERS
Written by Ron Hutchison
November 28, 2007

Paul addressed his letter to the church at Philippi like this: "Paul and Timothy, bondservants of Jesus Christ, to all the saints in Christ Jesus which are at Philippi, with the bishops and deacons..." (Philippians 1:1). In this passage we have set forth the divine organization of the church of Christ.  Each individual congregation is to be organized in this way.

First there were preachers. Paul was an apostle of Jesus Christ, but here he refers to himself and Timothy as "bondservants" of Jesus Christ.  Timothy was a preacher or evangelist (2 Timothy 4:2-5). Paul was also a preacher (1 Timothy 2:7; 2 Timothy 1:11). We have no living apostles today, however the apostles still operate in the church today through the written word.

Second, there were saints.  This word referred to the Christians who made up the church at Philippi (cf. Acts 9:13, 32. 41; 26:10; Romans 1:7; 8:27; 12:13; 15:25-31; 16:2, 15; 1 Corinthians 1:2; 6:1-2; 14:33; 16:1, 15; 2 Corinthians 1:1; 8:4; 9:1-14: 13:13; Ephesians 1:1, 15, 18; 2:19; 3:8, 18; 4:12; 5:3; 6:18; Philippians 4:22; Colossians 1:2-4, 12, 26; 1 Thessalonians 3:13; 2 Thessalonians 1:10; 1 Timothy 5:10; Philemon 1:5, 7; Hebrews 6:10; 13:24; Jude 1:3).  Saints are not those who are canonized by the Roman Catholic Church. Saints are simply Christians. If you read the above verses you will see that people became saints while they were still alive by simply obeying the gospel. So, the word "saints" is just another word for Christians.

Third, there were the  "bishops" who were the overseers or elders of the church. This is who this article is about (Acts 14:23).

Fourth, there were deacons who were the servants of the church. They were involved in specific works under the oversight of the overseers (Acts 6:1-6; 1 Timothy 3:8-13).

The word "bishops" is defined as "a watchman, superintendent, overseer" (The Complete Word Study Dictionary). The same Greek word is used in Acts 20:28 where it is translated "overseers." It is also used in 1 Peter 5:2 where the elders are told to, "Shepherd the flock of God which is among you, serving as overseers, not by compulsion but willingly..." The fact that Peter used the word "shepherd" shows that the pastors of the local congregation (there was always a plurality in each congregation) were the same thing as the overseers. The fact that Peter is addressing the elders in this verse (see 1 Peter 5:1) indicates that these shepherds, pastors, and overseers were also called elders. Most members of the church of Christ refer to these men as elders, but any and all of these designations are appropriate. 

Paul told Titus, "For this reason I left you in Crete, that you should set in order the things that are lacking, and appoint elders in every city as I commanded you" (Titus 1:5). There must be order in each congregation. One of the things that brings order is the appointment of elders. In the first century, after the church had some time to grow, elders were appointed in every church: "So when they had appointed elders in every church, and prayed with fasting, they commended them to the Lord in whom they had believed" (Acts 14:23).  Thus, it is important that each congregation of the Lord's church train and teach men who will qualify themselves for this very important work. Although Paul told Titus (an evangelist) to appoint elders in every city, he does not say how this is to be done. Evangelists today should do everything they can to see that elders are appointed, but the situation should govern how this is done. 

Overseers have certain qualifications they must meet (1 Timothy  3; Titus  1; 1 Peter  5).  It is true that some of the qualifications have areas wherein the men who qualify for the eldership can grow, but each man who is apointed must have each of the qualifications. For example, one of the qualifications for elders is "able to teach" (1 Timothy 3:12).   Some men are more effective teachers than others. But every man who desires to be an elder must be able to teach in an effective way. One might have more ability than another, but both must be able to teach. Of course, some of the qualifications (such as "the husband of one wife") have no room for improvement.  You are either the husband of one wife or you are not.

Elders are important because of the importance of their work. Being an elder is not just a position. It certainly is not an honorary position that has no responsibility. It is not just an office to be held. It is a work of service. Paul wrote, "This is a faithful saying: If a man desires the position of a bishop, he desires a good work." (1 Timothy 3:1).  Notice that Paul teaches that being a bishop is a good work. Being an elder in the church is work, hard work, as anyone who has been a faithful overseer well knows.

ELDERS MUST BE EXAMPLES

Peter writes, "nor as being lords over those entrusted to you, but being examples to the flock" (1 Peter 5:3). The word "examples" is defined as "a die, a stamp, a model (for imitation), a pattern." Elders are to live lives that are worthy to be imitated. They are to live lives that are patterns as to what Christianity is. They have the souls of the members of the congregation they oversee entrusted to them. This is why they are to be examples. All people (including elders) will make mistakes. We all sin (1 John 1:8). All Christians have the responsibility to set the right example before others (Matthew 5:16), however an overseer has a special reason to set the right example because of the great influence he has over those he oversees. 

Elders must be examples in faith. The Hebrew writer stated in Hebrews 11:6 that it is impossible to please God without faith. Elders should be examples in pleasing God, in trusting God, in dependence upon God, in faith in God's word.

Elders must be examples in Bible knowledge. Paul wrote, "Be diligent to present yourself approved to God, a worker who does not need to be ashamed, rightly dividing the word of truth" (2 Timothy 2:15). If anyone should be able to rightly divide the word it should be elders. If a member has a Bible question that he can't find the answer to, he should be able to go to the elders and get an answer. An elder has to have the ability to study the Bible so as to rightly divide it.  I read of a preacher who preached on marriage, divorce and remarriage, and quoted Malachi 2:16 where Malachi said, "...God hates divorce," and one of the elders reprimanded him because he was teaching from the Old Testament. That elder did not know how to handle the word of God correctly. He did not understand that the Old Testament was written for our learning (Romans 15:4). What a shame when an elder does not know more about the Bible than that. An elder must be an example in knowledge of God's word. If an elder does not know the Bible, does not know how to handle it in the right way, to rightly divide it, he cannot do the work of an elder.

Elders must be examples in godly living. Paul wrote, "For the grace of God that brings salvation has appeared to all men,  teaching us that, denying ungodliness and worldly lusts, we should live soberly, righteously, and godly in the present age, looking for the blessed hope and glorious appearing of our great God and Savior Jesus Christ" (Titus 2:11-13). Of all the people in the world, an elder must be denying ungodliness and worldly lusts in his life. Of all the members of the church, an elder ought to be setting an example of soberness, righteousness and godly living in this present age. Elders must be examples of purity and godliness.

Elders must be examples of faithfulness and loyalty to the truth. When Paul met with the elders of the church in Ephesus he said to them,  "Therefore take heed to yourselves and to all the flock, among which the Holy Spirit has made you overseers, to shepherd the church of God which He purchased with His own blood. For I know this, that after my departure savage wolves will come in among you, not sparing the flock. Also from among yourselves men will rise up, speaking perverse things, to draw away the disciples after themselves" (Acts 20:28-30). Notice that Paul first tells the Ephesian elders that savage wolves would come in among them. These are false teachers from outside the congregation at Ephesus.  But then he says, "also from among yourselves men will rise up, speaking perverse things, to draw away disciples after themselves."  Here was a warning of false teachers who would arise from among the elders themselves! Understanding the qualifications of elders and their need to be examples to the flock, it is hard to believe that there would be those who would arise from the eldership itself speaking perverse things. We would expect elders, of all people, to be able to recognize error and to be loyal to Jesus Christ, but that is not always the way it is.  Paul said it would happen, and history and scripture let's us know that it did. Every elder must continually examine himself, to see if he is in the faith -- must prove himself, as Paul teaches in 2 Corinthians 13:5. An elder must be willing and able to "contend earnestly for the faith"  (Jude 3). If a man will not contend for the faith, he is not worthy or qualified to be an elder or overseer of Christ's church (Titus 1:8-13).

Elders must be examples in love. They must have agape, the kind of love that always does what is best for the one who is loved. It is this love that would motivate the elders to make decisions in complete harmony with Jesus' will and that would be what is best for those they oversee, not what gives them the most personal benefit. John wrote, "We love Him because He first loved us. If someone says, 'I love God,' and hates his brother, he is a liar; for he who does not love his brother whom he has seen, how can he love God whom he has not seen? And this commandment we have from Him: that he who loves God must love his brother also" (1 John 4:19-21).  An elder must first love Jesus, then he must love his brothers and sisters in Christ. Of all of the members of the congregation, the elders should be the greatest examples of love (agape). An elder must love the souls of those he oversees. He must love the souls of the lost.

What a great responsibility elders have to be examples to the flock they oversee.

ELDERS MUST BE LEADERS

The apostle Peter wrote, "Shepherd the flock of God which is among you, serving as overseers, not by compulsion but willingly, not for dishonest gain but eagerly" (1 Peter 5:2). Notice the phrase "serving as overseers."  It is the elders of the local congregation who are the overseers. It is the elders who are the God-ordained leaders in the local congregation. When elders fail to lead or when they lead in the wrong direction, the congregation will be destroyed spiritually.

I guess this is a sore spot with me, but having observed members of the church and having preached for 30 plus years I believe that many members of the church look upon the preacher of the congregation as the "pastor" rather than the elders. Even though we deny a "pastor system" in the denominational sense of the word, in practice it is often quite different. There is no doubt that a gospel preacher should lead in example and teaching. However, the preacher is not "the pastor."  He is not the one that the members of the church go to when a decision needs to be made in reference to the work of the church. As we have seen, in the New Testament each congregation had a plurality of pastors. The preacher (unless he has also been appointed an elder) is not a pastor. He is certainly not the pastor (a completely denominational and false concept of the organization of the church).

It is tragic that in so many congregations of the Lord's people the elders do not take the lead.  They follow the lead of the preacher.  It has often been said, and I have observed that this is true: "the congregation goes the way the preacher goes." If the preacher teaches false doctrine, then the congregation will practice false doctrine. If the preacher is interested in evangelism, then the congregation will be interested in evangelism.  If the preacher is lukewarm, the congregation will be lukewarm.  No, it is not the preacher that the congregation should follow, it is the elders (overseers, pastors) of the church. They should be the ones the congregation looks to for leadership. They are the ones who should be taking the lead in making plans for the church, leading the church in the way it should go. This doesn't mean they can't discuss the work of the church and receive suggestions from other members (including the preacher), but they are the ones who motivate and lead the congregation in its work. Too many times that is left up to the preacher.

Notice also that a man should not be appointed an elder by compulsion. If a man is forced into the eldership, more than likely he will fail miserably in that work. The first qualification for the position is to desire it (1 Timothy 3:1). If a man does not desire the position of overseer, he will not be successful in that work.

ELDERS MUST BE WILLING WORKERS

As we read the words of Paul to the Ephesian elders in Acts 20:28-31, and as we read the qualifications given for elders in 1 Timothy  3, Titus  1, 1 Peter  5, we can come to no other conclusion than that being an elder is work. The man who is appointed to the eldership must be a willing worker.

Look at the words: "take heed," "serve as overseers," "feed," "watch," "remember." All showing action, all showing work. God has given elders great responsibilities. It is an office of action.

Show me a congregation where the members do nothing and I'll show you a congregation where the elders do nothing.  But you show me a congregation where the elders take their work seriously, where they are active and willing workers, and I'll show you a working congregation.

What great responsibility the elders have in taking the lead in doing the work of the Lord.

ELDERS MUST BE EXHORTERS

Paul wrote, "...holding fast the faithful word as he has been taught, that he may be able, by sound doctrine, both to exhort and convict those who contradict" (Titus 1:9). This passage is in the context of the qualifications of elders found in Titus 1. Elders must hold fast the faithful word, that is, they must remain faithful to the word of God. They must know the word so that they can hold fast to it.  They are to exhort and convict those who contradict the word by using sound doctrine.  The word translated "exhort" means "to encourage; to warn and admonish; encourage; strengthen" (Thayer; Strong). The word "convict" means "to prove one in the wrong and thus to shame him; to convict, to show one to be wrong; to convince of error, refute, confute. (The complete word study dictionary)." 

Elders must be exhorting the members of the congregation. We all from time to time need to be admonished, warned, and encouraged. The elders have this responsibility. The elders have the responsibility to tell us when we are wrong and to tell us the spiritual consequences of our sin. They have the responsibility to stop our mouths if we are teaching false doctrine.

When the elders see one who is doing or teaching something that harms him spiritually and hurts others because of his influence, they have the responsibility to step forward with exhortation and warning. When they see a member going the wrong way morally, they must step in and admonish, warn and encourage them to do what is right.

The members of the congregation need to know that the elders will be there to correct and encourage when necessary.

ELDERS MUST BE RULERS

In Paul's writing to Timothy giving the qualifications of elders, he said that the man who qualifies to be an elder is "one who rules his own house well, having his children in submission with all reverence (for if a man does not know how to rule his own house, how will he take care of the church of God?)" (1 Timothy 3:4-5).  Notice that Paul uses the word "rule" two times in this passage in reference to the one who qualifies to be an elder ruling his own house. This means overseeing his own physical family. In ruling his family, he is to take care of them. The word "rule" (προίστημι) in this passage means "to be over, to preside, to superintend, to be a protector or guardian" (Thayer). It is translated "lead" in Romans 12:8. The elders of the church have the responsibility of ruling, caring for, protecting, guarding and leading the congregation they oversee. The word translated "rule" is also used in 1 Timothy 5:17 where Paul wrote, "Let the elders who rule well be counted worthy of double honor, especially those who labor in the word and doctrine."  Here Paul gives the responsibility of members to support elders who rule well. Thus, the elders are to rule well. They must do a good job in leading, protecting and caring for the congregation they oversee.

The writer of the book of Hebrews was inspired to write, "Obey those who rule over you, and be submissive, for they watch out for your souls, as those who must give account. Let them do so with joy and not with grief, for that would be unprofitable for you" (Hebrews 13:17). Here is admonition given to members of the church to obey those who rule over them.  In light of what the Bible teaches as a whole, we can conclude that this verse is speaking about the elders.  Here the word "rule" is a different Greek word than the one in 1 Timothy 3:4-5. The word is defined as "to be a leader, to rule, command, to have authority over (Thayer). In light of these passages, how could anyone doubt that elders are to "rule" over the congregation? How can anyone doubt that they have authority from Christ to carry out their God-given responsibilities?

But what does it mean for elders to rule? First, let's look at what it does not mean. Peter wrote, "Shepherd the flock of God which is among you, serving as overseers, not by compulsion but willingly, not for dishonest gain but eagerly; nor as being lords over those entrusted to you, but being examples to the flock" (1 Peter 5:2-4).  The word "lords" is contrasted with "examples." The word translated "lords" is used in Matthew 20 where James and John's mother went to Jesus and asked Him for the privilege of her sons sitting on Jesus' right and left hand in His kingdom (Matthew 20:21).  Jesus used this request to show "that the rulers of the Gentiles lord it over them, and those who are great exercise authority over them. Yet it shall not be so among you; but whoever desires to become great among you, let him be your servant. And whoever desires to be first among you, let him be your slave; just as the Son of Man did not come to be served, but to serve, and to give His life a ransom for many" (Matthew 20:25-28).  When the rulers of the Gentiles lorded it over people they did it in an arrogant way. They commanded. They were first. They desired to be great. They did it in a way that showed a lack of humility. They commanded people to obey Moses' law, but they did not obey it themselves. They did not set the example of obedience. An elder is not to shepherd the flock with a domineering, arrogant attitude, but is to have a servants attitude. Elders are to rule, but they are not to do so in such a way that people resent it. They are to be examples rather than commanders. They are to set the example of service. The kind of example that will inspire other members of the church to follow them in their service to Jesus Christ.

To rule carries the idea of authority. Elders have authority to see to it that the congregation they oversee does what God wants done, but in doing this they must be examples themselves in doing God's will. Elders can't set back and make decisions and tell members what to do, without leading in the matter, i.e. without being examples in the matter.

Strong says this word "rule" means "to command (with official authority)." Elders do have "official authority" (from Christ) and they have authority to command. But they cannot command members of the church to do something that's not authorized by God's word. 

Elders are appointed by the Holy Spirit (Acts 20:28).  Our responsibility as members under their oversight is to obey them - to submit to their rule - to do what they say - again, tempered by the principle found in Acts 5:29, "we ought to obey God rather than men."  If the elders require something of a member that is not authorized in the Bible, that member cannot do it, and those elders have no business being elders unless they repent.

ELDERS MUST BE SOUL-WATCHERS

This is what the Hebrew writer taught in Hebrews 13:17, "for they watch out for your souls, as those who must give account."  Elders are going to give account for the souls of those under their care. They are soul-watchers. This means that if a soul is lost while under their care, they will be held responsible - they will have to give account of why that soul was lost. If elders and members alike could only realize what this means. Elders are soul-watchers.

What stops elders from going to members when they are doing wrong and trying to bring them back to the Lord? They don't realize that they are soul-watchers. They don't realize that they must give account. Why don't members respect elders like they should when those elders come to them and try to get them to live according to the New Testament? Because they don't realize the elders are soul-watchers, and that those elders must give account of those members' souls before God.

As elders watch for souls, they watch for dangers and problems that may creep in that will cause souls to be lost. They will watch out for tell-tale signs of unfaithfulness. They will stop false teachers (Titus 1:9-11). Let us be reminded that Paul warned the Ephesian elders, "therefore watch..." (Acts 20:31).

CONCLUSION

The eldership is not something that elders or members can treat in a haphazard, careless or casual way. It is the most important responsibility in the Lord's church. I fear, that there are many men, who are called elders, who have no idea what their responsibilities are, and who really don't care. They have their reasons for wanting to be elders, but to serve the Lord is not one of them.

How blessed the congregation is who has elders who realize the most serious responsibility they have and who work together to be the kind of elders God desires.

This certainly has not been an exhaustive study of the responsibility of elders. There is so much more that needs to be said, but the points listed pretty well sum up the work of elders in the New Testament church.

Elders must be examples, leaders, workers, exhorters, rulers and soul-watchers.  Members have responsibility to support the elders in their work, to follow their example, to submit to their rule, to obey them and to allow them to watch out for their souls.


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