Godly Overseers

The Principles of Godly Leadership

The Creator of the universe visited this earth in fashion as a man, Heb. 2. 6; Ps. 8. 4. We know Him as the lowly Jesus who offered the ultimate sacrifice for our sins, was raised from death three days later and is now made both Lord and Christ. He visited us with His gospel when we were sinners and having saved us developed an individual relationship with us, a relationship that He continues to build.

He is looking for men that will follow His example, taking the initiative to visit others and develop a spiritual relationship with them, regardless of the cost in time, energy and other sacrifices. These men are called overseers. They are patterned after the ‘Shepherd and Overseer of your souls’, 1 Pet. 2. 25. Indeed, the basic meaning of the word ‘overseer’, combines the various senses of ‘to look upon, to investigate, to be concerned about, to care for’.

The biblical overseer initiates communication and friendships. His primary focus is the spiritual development and health of the other believers, on an ongoing basis. Should there be sin in another’s life, like his Saviour, he will be deeply concerned to see spiritual healing and ultimate restoration of that believer. He will pursue the lost sheep until restored, 1 Pet. 2. 21-25.

A true overseer does not expect honour, although double honour is due to him, 1 Tim. 5. 17. Instead, he humbly honours everyone else, 1 Pet. 2. 17. Considering others better than himself, he sees the value and gift in other believers and seeks to help them develop their full spiritual potential, Phil. 2. 3. He does not look for remuneration, which is being paid in money, for his services to the Lord’s people. Neither does he seek validation, or anything else that he can receive from the flock, for he has learned from the Lord that ‘it is more blessed to give than to receive’, Acts 20. 35. He expends all his energy for the benefit of other believers, labouring hard to the point of exhaustion, 1 Thess. 5. 12; see also Luke 5. 5, ‘toiled’.

By contrast, a ‘positional’ overseer is one who fails to rise to this. He expects others to approach him first because he regards his place as an official ‘position’. He may be there when a problem needs to be handled, but rarely is he available just to visit and communicate with other believers about their needs, fears, and spiritual potential. He looks for recognition and honour from the local church in which he is an elder. He perceives ‘overseer’ to be a position of authority over others and will often fail to persist in lovingly pursuing a sheep that wanders away, Ezek. 34. 8.

The scriptures know nothing of an overseer who has accepted a ‘position’ in the assembly. Overseership is a work, and not an ‘office’ or ‘official position’ in any local church, and its jurisdiction and recognition are limited to any one local church. 1 Timothy 3 verse 1 could be rendered literally, ‘Faithful the word: if any stretches forward to overseership, he is desirous of a good work’.

The Holy Spirit raises up overseers. They come from among the believers themselves as they meet in the Lord’s Name. They are raised up in order to shepherd them, Acts 20. 28. Shepherding,, includes three facets–feeding, pasturing and tending. These men will feed the word of God to saints both personally and through other gifted teachers. They also ‘pasture’ them by showing them where and how to feed for themselves in the scriptures. Tending is training the sheep in the right paths and helping them in service, caring for them in their distress and trials, and encouraging them; the KJV uses ‘feed’ in Acts 20. 28 and 1 Peter 5. 2.

Overseers develop three primary abilities that God has given to them in order to fulfil this purpose:

1. The gift of ‘helmsman’ – one who is able to steer or navigate a ship. This word, used only three times in the Greek New Testament, is used figuratively and is translated ‘governments’ in 1 Corinthians 12 verse 28. The helmsman is able to take the course charted out in the scriptures and navigate the local church in that direction. He does this both on personal and collective levels. On a personal level he is able to discern the needs, gifts and abilities of individual believers and encourage, assist and guide them to God’s desired purpose for them. The apostle Paul helped Timothy and Titus in this way. On a collective level he recognizes the needs of the assembly in general and steers it towards the goal of Christ-like character.

2. The ability to lead by his example. The word translated ‘rule’, is one who ‘stands before’ or ‘leads by example’, Rom. 12. 8; 1 Thess. 5. 12; 1 Tim. 3. 4, 5, 12; 5. 17; and Titus 3 .8, 14 where it is translated ‘maintain’. The word ‘rule’ may give the impression that the overseer is to ‘control’ or be a ‘power figure’ over God’s people. The apostle Peter refutes this idea completely saying, ‘Neither as being lords, (those who exercise power over or against others) over God’s heritage, but being ensamples to the flock’, 1 Pet. 5. 3. A godly overseer does not ‘steer’ or ‘rule’ like a boss or a commander of God’s people.

3. The quality or gift of being ‘apt to teach'. This denotes ‘skilful in teaching’, 1 Tim. 3. 2. He is taught in the scriptures and able to exhort and convince others by healthy doctrine, Titus 1. 9. It is through teaching the scriptures that the overseer presents to the believers the path or course to be travelled in following the Saviour. He, then, is a leader in following that course. His reaching out to help others, his godly example of following the scriptures and his ability to present the word of God clearly – all these attract the believers to submit to his guidance with confidence as he leads them in the way of the Lord.

Overseers are men of experience and maturity. They are therefore also called elders, 1 Pet. 5. 1-2 and Acts 20. 17, 28.

In order to fulfil such a demanding task and to take the place they do amongst the Lord’s people, elders must be qualified. This is not in the sense of a college degree but evident moral and spiritual traits that have been produced by God in their lives. They must therefore:

1. Desire to do the work. If any desire, to stretch or desire earnestly, 1 Tim. 3. 1. The second word desire in that verse denotes ‘strong desire’; see also 1 Pet. 5. 1-2, ‘not by constraint’.

2. They must be blameless. Blameless in 1 Timothy 3 verse 2 meaning ‘not to lay hold upon’, ‘not taken upon’ or ‘irreproachable’. Here is a person who cannot be laid hold of because no accusation can be proved against him. He gives no ground for accusation. Blameless in Titus 1 verse 6, indicating ‘not called in’, or ‘unimpeachable’. The word does not mean sinless. The Lord Jesus was the only Man who was sinless. The overseer is to be:

(a) Blameless in his family life – He is a man of one woman (KJV husband of one wife), ‘having children in subjection with all gravity’. He leads his own house in such a way that his children believe him and have confidence in him, 1 Tim. 3. 2, 4, 5; Titus 1. 6.

(b) Blameless in his character, 1 Tim. 3. 1-7; Titus 1. 5-9.

(c) Blameless in his teaching – ‘Apt to teach’, 1 Tim. 3. 2, and ‘holding fast the faithful word as he hath been taught’, Titus 1. 9.

3. He must have maturity. An elder is ‘not a novice’, that is, not newly converted, 1 Tim. 3. 6; Titus 1. 6.

4. He must be male. The word denotes either a ‘man’ or a ‘husband’, 1 Tim. 3. 2; Titus 1. 6.

5. He must have had experience with God. An overseer has had experience with God through trials and hardships. He has learned to trust the Lord so that he might guide others through their own difficulties. We are to follow the faith of godly men who lead us, who have spoken to us the word of God, Heb. 13. 7, 17, 24, (translated ‘rule’ in KJV.). The verb means, ‘to lead the way’, ‘to take the lead’, ‘to preside’, ‘to govern’. A governor does not make or enforce laws; he oversees the functioning of the state to make sure that everything is running smoothly and harmoniously. A leader guides the way, warning of any pitfalls or dangers that those who follow him may encounter, and helping them if they do meet difficulties.

Practical Evidences of these Qualifications

Because of their experiences and knowledge of the word of God and of the enemy’s deceitful character, the overseers are ‘alert’, ‘watching with a scrutinizing gaze.’ This is for enemies that would ravage the flock, Acts 20. 31. They are also ‘awake’ and ‘vigilant’, to protect the souls of believers under their care, Heb. 13. 17.

They admonish, addressing the intellect and giving warning of danger, 1 Thess. 5. 12; Acts 20. 31. They exhort others by walking alongside them for the purposes of entreating, beseeching, comforting, animating or stirring up, Titus 1. 9. Believers will not be easily offended by the overseers fulfilling this ministry because they are characterized by ‘patience’, 1 Tim. 3. 3. Like the apostle Paul, they should ‘beseech’, ‘by the gentleness, of Christ’.

This word translated ‘patience’ in 1 Tim. 3. 3, indicates that they are to treat others in a way that is ‘gentle, fitting, right, or equitable’. It indicates a reasonable person with considerateness that looks humanely and reasonably at all the sides of a case. Then they are gentle and mild in following through what is required. Such ‘gentle patience’ is wisdom that comes from above, Jas. 3. 17. They therefore treat all equally and fairly and their moderation, (gentle patience), is known unto all, Phil. 4. 5. Believers should feel that they can safely confide in them and trust them when they are in trouble because in them they see in some measure the beauty of the Saviour.

Biblical overseers more effectively help their fellow believers if they find others that are doing the same kind of work with them. These are men who have a like desire in the supporting their fellow Christians and are most likely to be the elders of the future.

The sort of responses that godly elders will inspire in the flock by their behaviour and character is clearly set out in scripture. They will greet them, Heb. 13. 24; know them, 1 Thess. 5. 12; esteem them very highly in love, 1 Thess. 5. 13; put confidence in them, 1 Tim 5. 1, 19; honour them, 1 Tim 5. 17; remember them, Heb. 13. 7; imitate their faith, Heb. 13. 7; and be persuaded or convinced by them, Heb. 13. 17.

The Development of Godly Overseers

Some men may think they have little potential for leading God’s people. Such was Moses after forty years in the desert. Yet it was clearly only when Moses felt inadequate that God could use him, Exod. 4. 10-17. Likewise, God needs to develop brethren that are feeble and insufficient in order to make them into capable overseers. There is a need for leadership as elders go home to glory and, for the preservation of the assembly, some find themselves willingly ‘taking the oversight thereof’, 1 Pet. 5. 2. Although they may not consider themselves ‘gifted teachers’, they are willing to guide the flock to the best of their ability. They find this difficult and challenging work, but they do it for the Lord and He will prove to be the only support they need to do the work.

As there is no perfect assembly, so there is no perfect elder. Each has his strengths and weaknesses. This is one reason why a plurality of eldership is taught in the scriptures, Acts 20. 17, 28; Phil. 1. 1. However, there is no excuse for not developing in areas where we are deficient. Every overseer with a genuine desire to help others can, with a little effort, improve his weaker areas and develop his skills at overseeing. Firstly, he must pray regularly on behalf of each assembly member, Phil. 1. 4; 1 Thess. 1. 2. Secondly, he must love each one sincerely, 1 Pet. 1. 22. He will extend the same respect and honour to all, without exception. He will consciously seek ways to benefit each individual. His smile and handshake will be given warmly, with the desire to communicate genuine love and acceptance to the recipient. He will always ask God for guidance; then do what he does out of a pure love for Christ and his fellow saints.

Perhaps not all feel capable of paying visits to others but making the effort to fulfil this aspect of overseership will be incredibly rewarding. Systematic visitation is also the best way to learn what others in the assembly think and how they feel, and to know what to pray for and what to teach. The purpose of the visit is to listen and encourage, 2 Tim. 2. 24; Jas. 1. 19, 20. The overseer will, as the occasion arises, read a scripture he has been enjoying or pray, giving time to interact with those they visit. Sincere love will always be recognized, and eventually, responded to. Should the family open their hearts to him about a need or concern, the overseer will certainly pray with them. He will carefully preserve their privacy, unless they specifically ask him to share it with other elders.

Some elders feel inadequate to teach the word of God. This should neither deter nor discourage one who has a genuine love and concern for the believers. Finding time for personal study is a must, though. A brother should not hesitate to approach more gifted teachers for help in how to feed from the scriptures or using the basic tools of study, so that he may feed others. From visitation questions will come up that the overseer is constrained to find answers to. He should never be afraid to say, ‘I don’t know, but Lord willing, I will find an answer’. Titus 1 verse 9 indicates that the overseer must be teachable as well as able to teach.

The Beauty of Godly Overseers

Overseers that practise these principles will find that the saints tend to be happy, feel accepted, and function as a family. The assembly will be a haven for the injured and distressed, and feel like a warm healthy home for all.

The believers will desire to learn and obey the scriptures, and spiritual gift will be encouraged and developed. When the overseers are known for their gentle, patient, moderate spirit there will be less friction should a problem arise. Elders’ wisdom and guidance will more readily be accepted when they are known to take a personal interest in all the flock. Each person will feel needed and loved, and will grow in grace as they see Christ portrayed in the lives and words of the overseers, Heb. 13. 17.

Should a sheep need restoration, and the overseers are already in the habit of visitation, their visits to such will be more acceptable. Many have been restored to the Lord and to the assembly by visits from caring shepherds. Conversely, some that could have been restored were embittered by the thought, ‘No one ever came to visit me!’

Most importantly, overseers that manifest the life and love of the Lord Jesus bring a sweet savour to the Father’s heart. Such a life brings glory to the Lord Jesus and will receive His ‘Well done’ and a ‘crown of glory that fadeth not away’, 1 Pet. 5. 4. Whether shepherds or sheep, let us remind our hearts that there is nothing more glorifying to the Lord than to live together as His flock.


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