Government – Overseership


INTRODUCTION. In Christendom God-appointed order is mostly supplanted by human organization, especially in the sphere of rule and ministry. Traditions gathered from writings of Greek and Latin “Church Fathers" and decisions of noted Church Councils, rather than the N.T. Scriptures, are appealed to in justi-fication or condemnation of church doctrine and practice. Gather-ings of believers endeavouring to follow the simple pattern laid down in the Word of God are often charged with repudiating leadership altogether, because no official class is in evidence. Without duly-accredited leadership, however, an assembly would soon be in confusion, like a community without government, cf. Judg. 21. 25. Christ is sole Head of His Body the Church, and His sole Vicar on earth is the Holy Spirit. A visible “ head “ may appear to make for a smoothly-running organization, but God’s order, not man’s notions, must be our true guide. Recognition of Christ’s Lordship involves humble submission to any rule He may establish. It is important to remember that brethren who bear responsibility are to administrate, not to legislate.

The Lord has set up two forms of leadership in His Church, “ overseers “ (bishops) and “ ministers “ (deacons), the former guiding the local assembly, the latter serving it. We must carefully distinguish “governments" from other “gifts" (1 Cor. 12. 28), i.e. administration from ministry, though they are intimately con-nected. Notice the order of address at Phil. 1. 1, “saints" fol-lowed by “ bishops “ (overseers–plural) and “ deacons “ (min-istering brethren).

OVERSEERS–DESIGNATION. The terms “overseers" (bishops) and “ elders" (presbyters) refer to the same persons under aspects of their activities and their age (spiritual maturity), respectively ; Acts 20. 17 with 28; cf. Tit. 1. 5 with 7. Not all aged men are “ elders,” Tit. 2. 2, 3 (different Gk.) ; Job. 32. 9. Eldership goes back to O.T. times and was continued among Jews in their synagogues, Ex. 3. 16; 12. 21 ; 17. 5; 24. I, etc. In early days churches followed the simple pattern of the synagogues led by “elders.” Ritualists, however, have sought to model their services after the more complex pattern of the temple worship. Elders are first mentioned in connection with the Christian church at Jerusalem (Acts 11. 30) and as collaborators with the apostles (Acts ch. IS).

COMMISSION. It is the Holy Spirit who “makes” (sets) overseers in the local assembly. Acts 20. 28. He is the Agent on earth of Christ the Head in heaven. The Word of God knows nothing of the appointment of elders by ecclesiastical authorities, or of election by congregations or by existing elders. Newly-planted assemblies functioned at first without elders. Missionaries, who under God had been instrumental in planting these assemblies, on a subsequent visit chose for them certain men, having spiritual and moral qualifications which indicated to their experienced eyes fitness for eldership, Acts 14. 23. In a similar way Paul instructed Titus to appoint elders in the assemblies in Crete (Tit. 1. 5) but this gives no support to the idea of “ apostolic succession," for the appointment conveyed no qualification to preach or to teach. Such ministry is after another order. We conclude then that the procedure was inaugural, and not intended to be continued once these assemblies were provided for. The writer believes we have here divine guidance for evangelists and missionaries in new spheres

Although the N.T. appears to give no specific directions for sub-sequent procedure, the expediency principle enunciated by Paul in 1 Corinthians would surely suggest that existing elders as spiritual guides should be on the look out for brethren having the requisite qualifications, and indicate them to the assembly. Such would then join the others in their prayers and counsels.

The appointment of a “ bishop “ with a “ see “ was an early departure from N.X. simplicity. The present system of ordination and nomination to office with the granting of “ livings “ by the government, by some college or corporation, even by unbelieving

/landowners, is certainly not of God but of the world. FUNCTION. Eldership is strictly a local charge. It does not carry authority to “ rule “ in another assembly. Elders are not a board of officials set over an assembly but labourers among the saints, Acts 20. 28 ; I Pet. 5. 1, 2 ; cf. Lk, 22. 24-26 ; Matt. 20. 25-28. The word “ governments," be it noted, follows (not precedes) “ helps “ in the order of local grace-gifts (I Cor. 12. 28) and is omitted altogether in reference to the church universal, Eph. 4. 11. Whilst in general it may be desirable that those who attend to the business affairs of the assembly should be elders, this work par-takes of a “ deaconing “ character, for which see next lesson. In Scripture the work of elders is described as :–

(1) Shepherding (Gk. poimainoo). Christ Himself is Chief Shepherd of His flock (I Pet. 5. 4 ; Jn. 10, Hi) and elders are under-shepherds (1 Pet. 5. 2, “ tend “ ; Acts 20. 28, “ feed," i.e. tend as a shepherd, same Gr.). Peter was an example (1 Pet. 5. 1 with Jn. 21. 16, 17). Paul, too, was a true shepherd as well as a pioneer missionary (see his Epistles). The only place where Christian leaders are called "shepherds" (pastors) is Eph. 4. IX; double grace-gift in the same persons (" pastors and teachers “). “ Pastor “ shows occupation with souls, “ teacher “ shows occupation with the Scriptures. The formers work lies chiefly in private visitation, the latter’s in public instruction. The shepherd’s duties, then, are to supervise (lit. to “ bishop “), tend and feed the flock. Among the saints it is necessary to instruct the ignorant, visit the sick (Jas. 5. 14), comfort the dying, console the bereaved, admonish the disorderly, encourage the faint-hearted, support the weak and restore the fallen (Gal. 6. 1), being longsuffering toward all, I Thess. 5. 14. Acts 20, 34, 35 also indicates giving material help where needful, either from one’s own pocket or from assembly funds by arrangement. A true shepherd always pays particular attention to the lambs. False shepherds are more concerned about shearing the sheep than about serving them. Hirelings are constrained not by love, but by pay and are not prepared to take any personal risks I (Jn. 10. 12, 13). They “pasture themselves,” Jude 12; cf. Ezek. 34. 2-6. Many such, alas, are found in Christendom today I Teaching for hire came in with clerisy, under which system money settles the sphere of ministry and determines doctrines to be taught or suppressed, Rev. 2. 4; Jude II ; 2 Pet. 12. 15; Hab. I. 15, 16. As another has put it, “ Pastors (shepherds) in assemblies are invaluable ; pastors of churches, unscriptural.”

(2) Watching (Gk. agrupneoo.Hob. 13. 17) in the interests

of souls. This is frequently linked with prayer, as in Eph. 6. 18. Adversaries are powerful, practised and persistent, 1 Pet. 5. 8 : Acts 20. 29-31 ; 2 Cor. 11. 13-15: Jn. 10. 12; Matt. 7. 15-20; ci. 1 Sam. 17. 34-36. Laggards and stragglers of the flock are in danger of being snapped up by the enemy ; also the “ sick “ and feeble, Deut. 25. 18.Shepherds guard, as well as guide, the flock.

(3) Leading (Gk. proisteerai, to stand before, i.e. especially as examples). 1 Thess. 5. 12; 1 Tim. 5. 17 ; to be done with dili-gence, Rom. 12. 8, cf. 1 Pet. 5. 3. In Eastern lands, a shepherd is not a driver but a leader of the sheep.

(4) Governing (Gk. heegeomai, to preside, to rule), Heb. 13. 7, 17, 24 ; not as “ lords," 1 Pet. 5 3 ; Mk. 10. 42-45 ; being patterns, not princes. A governor’s authority is delegated, not despotic.

(5) Steering (Gk. kubemoestees, primarily a helmsman, Acts 27. 11). 1 Cor. 12. 28. Elders pilot the assembly, steering it clear of “ rocks “ upon which it might “ founder.”

(6) Labouring (Gk. kopiaoo, to toil; indicates wearying work as Lk. 5. 51 : 1 Thess. 5. 12 ; 1 Tim. 5. 17 ; Acts 20. 35 (" so “ points to manual work as 34). It is not merely attending “ brethren’s meetings “ for the discussion of assembly affairs, but working among the saints. Tit. 1. 9, cf. Jude 22-23, R.V., always serving in the spirit of humility, 1 Pet. 5. 5, R.V.

(7) Stewarding (Gk. oikonomos, discharging a stewardship, Tit. 1. 7, ct. Lk. 12. 41, 42; 1 Cor. 4. 1, 2). God has entrusted elders with a responsible charge in His household, and in due time they must render account, Heb. 13. 17.

From the above it will be seen that the duties of elders are primarily connected with the spiritual welfare of the saints, 1 Tim. 3. 5 (same Gk. at Lk. 10. 34) and only secondarily, if at all, with temporal things. They should act in fullest fellowship with the rest of the assembly. Mutual confidence is essential. If some feel there has been an unjust exercise of “ rule “ by the elders, appeal can be made to higher authority, viz. to the Chief Shepherd and Head of the Church. Meetings of overseers should follow the Scriptural pattern, Acts 15. 6; 21. 18 and 20. The very plurality of elders suggests the need to come together for prayer and con-sideration of assembly matters. Unity of judgment must be aimed at, for a divided oversight usually means a divided assembly. Experience and expediency both indicate the undesirability of discussing everything before the whole assembly or even before younger brethren, when, for example, private and confidential questions arise concerning the moral character of someone in fellowship and affecting possible discipline. Considerable harm to innocent parties may result by giving to the affair wider publicity than necessary especially when allegations are found untrue. Elders are surely the proper ones to investigate the case and then advise the assembly. They are to take heed to themselves first of all, then to all the flock. Acts 20. 28.

QUALIFICATION. 1Tim.3.1-7;Tit.1.5-9.Natural J ability or business acumen, financial prosperity or social position /neither qualify nor disqualify onefor overseership.Overseers Imust possess moral qualities as well as spiritual capacity for the work.They should be “ men of the Word," men of faith and men of prayer;in short, sound in doctrine and consistent in life. Heb. 13. 7; 2 Tim. 2. 2.In ritualistic churches the personal character of an office-holder is of little account.He may be dissolute in private life yet in virtue of his office he is permitted to “ administer the sacraments," even to “ pronounce absolution."In true Christ-ianity the very opposite rules.No less than 18 different words are used to indicate the character required of God in a true overseer. Two phrases also describe his capabilities and three his circum-stances.


(a) Not a novice (recent convert), 1 Tim. 3. 6; note reason ci. 5. 22 ;

(b) Husband of one wife, Tim. 3. 2 ; Tit. 1. 6, i.e. in a land where plurality of wives is a legal custom such a convert may be received into fellowship but is debarred from overseership ;

(c) Good testimony in the world, 1 Tim. 3. 7, e.g. not discredited in business ;note reason.


(a) In effective control of his ownhousehold, 1 Tim. 3. 4; Tit. 1. 6; note reason;

(b) Apt-to-teach (Gk. one word), 1 Tim. 3. 2 ; i.e. not necessarily a “ platform man “ but able to impart instruction at least privately to younger believers.

(3) Character. Note the high standard to be applied and followed. liesides the general principles already mentioned, the elder is to be irreproachable in conduct, sane and impartial in judgment, self-controlled in speech and action, reasonable in atti-tude (not stubborn or self-willed), free from avarice, hospitable, etc.

RECOGNITION. Overseers are recognized by the saints because they have the affections and qualifications of eiders and do the work of such.Note seven exhortations :–

(1)"Know them," 1 Thess. S. 12; i.e. by observation, for the Gk. word is never used of a formal recognition. Knowledge leading perhaps to a more open acknowledgment is signified by another word found at 1 Cor. 16. 18 with 16. Elders will obtain true recognition if they serve the saints well. Sheep will instinctively follow without appeal or coercion one they have come to know and have learned to trust.

(2) “ Esteem them," 1 Thess. 5. 13. Saints are to value them highly and appreciate them in love on account of their work rather than from personal liking.

(3)" Honour them," 1 Tim. 5. 17 ; “ double “ honour indi-cates material support when necessary in addition to paying respect, 18 ; cf. 1 Cor. 9. 7b. Paul’s example is not to be overlooked, however. Acts 20. 34, 35.

(4)" Trust them," 1 Tim. 5. 19 with I. No accusation is to be accepted against an elder except in the presence of witnesses aud upon sufficient testimony, for elders are particularly exposed to misrepresentation by very reason of their work, e.g. in advising the assembly in matters of discipline. If there be ground for remonstrance, deference as to a father is to be shown, yet if sin be proved there must be public conviction, 20. Fellow-elders arc not to cloak failure in one of their number.

(5)"Obey them," Heb. 13. 17, i.e. in expressed injunctions, “ and be submissive," i.e. to their known but unexpressed wishes; cf. 1 Pet. 5. 5 ; I Cor. 16. 15, 16. Loyalty to leaders is enjoined because of their grave responsibility before the Lord.

(6)"Remember them,” Heb. 13. 7. Here probably refers to leaders who had suffered martyrdom. Saints are to (a) consider the issue of their life (conduct), i.e. its triumphant finish ; and (6) imitate their faith, i.e. faithful example. Leaders may pass away but Christ ever remains the one great Object of faith and service (v. 8). Undersh.epb.erdsfall asleep but the Great Shepherd remains to raise up others, Himself exercising chief supervision, 20 ; cf. 1 Pet. 2. 25.

(7)" Salute them," Heb. 13. 24 ; i.e. greet them with kindly wishes so as to encourage. They meet plenty of criticism ! If you do not always agree with their decisions do not bear resent-ment.Pray for them, Heb. 13. 18;1 Thess. 5. 25 ; 2 Thess. 3. 1.

COMPENSATION. Note the wonderful promise (I Pet. 5. 4) to be fulfilled in the day of accounting, Hcb. 13. 17 fcf. 1 Thess. 2. 19; 2 Jo, 8, A.V.). What a reward for the arduous and often thankless task of an


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