35. Local Leaders – Overseers

The Wonder of the Church:  Part 6 – Thinking about Leaders

35. Local Leaders – Overseers

Acts 20:17,28  Paul sent to Ephesus for the elders of the church…. Keep watch over yourselves and all the flock of which the Holy Spirit has made you overseers. Be shepherds of the church of God, which he bought with his own blood.

Titus 1:6,7 An elder must be blameless, faithful to his wife, a man whose children believe and are not open to the charge of being wild and disobedient. Since an overseer manages God’s household…

Phil 1:1  To all God’s holy people in Christ Jesus at Philippi, together with the overseers and deacons:

1 Tim 3:1  Whoever aspires to be an overseer desires a noble task. Now the overseer is to be above reproach

1 Pet 2:25 For “you were like sheep going astray,” but now you have returned to the Shepherd and Overseer of your souls.

A New Start: Starting from scratch we have tried to imagine what would happen if a new group of believers came into being and we suggested that it was likely that some among them would stand out as leaders. Now we want to start again but now look at what the New Testament says about leaders. I am going to distinguish between local leaders and gifted ministries (e.g. those found in Eph 4:12,13). We’ll go on to the gifted ministries in later studies but for the moment I want to stick with those whose role was specifically to watch over the local church, the local flock.

Overseers? The word ‘overseer’ comes in this context in the New Testament only a limited number of  times. Some translations use the old English word ‘bishop’ but as that term has taken on a new ecclesiastical meaning in later centuries we will stick with the term ‘overseer’ which describes the role more accurately. Also in the New Testament there are not tiers of ecclesiastical government. The ministry of the apostle, as we shall see later, was a role that enabled ‘elders’ to be formally recognized and brought into public affirmation. But as our verses above indicate, the terms ‘elder’ and ‘overseer’ and ‘shepherd’ (the other term for the old English ‘pastor’) are expressions of one and the same person. But each term has a specific meaning. But we would do well to face some of the difficulties for this expression of leadership.

A Difficulty – Work: I am dealing with ‘overseer’ first simply because it occurs fewer times than ‘elder’ who we will come to a little later on. The trouble with dictionary definitions is that they usually refer to a job or work context, of a person overseeing other workers and although that actually IS how it is supposed to be in church, the connotation with secular work is so often not such a good one. As we have noted previously, all ‘work’ in the church context is to be that inspired by and for God, an expression of grace. The sad thing about Christian ‘ministry’, Christian ‘workers’, and Christian ‘leaders’,  is that we so often see these roles as ‘work’ and see the leader as ‘employed’ by the flock which is a dramatic change of view from what it was originally, and one which so often causes such hindrances in the modern church.

A Difficulty – Superiority:  The term that is here used, ‘overseer’ is a functional role and not a role of superiority. Yes, it is a role that Paul referred to as being one called by the Holy Spirit (Acts 20:28 see above).  Having watched the growth of what might have been referred to as the ‘Restoration Movement’ at the end of the last century, where there is a (wrong) exaltation of ministries, instead of humility and servant-heartedness, we see there can arise a disguised superiority attitude in leaders and wrong submissive attitudes within the flock that take away personal responsibility.  It is little surprise that many of those ‘ministries’ no longer exist.

A Difficulty – Exaltation: Yet, if we are honest, it is incredibly difficult not to exalt an individual, male or female, who God anoints mightily in His service, but it is not what should happen, and it opens the way for a variety of both misunderstandings and misuses. Where a person is anointed for leadership by God, especially in this overseeing role, it is especially difficult for that leader (who indeed may appear spiritually head and shoulders above those around him) to maintain a right perspective and recognize that they, just as much as anyone else, need a mentor or someone to hold them accountable. They are still human beings and are still vulnerable to feeling inadequate and in need of encouragement and counsel, if not in their ministry, so often in their family circumstances.

A Difficulty – Hierarchy: Similarly the ‘managerial hierarchy’ (for it is nothing less than that) which is witnessed in most denominations, has no place in the ones Jesus calls into being as his Church. We perpetuate such structures with all that is wrong with them, because we have built up organisations who have large finances, own many buildings and generally exhibit the functions of a secular business organisation even, in the case of some, being involved in property investment to maintain their structures in a manner that is so different from that shown in the New Testament, which we will look at in more detail in a later study.

The protective meaning: The meaning of an overseer should that be simply one who watches over and guards the flock, who protects the flock. In this it overlaps the idea of shepherd, although shepherd encapsulates, caring for, and providing for, as well as protecting. Indeed in his famous ‘on the beach’ elders’ briefing Paul goes on to warn them, “I know that after I leave, savage wolves will come in among you and will not spare the flock. Even from your own number men will arise and distort the truth in order to draw away disciples after them. So be on your guard!” (Acts 20:29-31) and he said it so they would be alert, watching out for these workers of the enemy and resist them on behalf of the flock, to protect it.

The corrective meaning: Rather like the secular overseer there is, to use the dictionary definition, the sense of, “to make certain that an activity is being done correctly.”  The big difference between the church (spiritual) and the business (secular)  is that the church overseer is answerable to Jesus to demonstrate and express Jesus’ love and humility in all he does. The goal of the overseer is to equip, enable, empower each member of the body of Christ to function in the way that God enables and gifts them, in ways that will build up and bless the body (see 1 Cor 14:12), while humility remains a primary characteristic as we considered back in Study no.17.

Keeping to the plumb line: Thus we might summarize the role of an ‘overseer’ to be twofold. First to protect and second, to enable the flock to remain on track in the light of the New Testament  teaching. The picture of Jesus acting as a cornerstone (e.g. Acts 4:11) means we do all we can to keep people as close to Jesus as possible, for him to act as a plumb-line if you like, against which all we do is checked. It is to ensure that each person is enabled to see themselves as a valuable member of the body, no greater than and not less than, anyone else, needing and needed, for the blessing of the body. Such a task requires grace, humility and wisdom. Where there is an absence of those three things, there becomes a ‘mechanical process’ approach that is more familiar in secular training courses, but which is not that which should be observed in the church. So, protection, equipping, enabling, empowering, guiding, these are the activities of the ‘overseer’. In the next study we will consider the ‘shepherding’ aspect in more detail, and then finally the meaning and role of the elder which will provide the greater context and role of these local leaders.

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