A second article on the role and responsibility of overseers.
The care, guidance and preservation of God’s assembly have been entrusted to a group of brethren collectively known as “the oversight,” or, better rendered, “elderhood.” The number or ratio of these men to the size of the company is not spelled out, but they are always plural. “In the multitude of counselors there is safety” (Prov 24:6). Their work and character is described under the various words employed by the Holy Spirit: shepherd, elder, overseer, pastor.
Initially, these men were marked out by the apostles or their delegates. With the completion of the Word of God, these men are established in this present age by 1. A spiritual gift from the Risen Head of the Church, 2. A strong desire (exercise) to fulfill the work for which such gift is necessary, and, 3. A recognition by the believers of the moral and spiritual suitability of such persons. Consequently, they are said to be made overseers by the Holy Spirit who brings this about through these channels.
The overseer is seen to be ‘among’ the flock (1 Pet 5:1), ‘over’ the flock (Acts 20:28) and ‘before’ the flock (Heb 13:7 “follow”). The intimacy of these leaders with the flock in their care is indicated by the expression, “the flock which is among you” (1 Pet 5:2).
Overseers neither govern as dictators nor act by consensus. Their authority is derived alone from the Word of God. As under-shepherds to the Lord, who is the “chief shepherd”, they are to administer His own care towards His flock, conscious of the need and health of each individual. What a high standard! Their tools for the work are their own example and the orderly teaching and application of the Word of God. Their work is both preservative and restorative, preventive and corrective. The saints are protected and happy when filled with spiritual food and able to follow the example given.
The elder must feed his own soul first and then gather food to set before the people of God. His ministry must be a declaration of all the counsel of God, truth in all its variety, suitable for the varied needs and personalities of the believers. Is this not why a special acknowledgment was appropriate for those who “labor in the word and in teaching” (1 Tim 5:17)?
Difficulties arise requiring inquiry and sensitive investigation. Such should be undertaken by more than one overseer. Spiritual insight is necessary to ascertain the truth in light of the Scriptures. Personal preferences and ideas or partiality toward family and friends must not determine the response. “Gaining thy brother,” “restoring such an one,” and “convincing” are terms God uses as goals in such matters. Recovery is always in view. Each sheep cost Christ His life’s blood and is equally important, so the shepherds yearn over the wanderer and backslider. The shepherds seek the recovery of the wandering sheep by explanation, persuasion and gentle rebuke, all from the Word of God. In matters of extreme discipline, let us remember that a person is “put away” as a wicked person, not as a believer (1 Cor 5:13). Such action is never simply to “rid” the company of an awkward Christian. It is most serious, and the oversight must be conscious they are ratifying heaven’s mind on the matter. Disciplinary action should be affirmative and gentle, never brash, so that the assembly can acquiesce in the carrying out of the mind of the Lord. Where confession and acknowledgment of sin have been made (obviously the evidence of true repentance), godly overseers will move to receive the recovered believer back again as quickly as possible.
Overseers need to remember that individual action is unscriptural. Esteem and respect for the view of fellow elders is essential even though they may differ in education or social status. In the spiritual realm God often uses what men despise (1 Cor 6:4). Where oneness of mind is lacking on a matter, brethren should pray until agreement is reached. It is confusion for one to say at a later date that he was not in agreement with the decision of fellow elders.
Occasionally, an assembly appears to be controlled by one man. This usually arises because a strong personality overshadows quieter dispositions. Such conditions are to be avoided because a spirit of Diotrophes could develop, suppressing spiritual growth and the maturing of gift in others.
Confidentiality hardly needs to be emphasized, but things discussed among overseers should not be carried to their homes for conversation. The wife’s responsibility is prayer for her husband, not influence upon his exercise.
Assembly overseers are not perfect. Sometimes, in spite of sincerity in seeking to fulfill the work to which God has called them, they make mistakes. Haste to apologize for inappropriate decisions is always appropriate. Assembly saints ought to be sympathetic and pray faithfully for those who are the guides. For the most part, their work is presently unrecognized, but they labor “as unto to the Lord”, conscious that the assembly cost God the “blood of His
own Son” (Acts 20:28) and that the keeping of every sheep is a charge for which they must give account. There are, at times, sheep who stray in spite of every intervention by the shepherds, but the shepherds would never rest knowing they had not tried to recover it. The Lord Jesus prayed, “Those Thou gayest me, I have kept, and none of them is lost, but the son of perdition” Jn 17:12.
Dear believer, don’t be critical of those who seek to lead and feed the saints. Your part toward such should be to “know them”, “esteem them highly for their work’s sake”, “obey them”, “submit yourselves unto them”, “salute them”, and, above all, “Pray for them”.
Scriptures to read: I Tim 3, Tit 2, 1 Thes 5, 1 Pet 5, Heb 13, Acts 20.