Who recognizes overseers in a new assembly?
Titus identified (Titus 1:5, “ordain,” appoint, designate) elders in assemblies where no oversight existed. The authority for this came from the Word of God, not apostolic authority. He was dependent on God for the wisdom required. To preserve each assembly, Titus used the inspired guidelines from Paul to point out overseers the Spirit produced. Each assembly recognized these men as elders.
God used experienced hands to plant the assemblies whose history appears in the New Testament, so the pattern seems clear. Where God uses men in making disciples (Matthew 28:19), those men also teach assembly truth. They discern when God has formed an assembly with these believers. Later, as with Titus, they identify those who exhibit maturing characteristics of a shepherd. Heeding Proverbs 15:22, they receive counsel from spiritually mature men. In light of 1 Timothy 3:6, they wait for appropriate evidences of spiritual maturity in potential elders.
How does an assembly recognize its elders?
Paul gives the qualifications for men who will join an existing oversight in Ephesus (1 Timothy 3:1-7; Acts 20:17). These still guide an assembly in recognizing its elders. In God’s design, an assembly operates on theocratic, not democratic, principles; it is subject to God’s will, not the people’s. The Lord, the Chief Shepherd, is supreme in each assembly. To produce this subjection to God, He supplies the assembly with a plurality of shepherds. By their own example and by divine enablement, these shepherds lead (1 Timothy 5:17, “rule,” lead, attend to, WEV) the flock in recognizing elders the Lord provides for them. Elders affirm the Spirit’s work in making men overseers (Acts 20:28); they do not authoritatively make overseers. Unitedly dependent on the Spirit of wisdom (Isaiah 11:2), they communicate to the assembly their perception of God’s choice. In this way, the assembly recognizes its elders.
Overseers encourage the spiritual development of every young believer, perceive when a shepherd’s heart develops in some, and discern when that work has reached appropriate maturity in individuals. The Lord doesn’t “graduate” a class of new overseers. God’s work in each soul reaches maturity in its own time.
What happens if an assembly is slow or mistaken in recognizing an elder?
Elders are fallible humans, as is the individual who thinks they are mistaken. If that individual knows facts of which the elders are not aware, he should graciously inform them. He must also recognize that self-seeking may cloud his perception.
Otherwise, the examples of Saul and David help us. Samuel anointed Saul, an unprofitable leader. Saul reflected the condition of a people who wanted to imitate other nations and valued stature and strength above spirituality. Saul’s leadership was detrimental to Israel and to David personally. Psalm 12 expresses David’s sorrow due to such unrighteous rule. The response therefore of godly believers to perceived mistakes in recognizing elders is two-fold: self-searching (recognizing that everyone in an assembly shares some responsibility for its faulty spiritual condition)and supplication (God is their only recourse).
Every person who assumes leadership will answer to God for that responsibility. David did not rebel against Saul nor did he count it proper to harm or embarrass Saul. God will deal with the wrong man in leadership. Meanwhile, David trusted the Lord his God (1 Samuel 30: 6) when the path of God’s purpose for him seemed hopelessly delayed (27:1). David was not the king until God united His people to make him king (2 Samuel 2:4). Until that time, God was at work in David.
The biblical response in these circumstances is waiting on God and submitting to Him and to the individuals God holds accountable for leadership (Hebrews 13:17).
How should a man prepare for overseership?
“Lord, what wilt Thou have me to do?” is his concern. Love for Christ, His Word, and His people are his hallmarks. As God’s Spirit has His way in his life, His purpose and calling blends with the individual’s native capabilities. That man and his wife (or girlfriend, if he is courting) visit the sick or the widows, leaving some suitable Bible passage with them. He “naturally cares for” (Philippians 3:20) the state of other believers. He prepares for and participates in the meetings, developing a deeper understanding of God’s Word. As he realizes how important the assembly and the spiritual welfare of the Lord’s people are to the Lord, a weight of responsibility settles in his soul. All of these interests integrate with his prayer life and he begins to ask the Lord specifically for the prosperity and preservation of the assembly. Overseers observe his consistency and encourage his interests. At some point, they may ask him to help them in their work.
Especially if he has a competitive spirit (is any man free of this?), he should confront this before the Lord and seek grace to be delivered from a desire for office, advancement, or recognition and to be motivated by a desire to serve.
When the overseers recognize that God has called this brother to the responsibilities of an overseer, he should be willing to serve with these overseers only if he is convinced that God has entrusted this work to him.