Are some overseers entitled to more spiritual weight than others?
This questions requires particular balance in its answer, because the answer is both “yes” and “no.” The consistent character, experience, and Biblical understanding of some overseers gives them greater “moral authority.” The insights of such men deserve particular consideration. That consideration is afforded by others. If a man demands or obviously expects that consideration, he loses moral authority. Neither personality nor manipulative skill gives spiritual weight, not even age alone (Pro 16:31).
While each overseer is personally accountable to the Lord (Acts 20:28; Heb 13:17), the oversight functions as a unit (1Ti 4:14) in which each elder is essential to the working of the whole. Spiritual weight will influence the decisions of the overseers only to the extent it addresses the issue at hand with the truth of the Word of God. Oversight decisions are not by majority vote, by weighted votes, or by a poll of all in the assembly, but through a consensus that considers all the overseers. Only such consideration fulfills the servant-leadership role the Lord described and exemplified (Mark 10:42-45; Phi 2:3-8).
The suggested answer then is “yes,” because the character and Biblical insights of some will have greater influence on the oversight’s deliberations, and “no,” because each overseer has equal responsibility for the decisions made by the oversight.
Should assembly overseers retire when they reach a certain age?
Answers to such questions will hopefully give guidance without being critical. In a society whose mantra includes “Question authority!” strong criticism of overseers is all too common, although still contrary to Scripture (Heb 13:7, 17; 1Ti 5:17, 19; Psa 105:15).
The New Testament does not give us any precedent for the retirement of elders. Perhaps the Old Testament instructions regarding the service of the Levites (Numbers 8:25) give us some guidance, however. The Levites served from the age of twenty five, but did not “enter into the service” and “do the work” until they were thirty (7 times in Num 4). They ceased active service at 50, but remained “with their brethren” “to keep the charge” (8:25). The ages and the specifics were for the Levites. The principles are intended “for our learning” (Rom 15:4).
Men to whom the Lord has entrusted a specific service, such as the oversight of the flock, give the prime of their years to that service. They never retire from involvement in that work. In their early years, they learn. In their prime years, they serve. In their remaining years, they support those who serve. Their experience and wisdom not only give ballast to the oversight, but greatly enhance the necessary continuity of testimony (2Ti 2:2) from one generation to the next.
How would an oversight remove a fellow-overseer from that responsibility?
Human nature being what it is may at times make it seem impossible for overseers to work together. Divine grace being what it is will provide a way to work together in a godly fashion. And where a problem is developing, the sooner it is kindly confronted, the better.
Paul speaks about elders in the last paragraph (vv 17-25) of 1 Timothy chapter five. To be consistent with the flow of the paragraph, we note three initial statements he makes about elders: they should receive becoming respect (vv 17-18); they should be protected from unfounded criticism (v 19); they are particularly accountable to the assembly for public wrongs (v20). This latter teaching relates to the rest of the paragraph. Notably omitted, however, is any reference to his being removed from being an overseer.
If he is factious, he is to be confronted, but within the bounds of the oversight (Titus 3:10). If he refuses such admonitions, he and his teaching are to be rejected. How he could continue to serve as an overseer is difficult to imagine. However, an overseer whose sins fall within the scope of 1 Corinthians 5 is obviously removed from the oversight and the assembly. He is no longer “blameless” (1Ti 3:2), so could not return to that responsibility, even though he will hopefully be restored to the Lord and to the assembly.
Can an overseer withdraw from the oversight?
Genesis 2 and 3 indicate that God has invested us with the power to choose. He allows us to choose, whether our choice is right or wrong, and deals with us on the basis of our choices. A brother may therefore choose to withdraw from his responsibility as an overseer. Either the Lord entrusted him with that responsibility (Acts 20:28) or he assumed it himself. In either case, he will answer to his Lord for the state of the flock (Heb 13:17b).
The Lord has promised to give sufficient spiritual strength (1Co 12:9) and physical endurance (1Ti 4:10, “the Preserver of all men,” JND) for the work He entrusts. He intends to refine him by means of every trial (Heb 12:9-11) He allows. These truths seem to remove most reasons a man could give for withdrawing.
On the other hand, a man’s fellow elders may discern that he is discouraged because of his own failings, family or assembly difficulties, or disappointments regarding assembly practices or even principles. In this case, he needs care and encouragement from the other elders. Shepherds should shepherd shepherds.