Elders: The Functions of Oversight in the Local Church

We have previously introduced the topic of the Fact of Oversight. In that article we showed that the primary and overarching function of oversight is “taking care of a church of God” (1Ti 3:3). It is a spiritual work. We proved from the Scriptures that the elders are the overseers and are the pastors, and that the clerical position we see in the church systems around us is never countenanced in the Bible. Let us now determine from the Scriptures more specifically what the Functions of Overseers are. Some of the functions could be outlined under the headings of Gathering, Guiding, Guarding, and Giving Food. Is your Bible open? Are you ready to study some words?

The primary task in caring lies in feeding the flock. Peter, the fisherman who became a shepherd, was given a great lesson for himself and for us in the Lord’s use of two distinct words for “feed” in His restoration ministry in John 21:15-17. The Shepherd and Overseer of our souls said, “Give food to (Strongs #1006-bosko) my lambs … shepherd (#4165-poimaino) my sheep … give food to (#1006-bosko) my sheep.” Poimaino is a wide word that includes all aspects of a shepherd’s work. Bosko is a narrow word referring to the giving of food. The sheep want to be fed! Failure to feed the little flock from the Word is a tragedy. Starving sheep will be straying sheep. An old sage once said we should “tether the sheep by their teeth.” Spiritually, only a full soul can feed; hence the exhortation in 1 Timothy 5:17 to “labour to the point of weariness [#2872-kopiao] in the Word and teaching.” The majority of the labour takes place in the study before one rises to teach in the gathered company. And isn’t it cogent that there can be a bosko without a poimaino but there can never a poimaino without a bosko? The feeding of the flock must not be left to visiting evangelists and expositors. It is the domain of the elderhood. There is presently a serious lack of expository teaching. Expository teaching cannot exist without a serious commitment to expository studying.

A second word we want to look at is hegeomai (#2232-33), which has a number of shades of meaning and is used of overseers in Hebrews 13:7,17,24. “Obey your leaders, and be submissive; for they watch over your souls as those that shall give account; that they may do this with joy, and not groaning, for this [would be] unprofitable for you” (Heb 13:17 JND). The word implies leadership, going before, and guidance. Shepherds not only give food; they also guide. They are proactive in impacting the lives of the sheep of His pasture (Psa 74:1; 79:13). Another word used for leadership in local churches is proistemi (#4291). It literally means to stand before and hence to rule, to preside over, or to lead. It pictures the shepherds going before the flock. It is used of elders also in Romans 12:8 and 1 Thessalonians 5:12. “But we beg you, brethren, to know those who labour among you, and take the lead among you in [the] Lord, and admonish you, and to regard them exceedingly in love on account of their work” (1Th 5:12-13 JND). “Labour” (#2872-kopiao) is a challenging word and means to labour to the point of weariness. These shepherding words are illustrative of guiding and going before. Consider what is similarly said of the shepherds in Luke 2:8: “And in the same region there were shepherds out in the field, keeping watch over their flock by night” (Luk 2:8 ESV). They are remarkable for their care (keeping watch), their consistency (they did not leave the field), and the crises (for there are perils associated with the night). Interestingly, Matthew 2:6 reads, “But you, Bethlehem, in the land of Judah, Are not the least among the rulers of Judah; For out of you shall come a Ruler [#2233-Hegeomai] Who will shepherd [#4165-poimaino] My people Israel” (NKJV). The rule of the Lord Jesus will be the rule of the Shepherd. What a lesson for us! We conclude again that shepherds give food, guide, and guard.

The Book of Judges closes with very sad words: “In those days there was no king in Israel: every man did that which was right in his own eyes” (Jdg 21:25 KJV). There was no king and no rule. Is there rule in the New Testament church? Is it a democracy? Is it a ship without a rudder? Is it on a course with no sense of direction? Clearly, there are those “who are over you in the Lord and admonish you” (1Th 5:12). They are labourers and leaders who are to be esteemed very highly because of their work (v13). To refer again to Hebrews 13:17, there are those who watch for your souls, and the sheep are not to make their work unnecessarily difficult for them, but their actions, activities and attitude are to be such that elders may do the work with joy and not with grief. Clearly, shepherds give food, guide and guard. They must also govern. But in their work, elders must realize that they are not policemen; they are pastors! They are not princes; they are patterns!

In his letter concerning the Church as the Body of Christ, Paul outlines the responsibility of the pastor-teachers (or teaching-pastors) who were gifts to the Church and whose work is expressed as follows: “And He gave some as … pastors and teachers, for the equipping of the saints for the work of service, to the building up of the body of Christ” (Eph 4:11-12 NASB). Elders/overseers/pastors in local churches have a responsibility not only to serve but also to groom others for service (see 2Ti 2:2).

In the Message from Miletus, Paul charged and comforted the elderhood with the words, “I commend you to God, and to the word of his grace, which is able to build you up” (Act 20:32 KJV). No other resource will do!