A Charge to be Engaged: Oversight in an assembly


Stewardship is one of the many roles that Scripture ascribes to assembly overseers. From OT stewards and from parables spoken by the Lord Jesus describing faithful and unfaithful servants, we learn much about stewards and stewardship.

The Lord Jesus identifies the sad consequences of unscrupulous service that affected not only those in the care of the steward but ultimately destroyed the steward himself. The Savior introduces the unfit steward’s downward spiral by the words “but” and “if” (Lk 12:45). These are familiar words that, when used as part of a directive, indicate that no deviation or excuse is acceptable. Can “ifs” – “ands” or “buts” be expected from God’s stewards as overseers in His assemblies? We will now consider two aspects of the overseers’ metaphorical stewardship.

1. The Steward and His Master

The unique relationship between the ancient steward and his master must have provoked great soul searching. Can we not picture his marveling that he, a slave among slaves, had been entrusted with his master’s house? Abraham’s servant (Gen 24) is a shining example of a faithful steward. The intimate communion between master and steward, the confidence of the master, and the commitment of the servant stand out in bold relief. But unmistakably woven throughout this chapter is the servant’s appreciation and fervent love for his master.

The steward in God’s assembly must first of all know and love God. To adore Him and to love Him more and more must be life’s great priority. The Lord’s words to Peter in John 21:15-18, leave no doubt that service for the Master hinges absolutely on love for the person of the Lord Jesus Christ.

In the OT the service of the steward was inseparably linked to the master’s flocks and herds. With our twentieth century western perspective, we fail to understand the value of these possessions to the master. We cannot mistake, however, the New Testament references to a local assembly as God’s flock. God alone knows the value that He places on His assemblies, purchased with the blood of His own Son. To be made an overseer by the Holy Spirit with responsibility in a church of God is a pinnacle of human stewardship (Acts 20:28; 1 Tim 3:1; 1 Pet 5:2). In light of this, overseers must humbly accept the admonition, “Take heed therefore unto yourselves”

Parents and teachers are all too familiar with the child or student who approaches with the question, “Is this good enough?” This attitude is pervasive, and society’s commitment to excellence and quality has all but disappeared. More than that, standards are being continually adjusted to reflect the lowest common denominators.

How foreign to human measure, then, are requirements of a stewardship examined against the absolute and unchanging standards of a Holy God. Like Isaiah we cry, “Woe is me! for I am undone. . .mine eyes have seen the King” (Isa 6:5). It is surely clear that one called to be a steward of God cannot escape God’s solemn injunction, “Be ye holy; for I am holy” (Lev 11:44; I Pet 1:16). The steward must recognize God’s standards, and his life must be characterized by a burning desire to know more and reflect more of the holiness of God.

Consider now what Scripture presents regarding the steward’s accountability. The writer of the Hebrews, instructing believers to be submissive, reminds his readers that those responsible to “watch for” their souls were in fact accountable for the quality of their stewardship (Heb 13:17).

Mr. Crawford, commenting on accountability as one of four great principles of stewardship, points out that Luke 12 closely parallels I Corinthians 4 in identifying the future aspect of the review (Lk 12:43; 1 Cor 4:2). Faithfulness will be the key issue on “the day when we will be found (out)” (Luke, WTBT). Mr. Hunter suggests that to “be found faithful” (1 Co 4:2) refers to a future accounting to the Lord with His assessment and reward publicly demonstrating what is presently known to God as to the faithfulness of the steward (I Corinthians, WTBT). Whether viewing the subject of accountability as a “here and now” or as a future accounting at the judgment seat of Christ, the overseer in today’s assembly cannot escape the fact that his service is under intensive review.

2. The Steward in God’s Assembly

The steward’s effectiveness will hinge on his spiritual stability. Paul’s prayer for the saints “with the bishops and deacons” in Philippi (Phil 1:9) is exceedingly relevant. Paul prays that their love would abound “more and more in knowledge and in all judgment” (discernment RV). The love for which Paul prays is that love (agape) which the NT presents as expressing “the essential nature of God (I Jn 4:8)…the deep and constant love and interest of a perfect Being toward entirely unworthy objects, producing and fostering a reverential love in them toward the Giver and a practical love toward those who are partakers of the same and a desire to help others seek the Giver” (Vine’s NT Words). Obviously, this love is based on eternal values, not the present attractiveness of objects. It is, as Lightfoot suggests, the inward state of the soul (Maxwell, Phil. WTBT), so much more than affection or emotion.

In his prayer, however, Paul goes further and qualifies this love, using the words “knowledge” and “discernment” (RV). This fuller knowledge refers to “an intimate understanding based on a relationship.” While the verse does not identify an object, it is suggested that the focus of this knowledge is God Himself.

God’s stewards, whom Titus was to appoint in Crete, needed to be characterized by this love. They were to be devoted first to God, holding fast the faithful word as they had been taught. They were to be committed to the welfare of the saints, “able by sound doctrine both to exhort and convince” (Titus 1:7-9). Their suitability, reliability, dependability, in short, their stability would be measured by their love.

In Colossians 3:22-23, Paul is instructing bondservants respecting their responsibilities to their masters. His desire for them was that they might not be guilty of eye-service as men pleasers, but would work heartily as to the Lord. In a world where interpersonal relationships are marred by an individual’s “personal agendas,” the activities of an assembly elder must be transparent. This stipulation must apply first of all to the elders’ interaction with fellow overseers. The NT local assembly is always presented with a plurality of overseers functioning together as a unit under the chief Shepherd (Acts 20:17; I Pet 5:4). Acrimony and hostility are unacceptable. Confidentiality respecting issues under consideration is mandatory. The dissemination of information by an elder to those outside the circle of overseers, even to family members, could be betrayal of the trust committed to the elders by the Holy Spirit and owed to fellow elders and other believers in God’s assembly.

Diotrephes (3 Jn 9-11) is a grim example of dangerous departure from the divine pattern. His behavior underscores the solemn fact that the question so often asked relative to earthly endeavors, “Now where is he coming from?” ought never to apply to an overseer’s service. It must be abundantly clear that the overseer’s methods and objectives are motivated solely by love to Christ and commitment to God’s glory.

In I Thessalonians, the apostle Paul graphically reviews his previous visit with the believers in Thessalonica. He had been gentle among them, just as a nursing mother cherishing her own children. They had become so dear that he was willing to sacrifice his own life for them (1 Thes 2:8-9). In his sensitivity towards these Thessalonians, Paul was like his Master. Of the Lord Jesus Christ, it was prophetically said that “a bruised reed he would not break and smoking flax he would not quench” (Is 42:3). Surely these are the models in harmony with which the overseer must develop and measure his “people skills.”

As leaders, overseers must be approachable and be aware of and have some understanding of the personalities, dispositions, and circumstances among the saints. While teaching, warning, or correcting, overseers must be gentle and compassionate, patient yet firm. Before interacting with other believers, elders will have spread their knowledge and lack of knowledge regarding specific situations before their Master, seeking divine guidance and instruction. When confronted by the unexpected, they will not act precipitously. They will be compassionate listeners, aware that just lending an ear will often give others fresh help and insight. As listeners, they must agonize to be objective.