Elders (1): The Fact of Oversight in the Local Church

The fact of overseership can be readily established from the book of Acts in the NT. This book could be called “The Footsteps of the Flock” or “The Pattern for Church Practice.” Our purpose is to see what the Bible teaches about this critically important topic. We must not interpret the Scriptures by our practices but we must critique our practices by the Word! Will you open your Bible as we peruse the Scriptures together?

The first thing we must establish is by what names overseers are called in the NT. In Acts 20:17, Paul, from Miletus, called the elders of the church in Ephesus. It is interesting that the plural of this word “elder” is translated “presbytery” in the KJV of 1 Timothy 4:14. It is translated “elderhood” in JND, “eldership” in NKJV, and “the council of elders” in ESV.

It is interesting that when the elderhood of the Ephesian church arrived, Paul addressed them by saying, “Take heed therefore unto yourselves, and to all the flock, over the which the Holy Ghost hath made you overseers, to feed the church of God, which he hath purchased with his own blood” (Act 20:28 KJV). J.N. Darby’s translation is more literal and leads to a more accurate exposition: “Take heed therefore to yourselves, and to all the flock, wherein the Holy Spirit has set you as overseers, to shepherd the assembly of God, which he has purchased with the blood of his own.” Notice that the “elders” (Strong’s #4245 found in v17) are told the Holy Spirit has set them as overseers. This gracious work of the Holy Spirit raises up men to care for the little flocks. There are to be no orphan companies. But see also that the word “overseer” (#1983, 1985) is translated by the word “bishop” in the KJV in Philippians 1:1, 1 Timothy 3:2, and Titus 1:7. The ESV uses the word “overseers” in all these texts.

Further, we must observe that the Ephesian elders were told that they were to “shepherd” (#4165, 4166) the flock of God. This is a broad word covering all aspects of caring for the sheep. Interestingly, it is translated by the word “pastor” in Ephesians 4:11 in the KJV. Are you getting the picture? The elders (presbyters) were the overseers (bishops) and were the shepherds (pastors). The word “elder” puts the emphasis on their maturity and the other two words are descriptive of their ministry. See also how Peter uses these three names in 1 Peter 5:1-4. Clearly, the elders are the overseers and are the pastors. The words describe the person and his work. It is cogent that Peter says of the sheep to whom he writes, “For you were straying like sheep, but have now returned to the Shepherd and Overseer of your souls” (1Pe 2:25 ESV). Literally, it reads, “to the Shepherd, even the Overseer, of your souls.”

Let’s make a few pertinent points in this introductory article. 1) The primary work of elders is “taking care of (#1959) a church of God” (1Ti 3:5). It does not involve taking care of the building in which the church of God meets. The word is found only here and in Luke 10:35 where the wounded traveler is being looked after in the inn after being rescued by the Samaritan stranger until his return. 2) Overseers are “set” in the local church by the Holy Spirit. Consider the import of this word “set.” 3) The overseers do the work of pastoring in New Testament churches. You may have heard someone say that Timothy was the pastor of the church in Ephesus and that Titus was the bishop in Crete. How terribly far this is from the truth. Notice how Paul instructed Timothy: “Let the elders who take the lead [among the saints] well be esteemed worthy of double honour, specially those labouring in word and teaching” (1Ti 5:17 JND). Take note of who did the pastoring, the shepherding, and the teaching: it was the elders. The pastoral system we see in churches around us is never seen in the New Testament. Likewise, when an assembly drifts away from the truth and hires someone whom it calls “the teaching elder,” it is moving away from the “Footsteps of the Flock.” 4) Elders in the Acts were ordained only on a second visit by the apostle (see Act 14:21-23). On returning to visit the disciples, the apostle would see who was doing the work. 5) Notice the plurality of overseership in the churches. 6) Titus, left by Paul in Crete to care for the work, was told to ordain elders in every city because it was a new work. Timothy was in an established work in Ephesus, with recognized overseers, so was told of the character of elders but was not asked to appoint them. 7) Acts 20:28 reads “among which,” or “wherein.” There are different spheres of responsibility and service in the local church but there are no class distinctions. Overseership is not a position; it is a work. 8) In 1 Timothy 3:5, the question is “How shall he take care of [a] church of God?” The elder/overseer/shepherd has a sphere of service within one local church. There is never to be a central oversight over a number of assemblies. Further, each local church is autonomous in its subjection to the Lord and His Word. 9) In the Acts, as the work matures, we can see a transition in responsibility as it shifts from the apostles to the elders (see Act 15:6).

In future articles we hope to consider what the Bible teaches about the functions, features, and failures of overseers.