‘Overseership’ and ‘The Ministry’

J. Foster Crane, New Zealand

Fellowship, unity and harmony in a local assembly of Christians are very precious things, but not things that come naturally or easily for, in spite of our oneness in Christ, we all have a tendency to want our own way and expect all others to do things as we do. To maintain happy relations in the family, therefore, there must be some recognized system of order, rule and discipline. All things must be done 'decently and in order', for 'God is not the author of confusion but of peace', 1 Cor. 14. 33. Individual rights and liberties must be sacrificed for the well-being of the assembly as a whole.

In order to promote this harmony and unity in the church the risen Lord has 'set the members every one of them in the body as it hath pleased him', 1 Cor. 12. 18, cf. vv. 5, 6, 7, 11; Eph. 4. 7. Hence each member needs to recognize and respect the ministry and work of each other-all, of course, subject to the authority of Christ, the Head, and to the authority of the written word.

Broadly speaking, ministry and service in the church may be summed up under two Greek words:

1. Episkopei-Overseership or Eldership, 1 Tim. 3. 1.

Overseers, elders, bishops, presbyters: these words all apply to the same persons, Acts 14. 23; 15. 2; 20. 17, 28; 1 Tim. 1. 1; 4. 14; Titus 1. 5, 7; 1 Pet. 5. 1 and refer, in general, to an inner body of mature, spiritual men who are responsible to guide, shepherd and generally care for the spiritual welfare of the local assembly, Acts 20. 28; 1 Pet. 5. 2; Eph. 4. 12.

When new assemblies were formed the overseers were pointed out by the apostles, Acts 14. 23; but, in general, they were men raised up by the Holy Spirit, Acts 20. 28, acknowledged or pointed out by the existing leaders and elders, Titus 1. 5; 1 Tim. 4. 14, and recognized by the church members, though never appointed by them on the principle of a majority vote.

Elders were not a class of officials, or clergy who hold office in the church, exercising apostolic authority over the believers, 1 Pet. 5. 3. Rather, they were spiritual leaders co-operating with the assembly members, working in fellowship with them (the word 'rule' used in Hebrews 13. 7, 17, 24 means to stand before or lead). Final decisions, however, would normally be their responsibility and should be accepted by the church members.

1 Timothy chapter 3 gives a detailed account of the qualifications of elders, a standard by which they may judge themselves, and a guide by which they will be recognized by the church. Elders will, of course, watch over the ministry and teaching in the church and protect the assembly from false doctrine. Their real work however will be done mainly in day by day contact with the Lord's people, cheering, visiting, counselling and restoring.

In turn, assembly members are exhorted to 'remember' the ciders, 'obey' them, 'salute' them, 'esteem' them, 'entreat' them, 'honour' (support) them, and never speak against them, 1 Thess. 3. 12-13; 1 Tim. 5. 1, 17, 19; Heb. 13.7,17,24.

2. Diakonia-Ministry or Service

Paul uses both of these words in Philippians 1.1 when he writes to the 'bishops' (episkopas) and the 'deacons' (diakonois)-the overseers and those ministering.

The words diakonia and diakonos are used in a wide variety of contexts but, in general, they mean to minister or to serve. A key verse is Ephesians 4. 12, where Paul states that the gifts given to the church by the Lord were 'for the work of the ministry'.

'The ministry' therefore, includes every member of the church, for every member has received some gift (charisma), or service, which he must use for the welfare of the whole 'family'. Lists of the various ministrations are given in Romans 12. 6-8,1 Corinthians 12 and Ephesians 4. 7-12.

In early apostolic times some of these gifts were special enablings given by the Holy Spirit to meet particular needs of the early churches; but as a general rule ministry and service in the church were largely a matter of personal ability, study, meditation, natural talent, ambition, self-discipline, etc. While the Holy Spirit will doubtless guide and help those who submit to His leading, it is quite pointless to expect the Spirit to give us abilities that we are not willing to develop ourselves. God gives His best gifts to those whom He can trust to use them wisely, Matt. 25.14,15.

Among the 'gifts' of New Testament times were the miraculous gifts of revelations, tongues, miracles, healings; but, with the completion of the New Testament there was no further need for revelations, and with Israel's final rejection of 'Christ-alive-from-the-dead', there was no further need for tongues, miracles or similar signs.

Within the ministry there is work for all including itinerant evangelists and church planters, Acts 20. 24; 1 Cor. 3. 5; the local Christian family, 1 Cor. 16. 15; the bible teachers; the helpers; the administrators; the hospitable sisters, Rom. 16. 1; the givers etc.

It is right and proper to desire and seek after an effective ministry for the Lord, 1 Tim. 3. 1; 1 Cor. 14. 1, but God holds us responsible to fulfil what we are able to do, 2 Tim. 4. 5; Acts 20. 24; Col. 4. 17. He takes notice of what is done for His glory, and there will doubtless be many surprises in the day when our works are tested in His presence.

Are you fond of children?; then help in the Sunday school or youth work. Have you a good voice?; then help in the singing. Are you useful with your hands?; then help care for the assembly property. Are you fond of study and reading?; then study the scriptures and good books. Proven and experienced teachers and preachers should be given ample opportunity to exercise their gift, but all brothers should take some part in meetings for prayer, worship and praise.

The foundation builders of local assemblies are usually the Sunday school teachers, the personal workers, the household visitors and the small band of overseers who, often without public praise, year after year bear the care of the assembly in regular teaching, preaching and shepherding.