The Place of the Oversight in the New Testament and Modern Churches

G. J. Polkinghorne, Sutton

Category: Study

IN this paper, it is proposed to examine the New Testament teaching and practice as to the office of bishop or overseer and to consider how far modern assemblies adhere to the principles of Scripture herein.
We must first briefly establish the position of Deacons and their relation to overseers, as there has been some confusion of these offices. The word " deacon " is a transliteration of the Greek word diakonos, meaning " a servant, waiting-man, or messenger." In Classical Greek it was used of a waiter (in a cafe), but in the N.T. it extended to any form of service. The office (though not the word) appears first in Acts 6. 1-6, where seven men, including Stephen, are selected by the disciples and appointed by the Apostles to look after the widows. This service may have been the distribution of funds or possibly actual waiting at table (v. 2). Their appointment was intended to free the Apostles for " prayer and ministry (Gk. diakonia) of the Word " (v. 4). Acts 6 and 1 Tim. 3. 8-13 show what type of men were required—upright, godly, spiritual men, with some ability to teach, as Stephen demonstrated. Probably some were expected to prove suitable to take up overseer-ship in due course, but meantime they relieved the overseers of the "business " side of Church life to enable them to concentrate on the spiritual side.
The word " deacon " is also used in the New Testament of those who minister the Word to the saints (1 Tim. 4. 6).
Now let us see what is said of the overseers. Two words are used—presbuteros and episkopos. The former means " elder, ambassador," while the latter means " overseer, bishop " (though, quite definitely, not a bishop in the Anglican sense of the term). The two words are used interchangeably, but the former perhaps stresses the man's personal qualities and the latter his duties. More¬over, it is worthy of note that both terms are usually plural in the New Testament. Never do we read of the elder or the bishop of a church. Always it is " the elders " (e.g. Acts 20. 17) or "the bishops" (Phil. 1. 1). Who were these men ; how were they appointed ; and what did they do?
Who were these men ? The kind of man needed as overseer is set out in 1 Tim. 3. 1-7 and Tit. 1. 6-9. No detailed exposition of these passages is required. We can summarize them by saying that the bishop had to be a mature Christian; sound, morally, theologically, and spiritually ; and a good leader. 1 Tim. 3. 2 mentions, and Tit. 1. 9 expounds another attribute. The bishop must be " apt to teach," " holding fast the Word of faith according to the teaching, that he may be able by wholesome doctrine both to exhort and to convict the gainsayers." 2 Tim. 2. 2 alludes to this again: " faithful men . . . competent to teach others."
How were they appointed ? Nowhere do we read of their election. The election of Matthias (Acts 1. 26) has sometimes been appealed to in support of the idea but, whatever may be said about this incident, it lias no relevance to our subject—the question there was the appointment of a successor to Judas in the apostolate. In Scripture, the sheep do not choose their own shepherd ! Nor is there any case of a self-appointed elder. The Holy Spirit alone can raise up overseers (Acts 20. 28). The appointment was by the Apostles or their representatives (see Acts 14. 23 and Tit. 1. 5). No doubt, later, the existing elders selected other men to add to the number as suitable men were raised up. (cf. 2 Tim. 2. 2). From Acts 6. 6, we may assume that the Apostle laid his hands on the person being appointed, as a sign of public fellowship with him. (cf. Acts 13. 3; 1 Tim. 5. 22; 2 Tim. 1. 6). To inquire whether the " laying on of hands " signified anything more than this is beyond our present purpose (cf. 2 Tim. 1.6). As the bishop has public duties to fulfil and has to be recognized by the Church (1 Thess. 5. 12), his recognition was publicly declared. The clandestine appointment of overseers, practised in some modern assemblies, is not scriptural: the existing overseers should inform the Church of their recognition of fresh leaders.
What did the bishops or overseers do ?
(1)   They spent much time in prayer, fasting, and waiting on God (Acts 6. 4 ; 13. 2, 3). When Jesus selected the initial Twelve, His first requirement was that " they should be with him " (Mark 3. 14) and ever since, this has been a basic need of every servant of the Lord.
(2)   Secondly, they " ruled " (Heb. 13. 7, 17). Modern notions of democracy are foreign to Scripture. The Church is a theocracy, of which the bishops are God's vice-regents to be obeyed as such (Heb. 13. 7). They arc not, however, lords, but examples (1 Pet. 5. 3).
(3)   Again, they were to " shepherd the flock " (1 Pet.
5.  2). This involved two things : first, seeking and tending the sick, the erring, the lost; secondly, feeding the flock. It is abundantly clear in Scripture that the duty of the overseer was, above all else, what is now called " the ministry of the Word " (see Tit. 1.9;  2 Tim. 4. 2 ;  Acts
6.  4 ;  13. 1 ; 20. 28).
It is in respect of these latter duties that many assemblies are weakest.
As to " pastoring," we are at a severe disadvantage as compared with Churches employing a paid minister, who has time to do visiting. Too often sheep suffer in isolation, err without check, and are lost, with none to seek them (cf. Ezek. 34. 5, 6). Whilst there may not be grounds for the same condemnation of existing shepherds as in the context in Ezekiel, surely there are grounds for heart-searching by us all as to our deficiency in this vital service. How many sheep have we lost by our unfaithfulness ?
But our most urgent need is of teachers. It was in the ministry of the Word that the first people called " brethren " were strongest. Is this so now ? Rather, is there not a " famine of hearing of the Word of God " (Amos 8. 11) among us—and our people go elsewhere for food (cf. Gen. 42. 1-3). The cause of this must be sought at least partly in the lack of bishops or elders to perform their scriptural teaching office. Some assemblies have in fact no true bishops at all. They have deacons, who attend to the business of the church and often do so admirably.   But almost all the teaching is done by brethren from elsewhere. One serious effect of this is that much of the teaching is irrelevant to the needs of the flock. Another is that the systematic exposition of Books of the Bible and of extensive themes cannot be attempted, whilst difficult passages are avoided and many saints are grossly ignorant of their faith. A third is that believers despise the ministry of local brethren and actually complain if too many are employed.
Sometimes it is pleaded that the Lord has not raised Up the men for the work. More frequently, the men concerned are dissipating their energies over a wide field or were discouraged in their youth from stirring up their gift because they saw no prospect of effective service. One widespread false idea that causes such discouragement deserves mention. It is that " whosoever will " may minister. Therefore, responsible brethren feel obliged to forbid all local ministry or else to permit every brother to have his turn on the platform (irrespective of ability) for the sake of peace.
Prayer needed. Because of the present spiritual decline among us, we should be much in prayer about the ministry of the Word, as the duty of the " oversight." May I submit a few propositions for the reader's prayerful consideration ?
(1)   The gift of teaching is given to some brethren only (1 Cor. 12. 28).
(2)   These brethren should be encouraged to " stir up their gift " (2 Tim. 1. 6).
(3)  The most direct form of encouragement is to provide opportunities for the regular exercise of the gift in the local assembly.
(4)   Some of the teachers raised up of the Lord should constitute the body of overseers, working together in the Lord as shepherds of the flock. (Not all teachers will be fitted for overseership, but the others should be permitted to teach if they enjoy the confidence of the overseers.)
(5)   Deacons should relieve the overseers of routine assembly business, so that they are free to pray and study, guide and rule, visit and teach, the flock.