Elders and Overseers in the First Century
E. J. Pipe, Whyteleafe, Surrey
It is not easy to translate for modern English-speaking believers the thoughts contained in the words chosen by the Holy Spirit to indicate the men by whom the saints of New Testament days were led in the ways of God.
There are three Greek words used which are often translated into English as "apostle", "elder", and "overseer".
An apostle was a person sent. An elder was a mature person. An overseer was a person who took care of and led others; not an easy word to convey in English but "overseer" is probably a better translation than "bishop" because that word has a technical ecclesiastical meaning not contained in the word used in the Greek text.
Apostles were chosen by God and sent by Him for specific purposes. For example Paul was the apostle to the Gentiles, Rom. 11. 13. An apostle could be an elder, 1 Pet. 1. 1; 5. 1 ; 3 John 1, but conversely the majority of elders were distinguished from apostles by whose authority they were appointed, Acts 14. 23; Titus 1. 5.
"Elder" had in view the character and conduct brought about in a man by the displacing and forming work of the Holy Spirit.
"Overseer" had in view the care exercised by a man in following the One who laid down His life for the sheep.
Elder and overseer are words which depict different aspects of the same man, Acts 20. 17, 28. In calling a man an elder, attention was drawn to his maturity in the things of God, and the writer believes that the use of the word indicates that a young man was not in mind. In calling a man an overseer, attention was drawn to what he did in guiding the brethren. In describing his occupation as shepherding, 1 Pet. 5. 2; Acts 20. 28, attention was drawn to the Person whom he served and whose example he was to follow.
Each and every elder was made responsible by the Holy Spirit for exercising oversight, Acts 20. 17, 28.
Hebrews 13. 17 indicates that men who took the lead among the brethren were to be followed. However not all who claimed authority possessed it by divine appointment, Rev. 2. 2; not all who taught exercised their gift under divine authority, Rev. 2. 20; 2 Pet. 2.1; not all who bore the name of elder drew the saints after divine persons, Acts 20. 17, 30.
So we turn to 1 Timothy 3. 1 -7 and Titus 1. 5-9 to read a clear description of the men who were to be followed. The passages say that the overseer "must" be certain things; not "something like", not "if possible", but a man in whom the saints must have been able clearly to see certain aspects of character, conduct and capability.
He must have been of outstanding Christian character; irreproachable, sober, discreet, decorous, not quarrelsome, a lover of goodness, pious.
His home life must have been unsullied; husband of one wife, conducting his own house well, having his children in subjection, having believing children not accused of excess or unruly, hospitable. The rhetorical question is asked, "if a man know not how to rule his own house, how shall he take care of the church of God?".
His testimony must have been unstained, not fond of money, having a good testimony from those without, free of all charge against him, not disorderly through wine.
His attitude to, and handling of, the Scriptures must have been capable and exemplary, apt to teach, clinging to the faithful word, able to encourage with sound teaching and refute gainsayers. in short he must have been a faithful and skilled teacher. This is what elderhood is all about.
Acts 20. 28-35 shows to us that such men were set among the people of God by the Holy Spirit; they bore in mind the great value of that flock as having been purchased by the precious blood of Christ; they guarded the flock unceasingly against the ingress of self-seeking men; they served the saints in material things and remembered the words of the Lord Jesus when He said that it is more blessed to give than to receive, v. 35. They never demanded anything for themselves, vv. 33-35; 1 Pet. 5. 2, but everything for the Lord Jesus Christ.
These, then, were the men described in our English Bibles as "overseers" or "elders".
In the face of all this we can only say "who is sufficient for these things?", 2 Cor. 2. 16, looking to our Father to raise up men passionately devoted to the Lord Jesus, filled with the Holy Spirit and in all ways fitted to feed the saints and to lead them in the ways of God. Only such men are able to take on their lips the words of Paul, "Be ye imitators of me, even as I also am of Christ", 1 Cor. 11.1 R.v.