Introductory Matters Regarding the Overseers or Elders of the Church

May 5, 2019 | Speaker: Pastor Jurem Ramos

1Timothy 3:1-7

    When Gloria Macapagal Arroyo was then president, in the latter part of her presidency in 2010, rumor spread that she was initiating efforts to change our form of government from Presidential to Parliamentary. The public perceived this as her strategy to remain in office and evade all possible charges of corruption. Immediately there followed a barrage of criticisms from all sectors of society and clamor for her resignation intensified. She was even unkindly referred to by one radio newscaster as “President Gloria Magtatagal Arroyo.” Whether speculations about her intentions were true or not, the point I want to make is that the reactions of the people show that society is deeply concerned about the structure of its government and about the character and qualifications of its public officials. If this attitude is true of the citizens of any country, how much more should this be of the members of the body of Christ.   Ideas from Alexander Strauch:   But what is ironic is that when the issue under discussion is church government and the qualifications of its leaders, many Christians find it irrelevant, boring, and unimportant. But the fact is, the topic of church government and the qualifications of its leaders is highly relevant and theologically significant.   Consider some of the damaging effects on the church when church government is taken for granted.   Just think about the effect of the unbiblical form of church government of the Roman Catholic Church where you find a hierarchy of celibate church officials known as priests, bishops, and cardinals, and on top of the chain of command is the pope who is considered infallible. This structure contradicts Christ’s teaching on humility and servanthood. It nullifies the priesthood of all believers. Their unbiblical requirements for church leadership unnecessarily expose their priests to sexual temptations. And worst of all, their structure elevates man and takes away Christ’s supreme place in the Church.   But let’s not forget the log before our eyes. Turn your attention now to Christian churches. How many of the evangelical Christians have ignored the teachings of the Bible regarding the qualifications and responsibilities of its church leaders? This neglect has resulted in confusion and harm to the Lord’s people: The roles of men and women in the church are now unclear. In some churches deacons have become more powerful than the pastors. While in others, the elders are just board members of a religious corporation with whom the pastor cautiously consults. And what about the ordained pastor? In some churches he has become the Protestant priest, who alone is qualified to lead in worship and administer the Lord’s Supper, preach and baptize. All other believers are merely laymen who have been declared unqualified to carry out these functions.   If you’re still unconvinced that the topic of church leaders is very practical and important, let me remind you of our experience as a church. You will remember that the reason for our separation from our former church had a lot to do with the unqualified Elders. The senior pastor introduced a false teaching in the church and the rest of the Elders had no discernment to identify the error. So, as someone said, “the topic of church polity or church government is highly relevant, extremely practical, and vital to the proper functioning of the family of God.” Another one said, “God-centered leaders are desperately needed today for the healthy development of the church.”   Today, I am not yet going into a detailed study of our text but instead, I am going to focus on introductory matters that I think will prepare us to better understand this passage from 1Ti 3:1-7. You see, for the original readers of letter, there was no need for this background study that I will present to you because they already knew what Paul was talking about. But for us, we still want to understand where this concept of overseers or elders come from. We have questions like:  
  • How did the overseers or elders enter into the church leadership structure?
  • In 1Timothy 3:1-7 Paul is giving us a list of qualifications for those who want to become overseers. But why did he not say, “those who want to become pastors”?
  • Are overseers the same as pastors?
  • In Titus 1:5-9, Paul gives us a similar list of qualifications for elders. Are elders the same as overseers. Where do pastors come in the leadership structure?
  • What about the bishops? Are the pastors, bishops, elders and overseers referring to different levels of leadership positions in the church? I think these are important questions because today, when people hear the word bishop, pastor, elder, they see different church leadership positions.
  • And how did this concept of Elders or overseers enter into the church. Why don't we call our leaders Senators or Mayors or councilors?
  So today, I am going to give us a larger background of Elders or Overseers in the Bible by raising questions and then answering them.  


  If we want to find out the original church leadership structure in the church, we need to go to the book of Acts because that is where we see the birth and the expansion of the church. The church started in Jerusalem and spread to Samaria and to other parts of the Roman Empire. Here in Acts we see how the church structure developed.   Originally, the apostles were the highest officers in the church. It is clear in the book of Acts that the apostles were the original officers of the early church.   Ac 2:42 And they devoted themselves to the apostles' teaching and the fellowship, to the breaking of bread and the prayers.   Ac 4:34-35  There was not a needy person among them, for as many as were owners of lands or houses sold them and brought the proceeds of what was sold 35 and laid it at the apostles' feet, and it was distributed to each as any had need.   Acts 9:27 But Barnabas took him and brought him to the apostles and declared to them how on the road he had seen the Lord, who spoke to him, and how at Damascus he had preached boldly in the name of Jesus.   But later, Elders were added to the governing body in the church. When we turn to Acts 15, we read about a church problem that involved the question of the role of circumcision in salvation. Is faith in Christ not enough for Gentiles to be saved? Are they required to go through circumcision also. This led to what we now call as the first church council. A council is a meeting of the highest governing body of the church in order to discuss and decide on matters pertaining to doctrine and church practice. Here in chapter 15 we will see that those who discussed and made a decision were composed of the apostles and elders of the church. The apostles and elders take a position regarding circumcision and they wrote a letter that they send to the churches for compliance.   Acts 15:2 And after Paul and Barnabas had no small dissension and debate with them, Paul and Barnabas and some of the others were appointed to go up to Jerusalem to the apostles and the elders about this question. … 6 The apostles and the elders were gathered together to consider this matter.   This is a development in the church leadership structure. First we only see the apostles. Then later, we see apostles and elders.   But there is a third development in the church.   In Acts 4:34-35 that I read a while ago we saw that the proceeds from the lands or houses that were sold by their owners were laid at the apostles’ feet in order to be distributed to the needy. However when we turn to Acts 11:29-30 relief for the Christians living in Judea was sent to the elders.   29 So the disciples determined, every one according to his ability, to send relief to the brothers living in Judea. 30 And they did so, sending it to the elders by the hand of Barnabas and Saul.   This may mark the transition in day to day leadership of the Jerusalem church.   In Acts 14:23 we read that Paul’s normal procedure in his ministry was to lead men and women to Christ, nurture them in the faith, and then establish a group of elders in each church shortly after the church began.   Acts 14:21-23 ESV  When they [i.e., Paul and Barnabas] had preached the gospel to that city [i.e., Derbe] and had made many disciples, they returned to Lystra and to Iconium and to Antioch,  22  strengthening the souls of the disciples, encouraging them to continue in the faith, and saying that through many tribulations we must enter the kingdom of God.  23  And when they had appointed elders for them in every church, with prayer and fasting they committed them to the Lord in whom they had believed.   When you look at Paul’s letter to Titus you find the same pattern of appointing elders in every town.    Titus 1:5: This is why I left you in Crete, so that you might put what remained into order, and appoint elders in every town as I directed you.   Now we need to understand why Paul did this. First, he knew that the responsibility of the Apostles was greater in nature. Apostles were the ones who oversaw the universal church. But then someone had to look after the affairs of the local churches. This was to be given to the Elders.   In addition to this, the Paul knew that the apostles are only temporary. We see the foundational nature of the office of the apostle in Eph 2:19-20. This passage ells us that the members of the household of God (the church) is “built on the foundation of the apostles and prophets, Christ Jesus himself being the cornerstone.” But after the apostles have established doctrine, the structure in the church, and completed writing the New Testament, there was no longer any need for apostles.   Paul knew that apostles are not self-perpetuating. Paul views himself as the last one whom the resurrected Christ appeared to and appointed as an apostle (“last of all, as to one untimely born,” 1Co 15:8). This means that there will no longer be apostles after him. He is the last apostle. The apostles were not going to be replaced when they died.   Let me summarize the development of the church leadership structure in the early church. First when the church was born, the highest ruling body in the church was composed of the apostles only. Then later it was composed of apostles and elders. But because of the responsibility of the apostles to the universal church and because of the temporary nature of apostles, the elders alone became the highest ruling body in the local churches.  

II.       Now You may be wondering, where does the pastor come in?

  Why did Paul give instructions to appoint elders instead of pastors in his letter to Titus? And here in 1Timothy, Paul gives us guidelines regarding the qualifications of overseers. Who are these people? Are they the elders? But where are the pastors?   Let me give you the short answer to those questions before I go into the details.  In the NT, the words “bishop,” “elder,” “overseer,” and “pastor” are used interchangeably to describe the same leaders in the church.   For example we see in Acts 20 that all three terms are used interchangeably:   Ac 20:17 Now from Miletus he sent to Ephesus and called the elders (presbuterous) of the church to come to him. … 28 Pay careful attention to yourselves and to all the flock, in which the Holy Spirit has made you overseers (episkopous), to care (poimainein) for the church of God, which he obtained with his own blood.   In Titus 1 we see that the elders are the same as the overseers:   Tit 1:5 This is why I left you in Crete, so that you might put what remained into order, and appoint elders (presbuterous) in every town as I directed you. … 7 For an overseer/bishop (episkopos), as God's steward, must be above reproach.   1 Peter 5:1-2 also brings all three terms together:   1Pe 5:1-2 So I exhort the elders (presbuterous) among you, as a fellow elder and a witness of the sufferings of Christ, as well as a partaker in the glory that is going to be revealed: 2 shepherd (poimanate) the flock of God that is among you, exercising oversight (episkopountes),   So, Biblically, there is no difference between elder, overseer, bishop, shepherd and pastor. Each title emphasizes some aspect of what it means to be a Biblical elder/bishop/pastor serving Christ in the local church.
  • The term “overseer” [or bishop in the footnote in Titus 1:7] (episkopos) emphasizes the function, what he does. He manages or oversees the household of God.
  • The word elder (presbuteros), emphasizes the character. He must have spiritual maturity.
  • The term “shepherd” (poimēn) emphasizes how he feels or cares for those under his care. The term “pastor” is simply a Latin expression for the word “shepherd,” it comes from an agrarian society to help reflect the values of feeding, leading, healing, and protecting a flock. The focus of the term poimen is more centered on the man’s attitude. To be qualified as a pastor, a man must have a shepherd’s heart.
  Today, there is a confusion that has happened in the church. Elders are only consultants of the pastor. They are involved in administration but are not teachers of God’s Word. They are not the pastors in the church. But this is wrong. The Elders are the pastors and the pastors are the overseers. The Elders are also the bishops or overseers. So in our church I am a fellow elder. Our elders may be called pastors. It may be awkward but from a biblical point of view our elders including myself can be called bishops. We have bishop Allan Wong and Bishop Ronnie Rivera.   In 1Peter 5:1, Peter calls himself as an elder,  “So I exhort the elders among you, as a fellow elder.” Peter was an apostles but he also functioned as an elder in the church.

III.    How did the Elders/overseers come to be identified as the church leaders?


A.  The Elders (Presbuterous)

  Elders in the Old Testament The word translated “elder” is of Jewish origin. The primary Hebrew word for elder is zaqen, and this term was used in Numbers 11:16 of the seventy tribal leaders who assisted Moses.   Num 11:16 Then the Lord said to Moses, “Gather for me seventy men of the elders of Israel, whom you know to be the elders of the people and officers over them, and bring them to the tent of meeting, and let them take their stand there with you.   In this passage the word “elder” refers to a special category of aged men who were set apart for leadership in Israel. They were not priests nor were they part of the monarchy because there was not any at this point in their history. Deuteronomy 1:9-18 indicates that elders were charged with the responsibility of judging the people on civil matters. Elders were also used by Moses to communicate to the people (Exodus 19:7; Deuteronomy 31:9) and to administer the law of God. The elders would also lead in the observation of the Passover (Exodus 12:21). Later, the elders of Israel were specifically involved in the leadership of cities (1 Samuel 11:3; 16:4; and 30:26). Their function also involved decision-making—applying wisdom to the lives of the people in resolving conflicts, giving direction, and generally overseeing the details of an orderly society of God’s people.   Elders and the Early Church The New Testament church was initially Jewish, so it would be natural that the concept of being elder-led was adopted for use in the early church. The common understanding in the Jewish culture and the backdrop of the structure in Old Testament times was the elders were men who feared God; men of truth and integrity (Exodus 18:20-21); and men full of the Holy Spirit (Numbers 11:16-17); capable men of wisdom, discernment, and experience—impartial and courageous men who would intercede, teach, and judge righteously and fairly (Deuteronomy 1:13-17).   Since all of these characteristics were involved in the Jewish understanding elder, it is no difficult to see why the early church which was first composed of Jews retained the concept of elders to lead the churches.  

B.  The overseers (episkopous)

The New Testament uses episkopos five times. In 1 Peter 2:25 we read that Jesus is the overseer of our souls. “For you were straying like sheep, but have now returned to the Shepherd and Overseer (episkopos) of your souls.” That is, He is the One who has ultimate oversight of us, who understands us best; and He is the Shepherd and Guardian of our souls.   The other four uses of episkopos have reference to leaders in the church (Ac 20:28; Phil 1:1; 1 Ti 3:2; Tit 1:7).   Episkopos is the secular Greek culture’s clearest equivalent to the historic Hebrew idea of elders. Bishops/overseers were those appointed by the emperors to lead captured or newly-founded city-states. The bishop was responsible to the emperor, but oversight and authority was delegated to him. He functioned as a commissioner, regulating the affairs of the new colony or acquisition. The term overseer (episkopos) appears in the book of Acts only once in Acts 20:28. At this time there were relatively few Gentiles in the church, and so the term was not commonly used. But apparently as more and more Gentiles were added to the church its Jewish orientation as slowly diminishing, the Greek word for overseer was used more frequently to describe those who functioned as elders. This is the reason why Paul now saying in 1Timothy 3:1, “The saying is trustworthy: If anyone aspires to the office of overseer, he desires a noble task.”  

IV.      what is the role of the of Elders/overseers?

  As the apostolic era came to a close, the office of elder emerged as the highest level of local church leadership. Thus it carried a great amount of responsibility. We may all have our own ideas of what elders should do, but we should find out what God says their roles are. We will seek to determine the biblical tasks of elders by considering two things:  
  1. the helpful pictures provided by God's word, and
  2. the specific details of an elder's duties.
  So first of all:  
  1. The Helpful Pictures provided by God's Word.
  1. Pastors/Elders are at times pictured as parents caring for a family and household.
  1Ti 3:4-5 He must manage his own household well, with all dignity keeping his children submissive, 5 for if someone does not know how to manage his own household, how will he care for God’s church?   Paul in 1Thessalonians 2 gives us some idea how this role as a parent to the flock works out:   1Th 2:7 But we were gentle among you, like a nursing mother taking care of her own children. … 11 For you know how, like a father with his children, 12 we exhorted each one of you and encouraged you and charged you to walk in a manner worthy of God, who calls you into his own kingdom and glory.  
  1. Pastors/Elders are also pictured as subordinate officials put in charge of a household or a city or a region
  • Remember what I said about the term "overseers" as used in pagan Greek culture.
  • 1Ti 5:17 says, Let the elders who rule well be considered worthy of double honor.
  • In Titus 1:7 we read that overseers are God’s steward (a steward is a manager or superintendent who managed the affairs of a king’s house, for example.)
  1. Pastors/elders are pictured as teachers of students.
  In Eph. 4:11 the pastors are called “the shepherds and teachers.” These two nouns come under one category of leaders in the church because of the article “the.” This tells us that shepherds or pastors are mainly teachers. 1Ti 3:2 says that overseers should be “able to teach.”  
  1. The best picture of pastors/elders in the NT is shepherds caring for God's sheep.
  1 Pet. 5:1-4, elders were commanded to take heed to the flock, and to shepherd the church of God. From this passage data we learn that if you want to know what a pastor's duties are, especially think of what a shepherd does.  
  1. The Specific Details of an Elder's Duties.
  A key passage, Acts 20:28.   28 Pay careful attention to yourselves and to all the flock, in which the Holy Spirit has made you overseers, to care for the church of God, which he obtained with his own blood.   This verse indicates that the duties of elders are to be focused in two specific directions:
  1. Toward themselves
  2. Toward the flock
  1. First of all pastors/elders have a duty toward themselves. “Pay careful attention to yourselves.”
Other members of the church might tend to forget this, and to focus entirely upon what the pastors should do for them. But that is not where the Word of God starts. In addition to this emphasis in Acts 20:28, Paul also underscored it when writing to Timothy as a spiritual leader in the church when he commanded:   1Ti 4:16 Keep a close watch on yourself and on the teaching. Persist in this, for by so doing you will save both yourself and your hearers.   We must never forget that a pastor himself is a sheep who is saved by Christ. He too needs to take care of His walk in Christ. If he neglects his own soul, he endangers the souls of the sheep he cares for.   One Bible teacher said,   What does this all mean? That if he is too busy as a pastor to nourish his own soul in private devotions, he is too busy and is neglecting a vital pastoral duty. If he is too high and mighty to humble himself and confess his sin and repent when he's clearly done wrong, he's not giving heed to himself and keeping a good conscience -- and he's endangering himself and those who hear him. If he's not putting to death the lusts of his own flesh and his own besetting sins, he is in no condition to minister to others, and becomes their enemy instead of their friend.   Taking heed to himself must always be the priority duty for an elder. But he must also…  
  1. Pastors/Elders have a duty toward others. Pay careful attention ... to all the flock, in which the Holy Spirit has made you overseers.
  At this point I will highlight five categories of responsibilities which a pastor has toward all the flock among which he's placed:  

a.   Pastors/Elders are to direct and watch over all the affairs of the flock.

This is a more general, all-encompassing description of his duties. This includes the function of overseeing the direction and belief system of the local church. First Timothy 5:17 says, Let the elders who rule well be considered worthy of double honor. The Greek word translated “rule” in that verse speaks of the duty of general oversight common to all elders. The elders were charged with the spiritual guidance of the entire church. There was no higher court of appeal, and no greater resource to know the mind and heart of God with regard to issues in the church than the elders.  

b.   Pastors/Elders are to feed the flock.

This means that they are to teach the Word of God to the flock. The fact that a qualification of overseers is that they be “able to teach” (1 Tim. 3:2c) clearly implies that teaching will be an important part of their duties.   This duty is underscored in the qualification in Titus 1:9: “He must hold firm to the trustworthy word as taught, so that he may be able to give instruction in sound doctrine and also to rebuke those who contradict it.”   Pastors must teach and preach God's Word to the saints and to the lost alike.  

c.   Pastors/Elders must protect the flock from its enemies.

  The Lord Jesus, our Good Shepherd set the example for all his undershepherds. In Jn. 10:11-15 we read His words:   11 I am the good shepherd. The good shepherd lays down his life for the sheep. 12 He who is a hired hand and not a shepherd, who does not own the sheep, sees the wolf coming and leaves the sheep and flees, and the wolf snatches them and scatters them. 13 He flees because he is a hired hand and cares nothing for the sheep. 14 I am the good shepherd. I know my own and my own know me, 15 just as the Father knows me and I know the Father; and I lay down my life for the sheep.   The Apostle Paul indicated that overseers are to imitate their Lord (Acts 20:28-31:   28 Pay careful attention to yourselves and to all the flock, in which the Holy Spirit has made you overseers, to care for the church of God, which he obtained with his own blood. 29 I know that after my departure fierce wolves will come in among you, not sparing the flock; 30 and from among your own selves will arise men speaking twisted things, to draw away the disciples after them. 31 Therefore be alert, remembering that for three years I did not cease night or day to admonish every one with tears.  

d.   Pastors/Elders are to assist the wounded and weak in the flock

Acts 20:35 In all things I have shown you that by working hard in this way we must help the weak and remember the words of the Lord Jesus, how he himself said, ‘It is more blessed to give than to receive.’”).   The elders of a local church are to pray for the sick in the church. James 5:14 Is anyone among you sick? Let him call for the elders of the church, and let them pray over him, anointing him with oil in the name of the Lord.   In Ezek. 34:1-16 we find a sharp contrast between the false shepherds and the true shepherds of the Lord. True shepherds are to seek out and attempt to meet the needs of those who are wandering and wounded. They are to lovingly comfort and rebuke and reclaim wherever possible.  

e.   Elders must be good examples to the flock (1 Pet. 5:1-3).

1 So I exhort the elders among you, as a fellow elder and a witness of the sufferings of Christ, as well as a partaker in the glory that is going to be revealed: 2 shepherd the flock of God that is among you, exercising oversight, not under compulsion, but willingly, as God would have you; not for shameful gain, but eagerly; 3 not domineering over those in your charge, but being examples to the flock.   We should also remember passages like the following:  
  • 1 Tim. 4:12 Let no one despise you for your youth, but set the believers an example in speech, in conduct, in love, in faith, in purity.
  • Titus 2:6 where Paul told Timothy and Titus to be examples to those to whom they ministered.
  A pastor must not merely tell God's people what they should do. He must be a living pattern or model of what he preaches.   Applications:
  1. Given the importance of the tasks of elders, we see how important it is that we choose them correctly
  1. Once they are chosen, the members are to pray for them regularly.
  1. Paul says to the elders that God has made them overseers and Hebrews 13:17 adds, “Obey your leaders and submit to them, for they are keeping watch over your souls, as those who will have to give an account.” We see here also how vulnerable a church is without pastors/elders. How crucial it is then that members seek the counsel of these leaders when they need it. Let members submit to their elders and seek for their wise counsel. Let them know your situation because they are not omniscient