“This is a true saying, if a man desire the office of a bishop, he desireth a good work. ” – 1 Timothy 3:1, KJV.
What is an episkopos? This is the word which is translated by “bishop” in the KJV in verse 2 of 1 Timothy 3. Episkopes, which is the word Paul uses in the first verse, is the word translated by “the office of a bishop.” So the word in verse 1 refers to the office, and the word in verse 2 to the one who fills the office. Almost every modern version (with the exception of the NRSV, as far as I could tell) translates the word as “overseer” and “office of overseer.” Due to the connotation of the word “bishop,” this is probably necessary. Because of almost two thousand years of church history, one cannot read the word “bishop” without thinking of a priest who rules over a district, and under whose authority local pastors exercise their ministry. Though such a multi-tiered ecclesiastical structure developed very early in the history of the church (as early as the second century and Ignatius), we need to reiterate that “vintage Christianity” does not mark its beginning in the second, but rather in the first century. If we want to find our identity in the church passed down by the apostles, we need to look, not to the Ante-Nicene Fathers (though this is not to say they cannot be of any help), but rather to the apostles themselves.
I am adopting “overseer” as a good translation of episkopos. But if we refuse the loaded word “bishop,” then that brings us back to the original question. What exactly is an overseer?
But that begs an even more important question: why do we even care? Are not questions of church structure and church offices unnecessary and even a hindrance to the growth and well-being of the church? Why not let the needs of the times in which we live now help determine how the church should function and structure itself? Why shackle the church in a fixed structure? In fact, does the New Testament even insist upon a normative church structure, one that transcends culture and the demands of specific historical situations?
I am going to argue that it does. And therefore that it does matter that we listen to what the New Testament has to say about church structure and church offices, and specifically what it says about the office of the overseer. And I think this needs to be reiterated especially in our day. If we are not listening to what the New Testament prescribes for the church, we are likely to strike out in ways that are ultimately harmful to the church. If we do not think the New Testament normative when it comes to church government, we are likely to chart courses for our churches that have their roots in an ecclesiastical pragmatism rather than in Scripture. We are likely to do things a certain way just because we can, instead of finding our reason in the Word of God. We are likely – in the name of cultural sensitivity – to become a reflection of the culture we initially set out challenge and change.
And we need look no further than the church during the first few centuries after the days of the apostles to see how such a program can play out. The three-tiered bishop-elder-deacon structure that developed early on in the church was a response to the pressure of heterodox movements and the need to guard against such heresies. Uniting the church under a single bishop over an area and requiring absolute obedience to him was seen to be a solution to the problem of splinter movements such as Montanism. It may have been a good move tactically, but it was a strategic disaster, and in the long run uniting the church under bishops actually undermined doctrinal soundness and moved the church in a direction that led to the sacramentalism of Roman Catholicism and Greek Orthodoxy. In institutionalizing itself, the church became a mirror of the Greek and Roman societies it was supposed to provide an alternative to.
A Pattern To Follow: Elder-Led Churches
It is often said that the New Testament churches of the first century had no fixed form of church government. Although it is true that certain offices did not come into being immediately on the Day of Pentecost, such as the office of a deacon, it is certain that very early on apostolic churches were formed on a consistent basis with two offices, that of elder (or overseer – I will argue for the identity of these two offices momentarily) and deacon. The history of the early church as recorded by Luke and the epistles all bear record to a uniformity of church structure as elder-led.
Very early on, as recorded in Acts 11, when the church in Antioch determined to send relief to their brethren in Judea, they did so, “sending it to the elders by the hand of Barnabas and Saul” (ver. 30).1 Already, the elders in the church of Jerusalem were functioning in an oversight capacity. These included the apostles, but from Acts 15 we know that the council of elders in Jerusalem was not the same as the apostles (see 15:6). Further, the elders in Acts 15 are seen in a governing role. They joined the apostles in ironing out crucial theological decisions that would impact the church as a whole.
When Paul established churches throughout Asia Minor and Greece, he always installed elders as part of the program of church planting: “And when they had appointed elders for them [the churches in Derbe, Lystra, Iconium and Pisidian Antioch] in every church, with prayer and fasting they committed them to the Lord in whom they had believed” (14:23). Note that they did this in every church. When Paul wanted to give some parting advice to the church of Ephesus, he did so through their elders (20:17). Since 1 Timothy is addressed through Timothy to the church of Ephesus, we see that Paul expected the office of the elder to continue. When Paul writes to the church of Philippi, he addresses his epistle “to all the saints in Christ Jesus who are at Philippi, with the overseers and deacons” (1:1). To another associate, Titus, who was working on the island of Crete, Paul writes, “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” (1:5). Evidently, this was so important, that Paul considered the churches “out of order” until they had elders installed.
Incidentally, the Titus passage shows that “elder” and “overseer” are one and the same person, for in verse 5 Paul refers to those whom Titus is to install as elders, and then in verse 7, describing their qualifications, refers to them by the title of overseer. There is no evidence in the NT of a bishop in the sense of the office that developed in the second century A.D. Although some claim that Titus and Timothy are examples of bishops, this is a specious claim. Neither of them are called a bishop; they are not even seen as part of the local church structure. Rather, these two men were apostolic representatives, offices that by their very nature cannot be reduplicated.
Appointing elders in churches was not just a Pauline pattern, either. When Peter wrote his first epistle, one of the reasons he did so was to “exhort the elders among you, as a fellow elder and a witness of the sufferings of Christ” (5:1). The churches Peter wrote to existed all over Asia Minor (modern Turkey), in Pontus, Galatia, Cappadocia, Asia, and Bithynia (1:1).
In other words, elder-led churches were a universal phenomenon in the first century church. Moreover, the NT places a great emphasis upon the office of an overseer. As Alexander Strauch has put it, “Not only does the New Testament record the existence of elders in numerous churches, it also gives instruction about elders [such as 1 Timothy 3:1-7] and to elders. In fact, the New Testament offers more instruction regarding elders than on other important church subjects such as the Lord's Supper, the Lord's Day, baptism, or spiritual gifts.”2
I hope you didn't miss the obvious in the passages above: the word “elder” or “overseer” is almost never mentioned in the singular. It is in the singular in our text because Paul is speaking in generalities. But when you see the role of an elder worked out in the early church, it is always in the context of a plurality of elders. “Let the elders who rule well be counted worthy of double honor” (1 Tim. 5:17). “If any among you is sick, let him call for the elders of the church” (James 5:14). This last passage is instructive. The is a plurality of elders in a single church. That is the pattern. The pattern is not, one church, one elder; it is one church, many elders. We will consider momentarily why this is important; for now, I just want to emphasize that this is the pattern.
Some will argue for a one-pastor-per-church policy based (again) on the examples of Timothy and Titus. But for the same reasons they cannot be considered as “bishops” in the modern sense of the word, neither can they be considered as pastors of the churches. They were apostolic representatives, and their ministry at the churches in Ephesus and Crete was not meant to be long-term. They were there to institute the apostolic program and then move on. Titus appointed elders for the local church; he was not one of them. Others argue on the basis of Revelation 1:20 that the seven angels of the seven churches represent the single pastors of each church. But this is almost certainly false. “Angel” in the book of Revelation always means an angelic being in every other instance of the word in the book. So to take it to refer to men who serve in the role of pastor in 1:20 is very problematic, to say the least.
The Role of Elder-Overseer
What then does an elder-overseer do? The word “overseer” is instructive. The elder is an overseer. What is he to oversee? In 1 Peter 5:1-3, the apostle gives the following advice to elders: “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: 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; not domineering over those in your charge, but being examples to the flock.” The phrase “ exercising oversight” is the verb form of the noun Paul uses for “overseer” in 1 Timothy 3:1-2. “Exercising oversight” is meant to explain the phrase “shepherd the flock of God.” In other words, the elder/overseer is a shepherd of God's people, the church. He is to oversee God's people.
Paul uses the same imagery of shepherd and flock in his farewell address to the Ephesian elders in Acts 20: “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” (verse 28). In Ephesians 4:11, Paul says that God has given to the church “pastors [shepherds] and teachers.” Though Paul does not call them “overseers” here, the fact that overseers are described elsewhere with the imagery of shepherds, it is almost certain that a pastor is the same thing as an overseer/elder. Thus, an overseer is to the church as a shepherd is to his flock. This suggests the following ways in which an overseer is to function.
First, just as a shepherd feeds the flock he oversees, even so the elder is to feed the church with the Word of God (cf. Acts 20:32). The job of the elder is to teach the Bible (1 Tim. 3:2), and by teaching “give instruction in sound doctrine and . . . refute those who contradict it” (Tit. 1:9). Paul combines pastor with teacher in Eph. 4:11, and in 1 Tim. 5:17 he writes, “Let the elders who rule well be considered worthy of double honor, especially those who labor in preaching and teaching.” The elder leads the church by showing them the way God's Word points.
The elder does not feed the church by giving his own opinions, or by sharing the latest insights of some great preacher. Rather, he tends the flock of God by giving them the Word of God. It is the word of God which is able to make us grow; it is by speaking and hearing the word that we grow (Eph. 4:15). Peter exhorts his readers to “grow in the grace and knowledge of our Lord Jesus Christ” (2 Pet. 3:18). In his parting words to Timothy, Paul encourages him to “preach the word” (2 Tim. 4:2).
The word not only makes us grow, it keeps us healthy. Paul characterizes the gospel as “sound words” - “sound” meaning “healthy” (1 Tim. 6:3; 2 Tim. 1:13). Truth saves us from error. The gospel brings balance and fruit into the believer's life. We need it, and the only way to get it is to grow by receiving Scriptural nourishment.
Thus, a good way to determine whether or not an elder is fulfilling his role is to ask whether you are being fed the Word of God under his ministry. Are the words that he preaches and teaches healthy? Do they tend toward spiritual growth? Are they balanced? Does he teach the whole counsel of God, does he rightly divide the word, or does he preach and teach the same thing over and over again? Are you growing in your knowledge of the doctrines of the Word of God, are you rebuked and corrected by them, are you instructed in righteousness? (cf. 2 Tim. 3:16,17)
Second, just as a shepherd protects his flock from wolves, even so the overseer is to protect the church of God from spiritual predators. This is why the author of Hebrews tells us readers to “obey your leaders (the elders) and submit to them, for they are keeping watch over your souls, as those who will have to give an account” (Heb. 13:17). The imagery of this verse is that of a shepherd watching over the flock, providing a barrier between them and their adversaries. This is the reason why Paul exhorted the Ephesian elders to “pay attention to yourselves and to all the flock . . . to care for the church of God. I know that after my departure fierce wolves will come in among you, not sparing the flock” (Acts 20:28,29).
As Calvin aptly put it, God gives the shepherd two hands: one with which to feed the flock, and one with which to drive away the wolves. A good minister must not only tell the truth, he must warn against the errors that are prevalent in his day. This is another reason why a good minister must be nourished up in the words of truth (1 Tim. 4:6), so that he can discern right from wrong, truth from fiction. The fact that lies comes in the guise of truth, that demons come dressed as angels of light, makes it imperative that the elder himself be completely immersed in the truth that is God's Word.
Third, just as the shepherd guides the flock from pen to pasture, even so the overseer is meant to be a guide to the church. He is an overseer. He leads and guides. This is why in Hebrews 13:17, believers are exhorted to “obey your leaders and submit to them.” It is the reason why Paul exhorts the Thessalonian Christians to “respect those who labor among you and are over you in the Lord and admonish you, and to esteem them very highly in love because of their work” (1 Thess. 5:12,13).
This is why when Paul lists the qualifications of the overseer in 1 Tim. 3:1-7, he says that “he must manage his own household well . . . for if someone does not know how to manage his own household, how will he care for God's church?” (vs. 4-5). Thus caring for the church of God in the role of an overseer is likened to the management of one's household. If one can not do the latter, he certainly cannot do the former.
Of course, the way a pastor leads is by pointing the way with the Word of God. An overseer is not supposed to lead by force of personality or by dictatorial constraint. Peter warns elders against such a leadership style: they are to exercise oversight, “not domineering over those in your charge, but being examples to the flock” (1 Pet. 5:2,3). Grudem explains, “He implies that elders should govern not by the use of threats, emotional intimidation, or flaunting of power, nor generally by the use of 'political' force within the church, by rather by power of example whenever possible.”3 This doesn't mean that the elder does not have genuine authority; after all, they are to “exercise oversight” and believers are commanded to obey them. But obedience to the spiritual leadership of the church hinges upon their following Christ. Paul himself exhorted the churches to follow him as he followed Christ (1 Cor. 11:1).
A good shepherd is one who inspires those whom he shepherds to follow his lead. He doesn't say, “Charge!” he says, “Follow me!” and those whom he leads follow. I know of many churches who have no such confidence in their spiritual leadership; the strange thing about it is that they don't seem to care. The elder is just a preacher who shows up weekly and does his job; they hear the sermon, are satisfied they have done their duty, and then go about their lives in their own way. In terms of real leadership, the overseer fills his role role in name only.
I think a good standard to judge both spiritual leader and those whom they lead is to ask if the flock is willing to follow the shepherd. Do they have confidence in him? Do they respect him? Do they trust his wisdom? Do they believe that he is skilled in the Word of God and can open it in a way that commends it to their faith? If the answer to any of these questions is “No,” then there is a problem – either with the leadership or with those whom they are seeking to lead.
And thus we see why elder-led should not mean “elder” in the singular but “elder” in the plural. For if it is the job of the elder to shepherd the flock of God by feeding, protecting, and leading them, it becomes obvious that this is the job of no one man. No man has all the gifts to adequately do these three things well. Moreover, it becomes easier for a pastor who goes at it alone to become unbalanced, depressed, or to become dictatorial. But when a pastor is surrounded by fellow elders, he has a source of accountability and encouragement in such a council. He is helped and the church is better for it. This one pastor per church policy that dominates so many churches today is unhealthy and unbiblical. It has created little bishops and (often) great imbalance.
Before moving on, I want to point out that need for a plurality of elders is not strictly a function of the number of members in the church. Even if the church is small, it needs more than a single pastor. This is because the need for plurality is rooted as much in the individual elder's needs as it is rooted in the needs of the church as a whole.
The Office of Overseer as Gift
According to Ephesians 4:11, the pastor-teacher, or elder-overseer is a gift of Christ to the church. And when Paul addressed the Ephesian elders, he tells them that the Holy Spirit is the one who made them overseers (Acts 20:28). Christ gives no bad gifts to his people. Therefore I think it is instructive to contemplate the implications of this gift to the church.
One implication is that Christ cares for his church now. His blood did not purchase for us the love of Christ only when we die. His gifts to us do not begin after this vale of tears. They begin now. There are many gifts of Christ to the church, not only in the form of officers that lead the church (as in Ephesians 4:11) but also in the numerous spiritual gifts given to every believer. However, the pastor is a gift of Christ to the church in the present, and he gave it to the church because he loves his people in the present.
He cares that we see him in role as Redeemer and Lord. For the role of a pastor is not to hold himself up before the congregation, but to hold Christ up before the people. He is to preach and teach, not his own thoughts, but the gospel of Christ crucified and resurrected and saving. When Paul describes his preaching to the Galatians, he says, “It was before your eyes that Jesus Christ was publicly portrayed as crucified” (Gal. 3:1). Paul's preaching vividly portrayed the gospel that tells sinful men that they receive eternal life through a dying Savior. As he says to the Corinthians, “For what we proclaim is not ourselves, but Jesus Christ as Lord, with ourselves as your servants for Jesus' sake” (2 Cor. 4:5). The Lord wants us to see more and more of his glory, and one of the ways we see more of it is by hearing it reflected in his Word as it is faithfully preached by his under-shepherds.
The fact that the church is likened to a flock and the pastor to a shepherd who is serving under the Chief Shepherd ought to continually remind us of the person of Christ. He is the good shepherd who gives his life for the sheep. He loves them as no one else can love them. He will not lose them. When the pastor stands up on Sunday morning to deliver the message, he is not looking at his flock, he is looking at Christ's flock. They do not belong to him but to Jesus. The faithful pastor does not proclaim what he can do for them, but what Christ has done for them on the cross and is doing for them at the Father's right hand interceding for them.
The Lord cares that we grow in grace and are saved from debilitating lies that undermine spiritual growth. According to Ephesians 4, one of the main ways this happens is through the faithful ministry of God's pastors and teachers. When we refuse the ministry of the Word and care not whether we grow in grace, we are showing an incredible ingratitude toward the One who gave everything for us. Why should we pay attention to the Word? Why should we follow our spiritual leaders as they follow Christ? Because the Lord wants that for us. And surely, if his Spirit dwells within us, such a consideration should move us to want to please him by hearing his Word and applying it to our lives.
I cannot leave this text without commenting on the fact that Paul calls the office of overseer “a good work.” Of all the things we can do, working for the kingdom is truly good work. And this is true not only of the work of an elder, but of all work done in the name of Christ, done by any of his people. It is good work, for we work for the best of Masters. The work brings with it its own reward, to be followed by eternal joy in the presence of the Lord. That is not to say it is not without its hardships. Paul calls on Timothy to endure hardness as a good soldier of Jesus Christ (2 Tim. 1:8), but that is not the end of the story, for we serve a Master who has abolished death and brought life and immortality to light through the gospel (ver. 10). It is good work, for it is not the kind of work that is required to get eternal life, but work that comes from participating in the eternal life given freely to all who trust in the Son of God. It is a faithful saying, if a man desire the office of an overseer, he desires a good work.
1Unless otherwise noted, Scripture quotations are from the ESV.
2Strauch, Biblical Eldership: An Urgent Call to Restore Biblical Church Leadership, p. 103.
3Wayne Grudem, 1 Peter (TNTC), p.189.