Three times in Scripture, elders are called “overseers” (Acts 20:28; 1 Tim 3:2; and Titus 1:7). (Note, the Greek noun translated “overseer” is sometimes translated “bishop”. There is disagreement over whether “bishops/overseers” and “elders” refer to the same people or not. As I said in the introduction of this series, this discussion is beyond the scope of this series. I believe that “elders” are “bishops/overseers” and “bishops/overseers” are “elders”.) Once in Scripture, the noun “overseers” is used along with the term “deacons” with no further explanation (Phil 1:1). The final use of the noun “overseer” refers to Jesus Christ (1 Pet 2:25). These passages tell us little about the function or role of elders beyond our previous discussion of leading, shepherding, and teaching.
The verb form of “overseeing” is used twice in Scripture. In 1 Peter 5:2, the verb is used in relation to elders. Elders are to shepherd God’s people “by overseeing”. In the following phrases, Peter explains how this shepherding/overseeing should look by using contrasting phrases: not under compulsion but willingly, not for shameful gain but eagerly, not by domineering over but by being examples (1 Pet 5:2-3). It is within the context of these passages that we should consider the standard teachings about “overseers”.
Primarily, the “overseeing” function of an elder is described by theologians as an administrative/organizational role. For example, in Biblical Foundations for Baptist Churches, John Hammett says, “This officer [overseer] gives overall administrative oversight and leadership to the church.” Similarly, in Who Rules the Church, Gerald Cowen states, “As pastor (bishop) he is the chief officer in the church. Overseeing implies that he has administrative responsibility for the entire operation of the church.” Within this “administrative responsibility” usually falls such categories as planning, budgeting, preparation, personnel, and other organizational type matters.
But, notice that in the passages mentioned above (i.e. Acts 20 and 1 Peter 5), there are no organizational responsibilities assigned to elders. Instead, the elders are to “oversee” people, not organizations. (I’ve discussed this at length in several blog posts. See “Elders and administration” and “What does a bishop oversee?“) Perhaps it is beneficial to note that in the standard Greek lexicon (BDAG) the following glosses are given for the word translated “oversee”: “to give attention to”, “to look at”, “to take care of”, “to see to it”, “to accept responsibility for the care of someone”, “to oversee”. If we read “oversee” outside of these ranges of meaning, then we miss what Scripture is saying to elders.
In the verb translated “oversee”, elders are being told to take care of God’s people; they are not being instructed to administer Christian organizations. Thus, this verb is very similar to the verb “to shepherd”. This verb is slightly stronger, however, in that it indicates that elders should examine (that is, “look into”) the lives of other believers in order to know how to best care for them. Is this type of close examination a unique responsibility of elders?
According to Hebrews 12:15 (among other passages), the answer once again is, “No.” In fact, in Hebrews 12:15, the author uses the exact word in the exact form found in 1 Peter 5:2 to instruct all believers reading his letter to “oversee” the lives of other believers so that they will not miss the grace of God. This is usually translated “looking carefully” or “see to it”, but it is the same verb with the same range of meaning as “oversee” (see my post called “What does a non-bishop oversee?“).
Similarly, the author of Hebrews instructed his readers to “consider how to stimulate one another to love and good works” (Hebrews 10:24). Once again, this type of consideration or looking into the lives of others is the responsibility of all believers, not elders alone. Just as we all shepherd one another, we are all also responsible to know one another and become part of one another’s lives so that we know what is going on with one another. This is also a mutual responsibility.
Elders are responsible for looking carefully into the lives of other believers. But, this is the responsibility of all believers; it is not the responsibility of elders alone. Certainly, elders should serve as an example in this also. However, just as the elder is not held to a higher standard in character, leadership, teaching, and shepherding, neither is the elder held to a higher standard in “overseeing”.
Series on Elders
1. Elders (Part 1) – Introduction
2. Elders (Part 2) – Character
3. Elders (Part 3) – Leadership
4. Elders (Part 4) – Teaching
5. Elders (Part 5) – Shepherding
6. Elders (Part 6) – Overseeing
7. Elders (Part 7) – Conclusion