Do churches need Overseers or Bishops? What does that even mean?

Last week, we saw the role of the church elders and what is seen as the basic responsibilities of one who holds the elder position in a church body. The responsibility of the elder is essentially one of doctrinal authority in service to the body. In Elders in the Life of the Church, the authors describe a second type of responsibility that belongs to this office. They begin by explaining how the office of an overseer (επισκοπος, transliterated as episcopos and also translated as bishop in some instances) is the same office as that of an elder- only describing a different type of responsibility given to the same office.

The Epistles use “overseer” or bishop interchangeably with “elder.” Paul, after his ministry in Crete, instructs Titus to “appoint elders in every city” (Titus 1:5; again note the plurality of elders in the single churches in the small cities of Crete). Turning to describe their qualifications, the apostle calls them “overseers” (v. 7; also, 1 Tim. 3:1-7)… (p. 48).

Here, we are simply going to ask what elders do as overseers of God’s church. Is this function of the elder’s office necessary for the church today? In 1 Peter 5:2, Peter is addressing the elders of the many local churches. He describes part of their responsibility as oversight (επισκοπεω).

1 Peter 5:1-4

Therefore, I exhort the elders among you, as your fellow elder and witness of the sufferings of Christ, and a partaker also of the glory that is to be revealed, shepherd the flock of God among you, exercising oversight not under compulsion, but voluntarily, according to the will of God; and not for sordid gain, but with eagerness; nor yet as lording it over those allotted to your charge, but proving to be examples to the flock. And when the Chief Shepherd appears, you will receive the unfading crown of glory.

There are several things we see about the oversight elders are responsible for.

      1. Oversight has to do with shepherding God’s flock.
        1. We will talk about what it means that elders are shepherds (or pastors) next week.
      2. Oversight is not practiced under compulsion, but voluntarily.
        1. This is not a position that can be filled “because someone has to do it,” and we should not feel as though we have to serve in this capacity or do this because it is what we have to do to earn some sort of compensation or recognition. Our service as elders and overseers must be voluntary, else we prove that we are not properly motivated.
      3. Oversight is concerned with God’s will, not with sordid gain.
        1. As the elders of any church practice oversight, they sincerely seek to do so according to God’s will and God’s instruction- not according to their preferences and especially not according to their own greed.
      4. We are to be eager to oversee.
        1. Elders are instructed to practice oversight with initiative and with the urgency that following Christ demands. Any church without elders who take initiative in oversight will never see issues resolved and will easily get stuck, not moving forward in pursuit of God’s will.
      5. We do not lord our oversight over those who have been entrusted to us.
        1. Number 4 (above) is not an excuse for elders to have a “my way or the highway” sort of attitude. While we must take initiative, we do so with love and care, in understanding, and being gentle and respectful. We don’t want anyone to feel crushed or left behind.
      6. Oversight means that we have charge over God’s flock.
        1. Elders have disciplinary, methodological, and leadership authority. This keeps the church body organized and gives the elders the responsibility of discipline and of providing overall direction for the church body.
      7. Oversight means we serve as examples to the flock as to what it means to follow Christ.
        1. Our primary role as elders and overseers is to live godly lives and work out the faith by God’s grace alone.

While the title “elder” indicates doctrinal authority. The title “overseer” or bishop indicates practical authority, primarily concerning discipline and the casting of vision and direction for the church body according to God’s will. It is not a responsibility of one person, but of the plurality of elders working and making decisions together.

So, yes! This is a necessary part of the elders’ role in the local church. With multiple qualified elders, there is accountability. Where there is no vision, the people grow stagnant. Where there is no discipline, the people devour themselves. Where either of these things is unbiblical, the church is unified in its rebellion against God.

We need biblical elder-overseers.

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