Tuesday, September 2, 2008

Paul on Leadership: Overseers/Elders, part 1

The two major references in the letters of Paul to the issues of “overseers” is found in Phil. 1.1 and 1 Tim. 3.1-7 (as well as 5.17-23 and Titus 1.5-9). Many church leaders today are moving away from the form of leadership they grew up in (especially in Baptist circles), that is congregational led leadership and shifting to an “elder” led structure. One problem with the elder led structure is that Paul does not delineate the duties of elders/overseers so much as he is more concerned with the type of leaders they are (1 Tim. 3.1-7). We need to look beyond the texts to see what Paul was talking about and that the recipients understood without the need for pointing out specific duties.


The term most used in Paul is “episkopos” or “overseer.” The connection to the term elder (Greek, presbuteros) is found in Acts 20. He begins speaking to the elders of the church at Ephesus in verse 17 and he addresses them as overseers in verse 28. (He also mentions the act of shepherding/pasturing in that same passage [poimanein]).


The word episkopos is best rendered “overseer” or “guard”. It carries the connotation of someone as a “watcher,” “protector” or “patron.” In the LXX (Greek OT) the title was given to men who held responsible positions in the government, including those providing oversight in construction, those assigned to rule over a city and officers in the army. The title is also given to those who were overseers of religious functions. This word described a variety of offices and functions, but the notion of “oversight” appears to have been common to all of them. In Phil. 1.1 the nature of the functions performed by the overseer is not mentioned by in examining the usage of the term, overseer probably referred to specific individuals who were appointed and whose duties were to govern, administer, and oversee the affairs of the community. With Paul, as is clear with all his designations of church leaders, the term overseer denotes a function. The clue to understanding this idea lies within the verb from which this term is derived. In Acts 20.28 the accent is on function. As the duties of the overseer are further fleshed out in the Pastoral Epistles, the overseer is described as one who cares for God’s church. They were probably responsible for “caring for the people” in the sense of administration, hospitality and pastoral care. This thread of oversight runs through Paul’s letters. These overseers were probably equivalent to those who, in the lists of gifts, functioned as “administrators” (1 Cor. 12.28) and who were called “leaders” or “presiders” (Rom. 12.8). In the Pastoral Epistles, Paul is more concerned with the moral fiber of leadership than he is in delineating their roles (other than the ability to teach). Leadership in these letters is assumed. Paul makes sure it is qualified leadership. When one fulfills these “requirements”, one displays a call from the Spirit to perform such leadership functions

4 comments:

The MAN Fan Club said...

My former church 02-06 just started the Elder/Deacon format. I was on the committee. Fewer Elders than Deacons. It was interesting being on the committee and interpreting what the bible was telling us for our situation.

I did get asked to be a deacon at MBC.

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