“The reason I left you in Crete was that you might put in order what was left unfinished and appoint elders in every town, as I directed you.” Titus 1:5
This statement of purpose in the Letter to Titus fascinates me. It reminds us that a few local leaders (elders/overseers) are important and yet clearly not the foundation of New Testament ministry. This must be the case because the churches are functioning as worshipping communities across the island of Crete without elders at this time.
When congregations consisted of primarily new believers, like many did in the early church, it had to take time to see who held strong in the faith in the midst of challenges and showed genuine maturity of character.
Not having people marked as responsible for oversight of the ministry and mission of the congregations was what was left ‘unfinished.’ It wasn’t the beginning or the foundation of ministry, but rather something needed to ensure faithfulness and longevity, especially when Paul or one of his ‘co-workers’ couldn’t be everywhere all the time.
It’s interesting to note that only one of Paul’s general letters to churches specifically addresses those serving as overseers.
“To all God’s holy people in Christ Jesus at Philippi, together with the overseers and deacons.” Philippians 1:1
This kind of acknowledgement does not occur in Letters like Romans or 1 Corinthians or 1 Thessalonians or Ephesians, etc. Even in Philippians it’s more of a general acknowledgement than a specific word to them. Philippians, like these other Letters, is written equally to everyone.
Peter mentions elders in more depth toward the end of his First Letter:
“To the elders among you, I appeal as a fellow elder and a witness of Christ’s sufferings who also will share in the glory to be revealed: Be shepherds of God’s flock that is under your care, watching over them—not because you must, but because you are willing, as God wants you to be; not pursuing dishonest gain, but eager to serve; not lording it over those entrusted to you, but being examples to the flock.” 1 Peter 5:1-3
We will take a look at this passage in a moment. But the point I am first making is that Peter and Paul write primarily to whole congregations rather than passing information down through the organizational structure. Their usual instruction is not like the corporate world or a military chain of command where things are passed down the line.
This is because the nature of congregational life is not based on one or a few leaders but on the whole of the Holy Spirit empowered community who are living in response to the call of the gospel.
As we saw in descriptions of the life of the church in 1 Corinthians and Colossians 3:16, gatherings were marked by mutual edification and the exercise of Spiritual gifts rather than everyone focused toward one person behind a pulpit.
As I have mentioned before, there is nothing implicit in the texts that speak about Spiritual gifts that would indicate that they are distributed along gender lines.
Rather, Paul writes to the Romans:
“We have different gifts, according to the grace given to each of us. If your gift is prophesying, then prophesy in accordance with your faith; if it is serving, then serve; if it is teaching, then teach; if it is to encourage, then give encouragement; if it is giving, then give generously; if it is to lead, do it diligently; if it is to show mercy, do it cheerfully.” Romans 12:6-8
So, what do elders/overseers do? One of the major things they do is oversee! They see to it that the congregation is gathering in good order (unlike some of the issues happening in Corinth) and growing toward Christlikeness together.
Let’s note a few things Peter mentions in the quote posted above. One is that the elders are among all the others. They are a regular part of the body with different gifts as listed in Romans and 1 Corinthians. Yet they knew that they had a responsibility. If Paul or Timothy or Titus came to town, they could ask these elders how things were going. If they caught wind of an issue, they knew who they could ask.
This responsibility also had a shepherding function. There was a pastoral task, though no indication of a title, to their responsibility. The congregation is under their (multiple, not one person) care.
Notice that: watchful care. Not power and control and authority over. Eager to serve. Peter now finally understood the way of Jesus: not ‘lording over’ like the gentiles but rather the posture of a servant to all.
Also note this from verse 3: ‘Being examples to the flock.’ The whole flock of men and women should be able to look to these elder / overseers as examples to be followed – maturing in Christ, holding to the truth and serving in Christlike humility. People who walked in wisdom.
Paul, likewise, frequently encouraged all believers to follow both his life and teaching.
“Whatever you have learned or received or heard from me, or seen in me—put it into practice.” Philippians 4:9
As Paul speaks to elders from Ephesus in Acts 20, he has a similar responsibility in mind that Peter does:
“Keep watch over yourselves and all the flock of which the Holy Spirit has made you overseers. Be shepherds of the church of God, which he bought with his own blood.” Acts 20:28
Overseers should join Peter and Paul in encouraging wholehearted commitment to the way of Jesus and in embrace of the gifts that the Spirit gives.
Whatever gift a man or woman has in the congregation, overseers should encourage them to use and develop maturity in their gift. They should help make sure that people are walking in Christlike humility (which is why they must exhibit it to be elders) and they must be able to stand in and communicate gospel truth in order to correct those who are off base.
Elder/Overseers are important to the life of the church! But they aren’t the heart of it.
The heart of the body of Christ is the whole people of God, growing together in the cross-shaped way of Jesus and serving one another with the gifts God gives in order to build the body to unity and maturity (Ephesians 4:13).
In the next two posts, we will look at the particular qualities that are listed for those who will serve as elders / overseers.
Note: There are two Greek words that are used in relevant passages: presbuteros (elders) and episkopos (overseers). While some take these two be two distinct roles or functions, they are used in the same passages of what seems to be the same people. See Acts 20:17, 28 and Titus 1:5, 7. Because of this, my view is that these are different terms used for the same people.