Monday, January 5, 2009

What is an "Overseer"?

Sunday night I continued my series through the Pastoral Letters of Paul with an examination of 1 Timothy 3:1-7. Here Paul instructs Timothy on how to properly vet those who desire to be candidates for the office of “overseer”. What is an “overseer”? The title overseer describes those men who have been vested with the responsibility to lead the church through the ministry of the Word. The New Testament uses three words to describe the office we most commonly refer to as pastor. The three Greek terms used for the office of pastor are: episkopos (overseer/ bishop), presbyteros (elder), and poimein (shepherd/ pastor). There is substantial evidence in the New Testament that these were all interchangeable titles describing the same office. Here are three significant examples:

In Acts 20:17 Paul addresses the “elders” of the church in Ephesus. There was a group of men who provided spiritual leadership. Then in verse 28 refers to them as “overseers” charged “to shepherd” (pastor) the church. Then in Titus 1:5 Paul instructs Titus to “appoint elders” then addresses the same office in verse 7 with the title “overseer”. Finally in 1 Peter 5:1-2 Peter encourages the “elders” of the church to “shepherd” or to pastor the “flock of God”.

This is one office that was commonly represented in the New Testament by a plurality of men at each local church. Over the course of history the title of this office has been represented differently in different traditions (pastor, vicar, bishop, minister, elder, etc). Most Southern Baptist churches in last 100 years or so have grown away from having a plurality of elders to simply designating one elder as pastor. In many churches the deacon body or collection of committees has assumed the responsibility of the elder body but this is not the blueprint the Bible gives us. While there is significant benefit to a church having a body of pastors or elders just as they have a body of deacons, churches must have at least one pastor who is responsible for being the lead elder (spiritual leader/ teacher), overseer (administrator/ one who will give an account- Hebrews 13:17), and shepherd (care giver).

In the remaining verses of this passage Paul provides fifteen qualifications for this office: 1) He must be ‘above reproach; 2) He must be the ‘husband of one wife’; 3) He must be ‘temperate’; 4) He must be ‘prudent’; 5) He must be ‘respectable’; 6) He must be ‘hospitable’; 7) He must be ‘able to teach’; 8) He must not be ‘addicted to wine’; 9) He must not be ‘pugnacious’; 10) He must be ‘gentle’; 11) He must be ‘peaceable’; 12) He must be ‘free from the love of money’; 13) He must be ‘one who manages his own household well’; 14) He must not be ‘a new convert’; 15) He must be one of ‘good reputation with those outside the church’.

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