The Position of an Overseer

Sermon preached on 1 Timothy 3:1 by Rev. W. Reid Hankins during the Morning Worship Service at Trinity Presbyterian Church (OPC) on 10/23/2016 in Novato, CA.

Sermon manuscript

Rev. W. Reid Hankins, M.Div.
1 Timothy 3:1

“The Position of an Overseer”

When I thought of preaching through 1 Timothy, I especially had in mind this chapter. I really wanted to spend some time thinking through the offices of elder and deacon. We somewhat recently ordained a new deacon with brother Diego Merino. And we have a congregational meeting coming up in December when we will consider another nominee to the office of Deacon, brother Neil Olij. Though, today we will not be talking about deacons. That’s later in this chapter. But we do begin in this passage to start thinking about the ordained offices of Christ’s church. Today and for the next few weeks we’ll focus on the office of elder as we look at verses 1-7. Then verses 8-13 will talk about the office of deacon. So today we will focus on verses 1-7 and most specifically on verse 1 today. I want us to consider this faithful saying in verse 1. This is the second of five faithful sayings in the Pastoral Epistles, and the only one dealing with the work of an elder. It says, verse 1, “If a man desires the position of a bishop, he desires a good work.” And as I prepared this sermon, I realized I needed to cover even verse 1 over two weeks. So today’s message will focus on the position of an elder, and next time we’ll focus on the desire and pursuit of becoming an elder.

So, as we consider this faithful saying, let’s begin first by identifying this position of leadership. You see, if you’ve been listening closely, you’ll immediately recognize that I said today’s passage is talking about the office of elder, but you will notice that the pew Bible doesn’t use the word elder. It uses the word bishop. Well, that’s because in the New Testament, the word that’s translated as bishop and the word that’s translated as elder refer to the same office. They are simply two terms for the same thing. As will become clear in a moment, however, there is a reason why today in English we don’t usually use the word bishop in Presbyterian circles, but instead prefer to use the word elder.

So in talking about the office of elder, let’s talk Greek for a moment. The word bishop here is not really a translation. The actual Greek word is episcopos. Early on, the church decided to not translate that word, but just carry it into Latin. But by the time it went from Latin and over into Old English and then into modern English, its pronunciation got altered in the process. The end result is that bishop is just the modern English way to pronounce the Greek episcopos. Basically the opening and closing sounds of episcopos got dropped, and you just had the middle left. So, e-piscop-os, became just piscop, or bishop. This is why church governments who have a hierarchical form of church government with monarchical bishops are called the Episcopalian form of government. Episcopalian has that word episcopos in it. So when verse 1 has the word bishop in our translation, it’s not really a translation. A translation for the Greek word episcopos would be overseer or supervisor. The Greek word is a word of watching, with a prefix of “over”, so it’s the idea of watching over others. And so that is what a verse 1 refers to, an overseer. It refers to someone in the church who is in some official overseer role. So, I’m going to use the language of overseer instead of bishop when talking about the meaning of this verse.

Well, as I’ve said, this role of overseer is equated with elder in the New Testament. In other words, there are not two separate offices of overseer and elder, but one office. For example, in Acts 20:17, Paul called for the elders of the church of Ephesus. He then addressed them as Holy Spirit appointed overseers in verse 28 of that same chapter. Or, similarly, we see in Titus 1:5 that Paul told Titus he needed to appoint elders in every city, and Paul then goes on to describe how to do that. And when he does, two verses later he refers to these elders as overseers. Why am I alerting us to this? Well, the reason is simple. Very early on in church history, somehow or another, the church started treating these as separate offices. Churches would have typically one bishop who was the ultimate authority, and then they would have a council of elders under his authority. The bishop would essentially be the king of his church. I can speculate on how this happened so quickly, but it would just be speculation. But the bottom line is that the New Testament is just so very clear that it uses the terms overseer and elder to refer to one and the same office.

And so this is why I said Presbyterians don’t tend to use the word bishop when talking about elders. That’s because today those who use the term bishop tend to be those advocating this wrong notion that a bishop is a different office than that of elder. (By the way, presbyter is the Greek word for elder). One main problem with the approach of making bishops a different office is that they’ve then used that idea to essentially make a hierarchical form of government, where bishops become essentially governors and kings and emperors in the church. That’s the notion of the pope in Rome, for example. He is the head bishop of all the bishops in the Roman Catholic church. It makes him a sort of emperor for the church. But the model in the Bible is a plurality of leadership. The church only has one monarch, and that is Jesus. Beyond that one King of the Church, the Bible would have the church’s leadership to be led by a council of elders or overseers. Authority in the church on earth should not come down to a single human leader with all the authority. Repeated references in both the New Testament and also the Old Testament point to a plurality of elders – Acts 14:23, 20:17, and Titus 1:5 are examples for starters. And so, authority in the church, according to the Biblical pattern, is to be vested in a multitude of ordained elders.

So that’s our first point for today. We’ve seen that the New Testament describes a single office of elder and overseer, not two offices. And we’ve affirmed that leadership should be vested in a plurality of elders, not in a single one or in a hierarchy of single leaders. So then, our next point is to talk about what elders actually do. What does the position entail in terms of their labors? There are so many things I could highlight from the Scriptures. I’ll highlight five duties.

First, they have a shepherding or oversight role. As the word overseer says explicitly, they have the job to watch out for the members in the church. Acts 20:28 records Paul telling the Ephesian elders, “Therefore take heed to yourselves and to all the flock, among which the Holy Spirit has made you overseers, to shepherd the church of God which He purchased with His own blood.” So, that means as a shepherd, if they see the wolves of false teachers or the temptations of the devil looking to lead astray the church members, they need to step in and help. And to clarify, this needs to be a proactive function, not a reactive function. They can’t just wait to respond once a wolf comes in and eats a few sheep! They should be alert and on guard and looking out for the wolves coming in the distance, so that they don’t lose any sheep!

A second role for the elders is that of rule. In other words, they are the authorities leading in the church. They are the ones ultimately governing the church and responsible for making official church decisions. This is the exact language in 1 Timothy 5:17, where it talks about elders ruling, and says that those who rule well should be shown double honor by the church. We also see this in the passages of Scripture that call church members to be in submission to the elders. 1 Peter 5:5, for example, calls Christians to be subject to the elders. We submit to them in the Lord as they have this function of rule and authority in the church.

A third role for the elders is a judicial role. In other words, they form the official courts of the church. This is something seen a lot in the Old Testament, with various examples of the elders sitting in a judicial capacity. Deuteronomy 19-25, for example, in dealing with various case laws, speaks of repeated instances where the elders are to serve judicially. Of course, in the Gospels, we see the Sanhedrin council made up of not only the priests but also the elders, and they were the highest judicial body among the Jews at that time. Similarly, in Acts 15, we see the apostles and elders join together as a large council in Jerusalem to decide a matter of dispute in the church.

A fourth role for the elders is one of prayer. They need to pray with and for the people! I love how Samuel in the Old Testament was petitioned by the people that he would pray for them. Samuel replied there in 1 Samuel 12:23, “Far be it from me that I should sin against the LORD in ceasing to pray for you.” Those are certainly words for elders to continue to express today. Similarly, in Acts 6, when the apostles were getting bogged down making sure the widows weren’t being overlooked in receiving diaconal support, they expressed concern to not let that get in the way of their ministry of prayer. And so in light of all this, we are not surprised then when we read in James 5, that if someone becomes sick, they should call for the elders to come and pray for them.

Lastly, the fifth role I’ll mention today is that elders are to be teaching. It certainly is implied here based on the context from last passage about women not being the official teachers in the church. It then turns to mention the overseers which in verse 2 it says that a qualification for them is that they must be able to teach. You’ll note that when we study the qualifications for the deacons, that this is not a requirement for them. But it is required for the elders to be able to teach in the church. How else can they guard against false doctrine if they themselves cannot speak to the truth. And of course, the greatest guard against false doctrine is a steady diet of faithful teaching of God’s word. Along these lines, we see in 1 Timothy 5:17 that some elders labor specifically in the word and doctrine. That’s a reference to people like myself; the full time pastors in the church who focus their labors on preaching and teaching. And so all elders need to be able to teach, and have that role to teach, though some especially focus on that particular task.

So, that is a summary of some of the main tasks for the elders in the church. I encourage you to take notice in how our elders here do these things. And then go up to Jeff and Marlin and let them know that you notice it and appreciate their work. And that leads then to our last point for today. I want us to meditate for a moment on the fact that verse 1 says this is a good work. It is a good work to be serving in the office of elder. The word “good” here is a word referring to beauty and excellence. The ESV translates this as a “noble task”. The NASB as a “fine work”.

Don’t miss this affirmation. Paul thought this needed to be emphasized. When we hear this, we might think it should be obvious. It should be obvious that to serve as an elder is an honorable and noteworthy thing. And yet as we pause for a moment and think about the fact that he states this, we can start to think of reasons why maybe he had to emphasize this. Maybe some people had started to get disillusioned with the elders. Remember, Paul had been telling Timothy he had to fight against the false teachers in Ephesus. Acts 20 even gives us reason to think that some of those false teachers might have come from among some of their elders. If the church had seen some of its elders depart from the truth, that might leave them with a bad opinion about elders in general. But Paul here reminds them that eldership is a good thing and an important service to the church.

We see this similar sentiment in a very early church writing called the Didache. The Didache is likely the oldest new covenant church writing we have outside of the Bible. It was likely written before even all of the New Testament books were completed. In the Didache, it talks about overseers and deacons being worthy on honor like you would show the prophets. It also exhorts the church to not despise them. So, I think that is interesting. The Didache thought it would be relevant to tell Christians not to despise their leaders. Surely that’s because some people did, for whatever reason. Maybe it was a jealousy issue? Maybe it’s because people don’t like to have to answer to others. There are various reasons why a Christian might be tempted to not show the honor to the elders that they should. And so Paul again reminds us here, that the job of an elder is a good, beautiful, noble, excellent task.

We can understand this in our day too. Besides those normal temptations of things like jealousy and not wanting to submit to leadership, think of what we’ve seen in recent history. We’ve seen some great abuses in this kind of leadership. Just say the word TV Evangelist and probably your initial reaction is a negative one. We all know there have been too many TV Evangelists that have really just been charlatans. Or think of the stigma associated nowadays with Roman Catholic priests and sexual abuse. In our day, abuses of leadership in various places contribute to a tendency to have a negative view about the ordained office of elder. But we must not throw the baby out with the bathwater. Just because some, even many, in history have abused the office, doesn’t mean the office is not legitimate or good. In fact, the Holy Scriptures here declare that the office is in fact a good thing and a good work.

So then, in conclusion, let me step back and remind us where our focus should ultimately go today. I point you to 1 Peter 2:24-25. Turn with me there. Speaking of Jesus, it says, “He himself bore our sins in his body on the tree, that we might die to sin and live to righteousness. By his wounds you have been healed. For you were straying like sheep, but have now returned to the Shepherd and Overseer of your souls.” There we have the gospel. And there we have the affirmation that our ultimate shepherd and overseer is Jesus himself. And so be reminded today that the gospel is about the fact that Jesus died on the cross to pay for our sins. And not only that, but it was so we could be healed. Jesus as our ultimate shepherd and overseer has not only made us right before God, but is working to heal us from all our wounds our sin has caused. This we receive as a gift, through faith. If you are here today and have not yet put your faith in Christ, I urge you to do so today! Know this forgiveness and healing today!

And so then, it is this ultimate shepherd and overseer who has given his church elders. He has given the church elders to serve as under-shepherds and under-overseers on his behalf! And so as we think today about such earthly leaders, we acknowledge that we don’t ultimately put our trust in men. Yet it was Christ Jesus our Lord who has given us these elders. Let us look to learn from them. Let us submit to them in the Lord. May we support and encourage them. Pray for their work and that they would remain faithful. We thank the Lord that he provides such leadership to his church on earth until that great day when he himself returns to gather up all his sheep under his personal care for all eternity. Amen.

Copyright © 2016 Rev. W. Reid Hankins, M.Div.
All Rights Reserved.


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