Devoted to the Propagation and Defense of New Testament Christianity
July 28, 1949

Who Are The Overseers?

Claud B. Holcomb, Denton, Texas

"Take heed therefore unto yourselves, and to all the flock, over the which the Holy Ghost hath made you overseers, to feed the church of God, which he hath purchased with his own blood." (Acts 20:28) "Obey them that have the rule over you, and submit yourselves: for they watch for your souls, as they that must give account." (Heb. 13:17)

These two passages set forth obligations belonging to elders and to members of the church in their relations one to another. In all the New Testament, the elders are the only ones who are designated as "overseers". Since the Lord thus designates them, I take it that it is the duty of elders to oversee the affairs of the congregation wherein they serve. Any others who try to take the oversight are usurpers, and this includes preachers and deacons. Certain things going on in some congregations today indicate that there are some who have forgotten New Testament teaching in this matter—if they ever learned it.

Rebelling Against Authority

There are many Old Testament examples of God's displeasure upon those who became usurpers, or who rebelled against authority that had been appointed by Jehovah. The incident involving Korah, Dathan, and Abiram, is a case in point. (Numbers 16) Although God's system of government over his people has changed, the principles upon which he executes his law have not changed. This is why Paul said, "These things happened unto them by way of example; and they are written for our admonition". (I Cor. 10:11)

In olden times Moses was God's appointed leader over Israel; all who rebelled against his leadership were punished. (Num. 12 and 16) In this dispensation, God has given all authority to his Son, Jesus Christ. (Matt. 28:18) By the authority of Christ elders are to be appointed in "every church"; (Acts 14:23) their duty is to "oversee" (Acts 20:28; I Pet. 5:2), and to "rule over" the flock. (Heb. 13:17; I Tim. 5:17) Any who will not accept Christ's appointment in this matter, and will not submit themselves to the oversight of the elders of the congregation with which they are working, are in rebellion against God's way, as were Korah, Dathan, and Abiram. It is hard to get men to see that they are actually rebellious, or, at least, it is hard to get them to admit it. Many are easily deceived. The prophet said, "Rebellion is as the sin of witchcraft, and stubbornness is as idolatry". (I Sam. 15:23) It is a serious matter to act in rebellion against God's ordinances.

Disgruntled Members

Elders who allow the preacher, deacons, or any other to take matters into their own hands and run the affairs of the church, are failing in their duties as elders. They should not forget to "watch... as they that must give account". If some "pastoring" preacher sets out among the members to work up sentiment against the eldership, they should stop him before he gets started. If deacons start demanding that they be given full charge of certain matters (usually they say the finances) without any "interference" from the elders, they should be taught what their place is in the church.

Peter reminds elders that they are not official dignitaries "being lords over God's heritage", but he also says they are to take "the oversight thereof". The God-given duty of elders, then, is to oversee; and they should muster all courage and boldness necessary to perform their duty. Then when they have done what is best for the church, they should not apologize for it. Elders will need courage. Even when they lead in a spirit of meekness, they will sometimes be accused by disgruntled members of "lording it over God's heritage". Usually such members are trying to lord it over the elders. Such disgruntled members must not be allowed to discourage the elders from their God-appointed task.

"Spiritual" Versus "Temporal"

Many times the argument is made that it is the place of elders to oversee the spiritual affairs of the church, and the place of deacons to oversee the temporal affairs. Where in the New Testament are deacons ever charged with the oversight of anything? Acts 6 usually comes up here as a supposed argument for "deacon oversight". But those men were "appointed over" (epi) a work assigned them, which they performed under the oversight of the apostles, who were then in charge of affairs in the Jerusalem church. Those seven men were not made overseers (episkopous).

We know that it was not long until the Jerusalem church had elders (presbuterous) who were the overseers (episkopous). (Acts 11:30; 15:2, 4, 6, 22, 23) When money was collected for relief of the brethren in Judea, that money was sent to the elders—not the deacons. Certainly the deacons have their work, which we haven't space to discuss here, but they are clearly not overseers as elders are; not even overseers of "temporal" things. They are to submit themselves, as all other members of the congregation should, to the oversight of the elders. The church is a spiritual institution; and every part of its work, whether we label it temporal or otherwise, has to do ultimately with spiritual things.

Preachers and deacons are not hirelings or "yes-men" for the elders. Each has his work assigned by the New Testament; and he should not be restrained in performing that work with all the earnestness and zeal of which he is capable. But it is to be done under the oversight of the elders. Neither the preacher nor the deacons can "take the oversight" of the congregation. That is the task God has assigned to the elders. "Let the elders that rule well be counted worthy of double honor, especially those who labor in the word and in teaching." (I Tim. 5:17)