Devoted to the Propagation and Defense of New Testament Christianity
April 12, 1951

Oversight: Scriptural And Otherwise

Richard Donley, Peoria, Illinois

"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) "The elders which are among you I exhort, who am also an elder, and a witness of the suffering of Christ, and also a partaker of the glory that shall be revealed: feed the flock of God which is among you, taking the oversight thereof." (I Peter 5:1-2) These two passages state clearly, and accurately, God's provision for the oversight of churches. The Holy Spirit has made the elders in each church the overseers thereof. That is not a matter of interpretation: it is plain Bible fact. God has not provided for any substitute plan of oversight. He has not ordained that the affairs of the churches should be directed by majority rule. He has not ordained that the churches be ruled by preachers. He has not ordained that the churches should elect an official board to govern themselves. He HAS ordained that the elders should oversee the flock.

God has ordained that the elders oversee. That cannot be denied by any believer of the Bible. It is a deplorable thing when members of the Lord's church forget it, yet that is being done in many places today. It is equally bad when elders do not recognize the limits that God has placed on their oversight. That God has defined the limits of the oversight of elders is incontestable. They are to take the oversight of "The flock which is among you." "Among" is defined "in the midst of; surrounded by; in the group with." (The New Winston Dictionary) It may seem that it is not necessary to define such a common word as "among," but if some of our good brethren know what it means, they are being very careless about its limitations.

I believe that in churches of Christ it is commonly agreed that the commission to do a thing authorized only the doing of the thing specified. Upon that premise we insist that instrumental music is forbidden in the worship of God. Upon the same premise, I insist that when the Holy Spirit specified the ones to be overseen by the elders He excluded everyone not included in the specification. Along with this fact, I submit that there is not one New Testament example of elders exercising oversight over any person not included in the term "Flock which is among them." If there be any such example, will someone produce it? It cannot be produced, for there is no such thing. The New Testament churches were free under Christ. He was their only head; and other than their mutual faith in Him there was no organization other than that of the local churches. The autonomy of the local church was absolute.

In our efforts to restore the New Testament church in our day, we often overlook simple things, until they are called to our attention by someone. I personally am indebted to the writers of the Gospel Guardian, especially brethren Tant and Cogdill, for causing me to give closer study to the subject of church organization. I am grateful to Yater and Roy, but I think that they need to restudy the subject too. In their fight against "Centralized Oversight" they are not getting to the root of the trouble. The thing that needs to be taught is that there is no such thing as scriptural oversight by remote control. Once it is understood that the oversight exercised by elders is limited by the Bible to the congregation in which the elders worship "centralized oversight" will become a dead issue. There can be no "centralized oversight" as long as elders recognize the limits that God has set.

The real issue is, does a group of elders in one church have a scriptural right to oversee any part of the work of another church? The Bible answers that question with a definite, no. When a preacher leaves his home congregation for a distant field of labor he leaves the oversight of the elders in that congregation. When a preacher goes into a new field of labor, and succeeds in planting a congregation of Christians, the new congregation is not under the oversight of any elders, until such a time as elders are ordained from among the members of the new congregation. Will any man claiming to follow the New Testament deny that these things are true? Surely not. But if they be true, then there is no room for churches to oversee churches, preachers, and institutions, in foreign lands; and solicit the support of Christians all over the United States to support their project. Once it is accepted that the oversight of elders is limited to the local congregation, "centralized oversight" is a dead issue.

I am painfully aware that the principles for which I am contending now are not in harmony with some of the things that I have taught in the past. I am sorry for the mistakes made, and pray God to forgive me for making them. I also pray that God will ever withhold me from being too stubborn to change my teaching on any issue, when I learn that I am wrong. I once thought that every evangelist going into a new field ought to be under the oversight of some group of elders. I learned a long time ago that that idea was unscriptural, silly and wrong. What I learned I admitted. I am now fully convinced that it is equally unscriptural for a group of elders to attempt to oversee the labors of any preacher who is not among their flock. What I have learned on this I am teaching.

If the teaching of the scriptures on oversight were to be accepted it would require considerable change in the practice of many churches. It would not stop churches from supporting the preaching of the gospel in new fields, but there are some things it would stop. It would stop churches from hiring experienced preachers to preach to the home church, and hiring inexperienced boys to go out and do the "missionary work."

When a church supports a preacher in a new field, they do have responsibility as to the man supported. They cannot oversee him, but they can know the kind of work he has been doing. If he is such a one as to need oversight, he ought to be kept at home in the first place. When a church is supporting a preacher away from home, the elders have an obligation to keep themselves informed as to the kind of preaching done. If the preacher concerned ceases to preach sound doctrine, and to live accordingly; the support ought to be stopped, and the reason for so doing published.

I have been greatly encouraged to read statements from various preachers that indicate that others have already reached the same conclusions that I am here advocating, and for that I am thankful. Perhaps most of the churches can be persuaded to remain within the simplicity of New Testament Christianity.