Volume 13, Number 2, July-August 2009

Overseers in the New Testament

by Richard Heath

Recently, Servants News has run articles about government—civil government in particular. I would like to expand on that theme in this article, and look more particularly at church government (as it is sometimes called); specifically at the job title and description of  "bishop" as the King James Version has it.

"Bishop," or "overseer", as modern translation say, is a job filled by various individuals in the assemblies that we find in the New Testament portion of scripture. Quite honestly; "Bishop" is far too religious sounding, and so I will drop it from here on out. "Overseer" is much more accurate, as it describes what the person with this job does: he oversees things! Profound yet simple. Simply profound!

This writer utilizes the tetragrammaton (YHWH) to identify our heavenly Father, and Yahoshua as the spelling of our Savior's Name.

I was originally drawn by YHWH (John 6:44) into His assembly in 1975; with no knowledge of any Church of God groups, their magazines or their broadcasts. I was immediately convicted though, to begin observing both the weekly and annual Sabbaths. As there wasn't anywhere to meet (that I knew of at that time), I simply invited a fellow believer to come to my home on Saturdays for Bible study and research. Unbeknownst to me for decades, YHWH had thus not only called me, but He had also placed me in His assembly as the overseer of the home group that met in my abode—simply because it was now my job to have my place presentable and conducive to serve Him during that period of worship each week. (I don't believe I actually came to this understanding until I read about church government issues in the Servants' News some twenty years later!) I was not an "elder," as I was only 20 years old. So, it seems obvious to me, in retrospect, that being an "elder" is neither a prerequisite, nor synonymous with being an overseer of the assembly. (And please realize that an assembly can be as small as two believers studying together; per Matt.18:20)

Some time after my initial conversion, my friend and I found a local congregation of the Worldwide Church of God in upstate New York, and began attending with them. I was immersed (baptized) by the area elder, and spent the next approximately two decades blissfully unaware of Biblical government topics, except as they were portrayed in that church organization’s rather biased publications. This situation changed however, when I separated myself from that group and its offshoots. I became a member of another home fellowship, this time in Florida, and part of our early Sabbath studies centered on church spiritual gifts and positions: What are they, who's got them, and how are they to be understood?

Apparently, there are several ways to understand this job of "overseer", as it is utilized in the Bible. First; there were small, home fellowships meeting in private houses. In these instances the believing head of household would preside as overseer of the guest believers. The same thing is quite common in my own experience. While in Florida; our group was wont to meet at each others' homes each week. Thus; whoever's house we assembled in became "overseer" by default—whether the host individual happened to be a host or hostess!

Simple Definitions:

Elder: an older person appointed by the brethren, charged with responsibilities to them, such as anointing the sick (Jms 5:14).

Overseer: a person who oversees essential functions of local congregations.

A second, and more business-like option appears both in scripture and in life when an assembly outgrows the home setting, and begins to meet in a larger hall. At this point, an individual is appointed in some manner to oversee the meeting place. For instance; here at PABC, Norman Edwards is our overseer. He pays the bills (keeping the lights & heat on!), generally suggests a topic for study, and proclaims when we will be meeting (so that visitors can plan to come) among other things. None of these chores places him somehow in a superior position with either God or man, I'm certain. In both of these examples you will note that an overseer is a local position. In other words; I wouldn't usurp your position as host if I was a guest in your home for Sabbath services, neither would Norm aggrandize himself as the overseer if and when he visits another assembly or festival location.

Before I leave this point, it is worthy to mention Acts 20, where "overseers" and "elders" appear simultaneously. Some conclude therefore that these two terms might or even must be synonymous. (As I said earlier; I became an overseer almost before I became a believer! Let alone an elder!) The word "elder(s)" appears in v.17, and the word "overseer(s)" appears in v.28. However; the  "brethren" likewise appears in v. 32! Is it logical to conclude that all brethren are elders or overseers because they appear here too? I think not.

Paul is obviously talking to a group of brethren, some of which are elders or overseers, and he is addressing specific parts of his message to those subgroups. The elders were specifically called to be there in verse 17, and the verses that follow may be addressed primarily to them. Acts 20:25, though, is addressed to “you all” and obviously refers to all the brethren:

And indeed, now I know that you all, among whom I have gone preaching the kingdom of YHWH, will see my face no more.

It is not reasonable to say that only the elders would “see his face no more”, but the brethren would still see him. Finally, the overseers, mentioned in Acts 20:28 had the specific task “to shepherd the church of God which He purchased with His own blood.”

As a second witness; you can turn back to Acts 15:22, where Silas and Barsabbas are not mentioned as elders, but as "chief men among the brethren." (The elders are classed with the apostles at the beginning of this verse.) Now Silas was a close associate of Paul, and Barsabbas may be the fellow identified as a possible replacement for Judas Iscariot (in Acts 1:23), however neither is identified as anything more than "brethren!" Not too supportive of hierarchy, is it? 

There is however; a third description of an "Overseer" used in scripture. I capitalized the word because it identifies our Master and Savior, Yahoshua Messiah, as "the Shepherd and Bishop (i.e. Overseer) of your souls," in 1 Peter 2:25. In reality; whenever, and wherever we meet in His Name we place ourselves under His capable and guiding Hands. He is the One Who is truly "running the show!"

Interestingly; the apostle Peter not only mentions Yahoshua as our ultimate Overseer, but he also warns of certain individuals who will desire to usurp the legitimate overseer's position on the physical level. The King James language hides this fact, but you can read it plainly via any reference book. It is in 1 Peter 4:15:

But let none of you suffer as a murderer, or as a thief, or as an evildoer, or as a busybody in other men’s matters.”

If you wish to discuss this or any other Biblical topic, I can be reached at: Richard Heath, 8180 Port Drive, Port Austin, Michigan, 48467;  richardheath36@yahoo.com.

All of the boldface words above are rendered from one Greek word in Strong's Concordance: S.E.C. #244. This word literally means "overseeing others' affairs" or "a meddler!" This action was considered to be heinous enough to be listed alongside murder, thievery and other evils! In church history, it blossomed into the position of Pope, Presiding Elder, Pastor General, and numerous other titles!). For the job of overseer was never meant to be a church-wide position, but only a local job description—be it in a home setting or in an assembly hall.

Because of these considerations, I will state that I see no reason to narrow the criteria of being an overseer to only men, or only elders. That isn't to say that elders are not to be in the assembly or that they could not also serve as an over seer. No! it is only that the terms "elder" and "overseer" are not synonymous.

May YHWH bless and keep you, I pray.          &

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