Questions beget questions. 1 Timothy 3:1–7 gives us the qualifications for what the KJV terms “bishops.” What is a bishop? Modern translations help in well communicating the original meaning with the word “overseer.” What is an overseer? When was the last time you heard it clearly communicated who the overseers were in your church? When Paul lists the qualifications for elders in Titus he goes on to call them overseers. Overseers are elders. Does that help? What is an elder? An elder is a pastor. Overseer, elder, pastor—all are the same office.
Diabolically perhaps, many churches uses the least common terms in the Bible, and have abandoned the most common. As a result, the Scriptures sound foreign to us. There should be a ready, one-to-one correspondence when we read about overseers and elders such that we exclaim, “I know (experientially) that,” or “I should know that!” What should be domestic, is alien, and we are like sheep without a shepherd for it. Pastor (shepherd) is only used one time as a noun in Scripture to indicate this office (Ephesians 4:11), and even then, it isn’t a proper title but a metaphor. Elder and overseer, those are the titles (by the way, “minister” and “preacher” don’t officially count either). Shepherding is the chief metaphor, teaching, the essential job skill. That this is so is seen in the following passages (all emphasis are mine):
“Now from Miletus he [Paul] sent to Ephesus and called the elders of the church to come to him. …he said to them…‘Pay careful attention to yourselves and to all the flock [this be shepherding language], in which the Holy Spirit has made you overseers, to care for the church of God, which he obtained with his own blood (Acts 20:17–18, 28 ESV).’”
“So I exhort the elders among you, as a fellow elder and a witness of the sufferings of Christ, as well as a partaker in the glory that is going to be revealed: shepherd the flock of God that is among you, exercising oversight, not under compulsion, but willingly, as God would have you; not for shameful gain, but eagerly (1 Peter 1:5–7 ESV).”
Two things seem especially pertinent: 1. There are multiple elders in a singular church, 2. Overseers oversee souls.
The task of shepherding the flock isn’t to be done alone. Without exception, the pattern in the New Testament is that churches are to be shepherded by a plurality of elders. This was true of the church at Jerusalem (Acts 15:22), Ephesus (Acts 20:17), Philippi (Philippians 1:1) the churches in the towns of Crete (Titus 1:5), the churches that Peter wrote to (1 Peter 5:1), the churches that Paul planted (Acts 14:23), the churches that James wrote to (James 5:14). Shepherds are to look after their own souls as well as the flock’s. Shepherds need other shepherds to help look after the flock, but also to look after them. They need other overseers to oversee their souls for the sake of the flock’s souls.
Overseers oversee. They do not oversee the church as though she were an organization, a company, a business, a non-profit, a trust, or a charity. They oversee souls. Why did the early church esteem the office of overseer so that a “trustworthy saying” spread through the churches calling it a “noble task” (1 Timothy 3:1)? Why are they not esteemed so today? Because too many look at their leaders as professional managers, visionary CEOs, program developers, entertainers, charismatic personalities and dynamic communicators, whereas the early church knew their elders the way a sheep knows its shepherd. They knew their overseers’ feeding, leading, guarding, and knowing of their souls.
When you know this truth, you then read through the Scriptures and either know that you know (again experientially) this, or know that you should know this shepherding of your souls. And that leads to this final wowzer of a thought: as a regenerate church member, there is no bigger decision you make in the church, than who the elders of that church are, or, as a Christian, the biggest factor to consider when joining a church is who the elders are that you will entrust your soul to.