By Rev. Lance Filio
I grew up in the church without having any real experience of formal guidance from an office-bearer. Except the parenting of my own father and mother, and even more so by some older matured Christian who occasionally encouraged me along the way, I essentially learned how to independently take care of myself. I had to figure my way out and navigate this so-called Christian life with the wisdom and experience I gained as I move forward.
As a result, I made a lot of mistakes. When I accepted Christ “as my personal Lord and Savior”, I was encouraged to tread my own path and was given to ministry in spite of my young age. I had to mature myself, find hopefully the right path and at the same time lead others in worship and “ministry”. Blinded by my own zeal, I led others to peril by teaching unclear paths and out of ignorance, I fed them unsound doctrine. Often times, I will end up hurting myself and others but still, I continue thinking that this was the norm or standard of being called into the office of the “ministry”.
However, as I deepened my understanding of God’s Word, I realized how one leads and even more so how one submits to the leadership of the church were made clear by Scripture. God did not intend for us to simply figure it out by ourselves and let experience become our teacher. The Bible teaches us how leadership works in the church and the first important principle that I learned is this: not everyone was called into the special ministry of the church; Some would lead and others will follow; Some will provide the teaching and instruction and others will have to receive it and practice it; Some will feed while others will eat; Some will gladly offer help to others who are in need and some who are in need will humbly accept the help extended by others.
When I have come to accept this doctrine that God appoints the role of leadership to those whom he calls, I was immediately liberated from some of the unrealistic expectations I have set for myself and others. I have learned to trust God in his wisdom and waited patiently for his Providence as he continually builds up his church in every place and in every age.
We may have been taught the same thing. We experienced ministry as a burden of some sort or we entertained unbiblical models and methods of leadership in the church. We may need help to deepen our own understanding of God’s Word especially in the area of ecclesiology or the doctrine of the church. We need to understand the proper nature, qualifications, and work of those who oversee the church. Which is why this morning we will continue our study of Biblical Overseers and we will end our series with the clear teaching about the work of an overseer.
The office-bearers of the church are the undershepherds of Christ. They lead the church as Christ enables them. The church should be led by a group of local leaders. Christ governs his church directly through the ministry of these men. They are called to feed, to lead, to care for and protect the flock in the church.
This is our last sermon on this topic of Biblical Overseers. We will end the series by hearing the Word of God broken down into three major points: (1) Undershepherds of Christ; (2) Plurality of Eldership; (3) To Feed, Lead, Care and to Protect the Flock.
Undershepherds of Christ
The primary work of an overseer is to shepherd the flock of Christ. The pattern of leadership taught by Scripture is this: God shepherds his people. In the Old Testament as well as in the New, God is the good shepherd who leads his people to life.
In Ezekiel chapter 34, in which we will dwell heavily to draw out this in principle, God spoke against the tyranny and corruption of the leaders of Israel. He expressed his judgment against these people who were taking advantage of their position as leaders and as a result, the people of Israel were led into ruin.
“The word of the Lord came to me: “Son of man, prophesy against the shepherds of Israel; prophesy, and say to them, even to the shepherds, Thus says the Lord God: Ah, shepherds of Israel who have been feeding yourselves! Should not shepherds feed the sheep? You eat the fat, you clothe yourselves with the wool, you slaughter the fat ones, but you do not feed the sheep. The weak you have not strengthened, the sick you have not healed, the injured you have not bound up, the strayed you have not brought back, the lost you have not sought, and with force and harshness, you have ruled them. So they were scattered because there was no shepherd, and they became food for all the wild beasts. My sheep were scattered; they wandered over all the mountains and on every high hill. My sheep were scattered over all the face of the earth, with none to search or seek for them.” (verses 1-6)
It is clear in these passages that God disdain the work of leaders who do not lead. His judgment falls upon men who were given the task of ruling and yet allowed those under them to get scattered and slaughtered. He will punish those people who fail to lead because of their complacency and lack of compassion.
“Therefore, you shepherds, hear the word of the Lord: As I live, declares the Lord God, surely because my sheep have become a prey, and my sheep have become food for all the wild beasts, since there was no shepherd, and because my shepherds have not searched for my sheep, but the shepherds have fed themselves, and have not fed my sheep, therefore, you shepherds, hear the word of the Lord: Thus says the Lord God, Behold, I am against the shepherds, and I will require my sheep at their hand and put a stop to their feeding the sheep. No longer shall the shepherds feed themselves. I will rescue my sheep from their mouths, that they may not be food for them.” (verses 7-10)
The prophecy against these shepherd-leaders was given by God as a judgment but in his judgment against these wayward shepherds, God, in his mercy, promised to personally shepherd his sheep. God promised to rescue his own people by becoming their own personal shepherd.
“For thus says the Lord God: Behold, I, I myself will search for my sheep and will seek them out. As a shepherd seeks out his flock when he is among his sheep that have been scattered, so will I seek out my sheep, and I will rescue them from all places where they have been scattered on a day of clouds and thick darkness. And I will bring them out from the peoples and gather them from the countries and will bring them into their own land. And I will feed them on the mountains of Israel, by the ravines, and in all the inhabited places of the country. I will feed them with good pasture, and on the mountain heights of Israel shall be their grazing land. There they shall lie down in good grazing land, and on rich pasture, they shall feed on the mountains of Israel. I myself will be the shepherd of my sheep, and I myself will make them lie down, declares the Lord God. I will seek the lost, and I will bring back the strayed, and I will bind up the injured, and I will strengthen the weak, and the fat and the strong I will destroy. I will feed them in justice (verses 11-17)”.
God is the shepherd of his own people (Psalms 23) and Jesus himself demonstrated the heart of a shepherd when Matthew in his gospel account wrote:
“And Jesus went throughout all the cities and villages, teaching in their synagogues and proclaiming the gospel of the kingdom and healing every disease and every affliction. When he saw the crowds, he had compassion for them, because they were harassed and helpless, like sheep without a shepherd. Then he said to his disciples, “The harvest is plentiful, but the laborers are few; therefore pray earnestly to the Lord of the harvest to send out laborers into his harvest (Matthew 9:35-38).”
Jesus is the good shepherd promised by the Father who will rescue his people and send them laborers who will co-shepherd them with him. Let us hear the words of Christ as written by John in chapter 10 and compare this with Ezekiel 34:
The thief comes only to steal and kill and destroy. I came that they may have life and have it abundantly. I am the good shepherd. The good shepherd lays down his life for the sheep. He who is a hired hand and not a shepherd, who does not own the sheep, sees the wolf coming and leaves the sheep and flees, and the wolf snatches them and scatters them. He flees because he is a hired hand and cares nothing for the sheep. I am the good shepherd. I know my own and my own know me, just as the Father knows me and I know the Father; I lay down my life for the sheep. And I have other sheep that are not of this fold. I must bring them also, and they will listen to my voice. So there will be one flock, one shepherd (John 10:10-16)
Christ is our good shepherd. And while he directly rules his church by his Word and governs them through the Holy Spirit, he appointed men into the special office of an overseer as his laborers, or his harvesters (Matthew 9:38). And at the end of the gospel books, Christ gave a solemn charge to his disciples. In the Great Commission, which can be both found in Mark 16:15 and Matthew 28:18-20, He shared with them the work of God’s kingdom. Under the authority of the Shepherd-King, he called and enlisted men into service. Jesus sent them out to bring the gospel to all nations, to make disciples by the proper administration of the sacraments, and to discipline by teaching them everything he has commanded.
Therefore, consistent with the witness of God’s Word from the prophet Ezekiel, to the gospel writers Matthew and John and now we will read from Luke and the Epistles, we can clearly understand that it is God himself who shepherds his people and through the apostolic authority God bestowed his disciples, and they appointed elders and overseers as God’s undershepherds.
The apostle Paul himself gave this serious charge to the men who led the church in Ephesus, “Keep watch over yourselves and all the flock of which the Holy Spirit has made you overseers. Be shepherds of the church of God, which he bought with his own blood (Acts 20:28)”. At the same time with the apostle Peter who wrote to those churches scattered in Asia Minor, “To the elders among you, I appeal as a fellow elder and a witness of Christ’s sufferings who also will share in the glory to be revealed: Be shepherds of God’s flock that is under your care, watching over them—not because you must, but because you are willing, as God wants you to be; not pursuing dishonest gain, but eager to serve; (1 Peter 5:1-2)”. These are the apostolic charge that bears the authority of Christ and written in Scripture to bind the conscience of all Christians in every place and in every generation.
Again, God shepherds his people. He is the good shepherd who takes care of his own sheep. He does so by providing them men who will do the work of shepherding. They are not hirelings who do not care or lazy men who neglect the sheep but they are able men who were qualified to the tasks of leading his church.
But where are these men? What is the structure of their rule? Did God intend for the church to be ruled by a singular and hierarchical structure of leadership? Was the Bible clear about the teaching about the leadership practice in the church?
Plurality of Eldership
We were informed by the apostle John that there is only one shepherd of the one people of God (John 10:36) but how about his undershepherds? The work of leading God’s people is shared among qualified and appointed men by the church. While we are led by God himself as our Chief Shepherd, the leadership of the church was given to a group of men who leads locally in a specific geographical area. This is what Scripture plainly teach and we should labor to demonstrate this truth from Scripture.
The Bible gave us several structures of authority. Therefore, any student of Scripture should be able to discover them one by one and then make the proper assessment as to which type was consistently applied in the church both in the Old Testament as well as in the New. The structures of authority which we can identify from the Scripture are the family, the civil and religious authority, and eldership.
The family is the oldest institution compared to the rest of them. Way back in creation, God created both a man and a woman. God gave the man the authority over the woman while the woman was given to man in order to help with his task of ruling and protecting all of creation. This truth can be clearly drawn out from the creation account of Genesis 1 to 2. I believe any serious student of Scripture will be able to accept this conclusion that the authority within the structure of the family is demonstrated by the creation of the man and the woman and the task given to them by God.
But we all know this structure was completely reversed as the result of sin. When sin entered creation, temptation came from the serpent to the woman and then to man. The man blamed God for giving him the woman, the woman blamed the serpent but regardless, all of them received a curse from God. And yet the curse came with a promise, the woman was called to believe God and in the seed that a woman from her own family will eventually give birth to. At the same time, God called Adam to believe that his wife will be a blessing to him because, in her womb and the womb from each of her generation, the savior will eventually be born (read Genesis 3 to 4). Therefore, it was in Christ, the seed, that the authority structure of the family was restored. As Christ rules his church, as a husband to his wife, the family structure was preserved in the church. (Ephesians 5:22-32).
But in spite of its rescue, the structure of the authority of the man over his family was not the structure of government given to the church. We can see clearly from the testimony of Scripture that the church was composed of several families and individuals both men and women, young and old, slave and free. The outpouring of the Holy Spirit as promised by the prophet Joel fulfilled in Acts as written by Luke can confirm with us this reality. The structure of authority in the family, while important to establish the primacy of male leadership in the church, however, is not the basis of its governing structure.
How about the civil and religious authority structures of the Bible? We can find many leadership positions God used in the Old Testament. There are judges, priest, prophets, and rulers like kings and governors. They were anointed by God and was given a particular task to perform and by the grace of God, they were effective in each of their ministries. So is this the kind of government God gave his church? Are the civil and religious authorities given by God to govern his church in redemptive history?
Simply put, the anointed leadership of the Old Testament were only types and shadows that pointed to Christ as the mediator. Jesus is the final prophet, priest, and king who was the substance of all these anointed leaders and since the reality has come in the flesh, the New Testament church now comes under the sole authority of Christ. All civil and religious laws, as well as the authorities that came with it, was now fulfilled in Christ, therefore, any governing structure under this principle was now abolished. As what Jesus has said in Matthew 28:18b: “All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me.” Christ rules us spiritually in heaven. He gave us this promise: “And behold, I am with you always, to the end of the age (verse 20b)”.
This leads us then to our last type of structure which is the eldership. The eldership while not the oldest institution like the family and at the same time was not prominent during the rule of kings and priest, it was consistently present in the history of the Old Testament.
In Exodus 3:16, Moses was instructed by God to present himself to the elders of Israel, “Go and gather the elders of Israel together and say to them, ‘The Lord, the God of your fathers, the God of Abraham, of Isaac, and of Jacob, has appeared to me, saying, “I have observed you and what has been done to you in Egypt”. Furthermore, Jethro advised Moses to choose elders so they could help with the task of attending to the people’s needs. We can read this from Exodus 18:21: “Moreover, look for able men from all the people, men who fear God, who are trustworthy and hate a bribe, and place such men over the people as chiefs of thousands, of hundreds, of fifties, and of tens. And let them judge the people at all times. Every great matter they shall bring to you, but any small matter they shall decide themselves. So it will be easier for you, and they will bear the burden with you.”.
The selection of elders as able men who were rulers and judges of God’s people was not limited to Moses’ time but continued even during the time of Ezra prior to Jesus’ coming and clearly during the New Testament era. In Ezra 10, the elders were present during public assemblies: “While Ezra prayed and made confession, weeping and casting himself down before the house of God, a very great assembly of men, women, and children, gathered to him out of Israel, for the people wept bitterly. (verse 1)… And a proclamation was made throughout Judah and Jerusalem to all the returned exiles that they should assemble at Jerusalem, and that if anyone did not come within three days, by order of the officials and the elders all his property should be forfeited, and he himself banned from the congregation of the exiles. (verses 7-8)”. And even in a negative sense because these men were part of the group who decided to execute the Messiah, elders of the people were present during the time of Jesus. In Matthew 26:3 it was written: “Then the chief priests and the elders of the people gathered in the palace of the high priest, whose name was Caiaphas, and plotted together in order to arrest Jesus by stealth and kill him”.
So can we say by extension that the elders of the Old Testament system were the same governing structure that was applied in the New Testament?
No, the line of Jewish eldership from the Old Testament was discontinued when Jesus chose for himself twelve men who will rule in his kingdom. These disciples became the apostle of Christ’s church who then governed the church not by apostolic succession but by the authority of God’s Word. And through the wisdom of the Holy Spirit (Acts 20:28), He inspired these men to continue the governing structure of Christian eldership in the church.
The plurality of elders in the church can be plainly demonstrated in Scripture. By simply following several passages from Paul, we can conclude this type of eldership was the divinely appointed structure of government in the New Testament given by Christ. His instructions were clear:
“Paul and Barnabas appointed elders for them in each church and, with prayer and fasting, committed them to the Lord, in whom they had put their trust. (Acts 14:3).”
“This is why I left you in Crete so that you might put what remained into order, and appoint elders in every town as I directed you (Titus 1:6)”
There were several important exegetical points that we can gather from these verses but one thing is clear: The apostles appointed the task of overseeing the church to the elders (plural) in every church or every town (singular). The proper ordering of a church requires a group of overseers selected to govern over a specific local assembly.
James as well Peter gave the same instruction in their own writings which I think will further labor this point. James wrote in chapter 5 of his letter, “Is anyone among you sick? Let him call for the elders of the church, and let them pray over him, anointing him with oil in the name of the Lord (verse 14)”. Again the word “elders” was plural and the word church was singular. At the same time, Peter wrote in 1 Peter 5:1 “To the elders among you…”. The word “elders” was plural and this letter was addressed to every church scattered in Asia Minor (1 Peter 1:1-2).
In summary, the structure of leadership given to the church until our time was a plurality of eldership. The church should be governed by a group of overseers present locally in the gathered assembly of God’s people. This is how Christ structured his church that he provided to us by His Word.
To Feed, Lead, Care and Protect the Flock
So far we have labored to point out that the work of shepherding is the primary task of an overseer. This task was given to a group of appointed men who will shepherd God’s flock in a specific local assembly of believers. And as our last point, let us inquire now the duties of God’s undershepherds. We can list them generally in three ways. The loving work of an overseer is first, to feed the flock; second, to lead the congregation; and third, to care for and protect God’s people.
The distinct role of the overseer in the ministry of God’s church is to feed the flock. In Act 6, it was pointed out that these men who will lead the congregation, while also capable of ministering to the physical needs of God’s people, was to be specifically given to prayer and preaching the Word of God: “And the twelve summoned the full number of the disciples and said, “It is not right that we should give up preaching the word of God to serve tables. Therefore, brothers, pick out from among you seven men of good repute, full of the Spirit and of wisdom, whom we will appoint to this duty. But we will devote ourselves to prayer and to the ministry of the word (verses 2-4).” Praying for the sick like what we’ve read in James 5 was one of the tasks of the elders. At the same time, the elders who preach and teach we’re to be given double honor according to Paul when he wrote in 1 Timothy 5:17, “Let the elders who rule well be considered worthy of double honor, especially those who labor in preaching and teaching.”
To whom in our church was this task specifically given? We believe, as a reformed church, that this task was specifically given to the ministers of the church. We are persuaded that aside from a category called elders were appointed overseers of the church, the minister or the pastor requires a distinction. An overseer who rules or given to the ministry of order is distinguished from the minister who preaches or given to the ministry of the Word. In Ephesians 4, Paul made such distinctions between the extraordinary offices of the apostles with the ordinary office of pastors and teachers, “So Christ himself gave the apostles, the prophets, the evangelists, the pastors and teachers, to equip his people for works of service, so that the body of Christ may be built up (verses 11-12)”. The ministers, like Timothy, was given the solemn charge to preach, “I charge you in the presence of God and of Christ Jesus, who is to judge the living and the dead, and by his appearing and his kingdom: preach the word; be ready in season and out of season; reprove, rebuke, and exhort, with complete patience and teaching (2 Tim 4:1-2)”. Given such sober reminder, I am fully persuaded that the primary duty of an overseer is to make sure the people of God will be fed properly with the Word of God until Christ’s second coming.
The second role of an overseer is to lead the congregation. An overseer is called to lead his church in prayer and in worship. He should set a good example of faith and practice. We can find in Hebrews 13:7, the Word of God says, “Remember your leaders, those who spoke to you the word of God. Consider the outcome of their way of life, and imitate their faith.” At the same time, we can remember from 1 Peter 5 that the overseers are “being examples to the flock (verse 3b).” And as managers of God’s house, they are also called to rule well and properly order the affairs of the church (1 Tim 3:4-5). As appointed leaders of the church, they were given the task to preside over the matters of doctrine and life of his congregation. Like the general assembly called by the apostles and elders in Acts 15, they were to be an arbiter between God’s people, “Certain people came down from Judea to Antioch and were teaching the believers: “Unless you are circumcised, according to the custom taught by Moses, you cannot be saved.” This brought Paul and Barnabas into sharp dispute and debate with them. So Paul and Barnabas were appointed, along with some other believers, to go up to Jerusalem to see the apostles and elders about this question (verse 1-2)”
To whom was this task specifically given? We, in the reformed church, believe that both the ministers and elders were to lead the church as a consistory. A consistory is the governing body of the local church and it is the only continuing assembly of a church. They were given the role of leading the church and attending to its spiritual and material needs.
Lastly, the role of an overseer is to care for and protect God’s people. This is the reason why any leader of the church must love his congregation that he is willing to give his life for them. To care for the needs of God’s church means to sacrificially offer his own life in order to build them up in the faith. At the same time, they were also called to train themselves in doctrine in order to protect the flock from false teachers who teach false doctrines. Paul wrote his solemn warning to the elders in Ephesus:
I know that after my departure fierce wolves will come in among you, not sparing the flock; and from among your own selves will arise men speaking twisted things, to draw away the disciples after them. Therefore be alert, remembering that for three years I did not cease night or day to admonish every one with tears. (Acts 20:29-31)
In the same way, Paul warned Timothy against false teachers:
But understand this, that in the last days there will come times of difficulty. For people will be lovers of self, lovers of money, proud, arrogant, abusive, disobedient to their parents, ungrateful, unholy, heartless, unappeasable, slanderous, without self-control, brutal, not loving good, treacherous, reckless, swollen with conceit, lovers of pleasure rather than lovers of God, having the appearance of godliness, but denying its power. Avoid such people. For among them are those who creep into households and capture weak women, burdened with sins and led astray by various passions, always learning and never able to arrive at a knowledge of the truth. 8 Just as Jannes and Jambres opposed Moses, so these men also oppose the truth, men corrupted in mind and disqualified regarding the faith. But they will not get very far, for their folly will be plain to all, as was that of those two men (2 Tim 3:1-9)
Again who were called to the specific task of caring for and protecting the flock? As a reformed church, we include the deacons as part of those who attend to the physical needs of the congregation. They were the ones who were called to care for the church in any of their material and physical needs. However, such task was also given to the overseers in a way that they too care for the needs of every member not only the materials needs but more importantly the spiritual needs of the church. This is the clear mandate we’ve read in Acts 6 were the special office of the deacon was first mentioned. Again, we make the distinction in the offices by saying the ministers do everything that the elders and deacons do and yet so much more; and the elders do everything that the deacons do and yet so much more.
Repeating what I have said as a summary of this last point, the work of an overseer is to feed, to lead and to care for and protect the flock.
I think it would be fair to conclude, given the number of passage we’ve examined, that Scripture was clear about the work and the role of an overseer in the church. The leadership of God’s church can be discerned from various passages we have just read and summarized. Yet in spite of such plain and clear teaching how come not all churches follow it or even accept this biblical instruction?
A friend asked me a similar question and I gave him three specific reasons why I think many churches still practice and exercise unbiblical leadership. First, I said it can be because of ignorance. Many people nowadays who were given the responsibility to lead the church were not properly trained to do so. And while I think no one should be excused for any lack of knowledge, I will concede to the idea that such condition is forgivable since it is curable. Ignorance can be remedied. Second, I think even with the clear teaching from Scripture, they were those who chosen to compromise. I can never personally tolerate any compromise. I think it is intellectually dishonest to do so and compromise shows a lack of integrity. However, I will concede again to the idea that sometimes, a special type of courage is required in order to stand up for the truth. Not everyone can do that so a lot of people tend to compromise when it comes to the clear teaching of leadership in the church. Finally, the reason can be outright disobedience. They know the truth and yet they blatantly oppose it and promote the overturning of God’s truth in order to accommodate the whim of ungodly people. This I believe is unforgivable and inexcusable. I pray and hope that no one here will eventually come to such a position.
ZCRC(Imus), we have completed our study of the nature, qualifications, and work of an overseer. I am praying that God will continue to raise godly men who will lead his church. I pray that he will provide us with strong and gentle men who will govern his church. Let us continue to pray for God’s providence and May the Lord bless his people. Amen.