Words matter. To ever understand the Bible I must learn to use words as they are used in the Bible if I’m going to come to the understanding that is correct. Too often we give words and ideas our own definition and then take the Bible to be teaching something that never was intended by God.
In the New Testament God took some common words out of the daily language of the people in Palestine and gave them applications and spiritual meanings that had not been characteristic of the words before. Three words are used interchangeably and apply to the same group of men in the New Testament. These words are “elders”, “shepherds”, and “overseers”. In Acts 20:28 Paul was meeting with the elders from the church in Ephesus when he said, “Be on guard for yourselves and for all the flock, among which the Holy Spirit has made you overseers, to shepherd the church of God which He purchased with His own blood.” Notice that they are referred to as elders back in verse 17. It isn’t three different groups of people or three different jobs that are being referred to but three aspects of the work of the same men.
The word “Elders” simply means to be older. It is often used to talk about older people generally in such places as I Timothy 5:1-2. It does indicate that those who do this work are to be older men who are mature in the faith. In I Timothy 3 Paul said that one chosen for the office of an elder were to not be new converts who would become proud and might fall in the same way Satan did. But this word had to do with more than simply being older men, mature in their faith. It was the word used for “elders” in a city or “elders” of the synagogue. It refers to the leaders of either place. It is the same concept as an alderman or councilmen for a town or city. This word indicates that the men who serve as elders are men who make decisions about the direction of the church they are overseeing. In I Timothy 5:17 it says that the elders who lead well are to be counted worthy of double honor, especially those who work at preaching and teaching. Such men were to be ordained or set apart in every church and in every city (Acts 14:23; Titus 1:5).
The second word used of the same men is the word “overseer”. In I Peter 5:1-4 Peter encouraged the elders of his day by saying, “Therefore, I exhort the elders among you, as your fellow elder and witness of the sufferings of Christ, and a partaker also of the glory that is to be revealed, shepherd the flock of God among you, exercising oversight not under compulsion, but voluntarily according to the will of God; and not for sordid gain, but with eagerness; nor yet as lording it over those allotted to your charge, but proving to be examples to the flock. And when the Chief Shepherd appears, you will receive the unfading crown of glory.” Notice the charge to exercise oversight. Tons of people, especially preachers in our day are saying that it isn’t the job of the elders to make decisions or to plan the work of the congregation but to shepherd the people.
The idea that being a shepherd excludes one making decisions for the body is a gross misunderstanding. Did you notice that Jesus is called the Chief Shepherd who will come again. If being a shepherd meant one couldn’t be a decision maker it would mean that Jesus as chief shepherd wouldn’t be able to determine the work and goal of the church over which he is head.
Taking the oversight means that the shepherds, elders are to be men who are looking after the people, helping them to grow all along and warning them of problems that may come their way. When elders only watch the abc’s of a church (attendance, buildings and contributions) they aren’t doing the job of overseeing as they should.
The word “shepherd” is the same word translated “pastor”. In Ephesians 4:11-16 Paul said that Christ ascended on high and gave gifts unto men and he gave some to be apostles, some prophets, some evangelist and some pastors and teachers for the equiping of the saints for the work of ministry for the building up of the body of Christ. As shepherds these men are to work alongside the evangelists and teachers to equip every member of the body to become a servant, a minister so the body as a whole can be built up.
Shepherds are men who when they have a hundred sheep and one wanders away and becomes lost, they will leave the 99 and go searching for the one that is lost until they have found it and have brought it back safely.
It is a huge temptation for men who serve as elders, shepherds and overseers to get caught up in one aspect of the work they are called upon to do to the exclusion of the other parts of the work. Some even take the notion that some of the men in this position should be shepherds but then allow others to be overseers and elders or decision makers. Most of the time I hear people saying that staff should be left to make the decisions while the elders can do the shepherding.
I don’t see that concept taught in Scripture at all. The closest point is that elders and evangelist work side by side to help every member be a minister. As preachers we need to go back and reread Acts 6:1-7 when the church was growing and the Greek speaking widows felt neglected in the daily distribution of food and began to complain. The apostles called the whole church together and said, it wouldn’t be right for the apostles to leave the word of God and prayer to serve tables. They said the people needed to choose seven men from among them who were full of the Holy Spirit and faith who could be appointed over that business so they could give themselves to the ministry of the word and prayer.
It is no more right for shepherds to become so involved in making business decisions that they don’t have the time or energy to shepherd the flock than it is for preachers or evangelist to leave their work of preaching and teaching the word of God to become administrators in the church. It is no wonder we have so many preachers who show they have spent very little time in the study of the word of God and very little more in prayer to God.
In I Timothy 3:5-6 Paul points out that if one isn’t a good manager or steward at home how can he be a good manager of the church of God? Every job given by God to his people in the church, is a stewardship. The husband is a steward or manager at home and will be judged by how he leads there. The evangelist is a steward or manager of the preaching and teaching of the word of God. He should be a man of prayer and faith that helps people know God’s will for their life. The elder is a steward of the church, who oversees the direction and work of the church. The teacher is a steward of their teaching and of the people in the class. We aren’t just people who pass out information. We are leading people from earth to heaven, from infancy spiritually to maturity in the faith.
God’s stewards can’t pick one aspect of their work and ignore the rest. They must be faithful to all the work God calls on one to fulfill. The work is performed as an example of what we want others to become. It is done through diligent prayer to the Father. It is done by constant search of the word of God to know His will instead of our own.
We are partners with God in the greatest work imaginable. Of course we aren’t adequate for such a work. Our adequacy comes from the Spirit of God, not our own talents or manipulations.