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The term overseer implies a misleading nuance in American English… but it’s still the best word to use. The Greek word that overseer is translated from is epi-scopos, which literally means on-looker (not as a person who is ‘over’ anyone).
So the term doesn’t imply a higher position, but that of a caretaker.
That Christian overseers should not view themselves as being ‘over’ or ‘higher than’ the congregation is specifically warned against by Jesus, who said (as recorded at Matthew 23:10, 11):
‘Nor should you be called leaders, for you have but one Leader, the Anointed One. However, the greatest among you must be your servant.’
We can clearly see that the position of overseer was never meant to be one of domination over others from the words of Peter. For he wrote (at 1 Peter 5:3):
‘Don’t [set yourselves up as] rulers over those that have been entrusted to your care, but become examples to the flock.’
A synonym that is used almost interchangeably in the Bible for ‘overseer’ is ‘elder’ (presbyterios – older man). And from this we learn that Christian elders may have always been males, and their job was to shepherd and teach the congregation. Another more modern English word for overseer is bishop, which is a corruption of the Greek word episcopos.
Each of the early Christian congregations may have had many older men that took the lead, taught, and watched over the flock. But the Scriptures show that to be given such a designation, they had to meet high standards of conduct and reputation. Also, though Paul doesn’t mention this specifically in his list of qualifications, we know that elders had to be people that could make wise decisions and showed signs of having God’s Breath, since this was the first qualification of all Servants in the Christian Congregation. We can see this from the words at Acts 6:3 (where the first ‘servants’ were appointed), which says:
‘So brothers; Find seven qualified men among you that are filled with wisdom and the Breath [of God].’
But, shouldn’t a person that may not be known as wise eventually be appointed an overseer just because of his years of faithful service? If you read the Proverbs, you’ll repeatedly see the need to appoint just those that have proven themselves to be wise judges and councilors. Solomon wrote (at Proverbs 22:29):
‘An observant man that is sharp in his ways Will also stand beside kings… He won’t stand beside the dull witted.’
Notice the list of qualifications that Paul gave Timothy to look for in a man before appointing him to serve as an elder in the Christian Congregation, as recorded at 1 Timothy 3:2-7. He said that the candidate must be someone who…
- Has not been charged [with misconduct] (gr. anepilepton)
- Is a one-woman man (gr. mias one gynaikos woman aner man)
- Is moderate in his habits
- Is sensible (wise)
- Is friendly to strangers (hospitable)
- Is a (qualified) teacher
- Is not a drunk
- Isn’t headstrong
- Isn’t quarrelsome
- Isn’t a greedy person
- Is someone that takes the lead in his family
- Has children that obey him seriously
- Isn’t a newly converted man
- Is someone that is well spoken of by those outside the congregation.
And thereafter, such a person should follow the course that was set out by Peter, who wrote at 1 Peter 5:1-4:
‘I encourage the elders among you (my fellow elders and witnesses of the sufferings of the Anointed One who will share in the glory that’s soon to be revealed) to shepherd the flock of God that has been entrusted to you.
Don’t do this because you have to, but because you want to!
Don’t do it to make a lot of money, but because you want to help!
And don’t [set yourselves up as] rulers over those that have been entrusted to your care, but become examples to the flock. Then when the Chief Shepherd is revealed, you will walk away with the enduring garland of glory!’