Overseer, A Word Study

Ok, so maybe the picture on the left isn’t quite what Paul had in mind when he used this last major word to describe the pastor, but maybe in the humor there is a pinch of truth somewhere. The word is “overseer,” or in Greek, episkopos. It is used five times in the NT (Acts 20:28; Phil. 1:1; 1 Tim. 3:2; Tit. 1:7; 1 Pet. 2:25). Including the very closely associated words episkope (used four times, Luke 19:44; Acts 1:20; 1 Tim. 3:1; 1 Pet. 2:12, meaning “office of overseer” or “visitation in judgment”) and episkopeo (Heb. 12:15; 1 Pet. 5:2, meaning “to oversee” or “to watch over”), the words occur a total of eleven times in the NT.

The basic concept is to watch over something. It was used in various ways in classical Greek and in the Greek translation of the OT. The gods were called overseers, meaning that they watched over all of mankind. At times, the purpose of this watching was to render judgment (in that sense, they were “witnesses”), and in others, the idea was one of protection. God in the OT is called an overseer in the same way. Humans were called overseers, sometimes as guardians and sometimes as witnesses. An added meaning in the human realm was “supervisor,” as sometimes over construction jobs or even cultic activity.

An episkopos, then, was basically a person who watched over others to see that things remained in order.

This meaning is carried over into the NT usage of the word. The overseers’ basic function is best described in Acts 20:28, “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” (NIV). It is especially important to note that this was addressed to the “elders of the [Ephesian] church” (20:17). In this passage, then, we have the absolute equation of the terms “elder,” “overseer,” and “pastor.”  Certain men in the church were elders by status and overseers by pastoral function. That is, because of their spiritual depth and good reputations, they were honored to take the responsibility of watching over, tending, and feeding the church, God’s flock.

There is no biblical basis for a distinction between overseers (“bishops”) and elders, so we reject an Episcopal form of church government. That distinction arose in the second century, largely in response to widespread heresies about the nature of Christ. The overseers were considered the guardians of the apostolic tradition. Whether or not that was needed then is a matter of debate. Today, however, we have the complete cannon of the New Testament, which embodies that tradition. Overseers are to guard that tradition only in the sense that they are to guard against false doctrine, which is an obvious aspect of their role as shepherds (pastors).

From all we have seen, it appears the beginning point of human church governance begins with a body of men called overseers. As men of deep spiritual maturity, they are the elders of that body, and given their maturity, they serve as shepherds to guide God’s church. There seems to be no place for a single man carrying the office of “pastor” who acts as CEO of First Church, Inc. Likewise, there does not seem to be a place for a board of business men who governs the financial affairs of the church and leaves the teaching and discipleship to “the pastor” and his staff. Paul seems to have envisioned a group of deeply committed, morally pure, spiritually mature men who would serve to help God’s people grow, both individually and corporately.

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