The word "overseer" (Gk. episkopos [ἐπίσκοπος]) is used a limited number of times in the New Testament, but it has significant implications for a proper understanding of leadership in the church.
The noun episkopos [ἐπίσκοπος] appears five times in the New Testament and means overseer, guardian, bishop. It is used in reference to Jesus Christ in 1 Peter 2:25 and in other places of individuals who have a function of leadership in the church (Acts 20:28; Php 1:1; 1 Tim 3:2; Titus 1:7). The verb episkopeo [ἐπισκοπέω] appears in 1 Peter 5:2 and means to take care of, to oversee, or to care for. Episkope [ἐπισκοπή] appears in 1 Timothy 3:1 and refers to the position or office of overseer or bishop. It seems clear that a plurality of overseers (elders) was the New Testament model, though flexibility apparently existed as to structure. It is quite likely that one overseer or elder would have primary leadership as the pastor among the other elders in the local church, such as James in the church at Jerusalem (cf. Acts 15:13-21). The office itself is restricted to men. As men are called to be the spiritual leaders in the home, so they are to be the spiritual leaders in the church (cf. 1 Cor 11:2-16; Eph 5:21-33; 1 Tim 2:9-3:7).
The first responsibility God has given the overseer is to watch over the flock. Acts 20:28a states, "Keep watch over yourselves and all the flock of which the Holy Spirit has made you overseers"; and Hebrews 13:17b says, "They keep watch over you." The idea is one of spiritual alertness, being on watch, being ready. Overseers watch for the souls of those entrusted to them in the Lord. They know that to protect them, constant attention is necessary.
A second responsibility of the overseer is to shepherd the flock of God as instructed in 1 Peter 5:2. To shepherd carries the idea of tending, caring for, feeding, protecting, and leading. All these tasks are involved in the overseer's service of ministry to the spiritual flock of God. Responsibility is not a compulsion but something that the overseer has entered into willingly.
In Acts 20:27-30 overseers are told to shepherd the flock of God, by declaring the whole counsel of the Word of God (v. 27). The reason is because there will arise false teachers who will seek to lead many astray (vv. 29-30). The importance of shepherding is revealed by Paul in 1 Thessalonians 5:14-15, when he instructs leaders to confront personally those who are idle, timid, or weak.
First Peter 5:2d-3 also addresses the issue of attitude and motivation of the overseer when it commands spiritual leaders to be "eager to serve; not lording it over those entrusted to you, but being examples to the flock." "Eager" carries the idea of ready and willing. The point is that the overseer should be quick to serve but careful to curb the desire to rule in an autocratic or dictatorial manner. There is always the temptation to abuse authority. The key is to maintain balance in this area of the ministry. The overseer clearly is to direct, lead, guide, even rule (Heb 13:7,17). However, his model is the Lord Jesus; therefore he is a shepherd leader, a servant leader who sets a humble example for the flock to follow. If the people are to see the pastor as a ruler (or leader), the pastor is to view himself as a servant. Trouble begins when one or both reverse those role assignments. A pastor who exalts himself as ruler is an unbearable tyrant; a flock that views its shepherd as its slave is destined for spiritual disaster.
It is important to consider the relationship among the overseer or bishop (episkopos [ἐπίσκοπος]), the pastor (poimen [ποιμήν]), and the elder (presbuteros [πρεσβύτερος]). Scholars are virtually unanimous that in the early church the presbuteros [πρεσβύτερος] and the episkopos [ἐπίσκοπος] were one and the same. Indeed, there is no clear evidence for a monarchical episcopate being firmly established until the early decades of the second century.
There are solid biblical reasons to justify the assertion that overseer and elder refer to the same person. In Acts 20:17, 28 Paul addresses the same group of men in the same speech as both elders and bishops or overseers as he reminds them of their work of shepherding. In 1 Peter 5:1-2 Peter calls himself an elder and instructs the elders to oversee the flock. In Titus 1:6-7 the same group is called both elders and overseers.
In writing to a local congregation, the church at Philippi, Paul addresses himself to the bishops or overseers (1:1). It is inconceivable that Paul would have sent no greetings at all to the elders, who were in every church. The bishops and the elders must be one and the same body of individuals.
Finally, the qualifications for the overseers in 1 Timothy 3:1-7 and the elder in Titus 1:5-9 are basically identical. Episkopos [ἐπίσκοπος] and poimen [ποιμήν] clearly refer to the function of the office, while presbuteros [πρεσβύτερος] emphasizes the character of spiritually mature men of God. It was a term of respect and esteem the early church employed to describe its pastoral leaders, even though they were, on occasion, very young.
The qualifications the Bible gives for the overseer strongly emphasize character in all aspects of life, both personal and public. Most of the qualifications are self-explanatory, and they are listed in 1 Timothy 3:2-7 and Titus 1:6-9. That the overseer must be above reproach appears to be an overriding qualification, expressing the idea that the overseer should demonstrate integrity in every area Paul mentions. His life and reputation are of such a nature that he is not open to attack or censure. No fault can be found in him that would disqualify him from office or open him to discipline by the body (cf. 1 Tim 5:19-20).
The overseer is to be above reproach in his personal life. He must be temperate, self-controlled, respectable, hospitable, upright, holy, disciplined, loves what is good, not given to drunkenness, not violent but gentle, not quarrelsome, not overbearing, not quick-tempered, and not a lover of money.
He must also be above reproach in his family life. He is to be the husband of but one wife (lit. "a one woman kind of man"), manage his own family well, and see that his children obey him with proper respect. Being the husband of but one wife is widely debated, but the idea of fidelity to one's wife is certainly the underlying principle.
The overseer must be above reproach in his public life. He must not be a recent convert, and for good reason: he may become conceited and fall under the same judgment as the devil. Also, he must have a good reputation with outsiders, so that he will not fall into disgrace and into the devil's trap.
Finally, the overseer must be above reproach in his professional life. He must be able to teach and hold firm to the message so that he can encourage others by sound doctrine and refute those who oppose it.
The authority of accountability of the overseer is summarized in Hebrews 13:17. The duty of the congregation is twofold: they must obey and submit. Three motivations are given for obedience and submission to the leadership. First, they watch over the people. The imagery is possibly that of the leaders keeping awake at nights in their concern for God's people. Second, they will give an account to God for their oversight of the flock (his flock cf. 1 Peter 5:2). God has placed them in this position and therefore they will answer to him. The final motivation is that they may serve with joy and not grief. If there is a lack of obedience, it is of no advantage to the church. Hebrews 13:17 is a somber reminder that the welfare of the community is intimately related to the quality of the people's response to their leaders.
The office of the bishop or overseer is both a great privilege and an awesome responsibility. The pastor/elder/overseer is to shepherd, direct, teach, and protect the flock of God entrusted to him with integrity and humility, looking to the Lord Jesus as the model for ministry.
Daniel L. Akin
See alo Church, the; Elder; Leadership.
Bibliography. H. W. Beyer, TDNT, 2:608-22; L. Coenen, NIDNTT, 1:188-201; D. Deer, Biblical Translator30 (1979): 438-41; G. Knight, Presbyterion11 (1985): 1-12; G. E. Ladd, A Theology of the New Testament; T. Rohde, Exegetical Dictionary of the New Testament, 2:35; P. Toon, EDT, pp. 157-58; R. S. Wallace, EDT, pp. 346-48.