The Desire for and Qualifications of an Overseer – Part 1
Originally published on October 2, 2014
As I began to put my thoughts down on “paper” (I don’t actually use paper, I jot everything down in a Word document and then fill in the blanks) it soon became apparent that the nature of this topic would be too unwieldy to limit to a single article. Therefore I have decided to address this topic in two parts.
I was inspired to write this article after viewing Paul and Susan’s latest edition of Gnostic Watch Weekly (9/26/2014). At the end of the video, Susan made reference to the qualification of an elder found in 1 Timothy 3, and used that in contrast to the alleged qualifications that reformed bloggers feel one should have in order to be qualified to post a comment on their blogs. I wanted to expand on each one of those qualifications of an elder in detail. But before I do that, I think it is necessary to first make sure we have an understanding of what an elder is. And before we do that, we first need to discuss the definition of an “overseer”.
What is an “Overseer”?
The word translated as “bishop” in the King James comes from the Greek verb επισκεπτομαι (ep-ee-skep-toh-my). It is made up of the words “epi”, meaning “over”, and “skopos”, meaning to peer about or referring to a watch or sentry or lookout. Taken together, we get the idea of “over-seer”. The word “supervisor” has the same meaning: “super”, meaning over, and “visor”, having to do with vision, seeing, or watching. So an overseer is basically a supervisor. Interestingly enough, a supervisor is a secular role and not specifically a religious one. So Paul is referring to a role that is not inherently a religious one but has a counterpart in the secular world.
How is this different from an “elder”?
While “overseer” has more to do with the role itself, the term “elder” refers more to the individual filling the role. The word “elder” is the Greek word πρεσβυτερος (pres-byoo-ter-os). It comes from the word “presbus” meaning “elderly”. In the Jewish religious/political system, the Sanhedrin was made up of elected representatives of the people called “elders” or πρεσβυτερος. Typically, these representatives were elderly men who were well respected and honored by the people.
The Jewish “synagogue” teaching model was also usually supervised by an “elder”. So with the advent of the New Testament assemblies, followers of Christ (who at the beginning were all converted Jews) simply continued to follow the synagogue model. And each fellowship selected an elder (πρεσβυτερος) to supervise/oversee (επισκεπτομαι) them.
When we come to 1 Timothy 3, Paul is addressing the qualification for the role of overseer, thus the use of the word επισκεπτομαι rather than the πρεσβυτερος. Although, granted, the significance is minor, and in general the words could be used interchangeably to refer to the same thing.
However, there is a significant difference between the forms of the word “overseer”. Please notice the difference between the words in verse 1 and verse 2:
Verse 1 επισκοπη (ep-ee-skope-ay) – noun: oversight; supervision
Verse 2 επισκοπος (ep-ee-skope-os) – noun: overseer; supervisor
Notice, that the words come from the same root, but the words are different! Even though they are both nouns, the first refers to the function, the second refers to the role. Why is this important? Let me explain.
Disclaimer: I am about to say something extremely controversial. Now consider yourself warned.
I believe that Paul is NOT addressing the issue of someone who desires TO BE an overseer. GASP! “How can you say that?” you might ask. Because of the way this reads in the Greek. While the King James renders this verse this way:
“If a man desire the office of a bishop”
This is how it appears in the Greek:
ει τις επισκοπης οργεται
if any (of) oversight is craving
This is where the difference in the words used is important. It does not say, “if anyone desires to be an overseer.” Literally it reads, “if any is desiring of oversight”. The question we must ask then is to whom or what does the indefinite pronoun “any” refer? Remember the context of 1 Timothy. Paul has gone ahead to Macedonia and has left Timothy behind in Ephesus to act as his proxy. The purpose of the letter to Timothy is to advise him on how to handle certain issues within the various assemblies there. So the “any” in verse 1 of chapter 3 must be referring to the assemblies. Paul is saying, if any of the assemblies desire oversight, they desire a good thing.
Two things should become immediately apparent here. First, that there were some assemblies that did not have an overseer. And second, the implication here would be that an overseer is optional. That’s huge! And that flies in the face of 500 years of orthodoxy. But when you consider the context and the grammatical structure of the text, it fits together perfectly. Paul is telling Timothy, if there are any assemblies that want oversight, that’s a good thing. He then proceeds to instruct Timothy on what the job requirements are for an overseer.
This is very similar to what happened in Acts chapter 6 when the Hellenistic Jews were being left out of the daily distribution to the needy, and the ethnic Jews were getting preferential treatment. The assemblies came to the apostles to solve this problem. But instead, the apostles instructed them to look to themselves for the solution. They gave them a set of criteria for deacons and told them to find men who meet these criteria and have them manage it. The apostles could have very easily said, “Ok, we appoint so and so, and such and such, and they have the authority.” But instead, they believed that those in the assemblies had the ability to select their own deacons. Likewise in this instance, Paul did not instruct Timothy to appoint specific men to the positions of overseer. He left it up to the assemblies to select their own if they so desired.
So, having then examined the relationship of elders and overseers, in part two we will study in detail each of the qualifications of an overseer. You can think of this as a job description. If you were seeking a candidate to fill a role, think about what kind of attributes you would want. What are the attributes that make for a good overseer for a home fellowship?