Question: "What is an overseer in the church?"
Answer: In the Bible, the terms overseer, bishop, and elder all refer to the same position in the church. Different English translations of the Bible use alternate terms to describe this leadership position in 1 Timothy 3:1. The New International Version and English Standard Version use overseer, while the King James Version uses bishop, and the New Living Translation merely translates the Greek term as “church leader.” The Greek word is episcope and comes from a root word that means “to inspect” and by implication “to look out or look after.” The overseer is tasked with looking out for the church.
Only two church offices are mentioned in Scripture: that of overseer (bishop or elder) and that of deacon (1 Timothy 3:8; Philippians 1:1). The office of overseer in the church is that of the pastor(s) and elders, who are the spiritual leaders or shepherds of the congregation (Acts 20:28).
Not just anyone can assume the role of overseer in the church. Specific qualifications for overseers are provided in 1 Timothy 3:1–7 and Titus 1:5–9. The position is reserved for men. First Timothy 3:2 specifically says that the overseer is to be “faithful to his wife.” This assumes he is a man. Elsewhere in Scripture we see that God has instituted an authority structure within the church, wherein the primary leadership position of maintaining doctrinal integrity and providing spiritual shepherding to the congregation is to be held by a man. See, for example, 1 Timothy 2:11–14. This is merely a matter of role or function, not one of value or importance. Women are made in the image of God just like men (Genesis 1:27). Women come to Christ the same way men do (Galatians 3:26–29). Women are of equal worth with men. In fact, Peter tells husbands to be considerate of their wives “as heirs with you of the gracious gift of life” (1 Peter 3:7). So, it is not a matter of value but one of orderliness, based on the order of creation (1 Timothy 2:15). God has organized His church in such a way that a male is to assume the primary position of spiritual teaching authority.
However, not every man will be qualified for the position of overseer in a church. In fact, relatively few may be. To be an overseer or elder is a “noble task” (1 Timothy 3:1) and a weighty responsibility (James 3:1). Below are some of the specific qualifications for an overseer in the church, based on 1 Timothy 3:2–7 and Titus 1:6–9:
1. Above reproach and blameless (1 Timothy 3:2; Titus 1:6).
2. The husband of one wife, i.e., faithful to his wife (1 Timothy 3:2; Titus 1:6).
3. Temperate (1 Timothy 3:2).
4. Self-controlled (1 Timothy 3:2; Titus 1:8).
5. Respectable (1 Timothy 3:2).
6. Hospitable (1 Timothy 3:2; Titus 1:8).
7. Able to teach (1 Timothy 3:2).
8. Holding firmly to Scripture so as to encourage others and refute false doctrine (Titus 1:9).
9. Not given to drunkenness (1 Timothy 3:3; Titus 1:7).
10. A gentle man not given to violence (1 Timothy 3:3; Titus 1:7).
11. Not quarrelsome or eager to start a fight (1 Timothy 3:3).
12. Not greedy or a “lover of money” (1 Timothy 3:3).
13. Not seeking after dishonest gain (Titus 1:7).
14. A good manager of his own family, whose children obey him (1 Timothy 3:4–5; Titus 1:6).
15. Not a new believer (1 Timothy 3:6).
16. Having a good reputation with outsiders (1 Timothy 3:7).
17. A lover of good, who acts in a way that is upright, holy, and disciplined (Titus 1:8).
Overseers are given the serious task of overseeing the flock that has been entrusted to them. Peter instructed fellow elders to “be shepherds of God’s flock that is under your care, watching over them—not because you must, but because you are willing, as God wants you to be; not pursuing dishonest gain, but eager to serve; not lording it over those entrusted to you, but being examples to the flock” (1 Peter 5:2–3).
Those in the leadership position of overseer should follow the example of Jesus, who “did not come to be served, but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many” (Matthew 20:28). Leadership, according to the Bible, is not about puffing oneself up or lording power over others, but rather about serving those who have been entrusted to one’s care (Matthew 20:26; Mark 10:43). The overseer who humbles himself as a servant will be rewarded by Christ at His return (Matthew 23:12; 1 Peter 5:4).
To summarize, the role of overseer is a leadership position in the church, tasked with the care of the congregation. Women cannot occupy the position of overseer, since the role requires teaching and having spiritual authority over men. There are many biblical qualifications a man who desires to be an overseer/pastor/elder must meet. An overseer’s duties involve proper teaching and handling of Scripture, maintaining a good Christian witness, and being a good example to his family and congregation. Biblically, being in the leadership role of a pastor requires humility and a heart of servanthood.