Shelby G. Floyd
The church at Philippi was established on Paul’s second evangelistic journey in about 50 A D (Acts 15:41-18:22). He was very endeared to this congregation as they were to him. They contributed financial help to him several times while he was in prison at Rome. He wrote the letter to the Philippians from his prison cell in Rome. It is one of the four prison letters that he wrote while he was in custody for at least two years. In the very opening verses of this letter, the apostle Paul gave the pattern that is to govern each local congregation. Previously Jesus promised to build his church upon the confession that the apostle Peter made when he said, “You are the Christ, the Son of the living God” (Matthew 16:16). Then Jesus promised to build his church upon the rock of his divinity (Matthew 16:18). Christ Jesus rules over the church universal through his inspired word. The Bible does not sanction any kind of church government over the universal church except Christ himself! The universal church has only one head, and that is Jesus Christ. To the Ephesian church Paul established the headship of Christ over his church: “And He put all things under His feet, and gave Him to be head over all things to the church, which is His body, the fullness of Him who fills all in all” (Ephesians 1:22, 23 NKJV). Therefore we all must live and die with Christ Jesus as the head of the church. No man is head of the church Jesus purchased with his own blood. “For to me, to live is Christ, and to die is gain” (Philippians 1:21).
In the introduction to the letter to the Philippians we have the order of ecclesiastical government for each congregation of the universal church: “Paul and Timothy, bondservants of Jesus Christ, To all the saints in Christ Jesus who are in Philippi, with the bishops and deacons: Grace to you and peace from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ” (Philippians 1:1,2 NKJV). In this text bishops (episkopois—Greek) translates to “overseers” and refers to the overseers of the local church (1 Timothy 3:2; Titus 1:7). In Paul’s speech to the “elders—presbuteros” of the local church at Ephesus the word is used interchangeably with the word bishops (episkopois–overseers): “Therefore take heed to yourselves and to all the flock, among which the Holy Spirit has made you overseers, to shepherd the church of God which He purchased with His own blood. 29 For I know this, that after my departure savage wolves will come in among you, not sparing the flock. 30 Also from among yourselves men will rise up, speaking perverse things, to draw away the disciples after themselves” (Acts 20:28-30 NKJV). Therefore the terms elder (older man) and overseer defined and explained what the responsibility was of those governing the local church. Their task was to make sure the plain word of God was taught and to chase the false teachers (wolves) away!
Early in the apostolic history of the New Testament church bishops-overseers or elders-presbuteros were established in every local congregation with Jesus Christ as the universal head of the church. For instance, near the end of Paul’s first evangelistic journey it is written, “So when they had appointed elders in every church, and prayed with fasting, they commended them to the Lord in whom they had believed” (Acts 14:23 NKJV). Therefore Paul and Barnabas set up the governance in each local congregation. Later Paul authorized the young evangelist Titus to also appoint elders in every church: “For this reason I left you in Crete, that you should set in order the things that are lacking, and appoint elders in every city as I commanded you—” (Titus 1:5).
THE SYNONYMS OF THE OVERSEERS OF THE LOCAL CHURCH
Now let us analyze each biblical term used to identify the group of men who oversee the local church (congregation), under the Headship of Jesus Christ who rules the church through the New Testament and the group of men described by the following words:
THE UNSCRIPTURAL TITLES USED BY RULERS OF SOME CHURCHES
THE BIBLICAL WARNING TO THE OVERSEERS
The first major departure from the biblical church was in the government of the local congregation. In the New Testament teaching a body of overseers or elders was to govern the congregation according to the inspired instruction of Christ and the apostles. The apostles taught and practiced appointing two or more qualified men over each congregation (See Acts 14:23; Titus 1:5; and Acts 20:17, 28).
Jesus and Paul warned that false teachers would enter the congregations like wolves and destroy the churches: “Beware of false prophets, who come to you in sheep’s clothing, but inwardly they are ravenous wolves” (Jesus–Matthew 7:15). The apostle Paul gave the same warning to the elders/overseers of the Ephesian church: “Therefore take heed to yourselves and to all the flock, among which the Holy Spirit has made you overseers, to shepherd the church [a]of God which He purchased with His own blood. 29 For I know this, that after my departure savage wolves will come in among you, not sparing the flock. 30 Also from among yourselves men will rise up, speaking perverse things, to draw away the disciples after themselves. 31 Therefore watch, and remember that for three years I did not cease to warn everyone night and day with tears” (Acts 20:28-31). The leaders of the congregations did not take the warning seriously, and therefore over many years the government of the church was changed from a body of men over a local congregation to one or more men in charge of all the universal church, wearing many unscriptural titles of governing prerogatives. Those titles are in the graph listed above.
BIBLICAL ELDERS/OVERSEERS ARE TO BE HONORED
In each congregation, the biblical overseers/elders are to be respected and held in the highest regard: For instance Paul wrote to the church at Thessalonica: “And we urge you, brethren, to recognize those who labor among you, and are over you in the Lord and admonish you, 13 and to esteem them very highly in love for their work’s sake. Be at peace among yourselves” (1 Thessalonians 5:12, 13). And then again Paul through the evangelist Timothy taught that the elders who both rule well over the congregation and also labor in preaching/teaching the word and doctrine, are to be worthy of double honor: “Let the elders who rule well be counted worthy of double honor, especially those who labor in the word and doctrine” (I Timothy 5:17). The spiritual and biblical qualifications for the overseers are listed in the word of God and are easy to understand (1 Timothy 3:1-7;Titus 1:5-9; 1 Peter 5:1-4).
We hope more preachers will have the courage to study the New Testament, learn the truth on the government of the church, and then courageously battle to restore the Biblical practice of a plurality of qualified men over each congregation with Jesus Christ as the Head and Overruling Monarch of the church He purchased with his precious blood.
Copyright © 2022 Shelby G. Floyd, All Rights Reserved
*The biblical quotations are from The New King James translation
Shelby G. Floyd Minister, Heartland Church of Christ, 1693 West Main Street, Greenwood, Indiana 46142