By Adam Brown –
We should not expect the governance structure of the local church to be self-evident. The natural bent of any individual regarding proper governance will largely depend on his or her cultural and historical context. Thus, for example, in medieval Europe a strong hierarchy of bishop-priest-laity made easy sense. By contrast, in twenty-first century Canada, a democratic egalitarian one-person one-vote structure, is bound to be the easiest default.
To make matters more complicated, questions of gender naturally arise. Are men and women functionally indistinguishable? Can men do anything a woman can do and can women do anything a man can do? And, if there are not obvious barriers to men or women based solely on competency, are men and women permitted to do the same things? Again, depending on your cultural and historical context, the answer to these questions will differ. In our current Canadian context, the default answer is one of gender blindness. That is, there does not seem to be any distinction between men and women in any way and, therefore, our culture would argue that all roles and responsibilities in the local church are equally accessible to men and women.
In response to these quandaries is Instruction 6 for the church: Appoint Qualified Overseers (1 Timothy 3:1-7). An initial read through 1 Timothy 3:1-7 reveals that this instruction is focussed predominantly on the qualifications of overseers. That is to say, these verses make much effort to describe the kind of person who ought to oversee the affairs of the church. The most remarkable aspect to these qualifications is how common they are. With a couple of exceptions (able to teach; caring for God’s church), these qualifications ought to be the goal of the progressive sanctification of every believer. By contrast, the role and responsibilities of overseers are not immediately apparent.
There are, however, six details that help us to understand the functional role of overseers. These details also help us to answer the question, what kind of governance structure does God envision for His church?
Overseers Must be Men
The conjugation throughout 1 Timothy 3:1-7 is masculine. There is not a single reference to a woman. Neither is there a feminine noun, verb, or adjective. More than that, the immediate context of 1 Timothy 2:11-15 makes it absolutely clear that God created Adam (men) to exercise leadership and authority while He created Eve (women) to be his helper of equal value and nature. This pattern is reinforced in God’s vision for church governance.
First Timothy 2:12 reads:
I do not permit a woman to teach or to exercise authority over a man.
As we shall see, teaching and exercising authority are the two main responsibilities entrusted to overseers. Thus, the Lord Jesus Christ does not permit women to be overseers in His household.
Unlike most of the qualifications for overseers, the ability to teach is not expected of any or all Christians. Teaching is a spiritual gift given to some but not to all (Romans 12:7; 1 Corinthians 12:29). The men whom God has gifted to teach, He very often also calls to lead (Ephesians 4:11; James 3:1). Teaching comes in many different forms and contexts. Not every man who is able to teach will do so from a pulpit. Paul expands upon the need to be able to teach in Titus 1:9:
He must hold firm to the trustworthy Word as taught, so that he may be able to give instruction in sound doctrine and also rebuke those who contradict it.
Thus, the overseers of the local church are the male teachers who bear responsibility of rightly handling the Word of truth (2 Timothy 2:15). This necessarily means that not all opinions are to be treated equally in the church. Doctrine cannot be solved by a democratic vote. Rather, God has entrusted overseers to give the authoritative teaching about the Scriptures.
Overseers Exercise Authority
Unlike the liberal-democracies of the Western world, the church has a hierarchical governance structure. The only man who holds any authority at all in the Church is the Lord Jesus Christ. He is Lord and we are His slaves. Thus, not even overseers possess any intrinsic authority in and of themselves.
However, overseers do exercise authority in the church. This means that decisions for the direction and well-being of the church are entrusted to the plurality of overseers, who make their decisions in submission to Christ and His Word. The authority belongs to Christ alone. Overseers exercise Christ’s authority by discovering Christ’s will in the Word of God. Thus, overseers submit themselves to the Word of God and then, in their teaching and leading, they call on the church to likewise submit to the Word of God. This is what it means to exercise authority, even while they do not inherently possess authority.
Whereas overseers submit to Christ by exercising authority over the church, the church is called to submit to Christ by submitting to the leadership of the overseers. In cases of vulgar misappropriation of the Word of God, the church may resist the leadership of the overseers. However, the normal practice is that of willful submission:
Obey your leaders and submit to them, for they are keeping watch over your souls, as those who will have to give an account. Let them do this with joy and not with groaning, for that would be of no advantage to you (Hebrews 13:17).
As Hebrews 13:17 makes abundantly clear, every overseer will have to give an account of himself directly to Christ in due course.
Overseers Run God’s Household
The linkage between home and church is made explicit in 1 Timothy 3:14-15:
I hope to come to you soon, but I am writing these things to you so that, if I delay, you may know how one ought to behave in the household of God, which is the church of the living God, a pillar and buttress of the truth.
God wants the church to be run as His household. In other words, God has given us the same principles for running both the home and the church. Even in today’s Canadian culture, most parents would say, with varying degrees, that parents are in charge. Families are not democracies. Biblically speaking, the husband/father is given the responsibility of headship in the home (1 Corinthians 11:3; Ephesians 5:22-6:4). Likewise, overseers have been given the responsibility of headship in the church.
This is made clear in 1 Timothy 3:4-5:
He must manage his own household well, with all dignity keeping his children submissive, for if someone does not know how to manage his own household, how will he care for God’s church?
The correlation between home and church is plain. Deacons are similarly required to demonstrate an ability to manage the household (1 Timothy 3:12). However, deacons are not expected necessarily to be able to keep their children submissive. Why is this? It is because, unlike overseers, deacons are not called to exercise any authority in the church.
Overseers Represent the Church
Overseers are not to be people pleasers. However, as the key representatives of Christ and the Church, they must be shrewd and wise in their dealings with the world (1 Timothy 3:7). Again, this is true of all Christians. All of us represent Christ and His Church in the world. All the more, however, overseers are identified with the church. Thus, even while the Gospel will offend, overseers are not to be offensive.
Overseers Must be Submissive
Giftedness is not enough to be an overseer. The giftedness of any man must be tried and tested by time. Otherwise, they, like the devil, might be puffed up by pride and try to unseat Jesus Christ as Head of the Church. Paul calls this “falling into the condemnation of the devil” (1 Timothy 3:6). That is, these immature yet gifted men will not be condemned by the devil, but will, rather, be condemned in the same manner as the devil was condemned. Overseers must be ever mindful that there is only one man in authority over the Church. Jesus, the Christ, our Lord. Overseers exercise authority in submission to Him.
The call to maturity is common to all believers. With respect to overseers, however, it reminds us that an overseer will be exercising an undemocratic authority in the church. All the more reason that he must know how to submit. Only men who have learned submission are qualified and able to properly exercise authority.
The qualifications for overseers tell us a lot about how the church is to be structured and governed. The church is not a democracy. Rather, it is to operate like a household, with headship entrusted to overseers. The church is not gender blind. Rather, it upholds God’s original design for men and women from before the Fall.
Every local church is instructed to appoint qualified overseers. These men teach and exercise Christ’s authority in the running of God’s household while also serving as the church’s key representatives in the world. The only way to steward these responsibilities is to submit daily to the Lord Jesus Christ and to His Word.
Note: At Southshore, we call our overseers, “elders.”