Functioning Overseers vs. Honorary Positions

By Rufus Clifford, Jr.

Why do churches fail to grow? I’ll tell you why: they do not have functioning overseers. Active, vibrant leaders are essential in government, business, and in the church. A governor who does not function will be ineffective and cause the state much harm. A corporate president who does not perform will lead his business into bankruptcy. An elder who views his office as an “honorary position” and does not function is displeasing to God, and will stymie the growth and spiritual development of the Lord’s church. A nice building in a good location, a good teaching and personal work program are certainly necessary for growth, but the real secret for the success of a congregation is functioning overseers. No congregation will be any stronger or more active than its leaders.

Being appointed an elder is truly an honor. Paul says in 1 Timothy 5:17: “Let the elders that rule well be counted worthy of double honor, especially they who labor in the word and doctrine. ” Even though this is probably referring to monetary compensation, we see that being an elder is an honor, but not an “honorary position.” The one to receive honor is the elder who labors, implying action and function. To be an elder, a man must first “rule well his own house” (I Tim. 3:4). Having raised three children, I can testify that this involves lots of action and is not an “honorary position.” I Timothy 3:1 says, “If a man desire the office of a bishop, he desireth a good work. ” Notice that Paul describes the office as a working office, and not simply one of honor. Many today think of the eldership as a decision making board, served on by older men in the church as a position of honor. Having served as an elder for several years, I can testify that there are many tough decisions to be made, but also much work to be done. I’m afraid many don’t understand what it means to be a functioning overseer.

The function of elders and the character of their work is best described by the term bishop or overseer. Paul told the elders from Ephesus, “Take heed therefore unto yourselves, and to all the flock, over which the Holy Ghost hath made you overseers, to feed the church of God, which he hath purchased with his own blood” (Acts 20:28). To oversee is to watch over and manage; supervise, superintend. This is further emphasized by the word watchman as used in Ezekiel 33:7, “So thou, O son of man, I have set thee a watchman unto the house of Israel; therefore thou shalt hear the word at my mouth, and warn them from me. ” Ezekiel was given the responsibility of a watchman over the house of Israel, to warn them for God. Thus, bishops are to supervise and watch over all the affairs of the church. They are to have vision enough to set goals for the congregation, make plans whereby these goals can be reached, and work with enough determination to see that they are reached. All too often, this is neglected, leaving the church with no direction and no program of work. Bishops are to oversee the work, worship, mission, and discipline of the church. They should not become so wrapped up in small things like replacing light bulbs, cleaning the building, and making duty rosters that they use up all their time, neglecting spiritual matters. The example of Acts 6 points out that work should be delegated to the deacons to be carried out under the oversight of the bishops.

As a physician, I am in charge of the care of my patients, however, I do not take every temperature, blood pressure, and pulse, or give every shot. These tasks are delegated and performed under my supervision. Just so it should be with bishops leaving them time to work with people. Building maintenance, benevolence, classes, check writing can be taken care of by deacons with the bishops meeting repeatedly with them to make decisions about what is to be done, especially what is to be taught in the classes and who the teachers are to be. It is also important for the bishop to consult with the evangelist about what topics need to be preached from the pulpit. When and where the congregation will meet for worship, who leads the singing, and who preaches must be decided by the overseers. With these things in mind, it is difficult to see how anyone could picture the office of an overseer as a non-functioning “honorary position.”

Peter exhorts the elders in 1 Peter 5:1-2 to “shepherd the flock of God which is among you. ” As we examine the work involved with being a shepherd, it will be apparent that this involves more than an “honorary position.” Jesus gives us a good idea of what a shepherd does for his flock in John 10:1-15. He points out that the shepherd knew his flock, he calls them by name, they know his voice, he is willing to lay down his life for them, he protects them from wolves, and they trust and follow him. What a beautiful description of how elders are to know each and every member of the congregation, keeping them from straying, protecting them from false teachers and doctrines, and making sure they are fed the proper spiritual food. They must watch after the souls of every member, realizing that they will have to give account to God for them (Heb. 13:17). This is a mind boggling responsibility that causes many shepherds to lose sleep. It helps to keep role at services which indicates those who need special attention. Visiting in the home of every family in the congregation will allow the shepherd to better know the members and gain insight concerning their spiritual needs. Shepherds are to be “examples to the flock” (1 Pet. 5:3) in every aspect of life; as husbands, fathers, businessmen, teachers, workers in the church, etc. The cause of Christ suffers today because shepherds fail to do these. things. In Ezekiel 34: 1-10, the Lord told Ezekiel to prophesy against the shepherds that feed themselves and not the flock, who fail to strengthen the sickly, heal the diseased, bind up the broken, bring back the scattered and search for the lost. Certainly, those shepherds who fail to function, who sit back and do nothing, believing their office is an “honorary position” fall into this category and stand condemned in the eyes of God.


Overseers are instructed by Paul in Acts 20:28 to “take heed unto yourselves. ” Self-examination is required of all Christians, but especially of elders. They need to ask themselves such questions as, “Why did I accept this appointment?” Was it for glory, honor, personal ambition, to boost my ego? Is my life above reproach? Am I setting the proper example? Am I a functioning overseer or just a figurehead who holds the office as an “honorary position”? Let us all pray that elders see and understand their duties and function in such a manner that the church will prosper and glorify God.

Guardian of Truth XXXIII: 1, pp. 5, 15
January 5, 1989