By Irvin Himmel
A responsibility may be both awesome and joyful, at times painful yet rewarding. This is the case with the weighty charge for which overseers in the church are accountable.
The Hebrew writers expresses the thought in this way:
Obey them that have the rule over you, and submit yourselves: for they watch for your souls, as they that must give account, that they may do it with joy, and not with grief: for that is unprofitable for you (13:17).
In the local church, according to the arrangement outlined in the New Testament, elders or bishops are the shepherds that have the rule or oversight of the flock. Paul said, “Let the elders that rule well be counted worthy of double honor, especially they who labor in the word and doctrine” (1 Tim. 5:17). The same apostle admonished the elders of the church at Ephesus, “Take heed therefore unto yourselves, and to all the flock, over the 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). The pastors of the flock must not rule in a manner that is dictatorial, domineering, and dogmatic. Peter warned elders not to be “lords over God’s heritage” (1 Pet 5:3). “They watch for your souls” is a statement which needs to be pondered, studied, and put into practice.
1. Watching for souls requires leading people in the way of the truth and right. Elders are not to make laws of their own but are to lead disciples in submitting to God’s will. They are to inform and instruct, applying the word of the Lord to specific cases, and helping the flock to follow Him who is the chief Shepherd. They are to be “ensamples” to the flock (1 Pet. 5:3). Their lives should exemplify humility, sincerity, wisdom, faith, love, and deeds of righteousness.
2. Watching for souls necessitates keen spiritual interest. In some churches of Christ it appears that elders have more interest in watching the finances than in watching for souls. They meet regularly to discuss the contributions, the budget, monetary support for preachers, building costs, etc., but show precious little concern in talking about how to win more souls to the Lord, what to do about sheep that have gone astray or jumped the fence, ways to devote more attention to souls that are in jeopardy, or why discipline is neglected in the church. Elders need to do more than watch the money; they watch for the souls committed to their charge.
3. Watching for souls takes times: Some men are chosen as overseers who either do not have the time or else are unwilling to take the time to do the work for which they are responsible. I am impressed with elders who take time to call on the weak, backsliders, or members who have been overtaken in a fault. Rather than acting disinterested, God-fearing shepherds go after the sheep which axe in trouble. Elders that have time to go to ball games; political rallies, picnics, school programs, etc. but no time to spend warning the unruly, admonishing the weak, and encouraging the fainthearted, should remember that they must give account before God.
4. Watching for souls demands alertness. Shepherds need to know the flock. There needs to be an awareness of the spiritual. condition of the sheep. If a sheep shows signs of spiritual sickness or an inclination to waywardness, the shepherds ought to detect it and work on the problem. If grievous wolves are stalking about, faithful shepherds will demonstrate vigilance over the flock. Paul warned the Ephesian elders about grievous wolves which enter, not sparing the flock (Acts 20:29). Wide-awake elders are the kind that really watch for souls.
5. Watching for souls reflects faithfulness. Perhaps some overseers have forgotten that the most serious charge given to elders is to watch for souls. One is not faithful as an elder merely because he attends all the services of the church, or all the business meetings, or all the elders’ meetings. He is not faithful because he is a good husband and father, nor because he makes an honest living, nor because he teaches a Bible class. An elder who is truly faithful in his oversight of the church must watch for souls. H.E. Phillips observes in his book Scriptural Elders And Deacons, “This is the real purpose for which God ordained that elders be in every church: that each member would be watched and matured in such a way as to bring him into the judgment as a faithful child of God” (p. 211).
Elders have a solemn charge. It is no trifling matter to watch over the souls that make up the flock of Christ. One’s soul is his most priceless possession. To lose the soul is to lose everything. Soul-watching sums up the work of spiritual shepherds. No member of the flock should be annoyed if the elders speak to him about his conduct. Good and faithful bishops feel strongly the responsibility that they have to watch for our souls.
Truth Magazine XXIII: 31, p. 498
August 9, 1979