OVERSIGHT: The First Office of the Elders [1] - Rev. C. Stam

Text copied with permission from "Clarion", Volume 25 No. 23, 24, 25 (1976)


"Therefore in the first place, the office of the elders is, together with the ministers of the Word to take the oversight of the church, which is committed to them, and diligently to look whether everyone properly deports himself in his confession and conversation; to admonish those who behave themselves disorderly, and to prevent, as much as possible, the sacraments from being profaned.- also to act /according to the Christian discipline) against the impenitent, and to receive the penitent again into the bosom of the church, as appears not only from the above mentioned saying of Christ, but also from many other places of Holy Writ, that these things are not alone entrusted to one or two persons, but to many who are ordained thereto."

- Form For Ordination of Elders and Deacons of the Canadian Reformed Churches.

I was asked to speak to you on "the first office" of the elders, as it is given in the Form for Ordination, "in the first place, the office of the elders is, together with the ministers of the Word, to take the OVERSIGHT of the church . . . ."

The first aspect of the office of the elders seems, then, to deal with oversight. Elders are primarily "overseers" called to the oversight of the church. And it is about this oversight that I wish to make a few remarks.

For convenience sake, I have divided my remarks into four little chapters (to be published in three parts) with the following headings: Oversight is a PASTORAL matter, a METICULOUS matter, a SPIRITUAL matter and a MUTUAL matter.



The word oversight, of course, comes from the word overseer, and that, in turn, is a translation of the Greek word "episcopos," or as we often have it, bishop. The word "episcopos" is derived from a verb which has the basic meanings "to take care of" and "to watch over," while a very similar verb [2] means "to visit." In other words, the care of the flock is often realized through VISITATION. From the Greek we also learn that this idea of "watching over [3] is not incidental or fragmentary, but continuous. The overseer is always to be watchful, for it belongs to his office to be awake; he "bears" his office.

To determine the character of this "oversight," it is important that we look at the Biblical background of this word and discover some of its colour and quality. The New Testament word has a clear Old Testament equivalent [4] which means a "turning around" and a "looking down" of the Lord, and this in great love and compassion towards His people. In that sense "oversight" is a COVENANT term, denoting the Lord's mercy and faithfulness which is embodied and granted by means of the Covenant. Which also implies that the Lord not only looks down "in mercy" but (if need be) also "in judgement." With God "oversight" often involves discipline, compare Exodus 32:34: "I will visit their sins upon them."

There are many passages in the Old Testament which speak of this oversight-activity of the Lord. God is constantly overseeing things, e.g. the Land of Palestine ("the eyes of the Lord are always on it, Deuteronomy 11:12), the people of Israel ("the Lord has visited His people, Ruth 1:6) which visiting is meant in a compassionate, beneficial sense, and also individuals, e.g. the Lord visited Sarah. Here already I may note that with the Lord oversight is GENERAL (it involves the whole church, all Israel) but also PARTICULAR (it involves persons as well).

In the New Testament the concept of "oversight" is clearer in an ecclesiastical sense, and there are a number of key texts to be mentioned.

The most important in this respect could very well be I Peter 2:25, "For you were straying like sheep, but have now returned to the Shepherd and Guardian of your souls." The word used for "Guardian" is the word "episcopos" (overseer) and seeing the context, our Lord Jesus Christ is meant.

Jesus Christ is the SHEPHERD AND OVERSEER (Guardian) of the Church, keeping the life of His sheep. Like God Himself maintained the final oversight and authority in Israel, so the Lord Jesus reveals Himself as the highest overseer having the final oversight in the church. And it is only in the Name of Christ, from out of the mercy of Christ and through the Word of Christ that the elders "take the oversight of the church." Christ is the source and the limit of the office of elders, the only Head and the Last Authority in the church. Overseers should always keep this clearly in mind.

Notice how in one breath Christ is called both Shepherd and Overseer. One immediately wonders if these two words are synonymous. If we look at other passages, we find the very same combination returning time and time again, so that we can conclude that an overseer is nothing but a SHEPHERD, a pastor. Take e.g. I Peter 5:2, "Tend to the flock of God," and it literally reads, "SHEPHERD the flock." The word used for elder in this connection is not the word "episcopos" but the word "presbuteros," but this does point to the office of elders as the Form for Ordination makes clear [5].

Another example. In Acts 20:28, we find in a sermon to ELDERS (again the word "presbuteros") and to the OVERSEERS this word of Paul, "Take heed to yourselves and to all the flock in which the Holy Spirit has made you guardians (literally: overseers), to feed (literally: to shepherd) the church which He has obtained with His own blood." And the ensuing warning to watch for "wolves which attack the flock" makes perfectly clear that this oversight has to do with being a shepherd over the flock of the Lord. An overseer is a shepherd, a PASTOR, and oversight indeed is a pastoral matter!


The words "taking the oversight of the church" simply mean "entering into the office of shepherd and becoming pastor of the flock of the Lord Jesus Christ." I mention this expressly, because elders usually don't think of themselves as pastors. In our technical ecclesiastical language, the word "pastor" is often reserved for the minister. But an elder is essentially a pastor.

If we maintain this Scriptural way of speaking, we emphasize that an elder basically and principally has the SAME office as the minister and that any "dominocracy" or special estimation for the office of the minister is wrong. The extra esteem should only be because of an added task, not a higher rank (compare, I Timothy 5:17, "especially those (elders) who labour in preaching and teaching"). Both the elder and the minister, as the Form indicates ("together with the ministers") have the SAME duties in this respect, together they are pastors and shepherds. And with other [6] I deem it a pity that our Form for Ordination does not more clearly emphasize that the prime duty of an elder is to be a pastor.


Why is it important to emphasize that an elder is essentially a pastor? Besides the fact that this is the Scriptural way of speaking, this is also the simplest way to make plain what this oversight basically is. All of us can visualize the task of a shepherd: looking towards and over the whole flock, paying attention to the unruly and the stragglers, calling back those who are far ahead, seeing to the maintenance and the upkeep of the flock and guarding from dangers within and without. Pastoral means being moved over the flock, moved by the love of Christ, always seeking the well-being of the flock, being aware of what goes on within the flock and knowing how to handle the sheep. Pastoral also means: not just having knowledge of Scriptures and confession, but having WISDOM, finding a way in all circumstances that is pleasing to the highest Shepherd (John 10) and beneficial to the flock.

Where the word "elder" (which does have to do with age) perhaps suggests knowledge and experience, doesn't the word "pastor" denote wisdom and compassion? I'm not trying to play out these two words, but unite them as they should be. If all is well, a pastor is an elder and an elder is a pastor.

And I would like to summarize this section as follows:

1. the first office of the elder finds its roots in God's constant oversight and care over His flock, so confessed e.g. in Psalm 23: "The Lord is my Shepherd."

2. the first office of the elder finds its great example, strength and limit in Christ's complete and perfect oversight over the church as the Good Shepherd (John 10).

3. the first office of the elder is to be a shepherd of the flock, making the love of Christ manifest to those who have been bought by the blood of the cross (Acts 20).

Looking at it from this angle, the office of elder is a great calling to desire and fulfill. It is, as Paul noted, "a noble task" (I Timothy 3:1).

Oversight is a Meticulous Matter


"Oversight" sometimes is but never may become oversight in another sense, namely that one forgets various sheep or certain dangers which are threatening the flock (the Church). Oversight is a command, and may never become an apology, in the sense, "I'm sorry, that's an oversight!"

Oversight is a very accurate, even meticulous matter regarding the smallest details. In the first place.it must be OVERsight, the elders (pastors) must oversee the WHOLE flock and be able to do so. The form first speaks of GENERAL oversight, "the oversight of the Church," the whole body and all the members together as a congregation. The elders must attend to the general state of the congregation, be aware of general sins and dangers and have an open eye for general weaknesses due to the locality or the times in which the flock lives. In this sense oversight demands a definite INsight into the local situation and the spiritual structure of the era. There's nothing so contradictory as an elder who is not up to date.

Of course, if the elders are to take the oversight, we must assume that this is possible. The idea that the church is not "invisible" but certainly "unoversee-able" (Dutch: niet onzichtbaar, wel onoverzichtelijk) should not be applicable to the local church. A congregation must always be "oversee-able." In this respect I must agree with those who warn against our congregations becoming too large. If a congregation is not oversee-able, the pastors become either frustrated or negligent. Certain specific cases (the extreme ones) do receive attention, but the consistory cannot keep up with the congregation in general. Even though the minister and the other pastors might be able to manage the main affairs of a large congregation, meticulous oversight and insight into the flock is hardly possible. Once a congregation is moving beyond a membership of 400, it is doubtful whether the oversight can still be accurate and adequate. And seeing the spirit of the times, the problems we encounter as pastors, the churches certainly do need this accurate and adequate pastoral attention, more and more so as the Lawless one reveals himself (II Thessalonians 2:4 ff.).


While oversight, then, first touches the WHOLE congregation, the elders will spend most of their time dealing with specific, individual cases, according to need and necessity.

Principally speaking, NO ONE is excluded from this particular oversight, since the elders are to look diligently whether EVERY ONE properly deports himself in his confession and conversation. I have come across a situation in which the elders did visit the congregation, but not one another (as if they didn't need to be included in the oversight!). Or one can sometimes hear the complaint that certain high-placed and influential people in the congregation are never really reprimanded for specific sins or weaknesses. Sometimes a whole group can fall beyond the oversight. Such partiality is quite unscriptural (cp. James 2) and will hardly be found in our churches, I'm sure . One cannot skip a homevisit because of the knowledge that it's alright in that family anyway or because of lack of time. ALL the members shall be included in the oversight.

The most important means to achieve this oversight in practice, is the HOMEVISIT. Nowhere do we read in the form for ordination that elders must go on homevisits, but in Article 23 of our Church Order this activity is expressly mentioned. I already mentioned (see previous article) that oversight is connected with VISITATION, and that's also what the form implies without stating it.

Oversight means going out and visiting. And the pastors should certainly not RESTRICT their oversight to one formal annual visit, but make use of opportunities to "drop in" informally. It would be wrong to be elder only at the annual homevisit and for the rest maintain no contact with the families. Any special occasion merits attention and possibly a visit. A pastor is sympathetic to those entrusted to his care, interested in THEIR life and attempts to build up a relationship of trust and understanding. Is this not the reason why we divide the congregation into WARDS, so that a working relationship CAN ensue? It's been proven, if a pastor has established a fine relationship with the families, he is not just an official acting in a given circumstance (e.g. when difficulties arise), but a pastor whose advice is sought and whose assistance is esteemed.

If there is a sympathetic relationship of trust and respect, then certainly the families will "open up" to the office-bearers. Then also the congregation will understand that this "looking dilligently whether everyone deports himself properly" is not just a matter of INVESTIGATION - and then one is glad when the yearly inquisition is over - but a matter of COMMUNICATION. A homevisit can then be appreciated instead of dreaded.


Only certain matters "hit" the consistory table, namely the cases of those who persist in behaving themselves disorderly. It can even be a matter of "public sin" in which the persons involved show little or no penitence. Some cases can become a regular part of the consistorial agenda. And the danger is then that in the course of time such cases are no longer properly handled at the meetings.

One tends to become so "familiar" with a case, visits become somewhat stereotype, are often done out of necessity but without hope, and one can grow very tired of a certain matter which keeps returning on the agenda. It is this "pastoral tiredness" which we must watch out for continually and remain giving each case regular and proper attention. I'm convinced e.g. that those who are being dealt with should be mentioned in the prayers of the consistory at EVERY meeting, whether their case has been discussed at that particular meeting or not. It remains a prime part of the pastor's office to commend his sheep into the special care of the great Shepherd of the flock. In this prayer we must certainly be meticulous, for it has to do with the principal character of the office.


The form doesn't mention homevisits (as I indicated) and therefore doesn't speak of the FREQUENCY of homevisits. Officially one annual homevisit should suffice (although article 23 Church Order stipulates "as time and circumstances may demand for the edification of the congregation both BEFORE and AFTER the Lord's Supper"). Once, however, the conduct or confession of a member reaches the special attention of the consistory, there must be regular visitation from out of the consistory, so that reports can be made and discussed even when a case "drags on." The elders must show consistency in visitation, for nothing is so depressing as to hear that no visit has (again) been made. No visit, certainly not a pastoral report. If the appointed ward-elders (or others) cannot visit, they should request fellow-pastors to relieve them. But visits must be made, for visitation is the practice of oversight.

To accentuate these things, it is a wise custom to have a set point concerning PASTORAL CARE on every agenda of the consistory, then divided into general pastoral oversight and particular discipline (with reports). As a matter of fact, this is the most important point on the whole agenda. Since elders are pastors, every agenda which doesn't give this pastoral care a central spot is a wrong agenda. (Cp. J. Kamphuis, Het Jaaragendum van de Kerkeraad, page 140, "The care of the congregation is number one!").

For a large part, the congregation is going to be built up or broken down by the oversight of the pastors. For this reason it must be done meticulously with accuracy and faithfulness in general matters and in particular cases. Here's where the HEART of office lies. A consistory must show consistency in its words and actions, so that the Word of God can freely work in the congregation and the Spirit is not hampered by our approach and methods.

Oversight is a SPIRITUAL and a MUTUAL matter


In our oversight, we are dealing with the Holy Spirit and HIS activity in the congregation. Pastors are His instruments, and therefore oversight is a Spiritual matter.

The investigation (oversight) is followed up - if necessary - by three things: admonition, prevention, and possible further action leading to excommunication and exclusion out of the congregation of the Lord. You will notice that we are now dealing with the calling to exercise DISCIPLINE over the congregation.

And discipline, the Church Order also stresses this in article 71, is wholly of a SPIRITUAL nature. One who is called to oversee and to guard, to govern and exercise authority, must also be able to ENFORCE. For this reason the civil authorities have received the "sword" (Romans 13:4). So the officebearers have received the "sword of the Spirit," the Word of God (Ephesians 6:17). This Word of God is called "profitable for teaching, for reproof, for correction and for training in righteousness . . ." (II Timothy 3:16), a power of God unto salvation (Romans 1:16). The first and the last form of discipline, therefore, is that of the Word of God. And it is the most POWERFUL discipline, because it leads either to life or to death, but always does the Word of God take effect; the Word is never without desired result (Isaiah 45:23).

Office-bearers must always be convinced of the power of God's Word and must speak this Word with the authority it has in itself. Sometimes - I suppose even often - a pastor can feel weak and somewhat useless, for all he can do is talk and try to convince and persuade, but this activity - seemingly powerless and without effect - truly is the POWER of God! The Word spoken will always work on, long after the elders have left. The weakness of the elder is in this respect his very strength. It is also his COMFORT, for the Lord has said of Himself as the good Pastor, "The sheep FOLLOW Him, for they know His voice" (John 10:3). The shepherd speaks the Word of God, and those who are of the Lord will hear and repent, being reconciled to Christ and to the Church of Christ.


In the world it is as follows: as soon as someone CONFESSES to his crimes, discipline STARTS. In the Church it is the other way around: when someone honestly and wholeheartedly confesses in repentance, all discipline ends. Certainly, then a churchmember may still be responsible to the CIVIL authorities, but no longer is he subject to the particular discipline of the Church. All disciplinary action should therefore be directed to make the brother or sister first SEE the sin as guilt before the Lord, and should lead to a true confession of that sin and a firm desire to BREAK with that particular sin. The example of the prophet Nathan leading David to his confession, "Against Thee, Thee only, have I sinned!" (Psalm 51:4ff.) will suffice and also inspire. That was a real HOMEVISIT! Once the confession has been received, the sinner may and must be COMFORTED with the rich promises of the Lord in Jesus Christ.

Special discipline ends when one confesses and repents. Repentance, however, must always be combined with "going and sinning no more." Sometimes, in exceptional cases, a form of disciplinary action must be continued after confession, simply when someone doesn't have the power to leave his/her sin, e.g., in the case of those habitually addicted to alcohol or other drugs. Alcoholics and other addicts may know many moments of sincere grief and remorse over their sin and sickness, but that does not mean that they can leave their habit and fall no more in this particular respect. [7] Would it be wise with regards to such brothers and sisters - whose misery we cannot begin to comprehend - to apply a term of "probation " [8] until both the person concerned and the consistory are reasonably certain that the addiction has been overcome? Going to the Lord's Supper could then be a concrete GOAL that such a person sets for him/herself and daily strives towards. This also has to do with "preventing, as much as is POSSIBLE, the sacraments from being profaned." One cannot prevent everything, and pastors are limited in knowledge and opportunity, but would it be wrong to protect addicted brothers and sisters from things stronger than themselves? In such special cases, I'm convinced, the pastors should seek the assistance of skilled professional workers such as physicians and neurologists.


If there is no repentance, the final exclusion will undoubtedly ensue. That is, I am sure, the saddest experience of a pastor. It is disheartening to see a sheep being cut off from the flock beyond which it cannot live or survive. And, most likely, a pastor will experience more excommunications than readmissions.

But this exclusion is an inevitable, final step, if there indeed is no repentance. Once the procedure of discipline has started, it must continue, if need be, to the very end. Discipline starts under that TENSION; it is one of the two, so to speak: either bend or break. In the end, it will be the Word of God which is the bending or breaking Power. People are always affected by the Spiritual power of Church discipline.

This Word of God must be stressed by the pastors in every official activity. I once made the remark that "I'm a shepherd, not a COWBOY." The shepherd speaks (the Word of God) and the sheep listen to his voice. But a cowboy has a rope and drags them in. If a sheep is LOST and straying the shepherd must certainly go out and seek to find it. But if the sheep demands its portion and heritage and says, "Let me GO," the Father will let him go and not follow him; compare the parable of the Prodigal Son. Pastors must be persistent and not give up easily; but, on the other hand also with a view to the whole flock a pastor must know when to quit.


It may not happen OFTEN that the penitent are again received into the bosom of the Church. It may happen more than once that OUTSIDERS are to be admitted as members, and that certainly also is a matter of oversight. Even though "marriage" is not an ecclesiastical matter in our churches, yet the life of the married is, and it is often because of marriage that outsiders request to be admitted. As a rule, of course, the officebearers will solemnize ONLY those marriages in which both partners are communicant members of the Church and attend regularly (as even the Banns imply), and therefore this membership matter must be resolved BEFORE THE MARRIAGE. Vows to the Lord (confession of faith) must always precede our vows to one another. The consistory should then see to the following points: whether the incoming member is correctly and adequately motivated, understands the implications of church -membership, and is fully willing to submit to church-discipline. I have found that not always this motivation, understanding, and willingness is present, and this usually shows AFTER the wedding. Consistories sometimes "oversee" things here (in the sense of overlooking).

When someone leaves the Church, either "normally" through attestation, or because of discipline, we follow a SET procedure. There are rules to make oversight EFFECTIVE in these things. I feel that, also in admitting outsiders, there should be a set procedure followed by our churches, so that difficulties can be avoided.


In view of all this, we understand how extremely DIFFICULT it is to be a pastor and to be called to oversee the Church of Christ. Especially when being responsible for the "keys of the Kingdom of Heaven," one can feel very inadequate and small. Nothing is more important for the office-bearers than the constant PRAYERS of the congregation.

It is for this reason that the form adds, "These things are not alone entrusted to one or two persons, but to many who are ordained thereto." Oversight is not just a personal, but a MUTUAL, matter. One is never a pastor ALONE in the Church of Christ.

Is this added as a subtle reprimand to avoid all strivings toward personal power in the Church and as a warning against any kind of hierarchy? Certainly this is an element which we must not overlook, for pastors are not void of sinful desires. The great danger which stalks every pastor is that he seeks his OWN glory and power, and not Christ's glory in the well-being of His flock. Church history is full of sad examples. And we may be thankful for it that our Church Order is specifically designed to prevent any "lording it" over one another; compare I Peter 5:3, "not as domineering . . . .

But this subtle reprimand also has great COMFORT. I cannot and need not do it alone. There are fellow-pastors, and together these oversee the flock of Christ. Doesn't the Bible say, "In the abundance of counsellors, there is victory" (Proverbs 24:61. Pastors may see to ONE ANOTHER, support one another, together discuss and decide on the basis of God's Word what must be done and how it must be done. The pastor who feels that he alone must do it and alone can do it, is a very POOR pastor. If an elder is to function well within the congregation, he must first know his place within the CONSISTORY. He must be a man of COMMUNION to all sides.

That's how the Lord Jesus Christ intended it to be. He appointed twelve apostles, not one. Through the PLURALITY of pastors who stand together in the bond of faith, He achieves the UNITY of the Church.

Pastors must look over the congregation in such a way that the congregation in turn looks up to the Lord Jesus Christ alone. If our pastoral care may achieve that goal, the Lord Jesus Christ has greatly blessed us. Then the Good Shepherd is glorified in the work of many pastors.


[1] Speech held for the Office Bearers in Ontario, Saturday, April 24, 1976.

[2] the verb "episkeptomai."

[3] the verb "skopeo."

[4] the verb POD.

[5] Peter 5:2 is quoted in the form as a keytext for the elders, and the form intermittently uses both "episcopos" and "presbuteros" for the same office.

[6] Drs. Hendriks, Als Huisverzorgers Gods, Prof. Dr. C. Trimp, Dienst, Jg. 24, 1976, no. 2., Dr. S.G. Huh, "Presbyter in Volle Rechten" page 118 ff.

[7] Cf. Een Zwak voor Alcohol by Dr. P.H. Esser et al. Uitgeverij Callenbach. An excellent introduction into the problems of addiction.

[8] During the discussion a number of brethren disagreed with this notion of "probation," stating that repentance is only true if it means "leaving the habit." On the other hand, it was argued, repentance doesn't immediately remove the effect of sin (addiction) but is a first step on the way to freedom.