Teaching by comparison can be an effective way of presenting the truth to the mind's eye. Jesus evidently knew this, for he "spake many things unto them in parables." While I make no pretense of being in the Lord's league in this regard, I do want to "play like" for a little while in hopes of better explaining what has happened to the concept of the "ecclesia" of Christ since New Testament times. As you know, if you are still on "the turnip truck," the word "church" is THE most critical word in the modern religious dictionary. It also is the most sensitive. It raises more dander, quicker and thicker, than any word one can toss in the air. This is due mainly to the fact that the original meaning of the term has been fundamentally flawed because of constant misuse. Perhaps a little homespun analogy will help illustrate what has happened.
Let us suppose that the English word "church" is not in the Bible at all. Let us further suppose that the Greek word "ecclesia" is not in the Greek Bible either. The Lord could have gotten along very well without the word "ecclesia," just as we could get along without the word "church." There are other words that work about as well. We sometimes forget that "ecclesia" is just one of several "picture words" employed by the Holy Spirit to visualize for us certain aspects of the Christian faith. The relationship that Christians sustain toward the Lord and one another is figuratively portrayed in images like a physical building, a flock of sheep, a family, a human body, or in the case of ecclesia an "assembly" of people. But let us "play like" Jesus used the word "crew" instead of the word ecclesia. In other words, instead of saying "I will build my church," Jesus would have said something like, "I will hire my crew." The use of this terminology is not far fetched when you consider that "assembly" and "crew" are similar-type words; both refer to a group of people. Whether it refers to workers on a boat, like the crew of a ship, or to a bunch of "dry backs" working on land, like a construction crew, a crew is simply a group of people actively employed in the same endeavor. The imagery here is not bad at all.
Jesus himself said the kingdom is like a man who went out "to hire laborers into his vineyard" (Matt. 20:1). Christians are said to be "laborers together with God" (1 Cor. 3:9). And disciples who work together are called "fellow-laborers" (Phil. 24). Considered separately this makes each disciple a "worker" for the Lord; considered together all disciples make up the Lord's "crew." Thus we have "the crew of Christ" if you please. Obviously this is not the legal title of a corporate institution, but is merely an apt description of those who work together for Jesus. He has only one crew. He came into the world to call together a group of willing workers to do some important work for him. Every person who comes to terms with the Lord and does what is necessary to become part of his work-force automatically becomes part of his one "crew." Each one "hired" into the crew is supposed to go to work.
Let us further suppose, just to keep things simple, that the total task to be accomplished here on earth by the Lord's crew is to dig a ditch exactly six feet wide and ten feet deep around the world and back. In our "parable," this is it. This is the "work of the Lord;" this is what Christ seeks laborers for, this is what he sent his crew into the world to do. Now to accomplish this great task will require two things - faith and works; faith to dig the ditch according to the precise dimensions given by God, and work to move all that dirt.
Can you see the picture? What we have is Christ and his crew, and a lot of work to be done. So it is that true disciples in every community will act like a crew of workmen chosen and charged by Jesus Christ. They will start digging wherever they are. (It is hard to dig where you are not.) They will all labor, working individually yet side by side, each worker striving according to his personal ability to move his share of dirt each day.
Occasionally some worker may become distracted and wander away from the work. His fellow-laborers, knowing that Jesus is more concerned about one worker who strays off than ninety-nine still in the ditch, will immediately go after him and persuade him, if possible, to return to work. At times a brother may grow weary, drop his shovel and collapse discouraged on the dirt pile. If so, nearby workers will admonish him, help him up, lend him a hand and encourage him to press on in the task ahead. Periodically, with regularity in fact, during the course of the days, weeks and years of toil the weary workers will pause for a break. They need to be revived, to be refreshed. Therefore those who labor in proximity to one another will temporarily halt the actual work. They will gather to sit in small circles where they can partake of nourishment, discuss their mutual problems, sharpen their tools and generally "pump one another up." Then it is back to work.
Considered in this context every Christian is known as a "crew member," or a "member of the crew of Christ." There is nothing ambiguous or hard to understand about this terminology. One either works for the Lord, or he works for someone else. If he works for the Lord he is part of the Lord's crew. He could not be anything else. To complete the picture, each disciple who sets out to work for Jesus is given a worker's manual, the holy Bible. This book contains all the information he needs to be a "good and faithful crew member." It spells out the work that is to be done. It informs him of the correct dimensions of the proposed ditch. It tells him what he will receive in wages when his work is completed. It explains to him his relationship not just to the Lord, who is the one and only Boss of this operation, but also to other members of the crew. It instructs that he must not hinder them, that he must never make their workload more difficult, but how he must always be willing to help them, encourage them, etc. It also instructs him to follow the good example of older workers who have been on the job for years and years. They are experienced. He can learn much from these senior workers if he will but follow their lead.
The handbook does not speak of any sophisticated equipment however. The only tools it discusses are hand tools suitable only for individual labor - like "the spade of Spirit, which is the word of God." All in all there is nothing complicated about either the work to be done or who should do it. The task is not easy but the job description is certainly clear enough. The aforementioned ditch MUST BE DUG. Who is to dig it? The workers! The "crew" of Christ. Thus all who are part of this great task force are explicitly warned, "Be ye steadfast, unmovable, always abounding in the work of the Lord; forasmuch as ye know that your labor is not in vain in the Lord." In other words, DIG THE DITCH! Stay at it. Never let up. Come pay day it will all be worth it.
After awhile a few ingenious disciples decide the work is going much too slowly. Why not, they reason, construct a machine that will dig a six by ten ditch faster than can be dug by hand. They put their little creative minds to work. It turns out to be quite a large undertaking. In fact, their efforts are not especially successful for a number of years. Most of the work still has to be done by hand. But they persist, and by and by a functional ditchdigging machine slowly materializes. Though at first small and crude, this machine catches on quickly and becomes popular with the workers, especially the lazier ones. Because now, instead of toiling down in the ditch all they have to do is keep the Ditchdigger operating. Before long all the workers are proclaiming that this Ditchdigger "belongs to God," although it was man who both conceived that machine and constructed it. In any case, with the Ditchdigger now in place the whole situation has changed for the laborers. No longer do they have to get tired and dirty by personally doing what the Lord commanded his "crew" to do. As a matter of fact their workload is now practically nil. Yet the ditch will still be dug, presumably faster and better than before. Won't God be pleased with this? Of course, a huge Ditch-digger is cumbersome and noisy and terribly expensive. But that's ok with the workers. This is still better than their having to do all the hard work themselves. Their task used to be digging a ditch. Now their primary responsibility is to keep the DITCHDIGGER in good shape so "it" can do "it's" divine work. To this end all their efforts are directed. Their major goal in life is to produce a bigger and bigger Digger, in order that more and more of "the Lord's work" might be done.
An honest observer can see what has happened to these workers even if they can't. The focus of their attention was once the ditch, the task at hand. Now the focus of their attention is the Ditchdigger itself. Now the strange thing is this. Although the Ditchdigger does a credible job digging up dirt, or at least of scattering dust in the air, for some reason it remains still, silent and in total disuse most of the time. About six days out of seven the disciples keep it stored in a "special spiritual warehouse" constructed for that purpose. This building costs a lot of money but, after all, the Lord's Ditchdigger has to have someplace out of which to operate.
At least once a week all hands that are "faithful to the Lord" meet together at the building where the Digger is kept. While gathered there they do not spend much time talking about the Lord Jesus who hired them. He is away at the moment and probably won't be back for some time. Nor do they spend much time discussing the rigors of the ditch. They have not been in a ditch lately. Nor do they spend time sharpening their spade or learning how to use it more effectively. In fact, many of them do not even own a spade of their own anymore. Mostly they spend their time talking about their grand Machine, the divine Ditchdigger. It is what has brought them together. They gather around it, admire it, praise it, pray about it and discuss in somber tones how to make it more attractive to the community and more efficient in its operation. Yes, occasionally an over-zealous worker will get excited and go out and dig a few feet for the Lord. But this is rare. For the most part "laborers for the Lord" content themselves with tinkering with the Ditchdigger and fretting over its welfare. What can they do to help it succeed in its work? The best thing they can do is contribute funds that can be used to increase the size of the Digger, hire someone able to "run it," and perhaps add some frills and optional equipment, all for the purpose of making it more attractive, effective and competitive. As anyone can plainly see, all the workers are extremely proud of their wonderful Machine. They have been taught all their lives to love their Ditchdigger, to work on its behalf, to pay for its upkeep and, above all, to depend on IT to get the ditch dug for the Lord.
After this Ditchdigger has been around a while a strange thing begins to happen, not just to the way disciples look on this great "spiritual" fixture, but in the way the refer to it. During its formative years the Ditchdigger was not noticeable enough for anyone to notice, or distinctively visible enough for anyone to bestow a name on. But now the machine is too much of a presence to be ignored. Therefore it has to be called something. Now how this came about I do not know. Perhaps it was because the Lord originally hired his "crew" to dig a ditch, and since digging a ditch is what the Ditchdigger does, it was easy to confuse the two. In any event, the brethren over the years sort of fell into the habit of referring to the Ditchdigger as "the Crew." In the beginning they all knew better, of course. A "crew" is a group of people put to work, in this case by the Lord, whereas a Ditchdigger is merely a mechanical "entity'' put together, in this case by men. Originally everyone understood this distinction. They knew when the Bible said "There was a great persecution against the crew which was at Jerusalem, and they were all scattered abroad throughout the regions of Judea and Samaria," that it was reporting what had happened to the Lord's workers in Jerusalem, NOT to damages done to a holy ditchdigging machine. They knew when the Bible said "He is the head of the body, the crew," that it was simply reminding all who work for the Lord who the Boss really is, NOT telling them of some special relationship Jesus has with the Machine they have set up. They knew when the Bible said "Husbands love your wives, even as Christ also loved the crew and gave himself for it," that this was just a way of explaining how dear to the Lord all his workers are, NOT a suggestion of how much Jesus thinks of the wonderful apparatus they have constructed.
But now this has all changed. Now, sad to say, disciples read the scriptures and imagine that all these verses actually refer to their Ditchdigger! This is amazing. It never seems to occur to these disciples that a "mechanized functional entity" (body concrete) is not and never CAN qualify as a "crew" of living souls. For by definition a machine is not a group of people, nor is a group of people a machine. But never mind this fact. Modern disciples, living as they do under the deep dark shadows of their Ditchdigger, certainly never take note of it. To the contrary. Now they INSIST that when the Bible speaks of "the crew of Christ" it is specifically referring to the holy Ditchdigger they have stored down in the local warehouse. They sincerely believe that THIS is the "crew" spoken of in the Scriptures. Therefore when disciples get together nowadays and discuss "the Lord's Crew" and what this great "Crew" ought to be accomplishing here on earth; when they diligently study a serious question like "the work of the Crew;" when they fuss with one another about what "the Crew AS SUCH" can and cannot do with divine approval; when they argue over which "Crew" is "right" or "straight" or "sound," they are by no means discussing workers in the Lord's employment, they are wrestling instead with problems generated by the presence of the great Ditchdigger that has become so much a part of their spiritual life. For in truth their entire religious life now revolves around "The Crew of Christ." But remember that to their way of thinking, bless their little confused hearts, the "crew of Christ" is NOT the workers that Jesus called together, but it is a super-duper spiritual Machine that they themselves have erected on the premises.
As they presently see things, this mechanical groundmover is "the true Crew" spoken of in the Bible. This Ditchdigger, of all things, has become the "one Crew" THROUGH WHICH they and all faithful laborers must work on the ditch. This machine-like "Crew" is what will somehow take them to heaven if they but give their allegiance to it. Since they now believe that every "crew" verse in the Bible has the Ditchdigger in mind, they honestly feel they cannot be saved without, or apart from, this divine Digger, no matter how dilapidated it becomes. This is why they remain devoted to it come what may.
Things have become really complicated now. As long as you have nothing more than a crew (in the original sense of the word) of hard working people busy at the task of ditchdigging, with each worker doing all he can and lending a helping hand to others where possible, the work moves along nicely. Progress may be in some cases slow and unspectacular, but it is steady and safe. It involves everyone because everyone is involved. Some disciples are not as stout as others, but even the weaker members of the Lord's crew do their share. But once the Ditchdigger is set up and becomes entrenched (pardon the pun), the situation changes dramatically. Who is going to "run" a big machine like this? Have you ever looked inside the cab of a gigantic dragline? It's intimidating. To operate equipment like this requires special skills that average disciples do not possess. It takes more professionally trained personnel to sit at the controls of a great machine than it does to dig with a pick and shovel. Therefore, spiritual "specialists" will have to be sought and found, bought and paid for, in order to have someone capable of handling this kind of machinery. When the Ditch-digger grows bigger in size and accessories, then a large "staff" of support personnel will likewise have to be employed just to maintain the system. Professional people cost money; in some cases lots of money. This means even more pressure will have to be put on the "faithful crew members" to attend the weekly rallies around the Machine and contribute generously the funds necessary to insure its ongoing and successful operation.
Where will these professionally trained people come from? Somewhere, somehow, they are going to have to learn the ins and outs, the nuts and bolts, of mechanized ditchdiggers. The next step is unavoidable. Schools that are "Crew-related" will have to be established. There an elite corps of mechanical "Ministers" can be educated in the art (or craft) of running a sophisticated ditchdigging machine. These schools must in turn be staffed with yet another set of professional folks.
Keep in mind that all these good people are in the business, not of actually digging the ditch that Jesus said dig, but of keeping the Ditchdigger in each community shiny and "scriptural," well oiled and running smoothly, performing its wonders to the glory of God. The function of these schools is to provide qualified professional ditchdigger operations. In truth the Ditchdigger is now what does the work. The people who originally were called to the task, and for this reason were known as the "crew of Christ," have long since forgotten the purpose of their call. Today they see as their supreme, if not SOLE, duty the task of seeing to it, one way or another, that the Ditchdigger (or the "Crew of Christ" as they are now fond of calling it) functions successfully.
To make matters worse, by this time other professed believers in the neighborhood have set up Ditchdiggers also. In fact "we" got our idea of having a Ditchdigger from them, rather than the other way around. In any event the entire countryside is now filled, not with busy disciples bowed low in the ditch, but with a few huge Ditchdiggers. Strategically situated on the best corner lots, these Machines are chugging away, throwing dirt everywhere. (The ditch, by the way, looks simply awful.) These assorted Ditchdiggers have different configurations, they come in all sizes and colors and wear a variety of brand names. Some are named in honor of their primary engineer. Some are identified by their particular method of operation, or the way they are run. To make them appear more sacred some have been given names taken more or less out of the Scriptures. One Ditchdigger is called "The Crew of God." Another, "The Christian Crew." Still another is given the title "The Crew of Christ." As matters now stand the people who were called to be laborers for the Lord are working hardly at all. They spend most of their time arguing with one another over whose Ditchdigger is the most "scriptural." Each worker naturally feels the Digger to which he is attached is the right one. Therefore each worker feels a certain obligation, not to busy himself with digging the ditch, but to try to "convert" all others to his brand of Digger.
Should some lowly disciple suggest abandoning ALL these Machines (for they are not mentioned in the New Testament regardless of what Bible names we have blessed them with), and everyone get busy again personally throwing dirt out of the ditch, that is to say, everyone get back to BEING the "crew of Christ" in the true sense of the word, he is met with a loud chorus of boos. Such people are ridiculed as cranks and trouble-makers. Most all the Mechanical Ministers who run the Diggers are totally against the idea. Without a Ditchdigger they are out of a job. Most modern "Crew Members" are also opposed to the idea. Because without a Ditchdigger working on their behalf they will have no ditch to point to with pride - unless they get back to work and dig it themselves. And of course they have no intention of doing this. So, the big Ditchdiggers are safe. They have plenty of supporters. They keep on churning, making a lot of noise, mostly on Sunday, occasionally turning up a few clods that quickly fall back into the ditch. The devil laughs at the scene. Jesus weeps. The public makes fun. The preachers clap and call it "Christianity." But is it? REALLY?