The Groucho Marx Theory of Church

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I have a suggestion for all pastors. The next time someone comes to you and says they are going to leave the church because they don’t agree with some thing in the church, tell them you believe in “the Groucho Marx theory of church.” Groucho was the Vaudeville comedian of the last century who was […]

I have a suggestion for all pastors. The next time someone comes to you and says they are going to leave the church because they don’t agree with some thing in the church, tell them you believe in “the Groucho Marx theory of church.” Groucho was the Vaudeville comedian of the last century who was famous for saying the line “I don’t want to belong to any club that would have me as a member.” I’d translate this to say “I don’t want to belong to any church that agrees with me on everything.” To me the truth of this statement is not only profoundly Scriptural, it is what makes mission possible. I call it the Groucho Marx theory of church for short. Let me explain.

I consider it a bad sign if I am part of a church where I agree with everything going on at the church.  And it’s probably even worse, if the church (as a whole) appears to agree with me on everything. For this would mean that either I have chosen this church because this church body fits perfectly with what I want and or think, or that this church is really trying to please too much – being all things to all people. It is also possible (if I am pastoring in this church) that I have so dominated this said church that no one will disagree with me. In which case it just appears no one disagrees with me.  In all these cases I consider such circumstances to disqualify this social entity from being the church engaged with the world. There’s only one way such placid agreement could take place over a whole church body and that is if the church is not seriously engaged in living out the Kingdom amidst the nitty gritty challenges of everyday life.

Of course, there is a small caveat here – that would be “orthodoxy.” I do understand that we must all agree around the core essentials of our faith. But, come on! Can we admit that most of the disagreements and the reasons why people leave their churches is not over creedal orthodoxy. They are secondary and tertiary issues of working out the gospel for our church in engaging the world.

And so (with this one caveat in mind) I would say to this member, “OK.  I understand what you’re saying. But, in your search for a new church, I am going to pray that you will not find a church in which you agree with everything going on it.” Why? “Because I assent to “the Groucho Marx theory of the church” which means if you ever did find such a church, you would be doomed to a life where you will not grow and/or learn how to engage the new and challenging issues of living in a world.”

Matt 18:15-20, gives us directions for what I (and Yoder to an extent) call a social sacrament. Basically, Matthew 18 teaches us that when there is sin amidst us in the church we are to go to the person sinning. If there is no agreement, we are to bring in a third party. If still no agreement still, we are to go to wider church for discerning. Yoder, showed how this “binding and loosing” process is about more than just sin against someone else. It is discernment of right and wrong, of which way we as a community should go from here. And when we do it in submission one to another under His Lordship (“in his name”), Christ’s presence, His authority becomes manifest (“I am there with you”).  This is why it is socially sacramental. When we come to agreement on anything under His authority, “what is bound on earth shall be bound in heaven, loosed on earth shall be loosed in heaven.” The very authority of the right hand (the Kingdom) shall be made manifest. We come to agreement, recognize sin, we grow, we make decisions as how to go forward. The Kingdom breaks in. We do this out of mutual submission to Scripture, the Holy Spirit at work in the gifts as recognized (including those recognized to teach) among us. And the future directions of our lives are changed forever and we are thrust into middle of His mission/His rule in the world.

This means that if we always agree on everything a.) we are never sinning, and/or b.) we are not engaging new territories from which new situations arise upon which we have yet to forge an agreement. In the case of a.) we are living a lie and robbing our lives of God’s work of sanctification among us. In the case of b.) we are not engaging the world and therefore robbing our lives and the world of God’s mission. In either case, we have stopped being the church.

This, in summary, is why I buy in to “the Groucho Marx theory of the church.” This is why I challenge every pastor and leader to use “the Groucho Marx theory of the church in engaging people who leave upon disagreement in stead of engaging it. You?

P.S. I also want to fully bless those who seriously engage in the work of mutual submission/Matt18: 15-20, and out of that process discern they are called to leave their church! That’s the good work of the Kingdom as well! This post addresses the many who just leave over disagreement.  

David Fitch David Fitch is a bi-vocational pastor at Life on the Vine and the B.R. Lindner Chair of Evangelical Theology at Northern Seminary.

More from David Fitch or visit David at http://reclaimingthemission.com

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