By Rev. Carrie A.H. Benton
Mountain Lakes Presbyterian Church 

Church for Groucho Marx: A Quest


It could have been any day, I do not remember exactly, but the conversation was not new in its content.  I was visiting with a person about the value of participating in the life of a church.  Various reasons were given for not doing so:  lightning might strike, the walls might fall in, too many hypocrites (“I know what they’re like when they’re not at church.”), etc. 

I quoted Jesus’ response to the Pharisees and legal experts who complained about his eating and drinking with sinners and tax collectors: “Healthy people don’t need a doctor, but sick people do.  I didn’t come to call righteous people but sinners to change their hearts and lives” (Luke 5:31-32 CEB).  The man quoted Groucho Marx as an end to that conversation: “I refuse to join any club that would have me as a member.”  This would not be the last time this sort of conversation would occur, and even if the Marx quote is not used, it always comes to mind.

I have wrestled with many questions raised by this quote, particularly when it is applied to churches.  What is implied, what assumptions are being made?  That church is a club?  That a person has to have it all together first before being part of a church?  That church folks (or religious folks in general) pretend to have it all together?  Is this judgment of churches accurate or fair?  These questions have inspired what I’m calling, “Church for Groucho Marx:  A Quest.”  I do not know how long this quest will be, nor in what directions it may lead.  I ask you, dear friends, to come with me anyway.

First, let’s get the obvious out of the way.  Marx was Jewish, born in New York City in 1890.  This quest is not about converting a Jewish man.  I am quite wary of the notion that Christianity somehow supersedes Judaism.  No, it’s about the heart-breaking reasons people become critical and suspicious of churches.  Second, I am not looking for an actual, already-existing church per se.  Rather, I am curious about people’s stories, those experiences that have shaped them, the desires and hopes for relationships with spiritual depth.

As a first step in this quest, let’s examine the usage of the word, “church.”  Church comes from the Greek, ekklesia.  As it is used in the Bible, it tends to mean people who gather together, who form community, who share common beliefs.  Early Greek-speaking Christians took on this term in order to affirm continuity with Israel by using a term found in Greek translations of the Hebrew Scriptures.  Also, since they were under sharp scrutiny, they did not want to be accused in political circles of being a disorderly group.**  

For the sake of the quest, then, when I use the term “church,” I am referring primarily to a group of people who come together, who form relationships and connections with those gathered, who share a common hope and desire for a deep life.  Perhaps it could be “church” of this sort for Groucho Marx?  We shall see…

**Source:  A Greek-English Lexicon of the New Testament and Other Early Christian Literature, 3rd ed. (BDAG).  University of Chicago Press: Chicago (2000).


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