January 21, 2021

iMonk Classic: The Little Brothers of Saint Archie Bunker

Classic iMonk Post
by Michael Spencer

We didn’t crawl out from under no rocks. We didn’t have no tails. And we didn’t come from monkeys you atheist pinko meathead.

It ain’t supposed to make sense; it’s faith. Faith is something that you believe that nobody in his right mind would believe.”

• Archie Bunker

I used to watch “All In The Family” with my dad. It was strange. Strange because my dad was the virtual clone of Archie Bunker (and my mother the twin of Edith), and all the comedy- which I increasingly found both hilarious and truthful- usually went right past him.

Archie was perhaps the greatest practitioner of the art of argumentation ever portrayed on stage or screen. He had all the necessary gifts. He believed himself to be more knowledgeable on any subject than anyone else in the room. He had a vocabulary that ran circles around a normal person. He was never daunted by logic, compassion, or mercy. No, he pressed on, wagging his finger–or cigar–in your face, making his points, calling Mike a meathead or the neighbor an idiot or worse.

Archie loved an argument the way most people love dessert. At the slightest provocation, he bullishly inserted his opinion and denigrated yours. Reality, facts, common sense, sheer numbers of opponents—none of it made a dent in Archie. Inventing and redefining terms was an art form with him. It was Archie who explained that male behavior was determined by khromostones, and later discovered both his-mones and her-mones. When he found humility, it was always his special variety: “The only thing that holds a marriage together is the husband bein’ big enough to keep his mouth shut, to step back and see where his wife is wrong.”

I’ve decided that Archie Bunker is the patron saint of Christians who can’t stop making their point. Christians who love to argue. Christians who can’t stand it that someone somewhere disagrees with them. Christians who are caught up in theological controversy like University of Kentucky basketball fans are caught up in defending their team. Christians who have to correct everyone the way obsessed Lord of the Rings fans must correct any deviation from the Holy Canons of Tolkien. Christians who can’t rest easy if someone somewhere is not understanding, reading, or getting “it,” whatever “it” happens to be.

Like the guy I once had over for dinner. I was pastoring and looking for some non-congregational fellowship, so Denise and I invited over this Reformed Baptist pastor and his wife for a meal and some conversation. No Amway talks. No counseling appointments. Just dinner.

After the meal, this young pastor and I walked across the road from the parsonage to the church and to my study. And that’s when it happened. Right there in my chair, still digesting the chicken, this guy starts challenging my call to the ministry, and eventually, my salvation.

I said something about wishing our church had elders. Saint Archie Bunker was apparently praying for me, because the young pastor started in without mercy. If you know that the Bible teaches elders, how can you pastor a church that doesn’t have elders? You need to make this change now, or resign immediately. If you haven’t obeyed the truth you know, aren’t you a false shepherd? (Yes, a false shepherd!) And if you willfully continue in sin, and don’t repent, aren’t you actually an apostate? Believe me, he did a much better job than I just did!

If you want to know what I said, I believe I profoundly sat there making strange shapes with my lips, sighing and thinking how I could get this guy into his car and across the county line.

Now, here is the tragic thing. The young man didn’t need to do this. He could have said all this to his wife driving home. He could have given me a book or a tape. I like gifts. He could have invited us over for dinner, gotten to know me and eventually asked those questions in an intelligent way.  But no–he had to get in my face right then. He had to spurn my hospitality and ignore my desire for fellowship. He had to pass any chance to encourage or influence me long term in order to confront me as soon as possible.

That’s sad, or sick, whichever you prefer. And it’s too common among some theologically smart, Biblically sharp people. The little brothers of Saint Archie Bunker, I call them.

I meet Calvinists who have no control over their need to make all Biblical discussions turn into debates on predestination. There are young earth creationists who hunt down anything that smells like a less-than-literal view of Genesis one and label it evolution. Pentecostal/Charismatics have all varieties of little brothers of Saint Archie who can’t stand it that someone isn’t riding the latest wave of the Holy Spirit into last days revival. Seminary students who can’t understand why there is anyone refusing to read N.T. Wright, and hand-wringers staying up nights writing letters to people who do read N.T. Wright.

There are political types who won’t shut up, and Dobson types who won’t leave you alone, and don’t even start on those people caught up in the euphoria of the latest evangelical product, and have to make sure any peaceful gathering is subjected to commercials and testimonials.

Are religious enthusiasts just naturally obnoxious? Or do certain forms of Christianity attract people who have an insatiable need to impose their beliefs on others? Do some of us simply have nothing on the the mental dashboard that registers “too intense?”

It is a fact that any religion worth ten cents carries the warning label “Caution! Adherents may become convinced they are right, and feel obligated to make you a project.” Many forms of evangelicalism encourage things like cold-case confrontations and manipulating conversations in the name of persuasion, so that obnoxious and obsessed types may get the bonus of feeling they are “bold witnesses” for the truth. In fact, they are just a case of bad manners, and everyone is usually relieved when they go home.

Here’s the real hazard: Isn’t it the case that the truth is so valuable, and so important, and so crucial, that pushing people out of their comfort zones is just a way of getting people to think and consider issues they usually avoid? My rude dinner guest was warning me that I was violating the revealed truth of God, and doing it without considering the possible consequences of my errors and apostasy. It would be unloving to not press the issue.

When someone continually, incessantly presses the issue of the sovereignty of God, or the nature of the sacraments or the errors of the New Perspective on Paul, aren’t they doing the loving, truthful thing that we all ought to be doing? When the little brothers of Saint Archie won’t let us go home without hearing them out, aren’t they showing us that the truth matters, and my discomfort is only because I’m avoiding the real implications of the truth?

No. That is NOT the way it is.

First, let’s clear up a couple of things. I am not a relativist, and I’m not going to write that essay. But I don’t believe anyone has quite the grip on the truth these people seem to imagine they have. Their enthusiasm is blinding them to an undeniable truth–no one holds the truth perfectly, and all of our lives are rift with error, inconsistency, hypocrisy and ignorance.

Now, if we can remember that, I think it will come out like this. Truth is “out there.” God has revealed it. Sometimes, He reveals it to us. We can grasp it. But not perfectly, not consistently and not as purely as we think. We have to match our belief in the truth with a humility about ourselves. Knowing the truth is a privilege, a miracle. It may never happen to us again, and we may abandon what truth we have. Let’s be humble, grateful, and kind, because most of us aren’t walking advertisements for the truth of anything other than depravity.

(It’s particularly revealing how annoying zealots can get to the big issues from any small one. Notice how my pastor buddy was able to get to my salvation directly through the issue of elders? It’s a fun game to play. Just how big a thing can you find hiding in plain sight in the smallest matter of disagreement? Does the whole doctrine of Christ really depend on the details of how I explain justification? Is my entire doctrine of inspiration at stake in my view of the age of the earth?)

Secondly, let’s remember that argument is neither a witness nor a favor if it isn’t invited. If someone asks for the Archie Bunker treatment, then by all means play the defender of the faith or the great salesman. But if he didn’t ask for it, if you brought it up as a way of asserting your knowledge, your superior understanding and your devotion to the cause, you may, just may, be a jerk. As someone said, when a baby gets a hammer, everything’s a nail. Don’t be the baby, and don’t make other people the nail.

So you care about these things. You care so much that you can’t contain your knowledge or excitement or insight. Then ask yourself how to introduce the subject with some class, some kindness, and maybe some love and humility. It’s not a bad time to ask “What would Jesus do?” and don’t assume everyone is the Pharisees and it’s Matthew 23 time.

A few years ago, I started to figure something out. There were people who didn’t want to be around me. Not many, but some. Now it wasn’t hard to engage in all the usual justifications and criticisms to deal with that, and I could easily blow it all off. It wasn’t that I was being rejected, just avoided. At some point, through an offhand comment made by a much older friend, I realized something clearly. I was always making these people listen to my opinions, my arguments, and my insights about everything. They were uncomfortable. I thought it was all important and insightful. They wanted a pleasant lunch.

These were some of the people we’d had in our home for meals who had never reciprocated, and I was starting to suspect why.  I was too much. I came on too strong. My opinions. My insights. My own horn being played loudly and too long in your ear.

Could it be that that if your religion has turned you into a neurotic, others might not want to join it? They might turn out like you.

I’m better now. (I’ve given up on real people and just write all my arrogant wise-yammering on here.)

Third, the truth, even when it’s true, can be cruel. And it’s wrong–sinful, my pastor friend–to be cruel with the truth. It’s a simple lesson in ethics. We don’t tell a drooling madman with an ax where our children are, even if he asks and even if we believe it is wrong to be less than truthful. We don’t have to say everything we think about Sister Bertha’s suddenly purple hair or Brother Eddie’s hair that appeared out of nowhere. We don’t have to say everything we think our kids need to hear when they do something wrong. The employee under us isn’t being treated right when we scour her every action for fault and announce it to her at the beginning of each conversation.

And it is not right, or loving or good, to bring the truth of your own theological or Biblical insights into every situation that strikes you. That may just roll over you the wrong way, and you may have scripture to back up your view. But I’m going to stand by that one. What’s needed is an apt word. A timely word. A patient word. A word heard in the context of respect and relationship. What’s not needed is the blinding light of opinion–or even truth–carried along by human energy rather than spiritual timing and preparation.

Part of my strong feeling on this subject comes from working around teenagers from Christian homes. Many of the students I deal with are rebellious kids from strong Christian families. In general, the parents are usually “right” in their issues with these kids, and the kids are usually “wrong” in their responses. No argument from me there. Still, I continually see examples of parents who are obsessed with their teenagers hearing the Bible, being in church, adopting Christian mores and culture, submitting to various Christian rituals and activities. And these parents, as “right” as they are, are as “wrong” as they can be in pressing their case with all the qualities of Saint Archie Bunker.  I frequently find myself emotionally siding with the kids, and telling the parents this profound piece of counseling advice: “Lay off, will ya?”

“Lay off, will ya?” is a very good word, but we need to add one more to it. Sovereignty. Particularly, God’s sovereignty over timing, and over changing hearts and minds.

It is wretched urgency to act as if it all depends on us. It is similar desperation to act as if God needs us to win his battles with our weapons. It is arrogant to act as if our every word and method were His own choice for how people are to be brought to the truth. If we believe in the truth, and if we have confidence in a sovereign God who orders all things to His glory, then can we rest in His timing? Rest, be humble. Wait and win respect. Trust, and follow–rather than force–God’s hand.

It would be far better if we enjoyed the truths we believe, rather than if it appeared we are made anxious by the need to convert others to those truths. Delighting in, exulting in and savoring the truth we believe is a God-honoring witness free from the ministry of Saint Archie. If we yearn for others to know the truth, then may that truth satisfy our own yearnings, even the yearning to be heard and be right. May it bring, as Peter said, the welcome questions that seek to know of the hope that is in us, and why it is a source of joy. It really helps when it IS a source of joy.

And if it doesn’t bring us to that fountain of joy, and bring us delight, trust, worship, and peace, why are we talking about it anyway?


  1. So this is, perhaps, where Michael first started using the phrase “wretched urgency”? I love his description – that wretched urgency is acting as if it all depended on us.

    And I suspect we’re all met more than a few members of the Order of Saint Archie Bunker. 😉

  2. Guilty

    • me too, but hopefully improving…just observing both the best and worst as IM describes them right here on this very blog is a real learning experience

  3. Isn’t this a wonderful post! I particularly like: “Let’s be humble, grateful, and kind, because most of us aren’t walking advertisements for the truth of anything other than depravity.” As well as: “And if it doesn’t bring us to that fountain of joy, and bring us delight, trust, worship, and peace, why are we talking about it anyway?”

  4. At first I didn’t like All in the Family primarily b/c Archie was SO obnoxious, but as the show progressed so did the characters. They eventually became three dimensional. In that way I consider it to be an American classic of dramatic story telling. As he grew in his interactions he began to hear from them, and that changed him. He still had his moments to be sure, but in doing this Carl Reiner made him and the other characters less black and white and much more nuanced. Reiner was brilliant to pair off Archie with Meathead, his ideological antagonist with his equally narrow absolute certainties.

    Oh, as an aside, in the post, when Michael mentioned that the dinner was with a Reformed Baptist pastor, I literally laughed out loud. And yes, my laughter was from experience. Not universally mind you. I’ve known RB pastors who don’t act this way. But the caricature is there for a reason. There’s a strange evolutionary synthesis that occurs when reformed theology marries baptistic convictions that seems to lead to a legalistic and accusatory attitude that is anything but an expression of “grace.” Metaphysical certitude meeting total depravity can do strange things.

    • I strongly agree with your point about the marriage of reformed theology and Baptist convictions. My whole problem with Reformed Baptists isn’t necessarily their theology, but when they try to merge baptist fundamentalism with Calvinist ideals, disaster always ensues.

      I am convinced Calvinism must be married to Reformed Ecclesiology tradition.

      • Ditto. Fundamentalistic assurances combined with particularistic ecclesiologies never end well. And I agree on their theology as well. I just see every expression as being …. (pick your poison)

        • Amen. From hard, bitter experience. I have a couple of RB knives in my back.

          • I have a co-worker who is a reformed baptist, self professed Calvanist who swears to me that no one can ever be “good enough” in the eyes of God and that God is a God of vengeance and punishment. He also states that, essentially, Jesus’ message was “worship me or I’ll destroy you”. Isn’t it amazing how easily human arrogance can completely pervert a simple message of love?

    • Cedric Klein says

      Just to give credit where credit is due, Norman Lear created All in the Family, not Carl Reiner.
      However, Carl Reiner did co-operate in the creation of Rob Reiner, who played Michael Stivic.

  5. Amen, and can I get a WITNESS here? 🙂

    Considering St. Archie has made a visit or two to the comments of this blog from time to time, yeah, it was time to rerun this article. (And I’m keeping a copy to reread a few months down the road to remind me that I should keep my mouth shut from time to time…)
    Thank you!

  6. Growing up in a home as MS described–parents right, children wrong–allowed me to see the error of this and raise my own children differently…mainly, I let them speak their opinions and dialogue about it. God is bigger than my ever so small attempt at molding them. Once I realized I was ‘a walking advertisement for depravity’ it set me free to let God be their parent–He loved them and knew them WAY more than I ever could. Raising them this way was the most freeing thing–I didn’t have to be right!!! And I still don’t (they’re in college).
    LOVED THIS POST. Thank you for rerunning it:)

  7. Is it me or is it just supremely ironic that those most proudly proclaiming “total depravity” are proclaiming just as proudly their proud ascertains concerning certain “certain” truths in light of that theological insight regarding our deep intellectual darkening because of the fall? And once again, I say this as a self professing Calvinist. But I now say this as someone who knows knows more deeply that any “knowledge” is partial and only graciously given. Thus I “must” consider every other perspective, since I “know” that even my own may be darkened by both my finitude and brokenness. In that sense, I finally feel like I’m being a consistent Calvinist. In our hearts, we all harbor Archie.

  8. I love the story of the Israelites, they kept sinning and God forgave them. Then the 12 apostles, they were with Jesus for 3 years and still didn’t get it!! This gives me hope, that with all my short comings, I am still loved and saved. Sometimes I may make Archie look good and sometimes I surprise myself, With Jesus’s help. PTL.

  9. Great post, reminds me of why I need to keep trying to resist the urge to ramble about my dislike for dispensationalism.

  10. Religious beliefs and convictions tempered by humility, compassion, and simple manners. What a concept! Maybe it will catch on.

  11. I too agree that this was a great post! It provides great motivation for self examination. Or at least it should. I am reminded of two quotes from from a couple of significant historical figures. I can’t footnote these but Mark Twain once said “that its better to keep your mouth shut and have people think you are a fool than to open your mouth and remove all doubt.” And I’ve heard it attributed to St. Augustine that we should “preach the gospel daily……..use words if necessary.”

    I’ve seen numerous occasions where those in the very conservative or fundamentalist camps get rather “aggressive” in their verbal evangelistic/witnessing endeavors. Given my theological upbringing, I have been guilty myself. But many years ago the verse that MS alludes to at the end of his post caught my attention (1 Peter 3:15). We should always ask ourselves if we are living a life that prompts the question. But the part of the verse that Michael left out was the “how” in our response, i.e., gentleness and respect. A concept foreign to many Christians as they try to impart the “truth” to those they think don’t have it. Being rude and inconsiderate is always a hinderance to the gospel.

    In keeping with Augustine’s thought, there are times when our words should be few or none.

  12. Tony Russell says

    I wonder just how the world is going to go on turning without Michael Spencer.

    I was particularly interested in his “This is not a Matthew 23 moment.”

    I’m a relatively new Christian. My jaw dropped when I read Matthew 23 for the first time. It did again the next day when I was standing outside the church I had been thinking of attending and I saw that the preacher was Father John something or other.

    Just how do we apply that verse? The church elder I asked a long time afterwards mumbled something like, “We must guard against simplistic interpretations of Scripture,” and scuttled off, I think now that it is because he would rather like to be called “Father”.

    And how do we apply the whole chapter? I’d appreciate any help you folks can give.


  13. VolAlongTheWatchTower says

    Just this week, fittingly enough, I heard John MacArthur, fresh in the intense afterglow of one his “Everything with a pulse, even Jon Edwards & Cotton Mather, are DAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAMNED!” routines make the statement to a question akin to “We cannot be polite when people’s SOULS are at stake.” Long question short, what would iMonk say?

  14. With all due respect to the memory of Michael Spencer (whom I genuinely liked and still like), isn’t there just a little projection going on here?

    As for the issue he’s addressing, Jesus’ prescription would go a long way, since it was given to religious leaders who complained about him eating with tax collectors and ‘sinners’ (not unlike Michael’s dinner guest complaining about all the things he did): “Go and learn what this means: ‘I desire mercy, not sacrifice.’ For I have not come to call the righteous, but sinners.” (Matt. 9:13)

  15. Very well put – both challenging and encouraging. The little brothers AND sister of St Archie are one of the reasons why I stepped down from ministry after 23 years. As one siad – do people know what we stand for (Jesus) or are we only know for what we stand against (sometimes “untruth” but mostly preferences!). thanks for reposting this great piece.

  16. I do not think we can discount the number of young people who are driven away from the church, either. Being accosted and verbally beaten up by Christians seeking to save me from hell during my childhood turned me off of church for a long time.

    Because when you come to me and tell me you have a better way, I had better be able to look at your life and see some indication of holiness as a reason to believe you.

    I can use words to prove up is down and right is left. Lawyers and preachers do it all the time.

    If you know the way to God, I will see it in your actions.

    • Eddie Scizzard says

      “Being accosted and verbally beaten up by Christians seeking to save me from hell during my childhood turned me off of church for a long time.”

      it hasn’t stopped turning me off.

  17. This was one of my favorite iMonk articles ever. It does make me re-examine and re-evaluate myself. Michael summed it up best when he stated

    “I’ve decided that Archie Bunker is the patron saint of Christians who can’t stop making their point. Christians who love to argue. Christians who can’t stand it that someone somewhere disagrees with them.”

    Been around way too many of those who must live in an “culture of agreement” and the causalities are devastating to say the least.

  18. This kind of reminds me of a Rich Mullins quote:

    “I think if we were given the scriptures it was not so that we could prove that we were right about everything. If we were given the scriptures it was to humble us into realizing that God is right and the rest of us are just guessing. Which is what makes them so much fun to read, especially if you are not a fundamentalist.”

  19. “(It’s particularly revealing how annoying zealots can get to the big issues from any small one. Notice how my pastor buddy was able to get to my salvation directly through the issue of elders? It’s a fun game to play. Just how big a thing can you find hiding in plain sight in the smallest matter of disagreement? Does the whole doctrine of Christ really depend on the details of how I explain justification? Is my entire doctrine of inspiration at stake in my view of the age of the earth?)”

    Just came across this on a young friends Facebook status a couple of days ago:

    “To reject the biblical view of atonement is to reject the atonement itself. To reject the atonement is to reject Christ. To reject Christ is to perish in your sin.”

    Who can claim to have such a corner on the truth as to be holding “the biblical view” of anything?

    Michael nailed it in describing many evangelicals’ propensity to make such arguments! I’ve been declared a heretic and shunned by family members as not being a brother in Christ for even considering a Christus Victor view of the atonement vs. their Penal Substitution view. But perhaps even worse in their minds was my guilt by association for quoting from Paul Young in “The Shack”, or worse yet, Catholics like Brennan Manning, Richard Rohr, Henri Nouwen, or Thomas Merton.

    Such attitudes and actions pain my heart, as only one who has been the victim of the same can know! Unless it is one who has been the perpetrator of such Archie Bunkerist behavior (and I have!), and who is living with the regret of that, even though forgiven…

  20. Ouch, ouch

    I have been a repenting Archie for years, and this article reminds me I still have a way to go.

    The problem is that truth does not automaticaly bring humility.

  21. arpritchett says

    Many folks who were rabid arm chair Calvinist theologians in the Archie Bunker vein a few years ago have learned this lesson, including me. Many of us learned it not from this post, but from losing friendships. I never lost a friend over it personally, but I watched a few train wrecks and realized I could have caused them myself.

    Theistic evolutionists and anti-Calvinists should take heed to these words.

  22. My son and I are autistic. We tend to be Archie Bunkers. We can learn not to be so but this is very difficult.

  23. I am STUNNED, STUNNED I tell you at all this questioning about Saint Archie! You all need to repent!!
    When he preached out the book of Generous about Adam and Eve in the garden and being deceived by the serpent, God told them to get dressed and get the hell out of there! Folks you can’t get that kind of preaching anywhere today from any reformed baptist or penetecostal because they ain’t smart enough to preach the truth!
    All i know if we had more like Archie preaching today, many would tell us” bit by bit piece by piece you are tearing my heart out,” to which we could then respond, ” I don’t care! ” Oh wait……
    With tongue firmly planted.

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