The Little Brothers of Saint Archie
How to argue theology till no one but the cows
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 ainít supposed to make sense; itís faith. Faith is something that you believe that nobody in his right mind would believe."-- Archie Bunker
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
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
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
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
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
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.
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
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
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.
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
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,
most of us aren't walking advertisements for the truth of anything
other than depravity.
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?)
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.
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
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?