C.S. Lewis opens his 1948 essay, “Priestesses in the Church?” with an amusing exchange from Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice:¹
I should like Balls infinitely better,” said Caroline Bingley, “if they were carried on in a different manner. . . . It would surely be much more rational if conversation instead of dancing made the order of the day.”
Much more rational, I dare say,” replied her brother, “but it would not be near so much like a Ball.
On its face, Caroline Bingley’s lament seems eminently reasonable. She is proposing, after all, at least literally speaking, the more rational arrangement: sensible conversation in the place of impractical dance, an equality of give and take instead of lead and follow, the engagement of two minds transcending the body.
By the very way she makes her statement, Caroline no doubt realizes she is prescribing a ball that would revolutionize it, and her statement could itself be read as nothing more than a tongue-in-cheek remark.
But the comedy and genius of her brother’s reply are found in his frank accounting of the obvious. To replace dance with conversation at the ball is to no longer have a ball, but something else altogether. And Austen allows Caroline no reply.
Lewis tells us he was reminded of this episode when he confronted the reality that some were calling for female ordination to the priesthood in the Anglican Church. He wrote his essay to chasten the church against the idea, because in it he saw a great upheaval, a revolution that would remake the very nature of the church, possibly into something else altogether.²
In 1948, a woman of some notoriety was making the now-popular and bluntly rational—in Caroline Bingley’s sense of that word—argument that since men and women are equal, they should share equally in access to the priesthood. Lewis writes,
Lady Nunburnholme has claimed that the equality of men and women is a Christian principle. I do not remember the text in scripture nor the Fathers, nor Hooker, nor the Prayer Book which asserts it; but that is not here my point. The point is that unless ‘equal’ means ‘interchangeable’, equality makes nothing for the priesthood of women. And the kind of equality which implies that the equals are interchangeable (like counters or identical machines) is, among humans, a legal fiction. It may be a useful legal fiction. But in church we turn our back on fictions. One of the ends for which sex was created was to symbolize to us the hidden things of God. One of the functions of human marriage is to express the nature of the union between Christ and the Church. We have no authority to take the living and semitive figures which God has painted on the canvas of our nature and shift them about as if they were mere geometrical figures.³
For Lady Nunburnholme, female ordination flows logically from the Christian principle that men and women are equal. In response, Lewis puts his finger on a crucial concept that we would do well to consider anew.
Are men and women equal? If by equality one means that men and women are created in God’s image with equal measure of dignity and worth, then yes, men and women are equal. But are men and women equal in every respect? E.g., in composite strength? In testosterone levels? In ability to bear children? In these considerations we arrive close to the heart of Lewis’s perceptive resistance to the bald and uncontextualized leveraging of the Christian principle of equality between men and women toward female ordination. And I contend it is a failure to reckon with such considerations that lies at the heart of the breakdown of the biblical norms and the natural order with respect to the church, marriage and the family, and even our concept of sexed personhood.
Are men and women interchangeable? The cultured impulse (an impulse toward which I myself feel conditioned) is to answer with an unequivocal yes. Annie with the gun has been teaching us as much since the ‘50’s: not only can she do anything a man can, but she can do it better. But we could come at the same concept from a different angle and ask, are men and women different? Surely only the most zealous LGBT activists would insist the answer is an unqualified no. But the project of many generations of gender revisionists has been to downplay or erase differences between the sexes. This project defies nature itself and runs up against the most fundamental of principles.
Spot the Difference worksheets are a staple in many elementary classrooms. Anyone who attended public school or spent any time in children’s Sunday School is probably familiar with the concept: given two very similar but slightly differing pictures, can you find and circle all the differences? At first glance the pictures appear identical, but a closer study reveals several dissimilarities. Elementary students are assigned these exercises because they encourage and hone the development of the innate and basic ability to compare and contrast. Have we forgotten, or are we actively trying to forget how to spot the differences between men and women?
One of the most basic, natural differences that one can observe between men and women is the way sex is manifest in male and female biological organization. Simply put, to be a woman is to have sexed genetics that develop internal sex organs, including a womb. Conversely, to be a man is to have sexed genetics that develop external sex organs. In this form is rooted a function.
The internal/external dichotomy between the sexes grounds descriptive accounts of the sexes. In his book On the Meaning of Sex, J. Budziszewski summarizes masculinity and femininity, or manhood and womanhood, with the concepts of fatherhood and motherhood.⁴ Women, in their essence, have the potentiality for motherhood and everything attendant. Men, in their essence, have the potentiality for fatherhood and everything attendant. This is not to ignore the many similarities between men and women, as a first glance recognizes with the two pictures on a Spot the Difference worksheet. To be sure, male and female are two kinds of humanity—what they share in common binds them together under one classification: mankind. But a mother is not a father, and the essential differences between the two flow from the essential differences between male and female.
Returning to our original consideration, in order for two entities to be strictly interchangeable, they have to be identical in both form and function. For example, a car can do much of what a truck can, but not everything a truck can do. In order for a car to be able to do what a truck can, it has to acquire a truck bed, perhaps a trailer hitch, a lift, and four-wheel drive. But then, much like a ball with no dancing, the car is no longer a car. It is a truck.
The relationship between form and function is not always immediately apparent. But considering why some objects have a certain form often reveals their intended function, and vice versa. A car has the form it does as distinguished from a truck because of its differentiated, yet overlapping, function. If this is true, attending to the form of the sexes would better inform their functions. And if one were unhappy with the differentiated nature of functions, what would one do? Attempt to alter the form.
In the introduction to her book Adam and Eve After the Pill, Mary Eberstadt writes, “No single event since Eve took the apple has been as consequential for relations between the sexes as the arrival of modern contraception.”⁵ How is such a claim sustained? Reflecting on the fundamental distinctions between men and women and what the womb epitomizes, in order for the claim of no difference or interchangeability to hold water, the womb must be neutered, so to speak. In so doing, the legal fiction of male and female interchangeability begins to seem plausible. Have you ever wondered why the feminist project has been so invested in contraceptive and abortifacient technological developments?
I would suggest it is not merely a coincidence that Protestantism’s near-wholesale embrace of modern contraceptive ideology corresponds to an embrace of female ordination, while Catholicism rejects both. Where the church has bought into the principle of male and female interchangeability, it has undercut its ability to withstand the onslaught of gender progressivism that challenges traditional gender roles, has already legally redefined marriage, and is now attempting to redefine personhood.
We have severed form from function and, as a result, have left both form and function up for redefinition. Instead of considering the innate connection between the natural order of male headship in the home and church and male and female natures, the egalitarian-equalitarian impulse has insisted—on the sole basis of the trump-all principle of equality—that men and women are functionally interchangeable in the home and the church.
This functional interchange paves the way for a formal one. If a woman can do anything a man can do in the home, why the need for a man in the home at all? Would not two women suffice? Would not two men? The fallacy of functional interchangeability leads to sexual interchangeability, and with it nothing less than the redefinition of society. The great upheaval Lewis rightly feared in the Anglican Church is just the beginning. The natural bonds of family are not immune to such radical redefinition.
On the horizon, and even now in our midst, is a crisis of personhood itself, of what it means to be an ensouled, sexed body. For the intersectional gender activist is not content with the triumph of the legalization of same-sex marriage. If men and women are interchangeable in both form and function, which today is sacrosanct truth in many quarters, then for a man to become a woman is no great feat. It is really no feat at all. They are interchangeable and thus indistinguishable already.
Thus we arrive at the ultimate Hegelian synthesis: man as woman, woman as man, androgynous bliss. The collectivist is pleased; more workers participating in the workforce (ironically, our society’s ultimate definition of liberation⁶), laboring indistinct side by side, the natural bonds of family defined down to oblivion, the state raising its neutered citizens with no natural devotion to any individual in particular. They are interchangeable, after all.
A quote attributed to the French feminist theorist Simone de Beauvoir, who influenced generations of feminist activists in the twentieth century, takes us to the doorstep of sex erasure, making the connection between functional feminist interchangeability and ontological interchangeability eminently clear:
In itself, homosexuality is as limiting as heterosexuality: the ideal should be to be capable of loving a woman or a man; either, a human being, without feeling fear, restraint, or obligation.⁷
It is perhaps no historical accident that Beauvoir had a relationally open romance with existentialist philosopher Jean-Paul Sartre, who in one of his lectures famously quipped,
Dostoevsky once wrote: “If God did not exist, everything would be permitted;” and that, for existentialism, is the starting point. Everything is indeed permitted if God does not exist, and man is in consequence forlorn.⁸
If God does not exist, then everything is permitted for the man or woman, even interchangeability. But if God does exist, then man and woman are who he says they are, and they are created for his purposes, form and function. “Shall the thing formed say to him that formed it, Why hast thou made me thus?” (Rom. 9:20, KJV)
In the conclusion of his essay, C.S. Lewis makes an appeal for a more humble and conservative posture when approaching the ball, or marriage, and the Church.
The Church ought to be more like a Ball than it is like a factory or a political party. Or, to speak more strictly, they are at the circumference and the Church at the Centre and the Ball comes in between. The factory and the political party are artificial creations – “a breath can make them as a breath has made”. In them we are not dealing with human beings in their concrete entirety only with “hands” or voters. I am not of course using “artificial” in any derogatory sense. Such artifices are necessary: but because they are our artifices we are free to shuffle, scrap and experiment as we please. But the Ball exists to stylize something which is natural and which concerns human beings in their entirety-namely, courtship. We cannot shuffle or tamper so much. With the Church, we are farther in: for there we are dealing with male and female not merely as facts of nature but as the live and awful shadows of realities utterly beyond our control and largely beyond our direct knowledge. Or rather, we are not dealing with them but (as we shall soon learn if we meddle) they are dealing with us.
Indeed. This is our starting point, for “it is God who made us, and not we ourselves.” (Ps. 100:3, NASB).
¹C.S. Lewis, “Priestesses in the Church,” in God in the Dock: Essays on Theology and Ethics, ed. Walter Hooper, (Grand Rapids: W.B. Eerdmans, 2014), 255–62.
²In 1976, 28 years after Lewis wrote his essay and just 13 years after his death, the first woman priest was ordained in the Church of England.
³Lewis, “Priestesses in the Church?” 259–60. Lewis, perhaps surprising to some, defends a “complementarian” theology of male headship in the family at the end of his chapter on marriage in Mere Christianity—emphasis on “mere.” Lewis writes even more directly in The Weight of Glory, “I do not believe that God created an egalitarian world. I believe the authority of parent over child, husband over wife, learned over simple to have been as much a part of the original plan as the authority of man over beast. I believe that if we had not fallen, Filmer would be right, and patriarchal monarchy would be the sole lawful government.” Lewis, The Weight of Glory, 168. Because Lewis so clearly and unequivocally grounds male headship in the family and the church in both natural law and the Scriptures, I find Alan Jacobs’s speculation that Lewis would “surely leave that subject alone, but in his time it had a different resonance, a different set of contexts” to be a stretch. Again, to take Lewis at his word, “We have no authority to take the living and semitive figures which God has painted on the canvas of our nature and shift them about as if they were mere geometrical figures.” Alan Jacobs, The Narnian: The Life and Imagination of C.S. Lewis, (New York: Harper One, 2005), 255.
⁴J. Budziszewski, On the Meaning of Sex (Wilmington, DE: Intercollegiate Studies Institute, 2012), 54–61. I was recently reminded of Budziszewski’s descriptions in this excellent review by Bobby Jameison. “Book Review: On the Meaning of Sex, by J. Budziszewski.” 9Marks, accessed February 16, 2019. https://www.9marks.org/review/book-review-on-the-meaning-of-sex-by-j-budziszewksi/
⁵Mary Eberstadt, Adam and Eve After the Pill (San Francisco: Ignatius Press, 2012), 11.
⁶Cf. Wendell Berry, “Feminism, the Body, and the Machine” Cross Currents 53.1 (Spring 2003), http://www.crosscurrents.org/berryspring2003.htm, accessed February 16, 2019. In his essay, Berry asks several provoking questions: “Why would any woman who would refuse, properly, to take the marital vow of obedience (on the ground, presumably, that subservience to a mere human being is beneath human dignity) then regard as “liberating” a job that puts her under the authority of a boss (man or woman) whose authority specifically requires and expects obedience? It is easy enough to see why women came to object to the role of Blondie, a mostly decorative custodian of a degraded, consumptive modern household, preoccupied with clothes, shopping, gossip, and outwitting her husband. But are we to assume that one may fittingly cease to be Blondie by becoming Dagwood? Is the life of a corporate underling— even acknowledging that corporate underlings are well paid—an acceptable end to our quest for human dignity and worth?”
⁷Quoted in Wayne M. Bryant, Bisexual Characters in Film: From Anaïs to Zee (New York: Routledge, 1997), 143
⁸Jean-Paul Sartre, “Existentialism Is a Humanism,” in Existentialism from Dostoyevsky to Sartre, Revised and Expanded, ed. Walter Kaufman (New York: Penguin, 1975), 353.
You, too, can help support the ministry of CBMW. We are a non-profit organization that is fully-funded by individual gifts and ministry partnerships. Your contribution will go directly toward the production of more gospel-centered, church-equipping resources.