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Topic: Complementarianism

C. S. Lewis, “Complementarian”

February 10, 2022

A few years back, I drew attention to C. S. Lewis’s “complementarian” argument on the question of ordaining women to the priesthood in the Anglican church. I would encourage everyone to read Lewis’s original essay, which is linked here — especially in light of the recent upsurge and interest in historical angles on the complementarian-egalitarian debate. I also rely on Lewis’s excellent reasoning in this essay for Eikon, “The Fallacy of Interchangeability.”

But recently I have been re-reading Lewis’s Mere Christianity with a class I am teaching, and I have been struck afresh by how, well, complementarian it is. Some readers are familiar with the complementarian nature of Lewis’s chapter on Christian marriage, which I excerpt at length below. But there is another surprising support for “complementarianism” that I had missed before that I want to highlight now. Before I do, I want to make two short points.

My first point has to do with the book’s title, Mere Christianity. This is crucial to understanding what Lewis is up to in the book. In his preface, Lewis gives us his famous and useful metaphor of Christianity as a great hall. Lewis’s hall represents the essentials of Christian orthodoxy. This hall in turn has several rooms off of it, each of which represent a different expression or denomination of Christianity. Now, we may quibble with what qualifies as a truly Christian denomination, or with how Lewis defines what belongs or doesn’t belong in a proper definition of Christian orthodoxy. But my point here is that what Lewis means to write about in Mere Christianity concerns this great hall, or what is common across all faithful expressions of Christian orthodoxy. This is no small point, and it brings me to my second.

Since Lewis is writing about Christian essentials, or mere Christianity, it should strike us as very significant that he includes a “complementarian” vision of marriage in his book about mere or essential Christianity. I use the word “complementarian” in quotes because although he wouldn’t have called his argument “complementarian” — he thought he was just relaying faithful, ordinary, run-of-the-mill Christianity — this is the word we use today to describe views like his. Lewis’s “complementarian” vision in Mere Christianity is most obvious in his chapter on Christian marriage (excerpted below), but when I was reading this time I noticed that it shows up elsewhere, too. Look what Lewis says about obedience to authority in his chapter on Social Morality:

[Christian society] is always insisting on obedience — obedience (and outward marks of respect) from all of us to properly appointed magistrates, from children to parents, and (I am afraid this is going to be very unpopular) from wives to husbands.

A few things about this quote. For one, Lewis assumes wives “obeying” their husbands is simply a given for a properly Christian society, just as is the obedience of citizens to magistrates and children to parents. He assumes this obedience, of course, because this is what the Bible teaches in places like Ephesians 5 and 1 Peter 3. But what is perhaps more striking is that even back then, in the 1940’s — note carefully that this is before the notorious 1950’s, and this is not the United States of America — Lewis could say that this teaching, wives obeying their husbands, is “very unpopular.”

There are a few lessons we can learn here. First, if complementarian teaching was unpopular in the 1940’s, how much more so in the 2020’s? With Lewis, we should stand on the truth, knowing its relative popularity has no effect whatsoever on its truthfulness. Second, though, part of Lewis’s aim in Mere Christianity is apologetic in nature. I think this is instructive. Lewis doesn’t see complementarian arguments as a hindrance to his apologetic endeavor. Just the opposite: he includes them because he knows they are true, he knows they are good for society, and he knows they are essential for a truly Christian accounting of and engagement with the world.

In short, Lewis’s views are complementarian, and he saw something akin to complementarianism as definitive for the Great Tradition we are all beneficiaries of and seeking to be faithful to. We should go and do likewise.

Below is a lengthy excerpt of Lewis’s complementarian argument from his chapter titled, “Christian Marriage.” Notice Lewis’s clear teaching on the husband’s headship, which comes directly from Ephesians 5.

So much for the Christian doctrine about the permanence of marriage. Something else, even more unpopular, remains to be dealt with. Christian wives promise to obey their husbands. In Christian marriage the man is said to be the “head.” Two questions obviously arise here, (1) Why should there be a head at all —why not equality? (2) Why should it be the man?

(1) The need for some head follows from the idea that marriage is permanent Of course, as long as the husband and wife are agreed, no question of a head need arise; and we may hope that this will be the normal state of affairs in a Christian marriage. But when there is a real disagreement, what is to happen? Talk it over, of course; but I am assuming they have done that and still failed to reach agreement. What do they do next?

They cannot decide by a majority vote, for in a council of two there can be no majority. Surely, only one or other of two things can happen: either they must separate and go their own ways or else one or other of them must have a casting vote. If marriage is permanent, one or other party must, in the last resort, have the power of deciding the family policy. You cannot have a permanent association without a constitution.

(2) If there must be a head, why the man? Well, firstly, is there any very serious wish that it should be the woman? As I have said, I am not married myself, but as far as I can see, even a woman who wants to be the head of her own house does not usually admire the same state of things when she finds it going on next door. She is much more likely to say “Poor Mr. X! Why he allows that appalling woman to boss him about the way she does is more than I can imagine.” I do not think she is even very nattered if anyone mentions the fact of her own “headship.”

There must be something unnatural about the rule of wives over husbands, because the wives themselves are half ashamed of it and despise the husbands whom they rule. But there is also another reason; and here I speak quite frankly as a bachelor, because it is a reason you can see from outside even better than from inside.

The relations of the family to the outer world—what might be called its foreign policy—must depend, in the last resort, upon the man, because he always ought to be, and usually is, much more just to the outsiders. A woman is primarily fighting for her own children and husband against the rest of the world. Naturally, almost, in a sense, rightly, their claims override, for her, all other claims. She is the special trustee of their interests.

The function of the husband is to see that this natural preference of hers is not given its head. He has the last word in order to protect other people from the intense family patriotism of the wife. If anyone doubts this, let me ask a simple question. If your dog has bitten the child next door, or if your child has hurt the dog next door, which would you sooner have to deal with, the master of that house or the mistress? Or, if you are a married woman, let me ask you this question. Much as you admire your husband, would you not say that his chief failing is his tendency not to stick up for his rights and yours against the neighbours as vigorously as you would like? A bit of an Appeaser?

The kind of reasoning Lewis employs about decision making in marriage and the external/internal dichotomy of a household is frequently lampooned in debates about complementarianism. But the important thing to note is that this kind of thinking is not original with baby boomer preachers or theologians. Here is a man trying to make sense of the scriptural data and the real world, and I’d say he was doing a fine job of it.

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