C.S. Lewis got it wrong on women priests

A couple of days ago I noted C.S. Lewis’ criticism of the arguments used by complementarians. But of course that does not imply that he was an egalitarian. Indeed I now have proof that he was not. I thank my commenter Iconoclast for a link to an interesting essay by Lewis apparently entitled Priestesses in the Church?, posted last year by Alice C. Linsley on her blog. According to this page the essay was originally written in 1948. In it Lewis makes clear his opposition to the ordination of women in the Church of England.

Lewis certainly would not have approved of Barbie becoming an Episcopal priest, as pictured here. Thanks to Dave Walker at the Church Times blog for the link (although it’s broken) to the Facebook group Friends of Episcopal Priest Barbie (not sure if my link will work any better). It is a real group, so this is not just an April fool, and I took the picture from it.

To start with, C.S. Lewis got one thing quite wrong: no one was asking for a separate “order of priestesses”, but for women to be admitted to the existing order of priests, as has now happened. But I think he is on the ball to say that

the opposers (many of them women) can produce at first nothing but an inarticulate distaste, a sense of discomfort which they themselves find it hard to analyse

– to which some would add a shallow and tendentious interpretation of certain Bible passages.

When it comes down to it, the argument which Lewis makes is that God is male, not female. That implies that for him women are less the image of God than men. He admits that it is “masculine imagery” which is used of God, but he confuses the imagery with the reality when he makes God really masculine. When Robert Burns wrote “My Love is Like a Red, Red Rose”, his beautiful poetic imagery was not supposed to mean that the woman he loved was in fact not a woman but a rose. I’m not really qualified to lecture a professor of literature like Lewis, but he seems to have forgotten the basics of how poetry works. Poetic images are figures of speech not to be taken literally. So if calling God Father is indeed “masculine imagery” of the poetic kind, it precisely does not imply that God is really and essentially male.

Lewis gets to the most basic issue when he writes:

The innovators are really implying that sex is something superficial, irrelevant to the spiritual life. To say that men and women are equally eligible for a certain profession is to say that for the purposes of that profession their sex is irrelevant. We are, within that context, treating both as neuters. As the State grows more like a hive or an ant-hill it needs an increasing number of workers who can be treated as neuters. This may be inevitable for our secular life. But in our Christian life we must return to reality. There we are not homogeneous units, but different and complimentary organs of a mystical body.

Here “complimentary” is a transcriber’s error for “complementary”; Lewis certainly wouldn’t have confused the two words, and the latter appears in this version of the text. So he upholds the principle of complementary roles for men and women, while in this essay being careful to avoid the kinds of arguments which he put in the mouth of the Ape in The Last Battle.

In the paragraph I just quoted Lewis has hit the nail on the head. Indeed I would hold, along with most egalitarians I imagine, that distinctions of sex are “irrelevant to the spiritual life”. But Lewis seems to disagree. So how can we resolve this? Lewis, having rejected reason earlier in the essay, turns to church tradition. As an evangelical I prefer to turn to Scripture. And there I read:

So God created human beings in his own image,
in the image of God he created them;
male and female he created them.

Genesis 1:27 (TNIV)

There is neither Jew nor Gentile, neither slave nor free, neither male nor female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus.

Galatians 3:28 (TNIV)

Thus the Bible makes it clear that males and females are equally made in the image of God, and that the distinction between them is precisely “irrelevant to the spiritual life” in Christ. Thus the clear biblical position is that God is neither male nor female, and that neither gender is better fitted than the other to represent him to humanity.

Of course C.S. Lewis was right and prescient to write that

the Church of England herself would be torn in shreds

by allowing women priests. In the 1990s the shreds were inexpertly patched together by such means as the infamous “flying bishops”. Now that women bishops are in prospect the whole patchwork is falling apart again. But the reason this has been so contentious is that a large minority in the church has been taken in by the kinds of bad arguments about the essential masculinity of God which Lewis put forward.

To be fair to C.S. Lewis, he was a man of his time and so shared “an inarticulate distaste, a sense of discomfort” with the idea of women priests. In 1948 he was not young (he turned 50 that year) but still unmarried. He had little experience of women apart from his odd relationship with his surrogate mother Jane Moore. It is perhaps hardly surprising that he treated them more or less as a separate species. But, fortunately for half of humanity, that is not how God treats them.

33 thoughts on “C.S. Lewis got it wrong on women priests

  1. The problem seems to me, as a non-Anglican, non-Orthodox, non-Catholic believer, to lie in the use of the term priest to denote a separate class of Christian. As a non-conformist evangelical who believes if the priesthood of all believers, recognising women as already members of that priesthood defuses the argument, so long as we avoid elevating both men and women in a way that separates believers into clergy or laity. IMHO the problem is with importing an OT Old Covenant concept of priesthood into a New Covenant reality. Do we really believe that ‘In Christ’ there is neither male nor female etc.?

  2. Yes, Gordon, I agree that there is a lot wrong with the whole conception of priesthood which C.S. Lewis is working with. But it is the generally held Anglican one so relevant to his point about the Church of England. My point really is to show that his argument doesn’t hold water even within those presuppositions.

  3. I too am not always comfortable with the term priesthood beloved in most of the CoE and of deep meaning to my Anglo Catholic compatriots. It links too closely for me to Aaron and the sacrificial system. I tend to prefer the term “Presbyter” (Elder?) which puts a less Catholic feel on the ordained ministry.

    However of course it is not just in Episcopal Groups where women are barred from many leadership roles. In our own shores the traditional Presbyterian Groups and Terry Virgo’s New Frontiers come to mind. I used to find the Genesis 2 idea of woman as a helper a challenge , until it was suggested to me that the Hebrew for Helper is also used when God is described as the helper of Israel. And God is hardly subordinate to his chosen Old Covenant people. In other words the helper does not equate to any form of intrinsic subordination. Is that a fair summary Peter?

  4. Colin, that sounds fair to me. But the grounds on which New Frontiers for example excludes women from leadership are quite different from C.S. Lewis’ arguments – in fact they are much more like his ape’s arguments.

  5. Thank you so much for your thoughts on C.S. Lewis and his position on women and the priesthood. He has been my favorite author and spiritual mentor since childhood and I owe my Christian faith (and by extension, my priesthood) in large part to his writings. In my first semester in college I took a course on him and wrote a term paper tracing his increasing liberalization over time on the subject of women’s equality. I believe he made some significant progress in this area between 1948 and his death in 1963. While he never came around to supporting women’s ordination in his lifetime (which would, admittedly, have been quite a stretch for even his keen mind given his life and times) I am sure that he is fully in support of it now, given the broader perspective his current location affords.

  6. Thank you, Julie. I’m sure Lewis’ views on women changed as a result of his tragic marriage. Are there any specific writings in which he puts forward more liberal views? As for what he thinks now, I guess we will have to wait until we meet him to find out.

  7. It’s been a long time since I wrote that paper in college, but I do remember one thing. In the first Narnia book, The Lion the Witch and the Wardrobe, Susan and Lucy receive arms as their gift from Father Christmas, but are told they are not allowed to fight in battle with them, as “battles are ugly when women fight.” But later in The Horse and His Boy, Lucy fights in the battle against the invading Calormen army and her participation is affirmed.

  8. Thanks, Julie. But even in The Lion, The Witch and The Wardrobe Susan does receive a bow. In The Last Battle Jill joins in the battle, but again somewhat from the edge with her bow. I guess Lewis considered fighting at a distance OK for women, and maybe modified his position a little through the series. The problem is that there are hardly any adult females in the whole Narnia collection, apart from evil witches and Mrs Beaver, and it is hard to extrapolate from Lewis’ view of girls.

  9. Yes, Susan receives a bow and Lucy a dagger (along with her bottle of healing cordial). But they are told they are not allowed to fight in the battle with them. I assume they are for self-defense, or in Susan’s case, for hunting. The great thing is that in The Horse and His Boy Lucy IS a grown woman, and fights in the battle along with everyone else. I had forgotten about Jill in the Last Battle, but that just proves the point, I believe – she fights along with everyone else too and the king, Tirian, fully expects that she will do so.

  10. To understand why women were never priests and indeed can’t be priests, ontologically speaking, we must understand the binary order of creation, which is fundamental to the Biblical worldview. C.S. Lewis had a deep understanding of the order of creation.

    I was a ECUSA priest for 18 years. I did good ministry. The physical demands don’t preclude women at tha altar today, since there is no longer the necessity to hold rams and bulls on the altar and sacrifice them. The issue is the pattern of the Priesthood which was established by God and which has to do with the Blood as a symbol of both life and death. Protestants have little respect for pattern (in the sense that Mircea Eliade used this term).

    Bible verses which forbid sowing two types of seed in the same field, weaving two types of fabric in the same garment, and boiling a baby goat in its mother’s milk – are about NOT blurring the distinctions God has created in nature. The last is especially troublesome because the offspring meets death in the life-giving mother’s milk.

    The prohibition against mixing types, be they fibers, seeds or blood, is like the prohibition against confusing the holy with the unholy, or blurring the distinction between life and death, such as happens when a baby goat is boiled in its mother’s milk (forbidden 3 places in Scripture). That is why each seed is to go to its own kind. As plants are born from the earth, so the seeds of plants return to the earth. As the man is born from the woman, so the seed/semen of man is to return to woman. The spilling of seed called ‘onanism’ was regarded as an evil deed, a violation of the order of creation and therefore an affront to the Creator. So obviously was homosex.

    Bloods were never permitted to mix or even to be present in the same space. For example, men were not permitted in the birthing hut. Women (and many men also) were not permitted where animals were sacrificed. This is why women were never priests and why in church tradition they waited 40 days to return to church, following the ancient custom requiring purification after shedding blood.

    Ancient peoples recognized a fixed order in creation. The male is larger and generally stronger than the female. The male is equipped for war and hunting while the female is equipped for cultivation and childbirth. This leads us to the distinction between the blood shed by men and the blood shed by women. Male “blood work” was expressed in hunting, war, execution of lawbreakers, and in animal sacrifice by the rulers, priests or prophets.

    The blood work of women is supplementary to the blood work of men. Women sacrifice blood in first marital intercourse. They bleed in their monthly cycle and in childbirth. The blood shed of women represents life and is distinct yet supplementary to the blood shed by men in hunting, war and animal sacrifice.

    The order of creation that hold life and death distinction is blurred when a women stands at the altar. It DOES matter that we pattern God’s design in the Church.

  11. Alice, thank you for your comment. You have obviously put some thought into these issues. And you make important points about biblical distinctions between the holy and the unholy, the sacred and the profane.

    Where your argument comes unstuck is when you bring gender into it. You write that “Ancient peoples recognized a fixed order in creation.” So at this point you are appealing to the culture and practice of mostly pagan peoples, and not to the Bible. The fact that some of these cultural distinctions found their way into church practice has to do with syncretism, not biblical teaching. You will find nothing in the Bible clearly parallelling the male/female distinction with the holy/unholy or sacred/profane ones.

    I agree that “the … order of creation … is fundamental to the Biblical worldview”. But I note that in Genesis 1 male and female are equally the image of God. So if there are any binary distinctions they are not there. Your suggestion that there is something fundamentally different between male and female blood seems to undermine this and suggest that women are somehow less the image of God. I’m sure you don’t intend to teach that.

  12. Was Abraham a pagan? Our Christian faith rests on the very binary distinctions that his people observed. It is not given to us to change the celestial pattern which ultimately speaks of Jesus Christ, the Son of God.

  13. Alice, speak for yourself about your “Christian” faith. My Christian faith rests on the biblical principles that men and women are equally in the image of God and in Christ there is no male or female.

    As for Abraham, he was brought up in a pagan society and took on some of its values, as is true of you and me, but he respected his wife, at least some of the time, and there is no indication that he “recognized a fixed order in creation” creating a gulf between him and her.

  14. The fixed order in creation is expressed in two ways in Genesis (and throughout Scripture). First, in the hierarchy of created beings: http://biblicalanthropology.blogspot.com/2010/12/hierarchy-in-creation-biblical-view.html

    Also in the binary sets in which one entity is superior in a universally observable way to the other. The sun is greater than the moon which merely reflects the sun’s light. Males are larger and stronger than females. Life is greater than death. God is greater than humans. This binary framework of the Bible prevents the dualism that characterizes Asian religions. We have trouble with this biblical principle because it is not egalitarian. For Abraham’s perople, however, it was a guiding principle and had nothing to do with the supposed oppression of women. More than 70% of the women named in the Bible were the wives or daughters of ruler-priests. They were women of high social rank and considerable influence.

  15. Thank you, Alice. But I don’t see a link or other mention at that old post of yours. Did you in fact mean to link to a more recent post? I think you will realize that I disagree with you, at least with any implication from your post that the ancient Afro-Asiatic world view should be normative for Christian practice today.

  16. God values men and women equally and yet they can both serve different roles. The scriptures are pretty clear on the ordination of women in the Church. The only way to accept the ordination of women is to get away from the inerrancy of the Scriptures. When we as humans start changing what part of Scriptures are still valid in today’s world at what point tdo we draw a line. This departure from Scripture started with the Ordination of women and now we see the ordination of homosexuals. This concept that God created the homosexual so it must be acceptable to God. Where do we draw the line between right and wrong. In the Episcopal Church we have a convicted pedophile in NC that is trying to become a priest, since God has made him that way it must be acceptable. When we get away from the Scriptures the door is open to how we define God.

  17. James, in which particular places would you claim that “The scriptures are pretty clear on the ordination of women in the Church”? I accept that there are some Scriptures which have been interpreted as bearing on that matter, but don’t confuse the inerrancy of Scripture with the inerrancy of your own preferred interpretation. On my understanding, there is nothing “pretty clear” in the Scriptures about ordination of any kind, of men or women. You need to sort out what you mean by ordination before you can judge whether it is appropriate for women.

  18. Alice, I agree. But it isn’t just about women. The Scriptures say nothing about anyone in (Christian) holy orders because it wasn’t on the experiential horizon of people in Biblical times.

  19. Yes, Alice, and an enormous amount about the abolition of the priesthood in the sense of a special group of people, replaced by the eternal high-priesthood of Jesus Christ and by the priesthood of all believers, male and female.

  20. That position is not tenable. Jesus Chris is the High Priest exactly because He is the promised One who was born of the Horite priestly lines (what Jews call their “Horim”). He didn’t abolish the priesthood. Rather, He fulfilled it, and every priest who is pure and true stands at altar as an icon of Jesus Christ.

  21. Alice, I will accept “He didn’t abolish the priesthood. Rather, He fulfilled it”. But there is nothing in the New Testament about priests standing at altars, except for references, such as in Hebrews, to the Jewish priesthood which is explicitly passing away. I guess the meaning of Hebrews 13:10 is debatable but there is nothing in the context about a special order of priests.

  22. Alice, I accept that some Jewish priests, of the order of Aaron, became Christians. That much is clear from Acts 6:7. But there is no evidence, in the Bible or I think elsewhere, that they formed a special order of Christian priests. Nicodemus and Joseph of Arimathea were members of the Sanhedrin, but that doesn’t imply that they were priests of any kind.

    I don’t mean to claim that Christian priesthood, as found in churches following tradition, is necessarily illegitimate. That is a separate discussion. My point here is simply that there is nothing explicit about it in the Bible.

  23. Jesus Himself was of the ruler-priest lines. This is made evident through analysis of the marriage and ascendancy pattern of Jesus’ Horite ancestors. Abraham, Moses, Samuel, David and Jesus the Christ were all Horites.

    In the Masoretic Text the name of Samuel’s city is hara-matatyim zophim. (See The Anchor Bible Commentary on I Samuel by P. Kyle McCarter, Jr., p. 51). Zuph was a Horite priest of the line of Matthew/Mattai/Mattan. Hara-matatyim is the priestly line of Joseph of Hara-mathea, one of Jesus’ relatives and the member of the Sanhedrin who requested the Lord’s body in order to bury Him.

    It is certain that Mary was of the ruler-priest caste because even those who hated her admit this. Sanhedrin 106a says: “She who was the descendant of princes and governors played the harlot with carpenters.”

    With the appearing of the Son of God promised in Genesis 3:15, the unique Horite marriage and ascendancy pattern fulfilled its purpose and ceased. The “Seed” of the “Woman” who would crush the serpent’s head, make void the curse, and restore Paradise had been born of the people to whom that “Edenic” promise was first made.

  24. Alice, I am sorry to see, from your last comment and from your blog, that you have become involved in unscholarly speculations about origins of peoples, based on superficial resemblances in names etc. Yes, Joseph was from Arimathea = ha-Ramathaim-Zophim, the birthplace of Samuel. The commoner shorter form of this name, Ramah meaning “height”, reminds us that the full name means “the two heights of the Zuphites”. That implies that the initial ha-, as so often, is the definite article. So it would be wrong to link this with the following r but not also the m. Also “Horite” is spelled in Hebrew with het, not the he of the definite article. So there is no sign of a linguistic link here. Anyway, the Horites or Hurrians were a people group, not a priestly caste. So even if you could prove that the people you name were Horites, you would be showing nothing about the priesthood.

    I really think you should go back to your 2010 arguments on this thread, which you can base securely on Christian tradition of a certain kind, though not on the Bible.

  25. Peter,

    There is much to Biblical Anthropology besides the question of women priests, for which there is no historical precedent nor (as we agree) any Biblical support. Horim and Horite are cognates. The Horites and Hittites are listed separately in Genesis and in other Biblical lists of peoples living in Canann and Pheoncia. The Hittites and Horites are not the same people. The Septuagint reading “Choraios” (Horite) for the Massoretic “Hivite” in Genesis 34:2 and Joshua 9:7 is incorrect.

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