C.S. Lewis on complementarianism

C.S. Lewis didn’t have anything to say about the kind of complementarianism that is being promoted by CBMW among others, according to which men and women are allocated complementary, but allegedly equal roles in the family and in the church – and it is men who decide which these roles are. That is because the concept had not been invented when he died.

But Lewis did have an idea of what it meant to speak of complementary roles where the allocation of these roles is all done by one side. In the first chapter of The Last Battle he writes of how the ape Shift, a clear figure of evil in his story, and the donkey Puzzle

both said they were friends, but from the way things went on you might have thought that Puzzle was more like Shift’s servant than his friend. He did all the work. … Puzzle never complained, because he knew that Shift was far cleverer than himself and he thought it was very kind of Shift to be friends with him at all. (p.7 of my Puffin edition)

After getting the reluctant Puzzle to fish a lion’s skin out of Caldron Pool, Shift says:

You know you’re no good at thinking, Puzzle, so why don’t you let me do your thinking for you? Why don’t you treat me as I treat you? I don’t think I can do everything. I know you’re better at some things than I am. That’s why I let you go into the Pool; I knew you’d do it better than me. But why can’t I have my turn when it comes to something I can do and you can’t? Am I never allowed to do anything? Do be fair. Turn and turn about. (p.12, emphasis as in the original)

With arguments like these Shift asserts his leadership over the poor Puzzle and exploits him as his servant, to do all the dirty jobs while Shift reserves for himself all the nice ones. These arguments sound remarkably like the ones which complementarians use to justify men getting all the desirable roles in church and in family, while all the ones which the men don’t want end up being given to women.

Now Shift probably was cleverer than Puzzle, so he could justify being the one who did the thinking – although not the evil he brought from it. But there is plenty of proof that men are no better at thinking or at leading than women are, and so no justification for men allocating to themselves all the leadership roles and any other tasks that they take a fancy to.

0 thoughts on “C.S. Lewis on complementarianism

  1. As a recovering complementarian, I don’t recognise this as even a gross caricature of the complementarianism I used to subscribe to (and even now might not have totally cast off!). I’m getting much closer to egalitarian views than ever before, but in good conscience I feel I can claim that I used to hold compy views because I genuinely thought I could see it in Scripture, not out of a twisted desire to lord-over and dominate women.

    Shift’s arguments do, however, sound more like the arguments abusive, selfish, and hierarchical leadership structures might use to justify their existence and domination of God’s people. Granted, this may include some people who place themselves in the complementarian camp, but do so because they’re already chauvinist pigs looking for a theological justification. I don’t think it’s fair to tar people like Piper and Grudem with this brush though.

    Also, I’m fairly sure I remember C. S. Lewis writing about the possibility of women priests and not being hugely complimentary about the idea – it might have been an essay in God In The Dock, but I’m not 100% sure.

  2. Jon, I accept that there are scriptural arguments for the complementarian position, which I deliberately didn’t bring into this discussion. I would just want to point out that the overwhelming majority of those who interpret these scriptural passages as teaching complementarianism are men, and that they do so to their personal advantage in that they are exercising roles as Bible teachers which they deny to women.

    While I wouldn’t call Piper and Grudem “chauvinist pigs”, there is good evidence that they came to the Bible passages with a generally patriarchal position and a presupposition that this was a good one. For proof of this concerning Piper, see his Vision of Biblical Complementarity based on “When I was a boy growing up in Greenville, South Carolina”, also what I wrote about it here and here.

    As for women priests, I am not claiming that Lewis was an egalitarian on such matters.

  3. Complementarity is problematic because it implies that one thing can exist without the complement. This is not the biblical view of the relationship of male and female. The biblical view, based on the binary (NOT dualistic) cosmology of Abraham’s people, sees male and female as supplementary. That is to say that one can’t exist without the other. This is C.S. Lewis’ understanding, I believe. It is also the striking conclusion of Jacques Derrida’s work. Derrida is the one who first used the term supplementary, as far as I know.

  4. Iconoclast, thank you for the link. I will comment on this article in a new post.

    Alice, it is certainly true that men and women cannot exist without one another, for simple sexual reasons. But I think that is also what proper complementarianism teaches, concerning complementary roles.

  5. Pingback: Gentle Wisdom» Blog Archive » C.S. Lewis got it wrong on women priests

  6. To understand the biblical worldview we must understand what is meant by the supplementary binary opposites oberved in nature. Supplementary is not an egalitarian principles. It is a dialectic whereby meaning is derived from the relationship of the opposites. I experience hateful acts as evil because I have experience of loving acts and know them to be good. The reverse is true also. The male-female relationship has meaning because of the supplementary nature. The biblical worldview avoids dualism because one of the opposites is greater, stronger, brighter, etc. in its visible attributes. The Sun is brighter than the Moon and the Moon’s light is a reflection of the Sun’s light. Men are physically larger and stronger than women. None of this was a figment of the ancient imagination!

    Law and Grace are presented by St. Paul as binary opposites, and their meaning is found in their relationship. Grace is superior to the Law, but makes no sense without the Law. For as St. Paul says, the Law was our “school teacher” until grace should be revealed in the Incarnate Son.

  7. Alice, that might explain why since ancient times men have tended to dominate women. But this is not God’s plan for men and women, as he never even hints at this kind of supplementary relationship in his revealed word.

  8. Au contraire, the cosmology of Abraham’s ruler-priest ancestors and descendents reflects this binary view. Their wives and daughters were women of high estate whose marriages reveal nothing of the domination of which you speak. This is a modern reading back into the text and a common misunderstanding.

  9. Alice, I did not say that men always dominated women. I said that this was a tendency. In God’s providence Abraham and his family avoided the worst of this domination system. But it is still Abraham, not Sarah, who takes the lead in that family.

  10. Sorry if I misunderstood you, Peter.

    Abraham took the lead because he was the ruler of his two households (by Sarah and by Keturah). That’s what rulers are suppose to do – take the lead.

    Abraham, his ancestors and his ruler-priest descendents, are the line from which Jesus Christ comes. Their taking the lead is a reflection or type of HIS Kingship.

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