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Volume 18, Issue 2: Husbandry

Old Western Marriage

Douglas Wilson

I recently read a literary biography of C. S. Lewis that was simply outstanding. Entitled The Narnian, this book by Alan Jacobs is a superb rendering of Lewis's life, with the biography structured around the writing of Lewis's books, the Narnia books in particular. The book is first-rate, and nothing said here should take away from my commendation of it overall. But there is a regrettable section in it (fortunately, not too long) where Jacobs tries to explain why Lewis's view on headship and submission in marriage (and his views on why women ought not to be ordained) made certain contemporary readers cringe. Or even wince.

The reason, of course, was that Lewis had absolutely no interest in being contemporary or current. He described himself as an Old Western Man, a dinosaur. He was prepared to acknowledge that the surrounding culture had largely abandoned the notions of authority and submission in marriage, but he was not about to do so. In our current climate, this makes certain readers who are respectful of Lewis (and who therefore want him to gain a wide and respectful hearing from others) wince when he says or does things that seem to them not essential to "mere Christianity." They want to divest Lewis of some of his more outrageous curmudgeonliness (if that is a word) in order to let his naturally winsome personality do its apologetic magic. Jacobs even tries to argue that some form of feminism is consistent with traditional Christianity, and that there are faithful traditional Christians who have no problem with the ordination of women. A shame, he thinks, that Lewis was so obstinate on this point.
But the relationship between the sexes was established by God in the creation of the world (1 Tim. 2:12-15), then their fallen relationship to one another was decreed in the curse (Gen. 3:16), and their relation to one another in the new creation was plainly and unambiguously stated by the apostle Paul (1 Cor. 11:3). And far from being a peripheral matter, the relationship between the sexes is right at the center of defining whether or not we are seeking to live in a world governed by the word of God or not. And it is right at the center of Lewis's vision of the beautiful hierarchies of old Christendom. And whether or not it was possible actually to get back to that place, like Puddleglum to Narnia in Overland, Lewis intended to keep his loyalties there. And so should we.
Of course, we should eliminate the caricatures at once. No one wants to defend the chest-thumping bluster of swollen and brittle masculine egos, their patriarchal beards keeping time with their misogynist chin music. So fine, we're against that. Having said this, the words headship and submission are still in the Bible and nothing whatever can be done about it. All the creative feminist theologians in the world cannot remove them, and the more such exegesis is attempted, the more little beads of sweat will appear on the interpreter's forehead. Nothing will be gained by repeated attempts except that said theologians will eventually remove themselves from the influence of the Bible. Once it is admitted that sexism (as currently defined) is a sin, it is impossible to escape the conclusion that the Bible is a sinful book.
But because we are Christians, we do not admit that the Bible is a sinful book—in the Scriptures, we learn how to order our lives, and this ordering of our lives includes that relationship which rests at the very center of our lives, the relationship between husband and wife. Get that relationship wrong, and everything is out of joint. Get it right, by the grace of God, and other relationships will fall into place. The apostle Paul even teaches us about the relationship of Christ and the Church by using this reality in marriage. And the instruction goes both ways. Wives are to submit to their husbands as the Church does to Christ, and in turn this leads us to see that wifely submission is not to be defined as accepting bluster as true authority. We are talking about a submission to sacrificial love on the part of the husband. Tolerate what some people are saying about husband and wife and you will soon be tolerating serious falsehoods about the relationship between Christ and the Church. Why should the Church not be considered equal to Christ? "Ye shall be as God," and I think we have been here before.
In a fallen world, we have to set ourselves against every device by which men seek to abuse their authority over their wives, and we do this because they do abuse it. But as Lewis points out, we must never confuse this necessary medicine with food. We have to put restraints on men as sinners. Safeguards against an ungodly abuse of marriage are important, but they do not alter the realities of marriage. So to pretend, for the sake of accomplishing this, that the Garden of Eden prior to the Fall was an egalitarian paradise is to the miss the point in a radical way.
The incremental challenges that we are seeing to the creation order are not going to go away by themselves. Christians must resist these challenges every chance we get—and it appears that we will be getting more and more opportunities, even within the church.

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