Month: November 2018

The future of complementarity: men and women are not interchangeable (Part I – CS Lewis)

This is part of a series philospher Robin Bunce is writing about THINK Theology’s Future of Complementarity conference.  Read the Introduction HERE.


Previously on I argued that ‘men and women are not interchangeable’ is one of the slogans to emerge from THINK 2018. Here I want to trace the phrase’s origins in the work of CS Lewis, and explore some of the ways that Lewis’s argument poses problems for contemporary evangelicals.


Lewis was the first writer to argue that men and women are not interchangeable. He made the claim in his 1948 essay ‘Priestesses in the Church?’ Here, he argues,


. . . unless ‘equal’ means ‘interchangeable’, equality makes nothing of the priesthood for 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 . . .


At a basic level, Lewis argues that sexual equality does not imply that women should be priests unless we understand equality as interchangeability. For Lewis interchangeability means that men and women are basically the same, sexless and identical – a notion he rejects.


Lewis’s essential argument is clear enough, but his reasoning is complex, and to understand it, it is necessary to enter his intellectual world. Lewis’s rationale for this argument is bound up with the representative nature of the priesthood. ‘[A] priest’, he argues, ‘is primarily a representative, a double representative, who represents us to God and God to us.’From this, Lewis argues that only men can truly ‘represent the Lord to the Church.’Notably, although the priest is male, Lewis argues that the priest has a double gender identity. When standing before his congregation, or when standing before God as an individual, he is male. However, when standing before God as a Priest he is female, for he represents the Bride of Christ.


Significantly, Lewis does little to root his concept of non-interchangeability in the Bible. Indeed, he explicitly says that he has no intention of justifying his argument in this way. Rather, his ideas come from a range of Anglophone sources, which contain concepts which were unknown to the authors of the Bible.


The first key to understanding the roots of Lewis’s position is his reference to ‘legal fiction’. This concept, which cannot be found in the Bible, is the notion which helps him distinguish between the government, where men and women can ‘be treated as neuters’, and the church, where he argues they cannot.  The phrase ‘legal fiction’ was popularised by the philosopher Jeremy Bentham in his A Fragment on Government(1776), as part of his attack on Sir William Blackstone’s Commentaries on the Laws of England, published between 1765–1769. Blackstone’s view was that the legal system had to be based on certain fictions. For example, it made sense, Blackstone argued, to assume that government was based on an initial social contract, in which the people consented to being governed. Everyone knew, Blackstone argued, that this social contract was not real, but nonetheless, the law made more sense if we accept the fiction of an initial contract.


The second notion that Lewis’s argument rests on is that of representation, and dual identity. Again, this can’t be found in the Bible, because these concepts were not available to the authors of the Old or New Testament. Rather Lewis’s argument has its roots in mediaeval corporation theory, and early modern debates over the ‘Divine Right’ of Stuart Monarchs. It was in the mediaeval period that the idea that a person could have a dual identity entered anglophone discussion. Thomas Hobbes, for example, drew on these traditions when he argued that the King was both a natural person (for example Charles Stuart), and an artificial person (the person who can speak on behalf of the state).


But the story doesn’t end there. Behind Lewis’s essay is a specific legal fiction which tied notions of representation together with ideas of gender. I’m referring to the doctrine of coverture. Coverture was the legal fiction which described the legal relationship between husband and wife until the later Victorian period. It emerged in the eighteenth century in Britain and America, and at the same time analogous notions entered French law. The nineteenth century legal understanding of coverture, which found its way in to the legal systems of Britain’s colonies, comes from Blackstone’s Commentaries on the Laws of England, which systematised the doctrine. Blackstone described coverture thus,

[b]y marriage, the husband and wife are one person in law: that is, the very being or legal existence of the woman is suspended during the marriage, or at least is incorporated and consolidated into that of the husband: under whose wing, protection, and cover[emphasis added], she performs every thing; and is therefore called in our law-French a feme-covert; is said to be covert-baron, or under the protection and influence of her husband, her baron, or lord; and her condition during her marriage is called her coverture. Upon this principle, of a union of person in husband and wife, depend almost all the legal rights, duties, and disabilities, that either of them acquire by the marriage.

Put simply, coverture was a legal fiction which embodied the principle that a husband was his wife’s sole legal representative. Consequently, coverture was the most controversial of the legal fictions essential to English law, as it was the basis on which married women were denied the right to vote, the right to own property, to seek divorce, or to make a will. It was the basis on which the first generation of campaigners for women’s suffrage claimed that women were legally enslaved. Therefore, when Lewis was developing a doctrine of gendered representation, thinking about gender equality, it was only natural that this Oxbridge Scholar should think in terms recognisable from the legal doctrine of coverture.


Before leaving Lewis, I want to draw out three points: first that his understanding of interchangeability is based on a notion of representation that comes not from the Bible but from medieval legal theory via Blackstone’s legal fictions. Second, it’s based on the notion of a representative priesthood which Evangelicals reject. Third, that the discussion of coverture is more relevant to the theology of Newfrontiers than it might initially seem. Kristin Aune’s excellent ethnography ‘Postfeminist Evangelicals: the construction of gender in the New Frontiers International churches’notes ‘The gendered concept of “covering” is important to NFI. When women are described as “covered” this means that they are under the (male) authority of their husband (if they are married) and/or their church leader.’ Aune argues that Newfrontiers’ theology of ‘covering’ read the English legal doctrine back into 1 Corinthians 11:4-15’s complex arguments about head covering, and that the article ‘Adjusting our Vocabulary: Covering’, which appeared in the 1983/4 Restoration magazine was crucial to the development of this aspect of Newfrontiers’ gender theology.


Wilson’s use of Lewis’s phrase is curious, because he disagrees so profoundly with the foundations of Lewis’s argument. Wilson does not believe in an Anglican view of priesthood; he does not believe that church leaders have a dual gender identity – far from it; and while Lewis councils us to turn our backs on legal fictions, Wilson is part of a church movement which has sought to revive the doctrine of coverture as a structuring principle of church life. What is more, it is peculiar in the extreme that Wilson, a writer who claims to set such store in the Bible, would borrow a concept from an essay which explicitly seeks to make an argument from the Anglican tradition rather than the Bible. Yet Wilson and Lewis are united in a common determination to exclude women from aspects of church leadership. And when it comes to complementarity perhaps that’s all that matters.


Part II will trace the idea of non-interchangeability through the 1960s and 1970s, where the phrase took on a series of new meanings, alien to both the Bible and Lewis’s original formulation.


The future of complementarity: men and women are not interchangeable (Introduction)

Philosopher Robin Bunce is back on the blog with some more insights about the Future of Complementarity conference run by Think Theology earlier this year.  Robin is Director of Studies for Politics and Graduate Tutor at Homerton College, University of
Cambridge.  He is a historian of ideas and has written on politics and contemporary culture for the Huffington Post, the Guardian, the Independent, and the New Statesman.  The other posts we’ve published about the conference can be found HERE


Complementarity is not merely a theology of gender, it’s an aesthetic: an understanding of beauty. According to several speakers at THINK 2018 women and men are not just different, that difference is beautiful. Surprisingly, for a theology which claims to be rooted an ancient text, this is a very modern aesthetic, perhaps even a post-modern one. For this ‘beautiful difference’ is a beautiful absence. The aesthetic of complementarity arises from what men and women are not: ‘men and women are not interchangeable.’ This is the aesthetic of artists like Kazimir Malevich, Dan Flavin and Carl Andre, or more recent practitioners of rigorous hard-core absence like Turner Prize winner Martin Creed.


‘Beautiful difference’ and ‘men and women are not interchangeable’ are the two slogans to emerge from THINK 2018, and it’s the second that concerns me here. As I’ve prowled moodily around Cambridge this autumn, I realised I’ve come across the phrase before. Not in the Bible of course – that goes without saying, but somewhere. It turns out that since the end of the Second World War a series of writers have used the phrase ‘men and women are not interchangeable.’ Yet, even though the phrase occurs again and again in theological discussion it never means the same thing twice.  CS Lewis, then Karl Barth and latterly Tim and Kathy Keller have all argued that ‘men and women are not interchangeable.’ But for radically different, and often contradictory reasons. Advocates of complementarity are continuing this trajectory, repeating the same words, but meaning something new.


The story of how we get from CS Lewis’ view that ‘men and women are not interchangeable’ to Wilson and Alistair Robert’s radically different view that ‘men and women are not interchangeable’ is a long one. Fearing history-of-ideas-fatigue or ‘annalist’s fever’ as its sometimes know, I’ve split it into three parts, which I’ll be publishing between now and Easter.


You can find Part I HERE.