Originally published in 1948, CS Lewis’ essay “Priestesses in the church?” makes the argument that if women represent God to humanity then the church will be rather less like what it is meant to be. His case is based essentially on the idea that:
One of the ends for which sex was created was to symbolise to us the hidden things of God.
And I absolutely agree with this – I just think he has misunderstood what the sexes were created to symbolise.
What do we mean by symbols or images?
Imagine for a moment that creation, the entire space-time continuum, is like a child’s playroom. Full of toy trains, kitchen sets and farmyard animals, the playroom introduces images and ideas in a playful, simplified form for the child to learn about the real world. The images not the real thing, but they teach and prepare the child for their future.
Similarly, I believe that creation is full of images to teach us about the hidden, unfathomable things that are eternal. The sun teaches us about the idea of light; blood teaches us about the idea of life. Similarly, in the Bible:
- breath images spirit/soul,
- oil images healing,
- temple images dwelling places,
- the heavens (or mountaintops) image God’s dwelling place,
- bread/manna images God’s provision.
So the idea that the biological differences between male and female symbolise something important in the grand scheme of eternity makes sense.
This is why I think Lewis’ premise is a valid one. I just reckon he misapplied it.
Also, and I want to make this very clear before I go on, some of these images are clearer than others and none of them are the fullness of what they symbolise. Because, for example:
- Jesus is light
- Jesus is life
- Jesus is God’s provision.
The sun is not Jesus. Blood is not Jesus. Bread… you get the idea. That said, even though the sun, blood, bread etc. aren’t the fullness of what they image, they all have their own existence within history and space-time and these are worth studying and appreciating in their own right.
Therefore, just as “the sun is a symbol for light” shouldn’t be taken as a statement about astrophysics, what I’m about to say about ‘male and female’ should not be taken as statements about sex and gender.
So, what does ‘male and female’ symbolise?
Lewis assumes that male symbolises God and female symbolises the church, probably borrowing from Ephesians 5:21 in his thinking. Thinking of priesthood, Lewis says that only one ‘wearing the masculine uniform’ can represent God to the church. (For those less familiar, being such a representative is an essential function of being a priest.) It’s like Lewis is saying “Only the sun can represent light; blood cannot, neither can breath.” Yes, I agree the premise, but he’s missing a crucial nuance.
Underpinning Lewis’ argument is first the assumption (and it is an assumption) that God has taught the church to speak of him as male. (And yes, I write and speak of God using male pronouns, but my reasons for this are complex; I believe God to be beyond ‘male and female’, that is, ‘suprasexual’.)
Lewis then adds the point that male and female are not interchangeable to conclude that therefore men must represent God to the church. Now, I agree that there are differences between male and female (and I don’t think you don’t have subscribe to gender binary to say as much). Thing is, I don’t think male and female represent God and the church respectively.
Rather, I believe that ‘male and female’ represent one thing: covenantal belonging with God.
In case you’re wondering why I keep putting ‘male and female’ in quote marks – it’s because this is how Paul refers to them in Galatians 3:28, borrowing from the Hebrew.
To summarise then:
Lewis says: that male and female represent the different parties involved in the mystical union between God and the church – male represents God and female represents the church.
I’m saying: that ‘male and female’ represent two distinct aspects of the mystical union between God and the church (covenantal belonging) that need to be paired together for the belonging to be complete, but they do not represent the parties within that union; that is, they do not represent God and the church.
What are these two aspects of covenantal belonging with God?
When I talk about covenantal belonging with God, I’m talking about a very good, mystical kind of union and inclusion. Often Christians talk about ‘being in relationship with God’ and this is what they’re getting at: that sense of favour, of good regard, of family, of being – for lack of a better word – in.
I believe that there are two parts of covenantal belonging with God:
- Entering relationship, and
- Remaining in relationship.
These two aspects of our relationship can be summarised in other words:
- Turning to Christ and following Christ
- Believing in Jesus and waiting for Jesus
- Grafting into the vine and remaining in the vine
- Entering the kingdom of heaven and anticipating the kingdom of heaven.
I believe these two parts of covenantal belonging are equally important. Moreover, I believe that these two parts of belonging are symbolised through ‘male and female’.
What’s more, I think Paul did too.
So, what’s my case for saying ‘male and female’ represents entering and remaining in relationship with God?
When Paul tried to explain the mystery of the gospel to the early churches he drew from Jewish history and tradition. We need to appreciate that Jewish history and tradition, whilst a factual part of the space-time continuum and worthy of study in its own right, also symbolised the hidden things of God.
Take Moses for example: coming down from the mountain and having to cover his shining face as he met the Israelites. This imaged Jesus’ ministry: coming from the dwelling place of God, veiling his divine glory, to serve humanity. (For the record, I also talk about this image in a post about modesty.)
Similarly the priesthood imaged the sacrificial, reconciling work that Jesus did on the cross.
But let’s go back beyond Moses. When Paul explains the gospel he talks about God’s covenant with Abraham. (This is an insight that Tom Wright has expounded and it gets called the ‘new perspective on Paul’.)
After God made his covenant with Abraham there were two signs that confirmed it: Abraham’s circumcision and Sarah’s pregnancy.
And – oh look! All of a sudden we’re talking about male and female sexual organs!
Of course, by the time we get to the early church, circumcision had acquired all kinds of cultural baggage; it had become the political marker for who was ‘in’ and who was ‘out’. That is, for men, it was the marker of purity.
Paul however, hammered against the politics of his day, driving home the point that the physical act of circumcision was but an outward, perishable act done by men in the flesh and that what really mattered was the inward imperishable circumcision of the heart, done by the Holy Spirit.
Sadly, and probably at considerable cost for women in generations to come, Paul didn’t equally depoliticise virginity and/or motherhood as the female marker of purity. Oh well, I guess we can do that now. In fact, this is why I want to talk about a new perspective on purity.
What Paul did do however, was to talk quite extensively about hope, about inaugurated eschatology, about anticipating Jesus’ return, about building the kingdom of heaven on earth. And this is what remaining in relationship with God is all about.
The two-part gospel and the priesthood
So here’s my case: the gospel has two parts – entering relationship with God and remaining in relationship with God.
The first part – entering relationship with God – was done by God. The second part – remaining in relationship with God – is what we enter the relationship for, that we might become priestly ministers of God’s reconciling love. This is essentially what Paul says four times in the second half of 2 Corinthians 5 (vv14-15, v18, v19, v21). (Honestly, study this passage using the New Testament for Everyone translation by NT Wright; verse 21 in particular has been widely mistranslated through the lens of the Reformation and Wright discusses this in depth in Justification: God’s Plan and Paul’s Vision).
It’s not that men and women in sexual union or marriage symbolise God and the church; it’s that sex and/or marriage symbolises the union of two aspects of our relationship with God, both of which are essential for covenantal belonging with him.
What this means, is that all Christians in the church act as priests – for, according to 2 Corinthians 5, the whole church has been given the priestly ministry of reconciliation, a ministry in which Christians represent people before God and represent God before people. It is for this ministry that Jesus saved us and it’s not a gender-specific commissioning.
And one last thing: we’re in New Covenant times now
CS Lewis says that male and female might be equal, but they are not interchangeable – a point I agree with. However, he also says that priesthood is male, and I expect the male-only priesthood seen in the Old Testament influenced his view here.
I’ve made my case above from 2 Corinthians 5 saying why I don’t think the priestly ministry of reconciliation is male-only, but if we step back for a moment there’s actually a far more compelling reason pervasive in the New Testament.
You see, although Abraham’s circumcision and Sarah’s empty womb were the symbols of entering relationship with God and remaining/waiting in relationship with God, these are old images designed for the old Mosaic covenant. We live in new covenant times now and we have two new and better images for a new and better covenant: baptism and communion.
And oh look! These images are not gendered!
Because guess what? Both baptism and communion are equally important and what they symbolise – entry and remaining – applies to men and women equally.
What this means is that although there are differences between male and female, and although entry into relationship is not the same as remaining in relationship, for the purposes of covenantal belonging with God and holding the office of the priesthood, men and women are both equal and interchangeable. One’s sex or gender simply isn’t relevant.
This is not to say that every person’s ministry is the same or interchangeable – we all have our callings and our giftings. Indeed, given that men and women have occupied such different places within society (and women can therefore offer perspectives that men can’t), and also given that many women are fabulous people in their own right, the church has seriously hindered its witness by excluding women from ministry. You can even feel Lewis wrestling with this as he writes. His concern was not about the merits of women, it was about disregarding the symbolism God placed within creation.
I have a lot of time for CS Lewis and there is a lot in his essay Priestesses in the Church? that I agree with. But I think he missed a nuance and for that reason came to the wrong conclusion. He raised a number of concerns about the basis for progressive arguments, but I don’t think any of them apply to the framework I’ve set out above, because I’m not disregarding the symbolism that he’s so concerned about. I’m just framing it slightly differently – but what a difference it makes!
Lewis’ true concern is not what would happen but what HAS happened
Lewis’ biggest fear was that if we meddle by tampering with the bigger hidden things of God, then they will deal with us.
I don’t think this is what will happen if women act as priests, far from it! Rather, I suggest that for much of history this is what has happened. We have taken the aspect of purity/belonging imaged by baptism and disregarded the aspect imaged by communion – and it’s been a disaster.
The church has focussed on the ‘entry gospel’ so exclusively that we have lost a proper understanding of what it is to hope and truly anticipate God’s reign of justice and peace on earth in the here and now. Not only that, we’ve even made the ‘entry gospel’ so narrow that unless you can fit the prodigal son narrative you might doubt you’re really a Christian. Not to mention the fact that the ministry and work of the Holy Spirit is not talked about in the church with nearly as much frequency or clarity as the life of Jesus.
In her day, Dorothy Sayers complained that the church had made the gospel unattractive; she asked why anyone would want to believe something that only concerned one tenth of their life. She had a point.
But if we can recognise that embodying God’s faithfulness is our mission for all parts of our lives, if we can understand that priesthood is an image for our ministry, if we can reframe purity and belonging as active states that are not easily lost but instead best expressed as we muck in with the messy business of dealing with sin, then we’ll shape reality in amazing ways. This is what we are called to do.
This post has been edited slightly since its initial publication.
Rather longer (and possibly less coherent posts) exploring this topic are Rethinking virginity: yes, it is about purity, but it’s not like a silk scarf and A brain-dump about purity: this time, I think I really might change the world. I also complain about bias in translation in I always loved the Torah, and now I feel lied to (a complaint about translation).