C.S. Lewis’ Surprising Argument for the Papacy

C.S. Lewis

One of the relatively few modern theologians revered by Catholics, Protestants, and Mormons alike is C.S. Lewis (1898-1963). While secular audiences know him best for his Chronicles of Narnia series, perhaps his greatest work is Mere Christianity, in which he strove to reintroduce a rapidly-secularizing Britain to Jesus Christ.

There’s a fascinating (and controversial) section in the book in which he defends the permanence of marriage… and then male headship. He introduces the topic this way:

So much for the Christian doctrine about the permanence of marriage. Something else, even more unpopular, remains to be dealt with. Christian wives promise to obey their husbands. In Christian marriage the man is said to be the “head.” Two questions obviously arise here, (1) Why should there be a head at all —why not equality? (2) Why should it be the man?

It’s the first of these questions that are of interest here, because he shows the need for a single head in this way:

The need for some head follows from the idea that marriage is permanent Of course, as long as the husband and wife are agreed, no question of a head need arise; and we may hope that this will be the normal state of affairs in a Christian marriage. But when there is a real disagreement, what is to happen? Talk it over, of course; but I am assuming they have done that and still failed to reach agreement. What do they do next?

They cannot decide by a majority vote, for in a council of two there can be no majority. Surely, only one or other of two things can happen: either they must separate and go their own ways or else one or other of them must have a casting vote. If marriage is permanent, one or other party must, in the last resort, have the power of deciding the family policy. You cannot have a permanent association without a constitution.

Lewis, as an Anglican, certainly never intended that to be a defense of the papacy, but look at how neatly the argument works in that way nevertheless.

The analogy between marriage and the Church is no stretch. Much of the Christian doctrine of marriage derives from Ephesians 5, in which St. Paul famously compares marriage to the union between Christ and the Church. And like marriage, the Church is meant to be a union for life. Christ promises that “the gates of Hell” shall never destroy the Church (Matthew 16:17-19), and prays for His future followers (that is, you and me) that we will be wholly united (John 17:20-23):

I do not pray for these only, but also for those who believe in me through their word, that they may all be one; even as thou, Father, art in me, and I in thee, that they also may be in us, so that the world may believe that thou hast sent me. The glory which thou hast given me I have given to them, that they may be one even as we are one, I in them and thou in me, that they may become perfectly one, so that the world may know that thou hast sent me and hast loved them even as thou hast loved me.

Jesus Christ, the Divine Bridegroom, is head of the Church, His Bride. This is the model for all of Christendom, down to every individual family, the so-called “domestic Church.” The husband’s headship over the domestic Church is patterned off of Christ’s Headship over the cosmic Church (Ephesians 5:25-27): “Husbands, love your wives, as Christ loved the church and gave himself up for her, that he might sanctify her, having cleansed her by the washing of water with the word, that he might present the church to himself in splendor, without spot or wrinkle or any such thing, that she might be holy and without blemish.’

But in the same way, the bishop’s headship over the local Church, and the pope’s headship over the global Church is likewise patterned off of Christ’s Headship. And so St. Ignatius of Antioch, a student of the Apostle John, writes to the Trallians around 107 A.D. to praise them for respecting the bishop’s singular headship:

For, since you are subject to the bishop as to Jesus Christ, you appear to me to live not after the manner of men, but according to Jesus Christ, who died for us, in order, by believing in His death, you may escape from death. It is therefore necessary that, as you indeed do, so without the bishop you should do nothing, but should also be subject to the presbytery, as to the apostle of Jesus Christ, who is our hope, in whom, if we live, we shall [at last] be found. It is fitting also that the deacons, as being [the ministers] of the mysteries of Jesus Christ, should in every respect be pleasing to all.

St. Optatus of Milevis points out (writing in the mid-300s) that this need for headship extends, not just to the family or the local Church, but to the global Church as well, and that it was for this reason that the Lord established the papacy:

So we have proved that the Catholic Church is the Church which is spread throughout the world. […] You cannot then deny that you do know that upon Peter first in the City of Rome was bestowed the Episcopal Cathedra, on which sat Peter, the Head of all the Apostles (for which reason he was called Cephas), that, in this one Cathedra, unity should be preserved by all, lest the other Apostles might claim—-each for himself—-separate Cathedras, so that he who should set up a second Cathedra against the unique Cathedra would already be a schismatic and a sinner. Well then, on the one Cathedra, which is the first of the Endowments, Peter was the first to sit.

Optatus’ point is virtually identical to Lewis’. Male headship isn’t premised off of the idea that women are in any way inferior to men, but upon the idea that there is a need for someone to have the final decision-making authority.

If the couple is to be one for life, there is a need for a single individual to have final authority. This is no less true for the Church. Otherwise, you end up with interminable disputes, divorce (in the case of marriages) and schisms (in the case of the Church). This, of course, has precisely been the case of Protestantism: a felt need to continually embrace either heresy or schism. And the remedy here is exactly what Lewis lays out: a return to a Biblical understanding of headship.



  1. I think one of his arguments against the Papacy was that he would not only have to accept all that the Church taught, which he could know, but all that it might teach–which he could not know and therefore agree with. It seems the point you make here applies to that as well. A husband and wife, when they marry, could agree on how they plan to live as a married couple. But they cannot know how things will change and how they will have to adapt to those changes, therefore the need, at times, for a final decision to be made in the domestic church as well. And a decision to be made based on all that had been in the marriage before. In a similar way, the Church has development of doctrine: not a new teaching, but a fuller way of understanding based on what has been taught all along.

      1. Submit or obey… what a pedantic difference. What is the source (a linguistic authority, in English as well as Greek) specifying that “children and slaves obey”? Children and slaves also submit… so… Allah bless you, too.

        1. I think the above constitutes a personal attack.

          Further, it is worth saying that the Greek words are different. Submission can be done amongst equals. Obedience is a matter of clear differences in status. Christ submits to the Father (1 Cor 11:3). The submission of the wife to the husband reflects a reality within the Godhead.

          1. I think the above constitutes a personal attack.

            Well, you are a person, aren’t you? Unless you want to separate your thoughts and you, so, to be true, it was an attack on your thoughts, not on you… get the difference? But… does it make a difference?

            Submission can be done amongst equals. Obedience is a matter of clear differences in status.

            Says you.
            Again, you cite not grammar. Please, do that. It’s not academically sound to make up things in your head and not back it up with data.
            “And he humbled himself and was obedient unto death” (Philippians, 2:8).


            obeyed obeying

            transitive verb

            : to follow the commands or guidance of

            : to conform to or comply with “obey an order” “falling objects obey the laws of physics”

            intransitive verb

            : to behave obediently

            obeyer noun


            submitted, submitting

            transitive verb

            a : to yield to governance or authority
            b : to subject to a condition, treatment, or operation <the metal was submitted to analysis"

            : to present or propose to another for review, consideration, or decision; also : to deliver formally "submitted my resignation"

            : to put forward as an opinion or contention "we submit that the charge is not proved"

            intransitive verb

            a : to yield oneself to the authority or will of another : surrender b : to permit oneself to be subjected to something "had to submit to surgery"

            : to defer to or consent to abide by the opinion or authority of another


            Source: http://www.merriam-webster.com/dictionary/submit

            So, according to the Webster dictionary, submission can also be done among unequals (in authority, among other things). And so can obedience.

            Anyway, just the research you didn't do before nitpicking:

            Strong's Concordance
            hupotassó: to place or rank under, to subject, mid. to obey
            Original Word: ὑποτάσσω
            Part of Speech: Verb
            Transliteration: hupotassó
            Phonetic Spelling: (hoop-ot-as'-so)
            Short Definition: I place under, subject to
            Definition: I place under, subject to; mid, pass: I submit, put myself into subjection.



            "The submission of the wife to the husband reflects a reality within the Godhead." Well, that's not exactly what Paul says:

            "22 Wives, submit yourselves to your own husbands as you do to the Lord. 23 For the husband is the head of the wife as Christ is the head of the church, his body, of which he is the Savior. 24 Now as the church submits to Christ, so also wives should submit to their husbands in everything."


            Now, that's surprising. Just as Christ is Lord, so the husband is "lord" at home. Just as one obeys the Church, women should obey their husbands "in everything". That's a pretty tough argument. I can imagine the women from Ephesus (or wherever the letter was addressed to) had been doing something that Paul (or whoever wrote the letter) or their husbands didn't like, or that men started talking or stories circulated in Christian milieus about wife disobedience, so Paul decided to settle the matter once and for all, appealing to a strong analogy he made up himself (OK, you'll say that the Holy Spirit made it or inspired it).

            Whatever theological argument by fundamentalists or social arguments that could be made up until the middle 20th century in favor of that verse is unwarranted today.

            Anyway, that was not what this was about: the caput: "What is the source (a linguistic authority, in English as well as Greek) specifying that “children and slaves obey”?" wasn't addressed by you. Allah bless you, and guide you to the true path.

          2. KO,

            I am not sure if you think I am disingenuous and so you are being defensive, or you are itching for a fight. I am honestly not being disingenuous and I apologize if my behavior, for whatever reason, gives you that impression. I’d ask that we conduct ourselves in a respectful way.

            As for your point about Phil 2:8, I looked up the Greek and you are correct. This certainly nuances my view of headship as seen in 1 Cor 11:3, and it makes me less sure as to why women are subject and children/slaves obey, but it is worth saying that CS Lewis makes a claim that the Scripture does not explicitly make.

            All the best,

          3. Craig,

            Thank you for your kind response. I’ve re-read 1 Cor 11, and again I don’t find the difference you claim there is between children/slaves obeying and wives submitting. I didn’t think you were being disingenuous, I just thought you rushed to conclusions (or preconceived ideas) that you didn’t back up. Maybe some authority says that “obey” is the right word for children and slaves and not for wives; I still haven’t found that authority. Of course the Anglicans don’t think as you do in their marriage vows, I guess that’s what Mick Jagger Gathers no Mosque was trying to say.

            Anyway, 1 Cor 11 is just disregarded as too historically-specific (I guess/hope women don’t wear veils at your church).

            All the best for you too, may Hathor bless you with a long life and a shining path ahead, and the light of Maat shine upon your eyes.

          4. Craig, blog-owner: You delete, I write. You censor, I write. You feel hurt, I write. Happy blogging. May the light of Maat shine upon your eyes.

  2. Re: Marriage. What if the man is dumber, less-skilled, overall less competent? As we are taught we read Scripture considering among several things the times and the audience. This literal translation of the wife’s role is used by fundamentalist Protestants, Mormons (in instances when dad is absent the oldest son is in charge) and even some orthodox Catholics. I recognize the physical differences but not the intellectual. I asked my husband one time if he really wanted to grow old together. Really think about the weight of that question, I said He said Yes! Then I told him that means that every action we take individually or together must first consider that question. That was 30 years ago. If one is honest about that it will prove no submission needs to be involved. We also wash our own clothes. It’s hard to respect a grownup who can’t wash his own underwear! Ha!

  3. The need for some head follows from the idea that marriage is permanent.

    No. Non sequitur. It is even proved by Lewis himself when he starts setting up a series of conditions in which there is supposedly a need for a head. To begin with, he compares marriage to a democratic political system in which no party has a majority Therefore, when there is conflict consensus must be reached. He doesn’t consider the possibility that consensus could be reached with an external arbiter. He doesn’t even consider it possible to have a minimal consensus when both parties have equal power. So let’s move on. For him, there is a precondition that consensus must be reached by acquiescence to one, in which case it is either a grudging acceptance or either it is submission. No, for him marriage is kept alive neither by external forces nor by internal consensus: it is maintained by hierarchical submission. It isn’t clear if this submission is legal-abstract or ad hoc, though.

    only one or other of two things can happen: either they must separate and go their own ways or else one or other of them must have a casting vote.
    Or one should concede (“submit”?) to the other sometimes, and vice-versa. So you come to a consensus. Why does it have to be the man? For socio-political reasons, for sure. He used to be the provider. The defender. And so on.

    If marriage is permanent, one or other party must, in the last resort, have the power of deciding the family policy. You cannot have a permanent association without a constitution.
    There it is: the “constitution” (the law) is external to the couple, in this case. A constitution is not a person.

    Who decide who decides? The whole analogy here breaks at this point. Political parties share power. Even monarchs have a limited life-span. He didn’t answer (1) Why should there be a head at all — why not equality? (The obvious answer is because social norms and laws “say so”). And he didn’t even try to answer (as per Joe’s quotes) (2) (the answer is the same as (1): because social norms and laws “say so”). Of course as you’ll ask, why norms and laws “say so” must be explained.

    I tend to think that arguments in favor of the papacy are much more aligned with arguments in favor of the Union of a Federal government against the independence of one or several (or all!) States. The argument even works for unitary (not federal) states. Hierarchy and law can be shown to be intrinsically needed for a (national, modern) state to exist (not all societies need a head, and not all society leaders are equal, contra Lewis).

    But male-female hierarchy in marriage is based upon too flimsy a foundation (social, political and economical underpinnings not longer true in the West) and it insolubility is predicated on an even more specific Christian dogma that is no longer legally binding in most Western, culturally Christian societies.

    “If the couple is to be one for life, there is a need for a single individual to have final authority.”

    Many times authority comes with economic power. Women can decide because they often provide for the family. Authority can also be shared in marriage and many instances of public life (not in others). As Reede said: “What if the man is dumber, less-skilled, overall less competent?” Answer: the woman should decide. She should be the head. Who would argue otherwise?

  4. In using marriage as an spiritual analogy defining the Church’s relationship with God, it is important to understand what, in fact, marriage is in the first place. The most important element of marriage is the proximity of the husband to the wife so that each might watch over the other using their own particular talents and sensitivities such that two bodies become one due to the closeness of the care that they exhibit for the other. And this has little to do with the sexual act that takes place in marriage. And, then, after the husband and wife help and aid each other, they are usually blessed to aid and care for others also, in close proximity and relationship, those particularly being their children. So, marriage is primarily founded on this communal charity between persons who, for the most part, are in very close proximity to one another.

    A discussion of obedience and submission of one spouse to, or for, the other must always be framed with this in mind, as help, love and care is the end goal of marriage in the first place. The book of Genesis sums it up nicely in this passage:

    “And Adam called all the beasts by their names, and all the fowls of the air, and all the cattle of the field: but for Adam there was not found a helper like himself”. (Gen.2:19)

    So, before all, marriage is for the purpose of a husband, wife, and children…’helping each other’ in this life.

    After we know the goal, we can understand the means to attain it. And sometimes obedience and submission are necessary. If a man is wise, He will obey his wife willingly when she helps and cares for him using her own particular insights and spiritual gifts that God has given her. If a man does not do this, he is not using the gift that God has given to him to aid him in the difficulties of this life. And the woman too, should take advantage of the talents, intuition and spiritual gifts that are particularly given to the masculine sex, which will also greatly aid her in the many difficulties of her life. Moreover, both of these lend all of their talents to the benefit of their children. And when the children are grown, they give back to their parents the care, spiritual gifts and help as a sort of dividend to console and assist them in their old age.

    So, these fundamental aspects of marriage should be included in any discussion concerning obedience, submission and authority, etc… How could authority and obedience be discussed without such consideration? This would then indeed be less of a discussion of true and God ordained marriage and more a discussion of servitude, abuse or slavery.

    And after this fundamental analysis and understanding of marriage is achieved on the natural or micro level, then it might also be analyzed in a symbolic way pertaining to the Church as a whole on the ‘macro’ level.

    Just a consideration.

  5. It’s perhaps worth pointing out that it’s possible that Lewis’s argument here is in fact influenced by Plato’s argument against democracy (in the sense of a society in which everyone does as they please as long as they don’t harm anyone else) in The Republic, since the argument has some similarities to Plato’s argument that such a society is intrinsically degenerating. (And, of course, Lewis would have known the argument, and occasionally adapts arguments from Plato’s Republic elsewhere in his work.) Plato notes that such a society works and to most people looks beautiful as long as everyone is agreement about harm; but it’s really a society of as many constitutions as there are persons, so has no intrinsic way to guarantee any cooperation on the question of what causes harm or not, and therefore inevitably dissolves into demagoguery, and thence to civil war.

    1. Fortunate for us, it is the Book of Genesis that gives this fundamental reason for Eve’s creation from the beginning. It is primarily to be a “help” in life’s joys and difficulties. Adam then must also take care of Eve in a similar way; and the two being physically, intellectually and emotionally different they will also benefit by their complimentary but varying talents. I think a lot of people just overlook this fine detail in scripture. They focus more on the conjugal pleasures involved in marriage, which are very minor compared to the true purpose described by Genesis.

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