C. S. Lewis, Reluctant Churchman
by Wayne Martindale
The Church has long felt comfortable with C. S. Lewis. He is quoted regularly from the pulpit and in Christian books and periodicals, not to mention the massive popularity of his own works. But Lewis was not always comfortable with the Church. He was repelled by much that he saw, both in the Church as the local congregation of worshipers and the Church as the universal body of all believers. First, the local congregation.
Lewis had no natural fondness for church-going. He found the sermons often dull, and he disliked hymns and organ music, which he described as “one long roar.”1 In his spiritual autobiography Surprised by Joy—speaking of his 1929 conversion to a belief in God (two years before his full conversion to Christianity)—Lewis refers to himself as “the most dejected and reluctant convert in all England.”2 Though reluctant, his reason commanded assent.
Disgust & Grace
He was equally reluctant about church. But he went. Why? He went at first because he felt he ought to: the Scriptures that had won his reasoned assent commanded it. He went later because he learned that it was good for him and necessary for his spiritual growth. In an essay written many years after his conversion, Lewis recalls both his disgust at the services he attended and the grace that came through them:
Lewis was keener than most about knowing when the Devil was using things like personal taste and, more deadly yet, personal pride to imperil his soul. In The Screwtape Letters, Lewis has the senior devil Screwtape advise junior devil Wormwood regarding a new convert he is trying to tempt:
Our Holy Neighbors
It is, as Lewis realized, precisely this neighbor presented to our senses whom Christ commanded us to love as ourselves. If we can’t love our neighbor, whom we have seen, how can we love God, whom we have not seen? The local church and its gallery of “types” is our primary laboratory for testing the authenticity of our Christianity. It is there that we learn to love. Lewis calls on us to remember that “next to the blessed sacrament itself, your neighbour is the holiest object presented to your senses.” How else could we respond than in Christian love?
We must apply this knowledge beyond the church, to be sure, but how successful can we hope to be with the frankly skeptical and uninterested if we first fail with those who care enough to find their way among us?
But there’s more. Our ability to grow and our very worship of God to be adequate, requires others; Lewis would say in both the local church and the Church universal. He explains why:
Each individual was created with a unique capacity, because of his personality, to see some aspect of God more clearly than anyone else, and we must have the help of others to worship more fully. Lewis’s idea of our worship in heaven is of such a harmony, requiring all of the parts for wholeness.
Our Grim History
What, then, of the Church universal? Did Lewis love that? I think not at first. He was too much of a historian. The Church through history has much to repent of. Lewis writes of a false devotion the Church has attracted when it has been militant at arms: when the name of the holy has been usurped to sanction the unholy.
Many have used the grim facts of the organized church’s history to reject Christianity. Others withdraw from the schisms and abuses into an equally dangerous parochialism. With inbreeding comes a blinkered view of the whole and the danger of thinking that those things which we find stressed in our own corner of Christianity is the very whole itself. It is altogether too easy for us to pick and choose those aspects of Christianity which suit us.
Unity in the Center
It is a short step to institutionalizing those parts we like, relegating the rest to “those other churches.” Just as we can and must balance each other within the local church, so must we embrace the balance provided by the Church universal—the world-wide body of Christ. Lewis is a strong advocate of finding the center:
It is precisely at the center that “mere Christianity” is to be found. The danger of inhabiting the periphery is spelled out by his fictional senior devil Screwtape, who sees in imported ideas (non-biblical ideas) an opportunity to divide and weaken us:
The fragmentation of the Church has always been a source of confusion for those outside the faith, as well as a stumbling block to growth for those within. As Lewis says: “The time is always ripe for re-union. Divisions between Christians are a sin and a scandal, and Christians ought at all times to be making contributions toward re-union, if it is only by their prayers.”12
Many Members, One Head
Does Lewis advocate the abolition of differences, then? By no means. As we have seen already, the differences in personality, even in group or church or denominational personality, are often ordained by God. The differences only become dangerous when they become a source of pride or division.
Lewis suggests that if we know our own interests (and those of a watching world), we will embrace each other sometimes in spite of and often because of those differences.
The Church as the bride of Christ will be a body of many members united in one head, Jesus Christ. In his Revelation, John saw “a great multitude that no one could count, from every nation, tribe, people and language, standing before the throne and in front of the Lamb.” We must, if we would be in that multitude, sooner or later come to love this Church, the Church universal, as well as the whole body of the local church. For, as Lewis says, “The Church will outlive the universe; in it the individual person will outlive the universe. Everything that is joined to the immortal Head will share His immortality.”14
Finally, we must embrace each other, not only in anticipation of our eternity together, but so that others may share that eternity with us:
Are you a reluctant churchman as regards the local congregation or the Church universal? Take heart. The example of Lewis shows that very great obstacles of personality and prejudice can be overcome. And his cogent thinking on the subject in many works over many years shows why the effort must be made.
1. Roger Lancelyn Green and Walter Hooper, C. S. Lewis: A Biography (New York: Harcourt, Brace, Jovanovich, 1974), p. 104.
2. C. S. Lewis, Surprised by Joy (New York: Harcourt, Brace & World, Inc., 1955), pp. 228–229.
3. C. S. Lewis, “Answers to Questions on Christianity,” God in the Dock (Grand Rapids, Michigan: Eerdmans, 1970), pp. 61–62.
4. C. S. Lewis, The Screwtape Letters (New York: Macmillan, 1982), pp. 12–13.
5. C. S. Lewis, “The Weight of Glory,” The Weight of Glory (Grand Rapids, Michigan: Eerdmans, 1965), pp. 14–15.
6. C.S. Lewis, Mere Chrisitanity (New York: Macmillan, 1952), p. 144.
7. Mere Christianity, p. 163.
8. C. S. Lewis, The Four Loves (New York: Harcourt, Brace, Jovanovich, 1960), p. 49.
9. Mere Christianity, p. 80.
10. Mere Christianity, p. 9.
11. The Screwtape Letters, pp. 115–116.
12. “Answers to Questions on Christianity,” p. 60.
13. Letters of C. S. Lewis (7 December 1950), edited by W. H. Lewis (New York: Harcourt, Brace, Jovanovich, 1966), p. 224.
14. C. S. Lewis, “Membership,” The Weight of Glory (Grand Rapids, Michigan: Eerdmans, 1965), p. 39.
15. Mere Christianity, p. 163.
Reprinted from Touchstone, Summer/Fall 1988.
Dr. Wayne Martindale is professor of English at Wheaton College, Wheaton, Illinois.
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“C. S. Lewis, Reluctant Churchman” first appeared in the Fall 1997 issue of Touchstone. If you enjoyed this article, you'll find more of the same in every issue.
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