Moving Beyond the Stalemate in Marriage

Moving Beyond the Stalemate in Marriage

Let me be honest from the start. At the beginning of my marriage, I was a harsh jerk. My self-righteous impatience made it almost impossible for my husband to plan even a Saturday out for the two of us because I questioned every decision he made.

But God.

He is in the business of graciously convicting and sanctifying his saints, and over time God did a work in my life to show me the beauty of God’s design for headship and submission — a beautiful design highlighted by C.S. Lewis in what has been voted the most important Christian book of the twentieth century: Mere Christianity.

Unpopular Complementarity

Lewis recognized the topics of headship and submission were already unpopular in his day, and they needed to be addressed, and needed to be addressed in a book on the essentials of the faith. And he knew they would be hard to address. After addressing the permanency of marriage, he writes, “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’” (112).

Here’s why it mattered to Lewis:

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. (113)

And such a constitution will subtly flavor everything for the better. Lewis not only believes that the husband is the head of the wife, but that this must shape practices in the home. It is a functional complementarity, or what I would call a common-sense complementarity.

Functional Complementarity

Whenever two people need to make a decision, and a disagreement arises, one must lead. One must make the final decision. Important decisions in marriage require moving beyond a stalemate. And if the man doesn’t lead, the woman will.

For Lewis, the implications of Ephesians 5:22–23 determined that the man was the head of the woman, and therefore the man would make the final decision.

But notice what Lewis is not saying. He is not saying a wife is a voiceless doormat. If that were the case, there would be no discussion, no possibility of stalemate, and the man would merely decide. Lewis doesn’t say that a woman cannot, and should not, have an opinion. Quite the contrary. His point is that the power of final decision in the case of disagreement falls to the husband and his role as the leader.

Sacrificial Complementarity

But decision-making is only the beginning of complementarity.

Lewis was not married when he wrote this, and admits that he could speak only second hand (104). He was a bachelor until his sixties, when he married his American friend, writer Joy Davidman Gresham. They were married after she received alarming and heartbreaking news that she had bone cancer and was given only a few days to live. Those days turned into four years, and during those long and painful years, Lewis overcame his own physical limitations to serve his wife unselfishly and tirelessly until she died.

Over the course of these four years, Lewis modeled the full scope of complementarity in his sacrifice for his wife. He lived out Ephesians 5:25: “Husbands, love your wives, as Christ loved the church and gave himself up for her, that he might sanctify her.”

The Courage of Lewis

I imagine the great comfort Joy felt in having her husband sacrificially love and serve her. I’ve never faced a debilitating disease or chronic illness, but I have experienced suffering, and in that suffering, I have experienced the same type of self-sacrifice in my husband.

He is not perfect, nor am I. We both sin against each other, and we return to the grace of God in the gospel. But I have learned to submit to him gladly, and I no longer desire to usurp his authority — not because my husband is infallible, and not really on the testimony of Lewis, but ultimately on the foundation of God’s eternal wisdom (Ephesians 5:22–24; Colossians 3:18; 1 Peter 3:1–6).

It seems to me that Lewis was seeking to do the same. He was a brilliant man with the courage to stand for truth even when it meant countering the trajectory of society. Which is why Lewis’s legacy endures on, and why he is worth listening to.


Trillia Newbell will be traveling to Minneapolis next month (September 27–29) for the Desiring God 2013 National Conference celebrating the work of C.S. Lewis. More information on the event is available at the event page.


*For more on complementarity —*

Trillia Newbell (@trillianewbell) is a wife, mom, and writer who loves Jesus. She is the author of United: Captured by God’s Vision for Diversity (Moody, March 2014).