Fidelity and the Church

Screwtape Letters (I)

Introduction to the Series

Every time I read The Screwtape Letters I am taken back by something new. I am still not sure how Lewis managed to load up so many timely truths into this imaginative work. But he did! Yesterday, I finished reading this book for the fourth time, and during this reading, a few new comments struck me afresh.

Over the next few weeks, I want to simply present Lewis’s thoughts—through the medium of Screwtape—and examine those ideas a bit further. This series will be far from comprehensive (it surely will not cover everything or even most of what is covered in the book), but it will highlight a few major ideas that Lewis works into the letter’s of Screwtape.

For those who are not familiar with The Screwtape Letters, it is a book composed of 31 letters from the experienced demon, Screwtape, to his nephew, Wormwood—the junior tempter fresh out of training school. Screwtape’s correspondence reveals his primary concern—bring human souls to Hell. The 31 letters in the book focus on the fight for the soul of one specific unnamed man that Wormwood is currently responsible for leading to Hell. For Wormood, Screwtape’s letters are words of advice from one experienced tempter to a novice. For the Christian reader, Screwtape’s letters are words of warning. They reveal the tricks and ploys used against God’s people. Obviously, these letters are the work of C.S. Lewis’s pen and mind, but they flow from his understanding of Scripture and experience. So we cannot say that these letters are truly demonic. However, they do possess a nature that is disturbingly realistic. It is because of this realistic nature that this work is just as valuable today as when it was originally published in 1942.


Fidelity and the Church

In today’s post I want to examine Lewis’s view of church. Here are a few excerpts, from select Screwtape letters, that offer us a window into Lewis’ mind.

From Letter #16

“You mentioned casually in your last letter that the patient has continued to attend one church, and one only, since he was converted, and that he is not wholly pleased with it. May I ask what you are about? Why have I no report on the causes of his fidelity to the parish church? Do you realize that unless it is due to indifference it is a very bad thing? Surely you know that if a man can’t be cured of churchgoing, the next best thing is to send him all over the neighborhood looking for the church that ‘suits’ him until he becomes a taster or connoisseur of churches.”[1]

From Letter #2

“One of our great allies at present is the Church itself. Do not misunderstand me. I do not mean the Church as we see her spread out through all time and space and rooted in eternity, terrible as an army with banners. That, I confess, is a spectacle which makes our boldest tempters uneasy. But fortunately it is quite invisible to these humans. All your patient sees is the half-finished, sham Gothic erection on the new building estate […] When he gets to his pew and looks round him he sees just that selection of his neighbors whom he has hitherto avoided. You want to lean pretty heavily on those neighbors. […] Provided that any of those neighbors sing out of tune, or have boots that squeak, or double chins, or odd clothes, the patient will quite easily believe that their religion must therefore be somehow ridiculous.”[2]

Letter #2 offers a high view of the universal and historic Church—the Church has the power to make tempters (demons) uneasy. However, we also see in this same letter, that most church attenders are not thinking historically. Instead, they are thinking in rather shallow terms: “That woman is singing out of tune. That man has a double chin. There are imperfections in the Church, therefore the Church is not the place for me!” Screwtape’s hope is that this man will be as shallow as that, and his shallowness will lead him to abandon the faith altogether.

We see in Letter #16 that if one’s shallowness does not lead them to leave the faith entirely, the next best thing is to lead them to a different church—and then a different one—oh, and a different one after that! Screwtape points out that the hellish benefit in church hopping is that it makes churches into clubs and churchmen into critics, as opposed to pupils.[3] Churches that are clubs rely not on biblical authority but on worldly attraction. And churchmen who are critics do not learn how to appropriately submit to the Word of God or the authorities over them. Instead, they learn how to avoid criticism and correction—even when they are in need of both.

Now, I do not think Lewis would say someone should stay in a church that is preaching heresy. In fact, in Letter #16, Screwtape offers an alternative church for this young believer that is pastored by a Vicar who is “engaged in watering down the faith”[4] and who “shocks his parishioners with his unbelief.”[5] A church that is not preaching the gospel of Christ and is led by a faithless leader is a dangerous place for a new believer—it is not a place they should attend. Lewis’s primary concern with leaving a local church is related to a person leaving based on personal preference: “I did not connect with the people there much—they were odd and had double chins.” “The music there was not my style.” “The pastor was faithful, but he was not nearly as charismatic as the pastor at this other church.” The preference possibilities are endless here. 

Conclusion

We can see from Screwtape’s pen that Lewis sees legitimate reasons to leave a church (faithless leaders) and illegitimate reasons to leave a church (personal preferences). In the world we live in there is absolutely some gray areas with this issue. Sadly, this is not the place to address that gray area. Instead, let's focus on what Lewis makes clear. Lewis shows us (1) Christians ought to be thoughtful when they leave a church and ensure they are leaving for the right reasons—which there are few, (2) Christians ought to love their neighbors in the pews and not be consumed by shallow, judgmental thoughts, (3) the Church is a legitimate Christian institution that holds unique God-given authority. Local churches are where pupils come and grow in the gospel, not where critics regularly come to critique sermons. Lewis’s thoughts remind us to praise God for his Church, and they remind us to love the people in our local church body.




[1] C.S. Lewis, The Screwtape Letters (New York: HarperCollins, 2001), 81.

[2] Ibid., 5–6

[3] Ibid., 81–82

[4] Ibid., 82

[5] Ibid.