Standing before the student body of King’s College, University of London, in 1944, C.S. Lewis delivered one of his most profound speeches. Intent on calling his listeners to give serious consideration to the dangers of what he labeled “The Inner Ring,” Lewis explained that at every social level there are certain “inner rings” of fellowship. Upon discovering them, the individual’s desire to enter the ring may become the driving force of his or her life. In seeking admission, many forfeit the greater blessing of developing lifelong friendships outside the ring. Plus, the irony of the “inner ring” is that once in, you discover another, and another, and another. The quest seems hopeless. How are we to live in a world of “inner rings” without destroying ourselves or compromising our principles to get inside?
Unraveling the mystery of the inner ring, Lewis first drew attention to the significance of the informal (and sometimes seemingly imperceptible) nature of it. He observed:
There are no formal admissions or expulsions. People think they are in it after they have in fact been pushed out of it, or before they have been allowed in: this provides great amusement for those who are really inside. It has no fixed name. The only certain rule is that the insiders and outsiders call it by different names . . . . If you are a candidate for admission you probably don’t call it anything. To discuss it with the other outsiders would make you feel outside yourself. And to mention talking to the man who is inside, and who may help you if this present conversation goes well, would be madness.
Lewis then went on to point out the irony and futility of the quest for admittance into the ring:
You have met the phenomenon of an inner ring. You discovered one in your house at school before the end of the first term. And when you had climbed up to somewhere near it by the end of your second year, perhaps you discovered that within the ring there was a Ring yet more inner, which in its turn was the fringe of the great school Ring to which the house Rings were only satellites. . . . You were beginning, in fact, to pierce through the skins of an onion.
There is no aspect of society untouched by the phenomenon of the inner ring. Whether you are a student, an artist, an athlete, an entrepreneur, a waitress, a doctor, a nurse, a lawyer, a musician, a pastor, or a teacher, you will find “inner rings” all around you.
Despite the widespread prevalence of these rings, we must not conclude that they are in themselves evil. Lewis was careful to make this distinction. “I am not,” he told his hearers, “going to say that the existence of inner rings is an evil. It is certainly unavoidable. There must be confidential discussions: and it is not only a bad thing, it is (in itself) a good thing, that personal friendship should grow up between those who work together.” Special friendships are among the most blessed experiences we enjoy as image-bearers living in a world created by the personal God.
As legitimate as any given “inner ring” may be, those who know the deceitfulness of their own hearts also perceive something of the danger involved in the quest for entrance. The drive for admittance into the “inner ring” often hurts relationships. It can consume an individual with envy, jealousy, a willingness to compromise, and — once inside — a deep-seated pride. When we see the devastating consequences in others, we should want to avoid the quest altogether.
I am grateful for Lewis’ astute observations on the “inner ring,” but the apostle John gave us the biblical solution. At the beginning of his first epistle, John appealed to his privileged membership in the “inner ring” of the apostolic band. Rather than seeing his membership as a reason for pride, John used it to invite others into the ring of fellowship. He summed up his purpose at the outset of his epistle when he wrote, “That which we have seen and heard we proclaim also to you, so that you too may have fellowship with us; and indeed our fellowship is with the Father and with his Son Jesus Christ” (1 John 1:3).
There is an ultimate inner ring of fellowship into which all believers are brought through faith in Jesus Christ. No one is excluded. When we believe the Scriptures’ testimony about the person and work of Jesus, we enter into the ultimate inner ring — the ring of fellowship with the triune God and His people.