Greg Morse from Desiring God recently criticized the new Captain Marvel movie for its feminist ideology. In the review, Morse argues that men should protect women and not celebrate their male characteristics as Captain Marvel does.
Yet not all complementarians see things like Morse does. All complementarians agree that men and women differ. The question is how. Morse, for example, sees super-hero like actions as masculine, implying that the ideology of Captain Marvel makes men cowardly: “Should we so cowardly send our women to protect our children and us?”
Is he right? Before answering that question, we need to consider how and why women and men differ.
Sex, biology, and purpose
Almost everyone admits that men and women differ biologically. At base, men biologically differ from women chemically and componentally (e.g., we have different genitals). Further, only women can bear children; and only men can sire children. These differences clearly distinguish the sexes.
The next question to ask is: how should these biological differences affect our behaviour? Some emphasize cultural norms (that is, women should not go to war because that is not feminine). Yet the danger here is that Christians identify traditional (as in 1950s) gender stereotypes as the gold standard of gendered-behaviour.
I think it’s probably better to locate the primary differences in natural capacity and purpose. Put in simple English, women have babies; men provide for babies. And this physical reality points to a deeper spiritual reality: humans should spiritually parent (i.e., disciple) people into the image of their heavenly Father.
On this latter understanding, Captain Marvel’s heroism does not entail (by itself) some sort of vice. Nor does it mean that men act cowardly by appreciating the heroism of women. We laud Junia, Mary, Debra, and many other Christian women for their initiative and courage. And it is not obviously wrong to celebrate a female superhero.
I love Studio Ghibli films which often have female leads. I hope my daughter loves these films as much as I do. And I hope she is discerning to realize that men and women may differ in how they exercise courage according to sex. It may be courageous for a woman to give birth to a child instead of aborting it despite pressure from family. A man simply cannot be courageous in this way.
Are We Cowards then?
These issues are never simple. The online pushback to Morse’s article has been strong. I don’t want to attack someone with whom I have so much respect for and agreement with. But I do want to make the simple point that complementarians can and do differ on how men and women should live on the basis of their sex.
I am not convinced that complementarians always identify gender roles with accuracy. I think we sometimes wrongly choose traditional gender stereotypes and apply them to the sexes. I don’t know how many times I have seen the trope: boys wrestle; girls are precious.
Well, what about the boy who likes to daydream, draw, and think? What about the boy who does not like wrestling? The life of the mind or the contemplative life has a long tradition in Christianity. Of course, that kind of life dies under the weight of pragmatism. So all that remains is: boys wrestle, are wild at heart, while women play with dolls and wear pink. (Not to mention that the colour pink partly became female because of a marketing campaign in the 20th century).
But culture is never neutral. And it’s best to place our understanding of sexuality squarely in nature and scripture. And in the latter, we learn that Adam named his wife
The reality of marriage is spiritual. Likewise, the reality of childbearing points to a spiritual reality: discipleship. After all, Paul calls Timothy his son. And so we make spiritual children by preaching the word of salvation. We may fulfill our telos here in ways appropriate to our biological capacity, but we still fulfill it together.
Adam and Eve tended the garden together. And that partnership continues today. Men and women are equal in worth yet truly differ according to sexual capacity (childbirth, nurturing, provision, etc.). And locating the appropriate practical differences on this basis takes abundant wisdom.
I am not convinced that a woman superhero conflicts with complementarianism. I think it’s more complicated than that. And I worry that such positions simply induce us to battle a culture war that we don’t need to participate in.