Fraternities And The Fabric Of Faithfulness

During my undergrad years at Tyndale University College, our very wise Dean of Students required us to read Steven Garber’s The Fabric of Faithfulness. The gratitude I felt towards the Dean for this has not abated since then.

Garber contends, in sum, that three factors stand out in differentiating those Christians who stay faithful from those who abandon the faith along the way. Firstly, the faithful ones found answers to objections to their faith. They were able to hold their faith together with reason, and with honesty regarding the facts.  Secondly, they found mentors or teachers in the faith, who were able to model for them what it meant to live out Christianity as a mature human being.  Thirdly, they found a community, or friends, with whom they could live out their faith in mutual support.

Garber easily convinced me. Challenges to one’s trust in Jesus inevitably come to all believers in this life. How can they withstand them, if they must suppress their own nagging consciousness of problems, or if they have no examples of others who have survived the storm, or if they have no friends on whom they can depend while they endure it? Garber’s points compel agreement to anyone possessing common sense, I believe.

And so I think if churches want to train their members to persevere, they need to craft their ministry to provide these three things.  The pastoral ministry could surely help with the first and second factors (education and example). But even then, they cannot be the sole providers of these.  Members have to be encouraged to become self-educating, and to become examples to each other. And then of course the congregation functions as community.

Yet, congregations should not shoulder this burden by themselves.  A real weakness lurks beneath the recent push among groups like Evangelicals, Emergents, Missionals, Postliberals, etc., to subsume every part of the mission underneath the visible and institutional church (that is, insofar as they do indeed succumb to this attitude; I am sure there are many counterexamples that do not).  It is a mistake to think everything Christians do must be done as an official ministry of local congregations, or networks of congregations in what we call denominations.  The Reformational emphasis on the priesthood of all believers, and on the importance of vocation in the non-ecclesiastical realm, remains salutary for us today.

So, are there other ways, beyond the ministries of the institutional church, that Christians could provide these three faithfulness-producing causes for themselves? Here’s one idea I have been mulling over. I think Western believers ought to really consider reviving fraternities.

Fraternities, or clubs like them, have been around for centuries. In the Greco-Roman world, they at times became so powerful politically that the state outlawed all clubs except those which clearly demonstrated their fealty to the Emperor. And anyone can understand why they became powerful.  Close-knit, likeminded groups devoted to a common cause can accomplish incredible things.  (Though I don’t know the history, I would guess this is one reason why freedom of association has been enshrined in the constitutions of many Western democracies, to provide a check against governmental power.) Scholars such as Niall Ferguson have also noted the incredible importance of institutions of civil society for the preservation of civilization (see, e.g., here).

Unfortunately, Christians, especially men, most likely cannot conceive of a Christian fraternity as having this kind of power. And who could blame them? The Western Protestant churches, if they do not appear to be at the end of their life-span, usually appear like they are at the beginning. That is, we tend to have two options: (1) near-dead mainlines, or (2) infantile evangelicals. Would a fraternity made up of members of such churches instantiate anything other than the same tropes? Unlikely.

Yet despite my Calvinism, I’m not a fatalist. I think fraternities could intentionally seek to be different than this.

I think a club structured around the following three purposes, if its members actively intended to put them into action, could accomplish great things.

  1. Worship/Piety: members should regularly pray together.
  2. Fellowship: members should gather together regularly, both for the sheer joy of it, and also to encourage one another to growth in virtue and knowledge
  3. Service: members should actively plan, and carry out plans, to do good for the wider community/society/city

Doing these three things out of a conviction regarding the truth about God and the world would take care of the “dead” problem seen in mainline churches. And one more proposal would take care of the “infantile” issue: official meetings and proceedings of these fraternities ought to be conducted with  a sense of reverence and seriousness, based on an understanding of the importance of the work they are carrying out. (Of course, this wouldn’t prohibit less serious meetings from occurring as well. But these should not be the only kind, and the more formal should be common enough to have an influence on the souls of the people involved.)

This is just an idea, but I don’t think it’s a bad one. I hope some day I get to put it into practice, but even if I never do, maybe someone else will (or already has).