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Fraternity . . . what does this word mean? It can refer to several distinct types of associations or relationships, and the church can learn valuable lessons by exploring these in more depth. The term fraternity may prompt us to recall the motto of the French Revolution: “Liberty, Fraternity, Equality.” Fraternity, along with equality and liberty, ranked right at the top of the concerns of that revolution. The term may cause us to think of college campus groups such as those depicted in the radical fraternity film Animal House. Beyond the college level, there is a wide variety of organizations of men in this world that are “fraternal orders,” such as the Elks, police groups, and various service clubs.

The idea of fraternity is also manifested in the field of competitive sports, particularly with respect to team sports. The saying “There is no ‘I’ in team” is a cliché because it is so true. For teams to function efficiently and effectively, there must be fraternity and teamwork. Again and again we witness superstar players in the realm of professional sports being traded by their clubs because they create such a destructive atmosphere in the locker room.

No team can function well strictly on the strength of a single individual. In basketball, for example, players who are bal lhogs dest roy the spirit of teamwork. If the ball is passed to a ballhog, he is very unlikely to pass it to a teammate, but more likely to take an ill-advised shot. In football, a play run by the offense involves blocking, running, passing, tackling, and other dimensions of the sport. The whole affair is an orchestration of the various elements. Even baseball operates on the basis of a team working in harmony. Babe Ruth never won a game by himself.

Ironically, when we look at the arena of athletics, we see that the idea of fraternity exists not only in team sports but also in the context of individual sports. Perhaps the supreme example of an individual sport is boxing. It is mano a mano, one man against another. There is no tag team in the boxing ring. The boxer stands toe-to-toe against his opponent with his support systems in his corner. In the ring — the battlefield — he must fight alone. The drama of a tense bout between two equally-matched opponents, each doing his best to knock the other one out or to do enough bodily harm to win the fight on points? And yet, when the final bell rings, we often see these two gladiators come to the center of the ring and hug with an obvious sense of affection. Why do they do this? It is because a fighter is trained in his individual sport not only to compete with his opponent but to respect him. When he is engaged in a match that tests him to the ultimate degree, he comes away exhausted, battered, maybe even beaten, but nevertheless still possessing enormous respect for his opponent. There is a kind of fellowship, a kind of fraternity, that only individual gladiators such as these men understand.

The same thing may be seen in golf, even though most matches test individual ability. From time to time, golfers join together as teammates, and there is the sense among them that they are part of a fraternity that is higher than each one in his individual accomplishments.

But there is no fraternity as important or as significant as the church and the communion of saints. Obviously, the church is not an organization exclusive to men, so perhaps we can speak of the church as both a fraternity and a sorority. But in any case, the idea of team participation is clearly present. There is no such thing as a one-person church.

Certainly we are not saved or justified by the faith of our families, friends, or associates. In one sense, redemption is an intensely individual matter. But once we are justified, once we are in a state of salvation, we are immediately put into a group. We are immediately put into the church.

The church exists as a corporate body. There is a corporate solidarity that defines the identity of the New Testament church. There is no room for rugged individualism. No one has been given all the gifts of the Holy Spirit; no one has an opportunity to “hog” the ministry.

What is needed in the church is a kind of familial relationship that is a brotherhood and a sisterhood. It can be learned in part outside of the church in other endeavors, such as the world of sports or even the battlefield. But the deepest knitting together of human beings for a common cause, a common faith, and a common Lord exists in the church of Jesus Christ.

A Generation of Heroes

The Church Gathered

Keep Reading Fraternity: The Bonds of Brotherhood

From the July 2011 Issue
Jul 2011 Issue