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Ask the Pastor

† Theological musings and answers to selected questions by a confessional Lutheran pastor.

21 November 2008

Of Fraternities and Fathers

Q: This has nothing to do with my faith in God but with another problem I am dealing with. I’m a senior in my college. Recently, I applied and was accepted to a fraternity. This is my last opportunity do be involved in anything in college. I visited the house and love everything they do. However, my father doesn’t want me to join. What should I do? Is joining a fraternity a bad thing for me?

A: You’ve actually presented two different questions, and one is faith-related. While you ask only whether joining a fraternity is a bad thing, you also brought up your father’s thoughts. So let’s take these separately, starting with the general idea of Christian participation in fraternities.

You don’t say what your particular church affiliation is, nor what fraternity interests you, so some of what I write will be a bit generic. That’s because Christians don’t agree on fraternities (or sororities). Some churches say that you can join any fraternity you wish, unless it completely contradicts or denies Christian teaching. The opposite position is held by churches who demand that their members completely stay away from such organizations.

At one time, a large number of Christian bodies held this latter view. This included my own, The Lutheran Church — Missouri Synod (LCMS). Specifics varied, but the general reasons involved the secrecy, the oaths, and the mixing of Christian and non-Christian thoughts or practices.

The Missouri Synod web site posted Lodges, Fraternal Organizations and Fraternities, a brief overview of major objections to many fraternal organizations. It includes our historic position: “Membership in fraternal lodges is incompatible with membership in a synodical congregation.” Our Handbook says, “Pastors and laypeople must avoid membership or participation in any organization that in its objectives, ceremonies, or practices is inimical to the Gospel of Jesus Christ or the faith and life of the Christian church.” From this page, you can find information about specific organizations.

In other words, the LCMS generally opposes any fraternal societies whose rituals include mention of false gods, who teach or practice any form of works-righteousness, or who demand sworn promises to maintain fraternal secrecy even before their pledges understand the nature of these secrets. This opposition started with various lodges but as they looked about themselves, our forefathers saw similar practices among many collegiate fraternities.

Of course, when Christian youth went off to school, not all of them chose to remain true to their churches’ teachings. Often they would join one society or another but wouldn’t tell family and friends back home. Others chose to leave their churches rather than live as hypocrites. After a time, many Lutherans responded as had other churches by founding Christian fraternities based upon their various beliefs. Still, this only left two options: Avoid fraternities or join the only one available and allowed.

Of course, if you have two extremes, you’ll usually find a large population living somewhere in-between. A number of churches have always been in this middle ground. In the LCMS, our thinking about fraternities changed somewhat through the years — as have the membership requirements and practices of many fraternities. The majority are much more open in their beliefs, rituals, and expectations of their members. They’re less likely to include objectionable oaths and have often completely forsaken any religious trappings, becoming more like the service organizations such as the Lions or the Rotary. They still maintain a camaraderie where they look out for each other as they can.

Although situations and circumstances have changed, there remain church-specific fraternities. A large number of young people still pledge them because they enjoy being able to associate with like-minded and like-believing people. Other fraternities center around majors, vocations, or common interests. Many are fairly general in nature. Regarding any of them, I recommend that anyone thinking of pledging investigate them thoroughly to make sure that what they expect of their members won’t contradict belief or conscience.

The aforementioned LCMS page on fraternal organizations includes a statement on fraternities. This brief summary echoes what I’ve already said: “Since there are so many college fraternities, and since their membership requirements vary, the Synod's Commission on Theology and Church Relations has advised that judgments must be left to individuals based on the particular case.”

Finally, I include a warning about fraternities and hazing: It’s usually uncomfortable, sometimes illegal, and often immoral or unchristian. If initiation rites are set up so that “the means justify the end,” then the end isn’t desirable for a Christian, no matter the benefits gained or the “good” the fraternity does.

Now we address the second question, the one specific to Christian belief and practice. There’s no Scriptural statute of limitation on the Fourth Commandment and Jesus didn’t abolish it. Instead, He reminded His hearers of the importance of continuing to honor their parents. Mark wrote about Him facing some Pharisees who tried to sneak around the command: “He said to them, ‘You have a fine way of rejecting the commandment of God in order to establish your tradition! For Moses said, “Honor your father and your mother”; and, “Whoever reviles father or mother must surely die.”’ (7:9-10)”

Jesus wasn’t speaking to children but to grown men. Even as adults, God calls us to respect our parents, accept their advice, and do all we can to live up to their standards. Even if we completely disagree with their wishes, contrary actions should never be taken casually. For those still being supported by the folks, honor and respect should translate to full obedience unless the parents demand sinful or irrational behavior of their children.

However, nothing prohibits us from going to our parents and making a good case for a change in actions. Unless their thoughts are completely set in stone, fathers and mothers generally appreciate their children’s ability to come to them and logically discuss why a change might not be bad — indeed that it could be beneficial.

That’s what I urge you to do. Find out what keeps your father from giving his approval. Is it based upon fact or feeling? Is he concerned about fraternities in general or this one in particular? Does his discomfort stem from religious beliefs, personal history, or, perhaps, a faulty understanding of what membership in this society entails? Once you understand him and the fraternity, first of all be honest with yourself and make sure that he isn’t correct in his objections.

If you still disagree with him, assemble your arguments and present them to him with love and respect. If he still thinks of you as a child, prove him different by your restraint and your logic. Show him that you are secure in your faith, confident in your career choices, and focused on living a Christian life as you finish school and throughout your life. As you finish your formal education, you now have opportunity to educate your father, both about you and about this fraternity. Teach him as your best teachers have taught you.

I pray that whatever you decide, you act with a clear conscience. Be filled with the joy of living honestly and openly as a child of your heavenly Father and of your earthly father. God bless you!

Previous posts dealing with the Fourth Commandment include Honoring Dishonorable Parents and Making the Grade in Life. For an extended examination of fraternalism, particularly Freemasonry, please see Why the Church and the Lodge Disagree.

Scripture quoted from The Holy Bible, English Standard Version™, © 2001 by Crossway Bibles.

Send email to Ask the Pastor.

Walter Snyder is the pastor of Holy Cross Lutheran Church, Emma, Missouri and coauthor of the book What Do Lutherans Believe.

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Newspaper column #568


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