For a long time, I’ve wondered why, when I was on the brink of leaving for college nearly twenty years ago, the wife of my Bible study leader prayed for me the way she did during our weekly Bible study. That Sunday afternoon, she didn’t pray that God would provide me a wife, a church, or a diploma. Instead, without my request, she prayed that God would provide me with a friend: a fellow like-minded brother with the same convictions and same pursuits who would run alongside me as a peer in the race of faith. Nearly twenty years later, I better realize the wisdom in her petition. It was wise, because men have a tendency to neglect fellowship with other men.
For clarity’s sake, we need to make a distinction between positional fellowship and practical fellowship. Positional fellowship is the state of fellowship that all men who are followers of Christ exist in (1 John 1:7). In other words, a man from Youngstown, Ohio who has truly professed Christ as his Lord and Savior has been baptized into the body of Christ and now exists in fellowship with the Christian man from Tenali, India who he has never met and of whose existence he is unaware. All Christians exist in a state of fellowship with one another as followers of Jesus Christ, ministers of His gospel, and workers of His kingdom.
Practical fellowship is the act of sharing life and ministry between Christians for the cause of the gospel (see Acts 2:42-47; 4:32-35). Practical fellowship is the exercise of positional fellowship between believers. And, in my experience, men tend to neglect this kind of fellowship with other men. In my nearly fifteen years in pastoral ministry, it is especially true for those men who are husbands and fathers.
That’s why it no longer surprises me when men’s fellowship events—men’s breakfasts, men’s barbecues, men’s retreats, men’s discipleship, men’s small groups, men’s Bible studies, men’s outreach events, men’s prayer meetings, men’s anything—are the most sparsely attended events of a particular local church. I am no longer surprised when I hear a man mention that it had been eighteen months since he’s had a lunch meeting with another man from his church. It’s not that they don’t have the time, it’s that they won’t make the time. And men won’t make time for or spend money on things that they deem unimportant. Men will work rather than go to Sunday service, but they’ll spend thousands of dollars on a family vacation, a new guitar, or an upgraded laptop. They’ll drive 500 miles to visit their parents. But they’ll neglect the regular exercise of men’s fellowship because they don’t think it is important. Good—and even encouraging—they’ll say, but not important.
My goal in this article is to confront the notion that men’s fellowship is unimportant.
Men’s fellowship must be prioritized by all men in the church—whatever the age, demographic, or life stage—because men’s fellowship is vital to a man’s spiritual health. Those men who neglect it will be stunted in their growth and risk spiritual downfall. Did not Jesus tell Peter in Luke 22:32 to “strengthen your brothers”? Men who are strong in the faith are men who are strengthened in their faith by fellow brothers in the faith. As a man, you can’t be spiritually strong while neglecting the fellowship of other men at the same time. Here are five reasons why:
(1) Men Must Bear the Burdens of Other Men
First, there are burdens in a man’s life that can only be carried by other men (Gal 6:2). A professor of biblical counseling at my seminary once said regarding married men, “All of her problems are your problems…but not all of your problems are her problems.” He wasn’t advocating having a secret life. Rather, he was speaking of 1 Peter 3:7 and what it means for a man to live with his wife as with a weaker vessel. You don’t put heavy objects atop fragile vessels. Simply put, there are burdens in a man’s life that his wife can’t bear without breaking. A man ought not to hide his burdens, but rather cast them on other men as Galatians 6:2 instructs. It’s for this very reason why, though women may generally yearn for relationships (with other women) more than men do (with other men), men need these relationships just as much, if not more.
(2) Men are Sharpened by Other Men
Second, there is a sharpening that a man can only experience when in the presence and fellowship of other men, particularly his peers (Prov 27:17). As iron sharpens iron, so one man sharpens another. To sharpen a piece of iron, you don’t rub it against gold or silver—you rub it against another piece of iron. To sharpen himself, a man needs to rub shoulders with another man.
I saw this truth play out during a church retreat. I decided to go for a morning run before breakfast. On the way back, I ran (literally) into a peer friend of mine who was also a distance runner, and was also making his way back to the retreat center. Because he had been training for a marathon, he was fast—faster than me. As soon as we started running back to to the campgrounds together, he started picking up his pace. His legs were longer than mine, and I was struggling to keep up, but I remained silent because I didn’t want to embarrass myself.
All of a sudden, about ten minutes into the run, my friend said, “Dude, you’re going way too fast. I can’t keep up with you—I need to stop!” Then he stopped and threw up. To my surprise (and relief), he felt like he was trying to keep up with me, all the while I felt like I was trying to keep up with him. Because of each other’s presence, we both ended up running faster than we normally do.
That’s what happens in good peer relationships: a man is sharpened when he’s pursuing his endeavors right next to someone else who’s aiming to do the same thing. That is not to say that men can’t be sharpened by their wives. Obviously, they will. But consider this: there are many men who are convinced that they’re sacrificially loving their wives and children until they see another man in the church in the same stage of life and the same set of circumstances who is more selfless with their wives and more patient with their children. A man who is only around his wife and children will be self-deceived and may quickly atrophy in several areas of his life, including his family endeavors. And so when I see a man who only spends time with his wife, children, and parents, I start to cringe. I can almost assume the spiritual flabbiness underneath the Christian lingo. For though biblical masculinity must be exhibited toward women and children (cf Eph 5:25-33, 6:4), it must be sharpened by men.
(3) Men Need Mentoring from Other Men
Third, there is a mentoring that a man can only receive from another man and exercise toward another man. For the record, a man’s wife is his most effective and ongoing source of accountability in his life. A man’s wife will help him in a way that no other person can (cf Gen 2:18). I testify of this both biblically and experientially. But every wife will rejoice upon knowing that her husband is being mentored, counseled, and discipled by a more mature and seasoned godly man. A woman cannot train a man to be masculine. She can rightly insist on it, and can rightly demand it. She can admonish her husband to man-up. But she cannot show a man how to do it. Hence, Paul himself told Timothy, “Now you have followed my teaching, conduct, purpose, faith, patience, love, perseverance, persecutions, and sufferings,” (2 Tim 3:10-11). It takes a man to train a man to be a man. Thus, one can assume that a man who is not surrounded by godly men is not becoming a godly man.
(4) Men Partner in Ministry with Other Men
Fourth, there is a kind of partnership in labor and ministry that a man can only truly share with another man. What I find interesting in the New Testament is that, although the apostle Peter was married, his wife’s name is never mentioned in Scripture. In fact, the only time she is referenced is when Paul reminds the Corinthians that Peter was able to take along his wife in his ministry with the financial support of the church (cf 1 Cor 9:5). I don’t doubt for a second that Peter’s wife was a true suitable helper who herself was a believer, as testified in church history. But the reason Peter’s wife is mentioned only once is because Scripture highlights Peter’s ministry as an apostle and pastor, not his personal life. The people who shared in his particular ministry were fellow men—James, John, and Paul, to name a few.
A man cannot carry out his labor and ministry on his own; at least, that’s not how God instructs it when Scripture says “Two are better than one because they have good return for their labor” (Eccl 4:9). He needs other men to come—or fellowship—with other men. When Peter labored as a fisherman, he did so with fellow men (Mark 1). When he discussed the issue of circumcision in the church, he did so with fellow men (Acts 15). There is, indeed, a partnership that a man ought to exhibit with other men in their labor and ministry should they seek to maximize both.
(5) Men Experience Depth of Relationship with Other Men
Fifth, there is a depth of friendship that a man was designed to experience with another man. Proverbs 18:24 says, “A man of too many friends comes to ruin, but there is a friend who sticks closer than a brother.” A man who exhibits wisdom in his relationships is a man who has close relationships. And the relationship in Proverbs 18:24 is a reference not to a man’s marriage (every time Proverbs references a man’s relationship to his wife, it mentions the word “wife” or “woman,” both of which are translations of the same Hebrew word), but to a man’s close friendship with another man.
In order for a man to navigate skillfully through this world, he needs to have a “friend who sticks closer than a brother.” This is not a sign of weakness—it’s simply part of God’s sociological design of men. It’s no wonder that so many men, even those who have wonderful wives and precious children, express feelings of loneliness. Whenever a man expresses such feelings in the counseling room, I can almost always guess what he’s looking for: he’s looking for close friendships with a few good men. And I’ve heard this sentiment expressed by male high school students, married men, and senior citizens. Men can be stereotypically terrible at developing close friendships with other men, but boy are they in need of it!
As Christian men, we are not only saved by Christ, but we are saved into a fellowship. In such a fellowship, men are unburdened. In such a fellowship, men are sharpened. In such a fellowship, men are mentored. In such a fellowship, men labor and minister. In such a fellowship, men find deep friendships. Through the fellowship of other men, men can work out their salvation in fear and trembling. Men’s fellowship is not only beneficial: it is vital.