Hours after sunset, the air was still muggy at the house I rented with three other college seniors in Fort Worth, Texas. Several students gathered around a folding table in a citronella-tanged backyard lit by tiki torches, lobbing ping-pong balls at red plastic cups.

Others sat in lawn chairs around a small bonfire, holding koozie-covered cans or cups with their names scrawled in black sharpie. The men sported boat shoes and Greek-letter t-shirts, while the women wore mostly sundresses with cowboy boots. Someone opened the house’s screen door and shouted over the country music to get my attention.

I followed him inside the house, where the air was even hotter. We slid along the wall past a crowd gathered in the kitchen, where two guys were holding up a third in a handstand atop a keg while he drank from the tap. Strings of white Christmas lights glowed in darkened rooms, and the twang of Big & Rich gave way to people jumping to the Black Eyed Peas amid a sea of toppled cups and crumpled cans.

When we reached the front door, a police officer was waiting. “Is this your house?” he asked. Neighbors had complained about the noise. And then: “Is this a frat party?”

“It’s not what you think,” I said. “We’re members of Beta Upsilon Chi, a Christian fraternity. Our letters stand for ‘Brothers Under Christ.’” I pointed back to the keg in the kitchen. “This is a root-beer kegger.”

All Beta Upsilon Chi functions are non-alcoholic. The students in the backyard weren’t playing beer pong; the cups were full of water. The empty cans were Dr Peppers. The officer raised an eyebrow—he clearly didn’t believe me. He told us to turn off the music and clear out.

With the lights back on, a few people grabbed trash bags to clean up while everyone else headed for the door. We asked them to stay for one last thing, a staple of the fraternity’s party: One of our members stood up in front of the remaining partygoers, gave his testimony, and shared the gospel message. Then everyone left.

Before encountering Beta Upsilon Chi as an undergrad at Texas Christian University, I never expected to rush a fraternity. When a friend asked if I planned to “go Greek,” I thought he was talking about a language class. And my first exposure to Greek life on campus wasn’t exactly enticing.

One night early in my freshman year, I woke in my dorm room around 2 a.m. to ambulance sirens. Peeking through the blinds at red lights and busy paramedics, I asked my roommate what he thought had happened. “Probably alcohol poisoning,” he said, in the same tone he would have used if I’d asked, “Why are students carrying books to class?” It was fraternity and sorority rush week, and parties were happening every night. It only took me a few weeks of dorm life to discover that alcohol abuse was as common to college lifestyle as campus tours and Frisbee golf. And fairly or unfairly, much of that lifestyle was associated with the Greek organizations on campus.

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For as long as they’ve existed, fraternities and sororities have been known for both their philanthropic efforts and their raging parties. Charlotte’s Web author E. B. White may have had his time in Cornell’s chapter of Phi Gamma Delta in mind when he told The New York Times in 1969: “I arise in the morning torn between a desire to improve (or save) the world and a desire to enjoy (or savor) the world. This makes it hard to plan the day.” But these days, that Greek-life balance—at least in the public’s eye—seems to have tilted hard in one direction.

Beta Upsilon Chi’s 2015 Island Party at Houston Baptist University
Image: Beta Upsilion Chi

Beta Upsilon Chi’s 2015 Island Party at Houston Baptist University

In recent years, campuses and prosecutors alike have been cracking down on the excesses of Greek houses. It’s hard to know if members of these groups abuse alcohol at a higher-than-average rate, but shocking stories have become mainstays of national media coverage. Take the University of Central Florida’s alcohol-related suspension of sorority Alpha Delta Pi in August, for example. And in July, a former Louisiana State University student was convicted of negligent homicide for his role in the hazing death of an 18-year-old Phi Delta Theta pledge who, according to a New York Timesreport, “had a blood alcohol content of 0.496 percent, more than six times the legal limit for driving, and had aspirated vomit into his lungs.” Or in April, when three former Pennsylvania State University students were sentenced to jail time for the hazing-related death of Timothy Piazza at the Beta Theta Pi house there.

It may not be appropriate to associate all Greek-letter student groups with these extreme cases, but the popular image of fraternity and sorority life is shifting from the goofball antics of Animal House to something darker. Understandably, then, the terms “Christian fraternity” and “Christian sorority” may sound oxymoronic. But as I discovered when I joined Beta Upsilon Chi, they provide an alternative to secular options at schools across the country, blending social functions with Christian formation and moral accountability. These groups believe the solution to walking E. B. White’s tightrope is simple: a shared faith in Jesus as Lord. But while simple in theory, in practice it has never been straightforward to do Greek life for Christ.

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In the spring of 1985, a group of 23 college men at the University of Texas at Austin (UT) hosted a party to gauge interest in a new fraternity: Beta Upsilon Chi. They transformed a dilapidated apartment-complex rec room scheduled for demolition into a tropical paradise—or the closest approximation $75 could buy—and invited as many people as possible to gather around fresh fruit and a bowl of non-alcoholic punch.

“The experience was a bit like high school cheerleaders preparing for homecoming,” said David Daniels, one of the fraternity’s original members. “It was all hands on deck.”

Today, Daniels is lead pastor of Central Bible Church in Fort Worth. But in 1985, he had been a Christian for only two years. “At the original meeting of Beta Upsilon Chi—it was still nameless and formless at the time—we mainly wanted to put together an alternative to the fraternity scene at UT, which was deeply entrenched in secular lifestyle.” These young men wanted to experience the brotherhood and fellowship they saw in other fraternities on campus, but they believed true brotherhood needed Jesus at its center.

Beta Upsilon Chi
Image: Beta Upsilon Chi’s original Island Party in 1985 at the University of Texas

Beta Upsilon Chi

According to Daniels, alcohol’s absence didn’t take anything away from the fun of the original Island Party. “There was a sense that everyone enjoyed the evening together.” Then, as is true at all of the fraternity’s parties today, someone gave their testimony. “We didn’t know where else you could find something like this on UT’s campus,” Daniels said. “It was a huge gathering, and afterwards we looked around at each other and said, ‘We might be on to something.’ ”

With chapters at 38 campuses, Beta Upsilon Chi is now the largest Christian fraternity in the United States. Although its founders didn’t know it at the time, their innovation of a uniquely Christian fraternity wasn’t unique. They were actually re-creating something with much older roots.

The modern fraternity system in the United States evolved out of literary societies and Greek-letter organizations like the academic honor society Phi Beta Kappa. But unlike those campus-sanctioned groups, Greek fraternities developed as secret societies, emulating but not officially connected to adult organizations like the Freemasons. These student-initiated groups spread from campus to campus through word of mouth and academic transfers. When members left their chapter at one campus, they started a new chapter at another.

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From their earliest days, Greek-letter fraternities found themselves at odds with campus administrations. Most college faculty and administrators believed secret societies hindered students’ academic progress and personal development. Why, they wondered, would young men—and increasingly, young women—gather in secret if not to do things they shouldn’t? But it was this secrecy that made fraternities and sororities so appealing. They formed and formalized bonds students hoped to maintain for a lifetime and offered an exclusive club in which to relax amid rigid academic systems.

Most US colleges in the 19th century were assumed to be Christian institutions, and Christian language made its way into the founding documents of many major fraternities. Tau Kappa Epsilon was born in 1899 at Illinois Wesleyan University on the principle that “a fraternity should be a brotherhood in conduct as well as in name. ‘Faith without works is dead.’ Pledges of brotherhood not succeeded by observance in conduct are as ‘sounding brass and tinkling cymbal.’ ” At a 1901 meeting with Richmond College faculty to discuss plans for recognition, founders of Sigma Phi Epsilon said this about the need for another fraternity on campus: “This fraternity will be different; it will be based on the love of God and the principle of peace through brotherhood.”

Yet even the earliest fraternities developed a reputation for being hostile to Christian faith. According to Nicholas L. Syrett in The Company He Keeps, “One former student explained of his time in college in the 1820s that some people actually went so far as to conceal their religious conversions from their peers. A Christian man ‘will often be apparently more trifling, or irreligious than he used to be. In the effort which his pride makes to conceal his convictions, he over-does, and betrays them by somewhat that is unusual.’ ” While most men in early fraternities would call themselves “Christian,” those with serious faith convictions were put off by the hazing, drinking, and vandalism already associated with fraternity life and by the very idea of participating in a secret society.

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By the Roaring Twenties, college attendance—and with it, fraternity and sorority membership—had reached an all-time high. College administrators had largely stopped banning Greek fraternal organizations, instead formalizing them on campuses in response to pressure from wealthy alumni who had been in these organizations and, in some cases, to dilute their counter-cultural appeal. But with the passage of the Volstead Act in 1920, Prohibition only added excitement to the culture of drinking that pervaded fraternity—and, increasingly, sorority—life. “Fraternity drinkers on campus asserted their independence from the president and deans who sought to regulate them,” Syrett writes. “It was rumored at some schools that ‘some fraternities won’t pledge a man unless he carries a flask.’ ”

It was this campus culture that paved the way for the growth of Christian fraternities and sororities.

On March 18, 1921, an unknown member of the University of Illinois Lutheran organization known as the Concordia Club told fellow group members:

I want you always to bear in mind that the days of the Greek letter fraternity are nearly over. At numerous institutions they are forbidden, and why? Because the Greek letter fraternity has come to stand for [rowdyism], and, while they are in comparatively good standing at Illinois, we must admit that they have a bad reputation.

Why then should we follow in rank and file and cause ourselves to be condemned with the rest, and later, when anti-fraternity legislation is enacted, to be swept away, the innocent with the guilty!

This speaker severely misjudged the trajectory of Greek letter fraternities and his own organization. In 1925 the Concordia Club—which many had started calling “the Concordia Fraternity”—reorganized into the first official Christian fraternity, Beta Sigma Psi.

That same year, a group of women at the University of California in Los Angeles organized into the first Christian sorority, Alpha Delta Chi (at the time called “Arete”), hoping “to create a place where Christian women could participate in Greek life without compromising their beliefs and build strong friendships.” Where other Greek organizations promoted fellowship based on exclusivity, secrecy, and rebellion against campus structures, these early Christian fraternities and sororities hoped to develop community based on a common bond of faith in Christ.

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Still, not all of these groups saw themselves as alternatives primarily to secular fraternities and sororities. Some were established as oases for people of faith on increasingly secular campuses. Percy B. Crawford, in a 1933 sermon titled Did the University Make Me an Atheist?, described his less-than-enthusiastic first year at UCLA: “Atheism was rampant. It seemed as though the whole student body was hostile to the things I loved. On the seal of the University were the words ‘Let there be light’ yet I found every attempt being made to rob me of the real true ‘Light’ that had so illumined my soul.”

Crawford, who later founded The King’s College in Belmar, New Jersey, formed the Christian fraternity Alpha Gamma Omega alongside a friend named Harlan Fisher, who became its first president. “We felt crushed and hemmed in by this anti-Christian spirit that permeated the campus,” Fisher explained. “We needed the warmth and friendship of other Christians.”

Just as Christian fraternities and sororities gained traction around the country, American culture experienced a one-two punch that proved nearly fatal for all Greek fraternal organizations: the Great Depression and World War II. Fewer families could afford membership fees for expensive college clubs. From 1940 to 1946, of about 34 million men registered for the draft, more than 10 million were inducted into military service. Many others volunteered, and those who stayed behind struggled to justify frivolous, extravagant lifestyles on campus while their peers fought overseas. It was a blow from which Greek organizations—Christian and otherwise—would not recover until the late 1970s and ’80s.

The founding of Beta Upsilon Chi in 1985 after the first Island Party was a slow fuse to a new explosion of Christian Greek life. Its founders had no intention to expand the fraternity beyond the University of Texas, but a group of men at Texas Christian University soon heard about what they were doing and, after some persuasion, opened a chapter there in 1989. It soon outgrew the UT group, and when another chapter arose at Texas A&M, it was clear Beta Upsilon Chi had the legs to become a national organization.

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In 1988, a group of women on UT’s campus launched a sorority based on similar values and practices, Sigma Phi Lambda. As the two Greek organizations spread throughout Texas, other Christian fraternities and sororities blossomed in their wake. Older Christian Greek groups had waned since their heyday in the 1920s, closing chapters and watching membership slide. Whether because of the Texas resurgence or renewed nationwide interest in Greek life, they suddenly found new curiosity from students and opportunities for expansion.

Delta Psi Epsilon sisters from the Delta Omega graduate chapter in Philadelphia
Image: Delta Phi Epsilon

Delta Psi Epsilon sisters from the Delta Omega graduate chapter in Philadelphia

At historically black campus Morgan State University, Shirley K. Russell started Alpha Nu Omega—an organization with fraternity and sorority branches—in 1988. Russell believed Christian fraternities and sororities should have their own national umbrella group comparable to secular ones. In 2006, she brought together a number of Christian fraternal organizations into the United Council of Christian Fraternities and Sororities (UCCFS).

“UCCFS’s purpose is, first of all, unity in the body of Christ,” said Vila-Sheree Watson, president and founder of Delta Psi Epsilon, a UCCFS member. That means helping member organizations with their internal operations and helping them navigate Greek systems at various universities—if, for example, a member wants to open a new chapter. “We share the lessons we’ve learned with each other,” Watson said.

UCCFS also holds a biannual national conference to help with planning and strategic priorities. When the six member organizations get together, it’s not all work. “We have praise parties—very different from the typical college parties,” Watson said. “There’s dancing, there’s music, there’s laughter, and people use that time to let their hair down and have a great deal of fun. We want our organizations to be fun. We want people to know they can be a part of Greek life but not compromise their values.”

In many ways, Christian fraternities and sororities represent a microcosm of the US church. They’re Christ-centric communities struggling to engage with, but remain distinct from, their secular environments.

On one hand, they operate much like other Greek campus organizations. They hold social events like parties, dances, and charity work, and they plug students into substantial alumni networks. Pledges are expected to go through an initiation process before they are accepted into the organization—although they flip secular organizations’ “hell week” into “heaven week.” Instead of hazing recruits, older members look for opportunities to serve pledges as they memorize trivia about the organization. Members pay dues to fund the organization’s activities, but the cost is usually less than traditional Greek membership.

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In other ways, Christian Greek organizations are more like campus ministries. Many Christian fraternities and sororities divide members into small groups for Bible study or Christian accountability, and chapter meetings often include a time of worship. Some groups identify evangelism as a primary goal, while others take an inward focus and concentrate on discipleship and community among members. All Christian Greek organizations identify fellowship in Jesus Christ as their chief purpose. And that core component of their identity has increasingly landed them, alongside many ministry groups, in the crosshairs of campus anti-discrimination policies.

Groups like Alpha Delta Chi have been navigating these policies for years. “Many California chapters do not have on-campus status because, for the most part, the schools say we discriminate because we state you have to receive Jesus as your savior to be a member,” said Susan Potter, national board president of Alpha Delta Chi, in an email. “But those chapters are still flourishing because I believe God honors you when you stay true to his word and his leading.”

Sigma Phi Lambda sisters at Texas Christian University
Image: Sigma Phi Lambda

Sigma Phi Lambda sisters at Texas Christian University

In 2012 Beta Upsilon Chi had its own encounter with non-discrimination policies—in Tennessee. Vanderbilt University’s “all-comers” policy prohibits registered student organizations (RSOs) from excluding students based on belief; the fraternity, which requires members to sign a statement affirming Jesus as Lord and Savior, lost its RSO status. No longer allowed to use the word “Vanderbilt,” the group now calls itself the “Nu” chapter. It can still hold meetings on campus, but registered organizations get priority when reserving space. And while university-sanctioned student organizations can advertise at official religious and campus life fairs, unregistered groups have to throw their own mini-fair. According to Alex Whitmore, president of the Nu chapter when it lost RSO status, “We were still able to have some sort of identity as Beta Upsilon Chi, but it was definitely second rate.”

The biggest loss, in Whitmore’s estimation, was the relationship with other campus fraternities and sororities. “Every year one of the sororities had a dance competition where fraternities would perform, and the winner donated money to their organization. We enjoyed doing that. But the sororities were told to no longer invite us to those things,” he said. Similarly, other Greek organizations can no longer officially participate in functions Beta Upsilon Chi hosts.

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Watson, of Delta Psi Epsilon, said her sorority has not had issues with non-discrimination policies at any of its chapters, but the topic will be addressed at the next UCCFS conference. Most universities, she explained, are willing—even excited—to host them. While campuses across the country fight to reduce alcohol abuse, sexual abuse, and hazing, Christian fraternities and sororities are a breath of fresh air. “We have always felt welcomed by campuses that have those kinds of crackdowns,” Watson said. “Our parties are dry. We don’t haze pledges. Administrations that are seeking a more balanced Greek life like us.”

Another point of campus friction some Christian fraternities and sororities experience is more surprising. “Unfortunately, the people that cause us the most opposition [when starting new chapters] are the other Christian groups,” said Wendel Weaver, another of Beta Upsilon Chi’s founders who served for several years as chair of its national board. “There’s a limited number of Christian guys out there, and they don’t want them to get sucked away into this thing called ‘fraternity.’ … There’s pushback at pretty much every campus we go to.”

This has been true since the organization’s founding, Weaver said. During the organization’s first year, other campus ministry leaders questioned the value of a purely student-led Christian organization—especially one patterned after Greek-letter fraternities. “The director of Campus Crusade for Christ really challenged us. As a matter of fact, some of our guys in leadership stepped out midway through the year. That was a setback for us.”

Weaver has reflected on that moment often in the years since. “He was right. The words the Lord used in his mouth in those days [about the need for leadership accountability] were dead on. That was a large reason why we started the alumni association.” By connecting former members with current chapters and investing heavily in student leadership training, Weaver hopes they can help chapters avoid mistakes brought on by inexperience.

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These days Weaver believes much of the skepticism from other campus ministries is based on misunderstanding. Instead of getting frustrated, he recognizes it as an educational opportunity—a chance to relieve fears by explaining that Beta Upsilon Chi isn’t simply a secular fraternity, minus the alcohol, and it isn’t trying to infringe on the territory of other Christian groups. “I get their apprehension,” he said. “But there’s something super unique about what we’re doing.”

There is another crucial distinctive of Christian fraternities and sororities: a high level of commitment. “You can’t just come and go,” said Hector Perea, president of Alpha Gamma Omega. Many of the fraternity’s chapters ask students to live together in a house on or near campus. “When you live in a house with other guys, they can constantly push you to the same goals.”

But that commitment level can cause problems when multiple ministries vie for students’ limited extracurricular time. According to Ben Connelly, director of planting for the Soma Family of Churches, much of what Christian fraternities and sororities are trying to accomplish should ideally happen in a local church context. For five years he served as college pastor at a church near Texas Christian University. “We found ourselves trying to accomplish similar goals within a given student’s life: discipleship, community, mission, and equipping,” he said. He remembers one student who, because of his various ministry commitments, participated in seven Bible studies at once. “Students’ spiritual growth was being diluted simply because they had given themselves to way too many of the same things.”

Still, he was careful to point out that he believes pastors should celebrate healthy discipleship in a student’s life, no matter its context. “Sorority sisters can disciple each other well because they know each other well. And that discipleship and life together overflows into Sunday life too. A common joke among college pastors is that college kids travel in packs.” He remembers fraternity brothers and sorority sisters encouraging each other to go to church in groups. “Church leaders can either choose to see that as competition or embrace it as kingdom work,” Connelly told me.

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“That’s a really tough thing,” Weaver said. “We don’t want [Beta Upsilon Chi] to be their college church. We’re very one dimensional. [The church] has a broader range of demographics, and we don’t want them to miss out on that.” Perea believes Christian fraternities can prepare young men to serve within their churches. Fraternity life “gives you the opportunity to lead Bible studies, to lead small groups at 18, 19, 20 years old.” In his opinion, these organizations can be important training grounds for church leadership.

Unfortunately, things don’t always work out that way, said Steve Lutz, church consultant and author of College Ministry in a Post-Christian Culture. “The number of kids [involved in campus parachurch ministries] who have said to me, ‘This group is my church,’ over the years is staggering. Then they view a local church like an additive. It’s a nice worship experience for Sunday.”

Beta Upsilon Chi brothers worship together in the Old City of Jerusalem
Image: Beta Upsilion Chi

Beta Upsilon Chi brothers worship together in the Old City of Jerusalem

He worries Christian fraternities’ and sororities’ goals can be too short-term when it comes to developing a student’s faith. “We need these ministries to have a long focal length when they look at their development of students,” he said. “For way too many of them, their discipleship or development plan is simply saying, ‘What happens when you’re a freshman? And then we walk that through until sometime in your senior year, and then you’ll figure it out from there.’ ” But that sets up unfortunate expectations upon graduation. “Graduates end up with a truncated view of the church because they’ve been in this artificial ecosystem that is the collegiate environment. They associate all the rigor [of intense fellowship and discipleship] with that ecosystem they’re not in anymore.”

But he believes this is as much a challenge to churches as it is to Christian Greek organizations. “Local churches wringing their hands about how to move people from passive attenders to actively engaged disciple-makers need to look carefully at these ministries and ask, ‘What are they doing?’ … Churches should be paying attention to anybody seeing good fruit in intensive, rigorous models of discipleship.”

Christian fraternity and sorority members aren’t perfect, and as Americans discovered in the 1920s, barring access to alcohol doesn’t prevent people from making bad decisions. But Brian Lee, Beta Upsilon Chi’s national president, believes Christian fraternities and sororities can provide healthy fellowship and accountability in ways secular organizations can’t. He told me story after story illustrating this, but one sticks out.

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Recently, Lee visited the fraternity’s chapter at the University of Arkansas, a group of almost 300 young men. Before Lee arrived, the chapter president had informed him about a discipline issue they had addressed. “One of the most spiritually respected men in the chapter had gotten his girlfriend pregnant,” Lee told me. “A couple weeks later, he had gotten up [in front of the chapter] and shared the story and explained what a mistake he had made.” With the council of the Beta Upsilon Chi officers and prayer from his brothers, he and his girlfriend had decided to get married and raise the child together.

“I was there two weeks later,” Lee said. “At the end of their chapter meetings, they do prayer requests. After several others shared, this guy stepped forward again.” The young man looked up at the lecture hall full of his fraternity brothers and said three words: “It’s a boy.”

“The whole chapter erupted. They just went crazy in celebration for this guy,” Lee said. “That’s Beta Upsilon Chi at its best.”

Kyle Rohane is CT Pastors editor at Christianity Today.

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