The Importance of Social Customs in the Christian Tradition

Perhaps because the “sophisters, economists, and calculators [have] succeeded” (Edmund Burke), it is fashionable today for Christians to forget or dismiss the importance of 800px-Gillis_van_Tilborgh_-_Family_Portrait_(detail)_-_WGA22404social customs, traditions, and manners in the maintenance of societal order. These rarely receive consideration in discussions on Reformed social ethics; and, when considered, they are discarded as “old prejudices” or unreasoned habits useful only for oppression and social injustice. Today we must follow the chief modern principle (or prejudice), namely, “it is a sufficient motive to destroy an old scheme of things because it is an old one” (Burke). Since the Gospel today is (radically and progressively) social, old norms, long considered part of human decency and civilization, are declared irrelevant and even a hindrance to the spread of divine truth: “All the decent drapery of life is to be rudely torn off…[and] dissolved by this new conquering empire of” the Gospel. According to the new social gospel, the Christian’s obligation to society is to advocate for just laws, not customs or social expectations. Guarding a way of life is a distraction.

A few in the Christian tradition disagree. Augustine, for example, wrote:

This heavenly then, while it sojourns on earth, calls citizens out of all nations, and gathers together a society of pilgrims of all languages, not scrupling about diversities in the manners, laws, and institutions whereby earthly peace is secured and maintained, but recognizing that, however various these are, they all tend to one and the same end of earthly peace(City of God, XIX)

Augustine identifies manners (or social customs) as part of securing “earthly peace.” And he implies that each nation has a different set of customs that are effective to that end. In the interest of earthly peace, a Christian ought to obey those customs (when just) and seek to enforce or, at least, support the enforcement of them on others in that nation. This would be an act of love to one’s neighbor, for securing earthly peace is an act of love. Augustine also makes a sharp distinction between the “heavenly” and the “earthly.” The heavenly does not invade the earthly to either homogenize social customs or destroy them. Nor does the heavenly make customs irrelevant to earthly order and peace.

Thomas Aquinas also spoke of the importance of customs:

Human law is rightly changed in so far as such change is conducive to the common weal. But, to a certain extent, the mere change of law is of itself prejudicial to the common good because custom [consuetudo] avails much for the observance of laws, seeing that what is done is contrary to general custom, even in slight matters, is looked upon as grave. Consequently, when a law is changed, the binding power of the law is diminished in so far as custom is abolished. Wherefore human law should never be changed unless, in some way or other the common weal be compensated according to the extent of the harm done in this respect. (ST I-II.97.2)

Aquinas recognizes a crucial truth about customs: that “customs avail much for the observance of law.” Burke makes this exact point: “to cast away the coat of prejudice…leave[s] nothing but the naked reason; because prejudice, with its reason, has a motive to give action to that reason, and an affection which will give it permanence….Prejudice renders a man’s virtue his habit, and not a series of unconnected acts. Through just prejudice, his duty becomes a part of his nature.” Aquinas here refers to affections toward civil law, not non-legal customs. But the point applies equally well to social traditions, manners, and ways of life. These are enforced socially, not by the state; and they are the basis of our cherishing of society. When such customs are abolished or undermined, what is left is nothing but the force of law to impose order.

The last point is important. After undermining social expectations and social traditions, “laws are to be supported only by their own terrors” (Burke). The state, with its exclusive claim to the use of violence, will impose order. Furthermore, without any common commitment to a common way of life, communities are left defenseless to the onslaught of powerful commercial forces and a centralized, bureaucratic government. There is left no collective will with the capability to resist the homogenizing commercial forces (and their governmental allies) whose commitment is only to consumption, efficiency, and profit. And there is no resisting the drive of modern governments to make every aspect of our lives legible in order to extract through tax schemes and to impose some abstract vision of justice on local communities. Fellow-feelings, engendered by social expectations, manners, and familiarity, makes resistance to these forces possible.

Over at the Purely Presbyterian blog, a blogger posted a fascinating excerpt from one of John Calvin‘s sermons on 1 Corinthians 11:11-16. I cite portions of it below. First, however, we should be reminded of a less obscure, yet often missed passage, from Calvin’s Institutes (2.2.13):

Since man is by nature a social animal, he is disposed, from natural instinct, to cherish and preserve society; and accordingly we see that the minds of all men have impressions of civil order and honesty.

This short passage busts many of the myths about Calvinist political/social theory. The fall did not obliterate fellow-feeling and a love for society, nation, and culture. As a social animal, man naturally seeks to preserve all these things; and we do this for our own good.

And now the sermon with some commentary:

 That is, let them [customs] be (the ones) accepted by those who order their lives according to the word of God, the law of nature and human decency. Where this is the case, we can say that those who seek to change an accepted custom are flighty people, who are only trying to turn everything upside down. This will never be done. And in fact, given the nonchalance and instability of people, and the diversity of spirits and opinions, if one believed us, everyone would want his own custom and then the next day it would have to be changed.

So let us carefully observe that when a custom is good – that is, when it is based on reason – we must acquiesce to it. It is out of the question for everyone to permit himself the liberty of rearranging everything every day. Rather let us maintain and confirm ourselves in what is good and customary.

Consistent with Augustine, Calvin exhorts Christians to conform to what is “good and customary,” not to assume the license of adopting one’s own custom. The customs must be in accord with the “word of God, the law of nature and human decency.”  Calvin says that “flighty people… [are] trying to turn everything upside down.” He recognizes that changing even what seem like insignificant customs can turn a society upside down. Social customs have an essential role to play in the preservation of societal order.

If we suggest that this is of no great importance, we see what God says about it by his prophet namely that he will reform the strange clothes [Zeph. 1:8]. So, when our Lord reveals that he will chastise those who have this passion for changing their attire, he thus teaches that we must come to a halt, and that these changes are bad and always bring on bad consequences, because when we allow ourselves so much and such excessive license, men end up not knowing how to behave.

And what, in effect, are the results of these changes of clothing? First of all, ambition; because the fashion leaders are admired from afar. And then, once ambition takes over, ostentation follows, and everyone has to add his bit, and there will always be something to find fault with. Furthermore, people waste their fortune on it. Then, as they go on spending and dissipating, they have to find means to get more, so they rob and steal the wealth of others, and things come to such a state of confusion that some feed on clothing and meadows and fields, and others on houses and possessions. And then, these vanities, which are assuredly accursed by God, bring on bawdiness and other dissoluteness, so that it would be impossible to tell the whole. Moreover, what we have said about clothes must likewise be applied to all the rest [i.e., of the vices].

The seemingly unimportant customs, such as clothing, are elevated to great importance by Calvin. As Burke said, customs give us the motivation to act on reason; they give us our affections for just actions and they become habits. When we undermine social customs, our moral life is thrown into disarray and uncertainty.

Let us therefore learn to keep ourselves in such soberness, that we may not be every day changing again. And let us not be so changeable in our appetites that we say, “This would be pretty; that would be nice!” And, in fact, such as are given to that are surely wicked and evil-natured, and one wishes they were in the New Isles, removed from society so that they would not be the occasions of introducing so many new corruptions.

Burke said that “a spirit of innovation is generally the result of a selfish temper and confined views.” Calvin would agree. The insatiable appetite for change is destructive to public order.

In any case, let us learn that where there is an accepted custom, and it is a good and decent one, we must accept it. And whoever tries to change it is surely the enemy of the common good, and should be held in abomination, and pointed out as a trouble maker. And yet, as I said, let us discern between customs and abuses. Let us consider that customs are well ordered behavior, agreeable to the word of God and unto edification, good example and natural decency. Abuses are all indecencies, excesses, and whatever is not in accord with the word of God; everything that does harm to the common good. Let these abuses be diligently disciplined and eliminated.

Christians not only ought to follow good customs and not seek to change them; they are to hold those who seeks to change good customs “in abomination” and point him or her out as a “trouble maker.” In the interest of preserving society and on the basis of cherishing society, Christians have an obligation to judge those “flighty” people and troublemakers.

This does not forbid change. But only the “indecencies, excesses, and whatever is not in accord with the word of God; everything that does harm to the common good” should be changed.

We must also, however, oppose those who [conveniently] appeal to custom, and assert their liberty [as it suits their purpose], in order to change something which is orderly and well established. They say, “What do you mean, ‘changing is not allowed’? Why should we not do as we please? That is outward, and we can do what we like since our Lord has given us no law.” Those who appeal to liberty in order to change every day are trying to reduce everything to chaos. When once they have established something contrary to reason, in order to preserve it, they will say, “it is customary.” “Oh really?” Yet let us see if it has any basis, as we said.

Calvin objects to what modern Christians typically say: “This is all outward; God has given us no law.” But far from leaving the outward order to the whims of individualized expression (as we do today), Calvin insists that well-established customs are essential for public order and, for that reason, Christian ought to conform to them. There is no hint in Calvin that the Gospel or the New Testament demands a reformation, homogenization, or destruction of manners, customs and traditions. That desire we have to maintain a way of life in our community is natural and justified, says Calvin; and it is worth enforcing, if it conforms to the word of God, nature and human decency.


Our modern age is an age of pseudo-authenticity, one in which authenticity is achieved by not being like the rest. Authenticity is not being something, but being not something. It is a negative endeavor. So we seek to be different and, by being different, we consider ourselves above everyone else. We are called upon today to conform to the principle of eschewing conformity. All of this undermines public order and decency, according to Augustine, Aquinas and Calvin. It undermines the affections we have for our laws and society. As Augustine hinted at and Aquinas and Calvin affirm (as Burke does later), social customs and manners serve as the basis for our cherishing of society. As Christian seek to rebuild our failing legal and political institutions, we must remember that social customs are essential to making “power gentle and obedience liberal.” Without them, the law has no recourse but the terror of punishment.

4 replies on “The Importance of Social Customs in the Christian Tradition”

  1. Calvin is mentioned many times and Jesus almost not at all.

    Who is the author a disciple of: Calvin or Christ?


    1. The article is clearly titled: Social Hierarchy in the Christian Tradition, posted on a site entitled Reformation 500. Your comment seems to indicate that while you have a good deal of false pride, you need greater reading comprehension…and humility.


      1. I apologize for my pride. Please forgive me. Your comments clarify that the intent of this website. Thank you so much.


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