Christian Life

When in Rome: Augustine’s Rule and Its Application Today

Augustine’s spiritual father, Ambrose, famously quipped, “When in Rome, do as the Romans do.” Augustine picked up this rule and used it repeatedly in his theological letters as shorthand for how a believer ought to act when among believers of a different culture. At the heart of the matter is whether a certain behavior is a universal principle or a local application. Universal principles are applicable everywhere but are not always applied uniformly. In our day, universal principles are not even applied the same within a single city, much less across the world. For example, Deuteronomy 22:5 requires gender distinct clothing. Gender distinction is the principle; the particular application varies from culture to culture. The Bible doesn’t prescribe a particular application, it only prescribes that the principle must be applied in some way. Who is to say how?

A question with a similar problem was raised by the Roman layman Januarius to Augustine. Januarius was concerned that the common dos and don’ts of Roman Christianity concerning Sabbath-keeping were very different from what he experienced while traveling to other parts of the world. Should he act as the Romans do when visiting Carthage or Alexandria? Or should he conform to the common customs of the Christians in those cities even though it would be viewed as wrong behavior in Rome? Januarius was rightfully concerned that following the Roman custom in, say, Alexandria would cause unnecessary and avoidable controversies (Titus 3:9). Augustine replied with the conventional wisdom of the early church: “When in Rome, do as the Romans do.”

Our situation today is slightly different from the fifth-century world. We live in a very multi-cultural world and inter-cultural Church. In many ways we have learned not to create controversies over mere cultural differences. Nonetheless, there remains a lack of clear direction of how to navigate differences and maintain unity among believers.

As best I can tell there are three general attitudes among believers today regarding how we are to act in a cross-cultural and inter-cultural context. Assuming that no act clearly contrary to God’s Word is permissible, one of these approaches forms our way of living within a culturally-diverse Church.

  1. A believer should boldly act the same in all places without regard to how our behavior is perceived.
  2. A believer should discreetly act the same in all places and avoid or remove ourselves from those who would perceive our behavior controversially.
  3. A believer should act according to the practices of each local community so as to avoid controversy on unessential matters.

The particular practice addressed by Januarius to Augustine concerned fasting on the Sabbath (still understood to be Saturday at the time of Augustine’s writing although Christians had observed Sunday for over three centuries as a holy day). In Rome, it was the custom to fast on the Sabbath whereas in all other places in Christendom fasting was strongly discouraged or disallowed on Saturdays. In his response, Augustine gives us what we may call “Augustine’s Rule”; that is, if Scripture or Tradition require it, do it. If not, follow the custom of the local church. The full quote from Augustine, “When I go to Rome, I fast on Saturday; when I am here, I do not fast. So to whatever church you go, observe its custom if you do not want to be a scandal to anyone or anyone to be a scandal to you.” [1]

The rule is simple but somewhat incomplete. Who is to say or tell whether a particular custom is “biblical” or merely a “tradition”? What is the relationship of Scripture and Tradition for Christian living? This is where Augustine’s explanation is helpful. I offer Augustine’s affirmation here in context from his first letter to Januarius:

If the authority of the divine scripture prescribes whichever of these we should do, we should have no doubt that we ought to do what we read in it so that we now no longer argue about how we should act, but how we should understand the mystery. The situation is the same if the whole Church throughout the world follows one of these practices. For in this case too it is a sign of the most insolent madness to doubt that we should act in that way. But neither the former nor the later holds for what you are asking. It remains, then, that it belongs to that third kind of practice that varies from place to place and region to region. Let each person, then, do what he finds in the church to which he comes. [2]

In his second letter to Januarius, Augustine continues his thought by stating the same principle as a denial:

All such practices, then, that are not contained in the authorities of the holy scriptures and are not found to have been established by the councils of bishops and are not supported by the custom of the universal Church, but vary in countless ways in accord with the customs of different places so that the reasons that led people to establish them can hardly or cannot at all be found, should undoubtedly, I think, be eliminated when the opportunity presents itself. [3]

Augustine identifies, as Ambrose and others had before him, three levels of authority for Christian behavior: 1) Scripture; 2) Tradition; and 3) local church traditions. The first order of the rule is to follow what Scripture teaches. As usual, Augustine places a premium on the authority of Scripture. If Scripture says it, do it. He acknowledges that there may be debate over the finer points of Scripture, but where Scripture is clear in its command, we should respond unequivocally in our obedience. The requirements of Scripture (Augustine calls them “sacraments”) are “very few in number, very easy in their observance, and most excellent in what they signify.” Furthermore, he writes,

Even in the holy scriptures themselves there are more things that I do not know than I know. I have a hope in the name of the Lord that will not be fruitless, because I have not only believed my God who said that the whole law and prophets depend on those two commandments, but I also have learned this by experience and experience it every day, since no sacrament or any more obscure passage of the sacred writings is disclosed to me where I do not find the same commandments, For the end of the commandment is love from a pure heart, a good consciences, and unfeigned faith (1 Tm 1:5), and, the fullness of the law is love (Rom 13:10). [4]

The second order of the rule is to follow what Tradition teaches. He defines “Tradition” (I singularize it with a capital “T” for clarity’s sake) elsewhere as what is universally known and practiced by all believers. One such tradition is the gathering for worship by believers on “the Lord’s day” (Sunday). Since this is universally practiced it counts as “Tradition” and believers are bound to it just as if it were commanded in Scripture itself. The same description of the “sacraments” of Scripture mentioned above also apply to Tradition: they are few in number, easy in their observance, and excellent in what they signify.

The third order of the rule are those local traditions that vary from place to place. These are not binding upon believers in the same sense as Scripture or Tradition but may be needful for a particular community. Nonetheless, insofar as possible, Augustine would have Januarius and others of the Roman Church to eliminate any requirement that is not binding by Scripture or Tradition. Believers should be marked by their effort to live in harmony with one another. “Hence, a change that is not of help by its benefit is, as a result, useless and harmful because of its disturbance.” [5]

I believe Augustine’s Rule is informative of how the early Church understood the authority of Scripture, Tradition, and traditions in descending order. The primacy of Scripture is certain and the role of universal Tradition is significant. Local and regional traditions which are, on the other hand, of lesser importance, are nonetheless formative for Christian behavior.

If Scripture or Tradition require it, do it. If not, follow the custom of your local church.


Footnotes

  1. Letter 54
  2. Letter 54
  3. Letter 55
  4. Letter 55
  5. Letter 54