To Be, or Not To Be … a Patron?

This post is part of the online conversation “Leading and Ministering in Honor-Shame Contexts” in April 2016. Click here to read reflections and insights from mission practioners. 


In many countries, patronage is the de facto socio-economic system.

Patronage can be defined as “a reciprocal relationship between unequals.” The patron provides protection, money, and resources to people in need. The client then repays the patron with loyalty, praise, gratitude, and honor. (See diagram below.) People seek to be in a patronage relationship, as that is the only way acquire resources in life. This system of patronage/benefaction was also common in antiquity, including the ANE cultures of the OT and the Greco-Roman culture of the NT.

patron diagram

In such cultures, participating in the patron-client system is not optional, but a sort of moral obligation. For a patron to not share resources or a client to not reciprocate with thanks is an upmost social offense and disgrace.

Whether you realize it or not, missionaries from affluent countries are expected to function as patrons in developing contexts. One missionary in SE Asia said, “Foreigners have a big ‘P’ on their forehead the moment they step off the airplane. They can choose to ignore it, but everyone else still sees them as a patron.”

The relational economics of patronage conflict with many Western values. The system may feel like dependence, corruption, or manipulation. The constant requests for money can make Western Christians feel used or annoyed. To be a patron…or, to not be a patron? That is the question!

How has patronage affected your cross-cultural relationships and ministry? Here are a series of questions to jumpstart the conversation. 

  • How should Christians engage the local systems of patronage?
  • Is patronage an evil, destructive system we should replaced with partnerships, egalitarianism, and/or capitalism? Is patronage entirely negative? Is there a difference between “patronage” and “partnership”? 
  • Is there a way for Christian leaders to serve as a “biblical patron”?
  • How did Jesus and Paul engage the patronage systems of their day?
  • What are ways patronage can be redeemed? How can it be leveraged for kingdom purposes?
  • Is God a “patron”? What are the theological implications, either good or bad, of claiming “God is a patron”? 

Screen Shot 2016-04-02 at 11.44.30 AMPlease share relevant Bible verses/passages, stories from your ministry, helpful resources, and/or “best practices” you have observed at the Synergy Commons forum.

resources for Majority World ministry

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Posted in Communication, Culture, Jesus, NT, Relationships
5 comments on “To Be, or Not To Be … a Patron?
  1. Kees Haak says:

    In my opinion the concept of COVENANT is the same as God as protecting Patron. In Scripture God is called the Great King, according to covenant vocabulary, and Jerusalem the City of Great King. This comes close to the emotional connection to God as Patron to Israel / church as his ‘client’, but more in family relations, Father – Children, or maybe better: marriage concept: Bridegroom – Bride. This concept requests faithfulness on both sides. In reality the ‘client’ (Israel / church) is unfaithful, and can be punished. But God is faithful in his righteousness and full af forgiveness, by atonement through his beloved Son. Thank you, Werner, for your contribution, also the vimeo’s. I love to see / hear them.

  2. petewade says:

    I experienced three levels of patronage while in Ethiopia: street beggars, students seeking support, and teachers looking to study in the US. It was very difficult to say no, with the parable of the Good Samaritan always present in my mind. I gave to any number of street beggars. But our judicatory held a policy of making patronage gifts through our church-to-church relationships, and in order to keep it from being personal decisions. That helped a lot. So I brought money from my home churches to give to their school scholarship fund, for instance. I still had to say no a lot, and it was very difficult to do. Interesting discussion. The topic definitely got my interest, because this was a daily concern in Ethiopia.

  3. Jeb says:

    I know this is an older post, but I’ve only recently been introduced to this site. I will soon be going to minister in an honor-shame culture, and had a couple of questions regarding them. Is there a place in these kinds of cultures for selective patronage? For example, if it was plain that someone was simply using the paradigm to manipulate for their own gain, would it be appropriate to refuse them while in turn giving a degree of patronage to someone who would actually be in need of it? Since it could create major barriers to not engage in this expected role, would it be of help to be a restrained patron?

    • HonorShame says:

      Jeb, great question–this very issue really bedevils so many people when they move across cultures. Patronage is a “reciprocal relationship.” People often ask for resources with no expectation of reciprocating or being in relationship, and that is simply not genuine patronage (more like charity). You can certainly choose to give as God leads, but that don’t think that all giving creates a patron-client relationship.

      Yes, the system of patronage is often abused, from both ends. Patrons can demand slave-like obedience from clients, and clients can gossip/complain when they don’t get endless provisions from the patron. Sin warps patronage (and every other social system), but doesn’t mean that all patronage is corrupt(ed) and unbiblical.

      Hope that helps. Every situation is unique, so its hard to give a universal answer. ~Jayson

  4. Cross cultural worker in asia says:

    I am concerned that patronage could inhibit the sustainability of ministry. If the clients are completely dependent on the patron to provide for them to do the ministry work, then what happens to the ministry work when the patron no longer is able to provide?

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