Let’s start with the obvious—patronage has a P.R. problem. For many people, patronage seems like nepotism, corruption, colonialism, and the mafia! The phrase “biblical patronage” sounds like an oxymoron.
Although patron-client relationships are often corrupted and broken, I propose that “asymmetrical, reciprocal relationships” can be redeemed and leveraged for kingdom purposes. The question is how can that be done?
My recent book Ministering in Patronage Cultures presents a biblical framework for transforming patronage relationships.
For two reasons, I think patronage can indeed be a viable, biblical paradigm for our relationships. Biblically, many people, included Yahweh and Jesus themselves, functioned as patrons. And socially, in many cultures patronage is the defacto socio-economic system, so it’s nearby impossible to have relationships without becoming a patron or client in some way. So then, what is “biblical patronage”? And what are practical strategies for moving relationships in that direction?
Patronage can be an appropriate model of biblical stewardship. Patronage obviously conflicts with Western cultural values and gets corrupted for sinful purposes, but that does not mean it can not serve as a biblical model to bless and love people in hierarchical societies in a way that is intuitive and genuine to them.
The two principles that characterize healthy, biblical patron-client relationships are: “God-centered” and “life-giving,” as described below.
Principle #1: God-Centered
In corrupted patronage, parties seek their own benefit—what can I get?, how does my group gain? But biblical patronage is God-centered. This means that our patron-clients relationships are a sub-component of God’s cosmic benevolence. Redeemed patronage reflects a fundamental biblical truth: all gifts come from God, and so all glory goes to God.
Jesus-followers transform the aim of patronage, from human glory to divine glory. Biblical patronage stewards God’s resources for God’s purposes. Instead of receiving the praise for themselves, Christian patrons direct loyalties to God so that his name gets honored. The gospel transforms patronage to make God all-in-all, the ultimate Patron who gives gifts and gets the glory. Human patronage, when set within this cosmic context, thus becomes an act of honoring and worshiping God. Biblical patronage transforms idolatrous patronage (and idolatrous clientage) by situating our reciprocal relationships in the broader, cosmic context of God’s divine patronage.
Principle # 2: Life-Giving
Patronage brings God’s life. We must clarify that patronage is not just a matter of “giving money.” True patronage is a relationship, which is multidimensional. Patrons are not Santa Clauses who just hand out toys, but people who fill many roles. Consider the many ways Boaz benefacted kindness upon Ruth and Naomi: he offers protection and food (2:8–9), invites Ruth to the table (2:14), pronounces a blessing (3:10–11), assumes responsibility for a problem (3:12–13), gives an abundance of food (3:15–17), convenes a village meeting (4:1–3), and restores ancestral land (4:9). Boaz shows how patronage is multidimensional and involves using social clout to help solve problems. A relationship based solely on material exchange is distorted. Biblical patronage is a multidimensional relationship including spiritual instruction and guidance. Such patronage is more prone to be life-giving, so seek ways to give or receive more than just money.
Corrupted patronage is life-sucking. Patrons and clients manipulate to maximize their gain. As social distance increases, patrons become more than human, and clients become less than human. This exacerbated social distance perpetuates brokenness and exploitation
Biblical patronage works against the tendency of increasing social distance. Christians should intentionally limit (not eliminated, but limit) the asymmetrical social gap. One way to counteract the social distancing is to reverse the exchange process; patrons give honor and receive help. This reversal enhances the reciprocity and depth of the relationship
Patron-client relationships are tricky and often manipulative. But for many cultures they are the primary, if not only paradigm for relationships. As believers we can enter and transform these reciprocal relationships, by seeking to make them more God-centered and life-giving.
Of course this is difficult, but the Bible presents many examples of biblical patronage in both testaments, such as Yahweh’s relationships with Israel or Jesus’ relationship with the crowds. Plus the Spirit provides supernatural wisdom for us to navigate and redeem such relationships.
This post is adapted from my book Ministering in Patronage Cultures, Chapters 11 and 12. Copyright (c) 2019 by Jayson Georges. Used by permission of InterVarsity Press, www.ivpress.com. For more resources about patronage, visit https://honorshame.com/patronage/.