A presentation prepared for the “Patronage Symposium” held at Arab Baptist Theological Seminary, Mansourieh, Lebanon, October 3-5, 2018.
The early Christian movement depended almost entirely upon the patronage and beneficence of its better-resourced converts for its growth and maintenance. Consider just the importance of hospitality in the early church, which required, first and foremost, someone to own a house of sufficient size and to be disposed to open up this house for others, as well as to supply the attendant gifts that hospitality required.
Householders supported Christian teachers and their movements. Paul might have worked with his hands for extended period of his ministry to provide himself with subsistence, but his movements from place to place required the gift of hospitality. The Acts of the Apostles attests to the importance of hospitality for the planting of churches throughout the Pauline mission. Lydia, an early convert in Phillipi, opens her house to Paul and Silas as their base of operations in that city (Acts 16:14-15). Jason of Thessalonica likewise extended hospitality to Paul and Silas, giving them a base from which to conduct their mission work there. This significantly endangered Jason and his family, for his house was attacked and he himself was dragged and accused before the city’s authorities: “These people who have been turning the world upside down have come here also, and Jason has entertained them as guests. They are all acting contrary to the decrees of the emperor, saying that there is another king named Jesus” (Acts 17:6-7 NRSV). Titius Justus opened his house as a missionary venue for Paul in Corinth after the latter wore out his welcome in the synagogue (Acts 18:7).
Paul’s own letters corroborate this practice. He plants the seed among the householders in Corinth as he shares his travel plans at the close of 1 Corinthians:
I will visit you after passing through Macedonia – for I intend to pass through Macedonia – and perhaps I will stay with you or even spend the winter, so that you may send me on my way, wherever I go. (1 Cor. 16:5 NRS)
There is the clear implication here that hospitality includes provision for the next leg of the journey, however far that might be! He closes his brief letter to Philemon with similar notice of his intention to spend some time as his wealthy convert’s “guest.”
One thing more – prepare a guest room for me, for I am hoping through your prayers to be restored to you. (Phlm. 1:22 NRS)
The circle from which the Johannine Epistles arose depended similarly on the regular gift of hospitality for the movement and support of itinerant teachers. In 3 John, the elder commends Gaius for his ongoing commitment to providing this gift:
Beloved, you do faithfully whatever you do for the brothers, especially when they are strangers to you; they have testified to your love before the church. You will do well to send them on in a manner worthy of God; for they began their journey for the sake of Christ, accepting no support from non-believers. Therefore we ought to support such people, so that we may become co-workers with the truth. (3 Jn. 1:5-8 NRS, adapted)
We note again the clear implication that the host is not only providing hospitality for the duration of the teachers’ stay, but also sending the itinerant teachers on their way with supplies and perhaps monetary assistance for the next leg of their travels, essentially getting them to the next householder. In 2 John, on the other hand, the elder warns the reader or readers against offering this gift to those teachers promoting a different teaching:
Everyone who does not abide in the teaching of Christ, but goes beyond it, does not have God; whoever abides in the teaching has both the Father and the Son. Do not receive into the house or welcome anyone who comes to you and does not bring this teaching; for to welcome is to participate in the evil deeds of such a person. (2 Jn. 1:9-11 NRS)
The elder has some hope of halting the spin-off movement by closing the doors of householders to their itinerant promoters.
The same gift of hospitality was necessary for the support and work of the local Christian congregation, first and foremost in a householder’s opening up of his or her house for the group’s meetings and rites. Paul’s opening and closing greetings attest to this social phenomenon again and again:
Gaius, who is host to me and to the whole church, greets you. (Rom. 16:23 NRS)
Aquila and Prisca, together with the church in their house, greet you warmly in the Lord. (1 Cor. 16:19 NRS)
Give my greetings to the brothers and sisters in Laodicea, and to Nympha and the church in her house. (Col. 4:15 NRS)
Paul, a prisoner of Christ Jesus, and Timothy our brother, to Philemon our dear friend and co-worker, to Apphia our sister, to Archippus our fellow soldier, and to the church in your house…. (Phlm. 1:1-2 NRS)
It might have been very easy (and quite correct!) for the wealthy host to regard himself or herself as the patron of this local congregation. It appears to have been easy, in Corinth at least, for the weekly gathering of the assembly for the Lord’s Supper to be handled in much the same way as a dinner for one’s clients, including the tendency to preserve the social hierarchy of friends, more noble clients, and hangers-on in the quality and quantity of fare offered at these occasions. This practice occasioned one of Paul’s early interventions against the wholesale importation of the expectations and practices of patronage into the community of the new creation (see the second half of 1 Corinthians 11).
Paul also indicates that the better-resourced Christians regularly offered support and aid of an unspecified nature.
I commend to you our sister Phoebe, a deacon of the church at Cenchreae, 2 so that you may welcome her in the Lord as is fitting for the saints, and help her in whatever she may require from you, for she has been a benefactor (προστάτις) of many and of myself as well. (Rom. 16:1-2 NRS)
I have indeed received much joy and encouragement from your love, because the hearts of the saints have been refreshed through you, my brother. (Phlm. 1:7 NRS)
We cannot overlook the generosity of Theophilus, thanks to whose literary patronage of Luke we have one of our four Gospels and our best early attempt at a narrative of the spread of the Christian movement from Jerusalem to Rome – at least, this seems to many the best explanation for the dedicatory preface that opens both Luke’s Gospel and Acts.
We can readily imagine the expectations this sort of practice would normally arouse among local patrons and beneficiaries alike. The giving of gifts, though given purely in the interest of the recipient, nevertheless binds and obligates the recipients to the givers, particularly if the material resources tend to flow in one direction. Householders in Corinth might naturally expect members of the congregations that they supported through their hospitality to be of use to them in other arenas of life. Did Erastus expect Christians to help him campaign to become the city treasurer and eventually an aedile? Did the Christians in Corinth themselves look for ways in which to enhance Gaius’s prestige as he moved through the forum in Corinth, or otherwise offer themselves as a weighty addition to his power base?
It is perhaps of greatest interest to us at this conference to consider the ways in which Paul – as well as other voices we hear in the New Testament and into the first few centuries of the Christian movement’s growth – alters the dynamics of patronage in these congregations in a number of important ways that may still have bearing on the practice of patronage and clientage in Christian communities throughout the global Church today.
Giving Honor Where Honor Is Due
Those who put themselves or their resources out for others within the local church or between cells of the Church universal continue to receive recognition and honor for their generosity. When Paul writes to the Corinthian Christians to stimulate their own generosity toward the poor among the Judean churches, he praises the Macedonian Christians for their generosity (2 Cor 8:1-5). He amplifies their virtue by stressing that they did not let their own poverty hinder their generosity. Paul frequently gives notice to believers who have incurred expense or exercised beneficence for his good or the good of the church. He proclaimed himself, together with “all the churches of the Gentiles,” to be indebted to Prisca and Aquila, who “risked their necks for [Paul’s] life,” thus who displayed the greatest generosity (Rom 16:3-4). Paul calls for public honors to be given Stephanas, Fortunatus, and Achaicus for their service, coming very close to simply reinforcing the everyday expectations concerning responding to benefactors:
Now, brothers and sisters, you know that members of the household of Stephanas were the first converts in Achaia, and they have devoted themselves to the service of the saints; I urge you to put yourselves at the service of such people, and of everyone who works and toils with them. I rejoice at the coming of Stephanas and Fortunatus and Achaicus, because they have made up for your absence; for they refreshed my spirit as well as yours. So give recognition to such persons. (1 Cor. 16:15-18 NRS)
In his letter to the Philippian believers, Paul makes special mention of the service of Epaphroditus, a person who, acting as the agent or vehicle of the Philippian church’s support of Paul, spends himself to the uttermost (he endures illness even almost to death). Such a person, Paul declares, merits honor in the community:
Welcome him then in the Lord with all joy, and honor such people, because he came close to death for the work of Christ, risking his life to make up for those services that you could not give me. (Phil. 2:29-30 NRS)
Since the letters are public documents, read before the gathered assembly of believers, such mention amounts to a public announcement of the individual’s generosity and brings him or her honor in the congregation. A disposition to showing hospitality is a requirement for the “overseer” in 1 Timothy 3:2 and Titus 1:8; it is not automatic that the patrons of the local congregation will become the leaders of the local congregation, but these letters represent a step in the direction of selecting leaders from among the patrons of the local congregation.
The Source of Every Gift
Nevertheless, Paul speaks of benefaction within the church as a specific gift of God: it is a manifestation of God’s patronage of the community, mediated through its members.
We have gifts that differ according to the grace given to us: prophecy, in proportion to faith; … the exhorter, in exhortation; the giver, in generosity. (Rom. 12:6, 8 NRS)
Alongside and among spiritual endowments and edifying services like prophecy, tongues, teaching and words of knowledge, God also bestows the gift of giving to achieve God’s purposes in the family of God. Similarly, the author of 1 Peter sets the gift of hospitality in the interpretive context of God’s giving to each person:
Be hospitable toward one another without grumbling, each person – just as he or she has received a gift – offering the same in service to each other as honorable stewards of the full spectrum of God’s gifting; if anyone speaks, as utterances from God; if anyone serves, as from the strength that God supplies, so that in all things God may receive the honor through Jesus Christ, to whom is the glory and the power into the ages of ages, Amen! (1 Peter 4:9-11, my translation)
God supplies all things, so that Christians are called to share with one another what they have received from God, and to do so as a means of discharging their own obligations to the divine Giver (using his gifts for his purposes) and their obligations to one another as God’s family. This is a bold transformation of patronage into stewardship.
We see this transformation again in connection with Paul’s instructions concerning the collection for the Christian poor in Judea, perhaps the most prominent act of beneficence among the churches in the New Testament. Paul speaks of this, however, not as an act of human patronage, but as God’s beneficence working itself out through responsive Christians.
God is able to provide you with every blessing in abundance, so that by always having enough of everything, you may share abundantly in every good work. As it is written, “He scatters abroad, he gives to the poor; his righteousness endures forever.” He who supplies seed to the sower and bread for food will supply and multiply your seed for sowing and increase the harvest of your righteousness. (2 Cor. 9:8-10 NRS)
It is God who “supplies” the resources which first meet the needs of the Corinthians fully and give them something extra, which becomes “abundance for every good deed”; it is God who so enriches as to make someone able to give. God is the Patron over all; he entrusts additional resources to some with the expectation that they will fulfill God’s purposes with it, namely, to ensure that all have enough. Paul uses the story of God’s provision of manna in the wilderness as an analogy:
I do not mean that there should be relief for others and pressure on you, but it is a question of a fair balance between your present abundance and their need, so that their abundance may be for your need, in order that there may be a fair balance. As it is written, “The one who had much did not have too much, and the one who had little did not have too little.” (2 Cor. 8:13-15 NRS)
The quotation from Exodus embedded in that passage alludes to the short shelf life of manna: if more was gathered (hoarded) than would be used in a day, it turned putrid. There was therefore no incentive to keep more than one could use – indeed there was every disincentive not to do so. Paul boldly applies this to material resources in general, as would James, who cries out against the gold and silver that has (inexplicably) rusted through disuse, which becomes a witness against the owners. Woe to those who do not use what extra God has entrusted to them for God’s good purposes!
In regard to this collection project, it is ultimately God who rightly receives the thanks for the donation:
You will be enriched in every way for your great generosity, which will produce thanksgiving to God through us; for the rendering of this ministry not only supplies the needs of the saints but also overflows with many thanksgivings to God. (2 Cor. 9:11-12 NRS)
Giving becomes a means by which givers, far from indebting the recipients to themselves, discharge their obligation to the Divine Giver, bringing honor and recognition to God’s goodness and generosity – one of the staple returns of clients to their patrons or beneficiaries to their benefactors! A second motive for giving is supplied by Paul in his interjection of Christ’s generous example, who “though he was rich, yet for your sakes he became poor” (2 Cor 8:9). Participating in the relief effort is a means of honoring the divine benefactor (9:13) by imitating his generosity: his example should spur them on in this endeavor. Moreover, since the Corinthians have been enriched by Christ (8:9) and by God (9:10-11) in so many ways, they are honor-bound to use the riches entrusted to them for God’s purposes, namely relieving the needs of the saints. Patronage and benefaction are therefore removed from the realm of competition among humans for honor and accumulation of power. Indeed, participating in relief efforts is presented as much as a favor granted the givers as a favor done by the givers: the Macedonian Christians “voluntarily gave according to their means, and even beyond their means, begging us earnestly for the privilege of sharing in this ministry to the saints” (2 Cor. 8:3-4 NRS).
There is, however, still some measure of reciprocity to be enjoyed between givers and recipients of material aid. The Judean Christians reciprocate with prayer on behalf of the Gentile Christians:
Through the testing of this ministry you glorify God by your obedience to the confession of the gospel of Christ and by the generosity of your sharing with them and with all others, while they long for you and pray for you because of the surpassing grace of God that he has given you. Thanks be to God for his indescribable gift! (2 Cor. 9:13-15 NRS)
Spiritual favors and material favors can be exchanged in the reciprocal relationships between believers and churches. The latter is certainly not more “real” than the former, and even less glowing. See Rom 15:26-27; Gal 6:6. Paul asks his converts in Corinth the rhetorical question, “If we have sown spiritual good among you, is it too much if we reap your material benefits?” (1 Cor. 9:11 NRS). This is rhetorical, as he is not looking personally for support from these problematic converts. Or in the opening paragraphs of Romans,
I am longing to see you so that I may share with you some spiritual gift to strengthen you – or rather so that we may be mutually encouraged by each other’s faith, both yours and mine. I want you to know, brothers and sisters, that I have often intended to come to you (but thus far have been prevented), in order that I may reap some harvest among you as I have among the rest of the Gentiles. (Rom. 1:11-13 NRS)
That last bit might sound spiritual, until we remember that Paul is looking for some substantial subsidizing of his mission to Spain. In local congregations, patrons do not “keep” teachers as clients; rather, “Those who are taught the word must share in all good things with their teacher” (Gal. 6:6 NRS). There is reciprocity without the usual stratification and the subordination of one party. And perhaps most explicitly, from the end of Romans 15:
Macedonia and Achaia have been pleased to share their resources with the poor among the saints at Jerusalem. They were pleased to do this, and indeed they owe it to them; for if the Gentiles have come to share in their spiritual blessings, they ought also to be of service to them in material things. (Rom. 15:26-27 NRS)
One gets the sense that, if any party has indebted the other – has initiated grace relationships between the human parties – it is those who have offered the spiritual benefactions.
There is one more critically important dimension to the early church’s transformation of the normal expectations of patronage, and that is the “return” for which the givers are taught to look. Jesus had much to say about beneficence toward the poor. Charity leads to lasting (eternal) wealth (Lk 2:33; 14:12-14; 16:9; 18:22), with the result that Jesus urges all his hearers to “sell your possessions and give alms. Make purses for yourselves that do not wear out, an unfailing treasure in heaven” (Lk 12:33). The concept that one’s true possessions are what one gives away was known to Seneca:
“‘Whatever I have given, that I still possess!’ … These are the riches that will abide and remain steadfast amid all the fickleness of our human lot; and, the greater they become, the less envy they will arouse. Why do you spare your wealth as though it were your own? You are but a steward…. Do you ask how you can make them your own? By bestowing them as gifts! Do you, therefore, make the best of your possessions, and, by making them, not only safer, but more honorable, render your own claim to them assured and inviolable” (Ben. 6.3.1, 3).
Seneca, of course, would still have advised a more “judicious” deployment of benefits than Jesus, who tells us to seek out those who have no means of repayment, so that God will repay us “at the resurrection of the righteous” (Lk 14:12-14). The striking vision of Mt 25:31-46, in which the righteous are separated from the wicked on the basis of beneficence toward the needy, surprises the hearers and readers by asserting that providing food and clothing and comfort to the needy is the way that they either returned or failed to return the favor to the One who has given us all we need for our well-being and survival (gifts of food and clothing, for example: Mt 6:11, 25-33). Believers have the opportunity to make a gracious return to their Lord and benefactor in the person of the poor or the oppressed.
These transformations of patronage continue to shape Christian giving in the literature of the second century church. A landmark work in this regard is the Shepherd of Hermas. In the first Parable, the angel advises Hermas:
Instead of fields, buy souls that are in distress, as anyone is able, and visit widows and orphans, and do not neglect them; and spend your wealth and all your possessions, which you received from God, on fields and houses of this kind. For this is why the Master made you rich, so that you might perform these ministries for him. It is much better to purchase fields and possessions and houses of this kind, which you will find in your own city when you go home to it. (Parable 1.8-9; Holmes translation)
Giving is the expression of obedience to the God who supplied wealth in the first place (a motif from Paul); the resources one invests in relieving the distress of others become the reward one finds in the kingdom of God (a motif from Jesus).
The second parable offers an extended reflection on the inter-relationship between – and the reciprocity among – rich and poor in the Christian community. It is lengthy, but worth hearing almost in its entirety:
As I was walking through the country, I noticed an elm tree and a vine and was comparing them and their fruits when the shepherd appeared to me and said, “What are you thinking about?” “I am thinking, sir,” I said, “about the elm and the vine; specifically, that they are very well suited to one another.” (2) “These two trees,” he said, “are intended as a model for God’s servants…. (3) This vine bears fruit, but the elm is a fruitless tree. But unless it climbs the elm, this vine cannot bear much fruit when it is spread out on the ground, and what fruit it does bear is rotten, because it is not suspended from the elm. So, when the vine is attached to the elm it bears fruit both from itself and from the elm…. (4) So, this parable is applicable to God’s servants, to poor and rich alike…. (5) The rich have much wealth, but are poor in the things of the Lord, being distracted by their wealth, and they have very little confession and prayer with the Lord, and what they do have is small and weak and has no power above. So whenever the rich go up to the poor and supply them their needs, they believe that what they do for the poor will be able to find a reward from God, because the poor are rich in intercession and confession, and their intercession has great power with God. The rich, therefore, unhesitatingly provide the poor with everything. (6) And the poor, bring provided for by the rich, pray for them, thanking God for those who share with them…. (7) They both, then, complete their work: the poor work with prayer, in which they are rich, which they received from the Lord; this they return to the Lord who supplies them with it. And the rich likewise unhesitatingly share with the poor the wealth that they have received from the Lord.” (Parable 2, selections; Holmes)
There is reciprocity, but it is significantly altered as the parties’ awareness of the greater Patron enters into and reshapes the relationships. The giver’s orientation towards the “return” is altered – indeed, the giving once again becomes a return to the greater Patron who enriched the giver in the first place, while also promising further gifts from this greater Patron. They meet the needs of their sisters and brothers not as though from their own resources, but as brokers of divine resources, honorably fulfilling the purposes of the divine Giver for the gifts of resources he has given. In connection with their faithfulness in regard to benefits received, they may confidently anticipate future benefits from their mutual Patron.
The recipient’s orientation towards “returning” is also altered. The socially-nurtured orientation would have been toward conspicuously bringing honor to the human benefactor and, if this is a local and ongoing relationship (as it would be in a local congregation or other consistent ministry setting), contributing to the human benefactor’s local power base. This could easily contribute, in turn, to factionalism within the congregation or in the broader social setting. The ecclesiastically nurtured orientation is toward thanking God (perhaps in contexts that also bear witness to this God and God’s generous provision), which also includes giving good testimony concerning their generous sisters and brothers to God. It is also oriented toward doing good to one’s generous sisters and brothers in distinctly Christian ways, e.g., interceding for them (acting as brokers of other forms of divine favor) with God.
I offer this material and these reflections not by way of prescription, but by way of resource. Is there anything in these biblical and early ecclesiastical texts and models that offers something useful for directing more healthful local interaction between benefactors and beneficiaries in global Christian contexts, where “healthful” might be defined as promoting the cause of God, the Spirit-led transformation of human community and individual disciples, and the unity of the local Christian presence? This is where I hope our ministry professionals in those contexts will take the conversation.