Patrons and patronage in the early Christian church

A biblical and historical study of the influence of the economically advantaged in the church.

Greg Brothers, Ph.D., pastors the Lincoln City Seventh-day Adventist Church in Lincoln City, Oregon.

Your name is Cornelius, and you are a freed man. Once a slave, you purchased your freedom and went into business on your own. Like all freed persons, however, you still belong to the household of your old master whom we'll call Flavius. As such, you still owe Flavius honor. What's more, you promised your master that you would continue to serve him on a regular basis in fact, this was a part of the price you'd paid for your freedom.

That's why every morning finds you at the door of Flavius's house. Several freed persons are there with you, as well as a dozen or so free ones, all lined up in order of rank. When Flavius appears, the salutation begins. One by one, each of you greet him, and then make your request a loan, perhaps, or help with a lawsuit. One by one, Flavius decides each case in his role as "father of the household." Then he gives each of you a basket with food and gifts that is worth a day's wage or so. If you are fortunate, you may then go home; if not, Flavius may require your services for the rest of the day. He may need to appear in the Senate, after all, or serve as host at a banquet, and no Roman citizen of any importance would dare appear in public without a large retinue of clients and slaves.

Today Flavius announces that he has abandoned the gods of Rome to worship the one, true God a God whose name is Jesus.

Fair enough. What does this mean to you?

Patrons and clients in Roman society

Roman society was sharply divided between those who ruled, and those who fol lowed. Only 5 percent of the people belonged to one of the three governing classes: senatorial, equestrian, and decurion. Perhaps another 5 percent made up what Tacitus called the populus integer—the merchants, artisans, and small landowners who constituted "the respectable populace." Most of the rest picked up whatever work they could from day to day; they were the "shabby people."1

Roman law saw to it that each group remained in its own proper place. For example, no Roman could sue someone on a level above their own; neither could they marry outside their class. And if a senator and a commoner were both charged with exactly the same crime, each would be tried in a separate court one that was class-appropriate.

Not surprisingly, many Romans sought protection from those who were better off. Anyone who planned a career in government, for instance, sought the protection of a wealthy and powerful patron. Poets and philosophers did the same the better to avoid actually working for a living! And even if they were not related by blood, commoners might join the household of wealthy persons in the hope of being included in their will.2

As already described, many "clients" were freed persons who had once served their masters as slaves. Having earned their purchase price, many now worked for themselves as merchants or artisans but they still belonged to the family of their old master. They still owed him compliance. They still owed him service as part of their liberty. As such, they were required to attend the morning greeting.

Though time consuming, this system of patronage offered real benefits to its clients. Loans, food, and legal advice were theirs for the asking in fact, patrons were required to feed their clients in times of want. What's more, clients shared in the status of their patrons; the higher the rank of the patron, the higher the rank of his or her client.

For their part, patrons gathered clients to gain prestige. In a sense, charity was a form of conspicuous consumption. Wealthy Romans helped their clients for the same reason that they endowed libraries and supplied fuel to warm the public baths: They did so because they expected the public to recognize them as "benefactors."

Even death did not end the relationship between patrons and their clients. The freed persons of Roman citizens had the right to be buried in the family tomb of their patron since they were a part of their family. They and their descendants were expected to maintain the regular commemorative rites at the tomb.3

Patronage and Christianity

This system of patronage soon left its mark on the church. Given the presence of freed persons in the church, some of its members were undoubtedly clients. Then too, some members undoubtedly served as patrons. The "Erastus" mentioned in Romans 16:23, for instance, seems to have served as the city manager of Corinth; in fact, a pavement that bears the name Erastus, known as a benefactor, has been found in that city. As such, he probably had his own retinue of "clients."

Thus, no one in Roman society would have been surprised by Lydia's actions, as recorded in Acts 16:14, 15. "A certain woman named Lydia, a worshiper of God, was listening to us; she was from the city of Thyatira and a dealer in purple cloth. The Lord opened her heart to listen eagerly to what was said by Paul. When she and her household were baptized, she urged us, saying, 'If you have judged me to be faithful to the Lord, come and stay.' And she prevailed upon us."

As "a seller of purple," Lydia had the wealth needed to be a patron and the reference to her "household" suggests that she already had her circle of clients. Lydia's offer was more than just an act of hospitality; it was apparently a patron's admission of a valuable new member to her family.

Other believers also served as patrons. In Romans 16:2, Paul refers to the deacon Phoebe as a prostatis— a "patron" or "benefactor." Other patrons may have included Jason (Acts 16), Artistobulus (Rom. 16:10), Narcissus (verse 11), Stephanas (1 Cor. 1:16), Onesiphorus (2 Tim. 4:19), Philemon (Phil. 2), and Gaius (3 John 1). These patrons provided valuable support to the church. As we've seen with Lydia, patrons often encouraged members of their house holds to be baptized. They were helpful in other ways; for example, when Paul was arrested in Thessalonica, Jason posted the bond that secured his release (Acts 17:9). Patrons probably furnished places for the church to meet. In fact for the first 200 years of the Christian church, believers met almost exclusively in "house church es"; probably most of which were the homes of Christian patrons.

Given these benefits, it's no surprise that some churches did everything they could to encourage the membership of potential benefactors. James speaks to this situation carried to an extreme: "My brothers and sisters, do you with your acts of favoritism really believe in our glorious Lord Jesus Christ? For if a person with gold rings and in fine clothes comes into your assembly, and if a poor person in dirty clothes also comes in, and if you take notice of the one wearing the fine clothes and say, 'Have a seat here, please,' while to the one who is poor you say, 'Stand there,' or, 'Sit at my feet,' have you not made distinctions among your selves, and become judges with evil thought?" Games 2:1-4).

Problems with patrons

As James indicated, patrons could be a mixed blessing to the church. Few patrons included the poor as clients; they wanted clients "of the better sort" clients whose status would enhance their own. This attitude could lead church members into the kind of behavior that James condemned; snubbing the poor, after all, would rid the church of "undesirables" and improve its chances of gaining status and benefactors!

Patrons could be contentious. "Is it not the rich who oppress you?" James asked. "Is it not they who drag you into court?" (James 2:5-7).

This was not a theoretical concern. The church in Corinth was troubled by just such lawsuits. It is clear that enmity had developed in the Corinthian church because of personal loyalty to teachers. This "strife and jealousy" arising out of the issue of Christian leadership expressed itself in litigation with one member taking another to court. If in 1 Corinthians 3:1-4 "strife" and "jealousy" were signs of an "immature person" and that they were "walking in a secular fashion," then the litigation of 1 Corinthians 6 was a manifestation of the same problem, but manifested this time in secular courts rather than the Christian congregation.

Finally, some patrons acted as though they were the "father" of the church family. Wealthy believers entertained their family at agape feasts, just as secular patrons might entertain their clients at a banquet.

"Unlike the opposing missionaries who have sought to replace him, Paul has never asked the Corinthians for money for himself, and this has offended upper-class members of the congregation who believed that the community should pay their teachers, who should not be self-supported artisans (the well-to-do despised artisans)."4

In all fairness, clients could create just as many problems as patrons. For instance, issues addressed in Romans and 1 Peter indicate that some Christians thought the "new birth" freed them from all obligations; they no longer owed their patrons compliance after freedom.

Then too, Paul's letters to the church in Thessalonica indicate that some believers took literally the idea that they belonged to "the household of God." As such, they expected to be fed by the church or more likely by the patrons of the church just as secular patrons would give the clients of their families their daily gifts.

Principles for patrons

The New Testament does not deal exhaustively or exclusively with the duties of patrons to the church. There are no obvious lists of qualifications; no explicit limitations placed on their authority. In fact, the role of a patron is almost absent in most discussions of the early church.

If one looks at the role of authority in the church, however, it seems clear that the New Testament hoped to limit the patron's role in the church. While the New Testament spoke of the church as a household, it made it clear that it was not led by an earthly father, but by God and His appointed leaders. Says Paul: " [You are]... members of the household of God, built upon the foundation of the apostles and prophets, with Christ Jesus him self as the cornerstone. In him the whole structure is joined together and grows into a holy temple in the Lord; in whom you also are built together spiritually into a dwelling place for God" (Eph. 2:19-21).

What's more, church leaders emphasized that every member had something to offer God's church, since every member had been "gifted" by the Holy Spirit. To be sure, the ability to grant financial assistance could be one of these gifts, but it remained only one of the gifts. "For as in one body we have many members, and not all the members have the same function, so we, who are many, are one body in Christ, and individually we are members one of another. We have gifts that differ according to the grace given to us: prophecy, in pro portion to faith; ministry, in ministering; the teacher, in teaching; the exhorter, in exhortation; the giver, in generosity; the leader, in diligence; the compassionate, in cheerfulness" (Rom. 12:4-8, emphasis supplied).

In short, every member could be a "benefactor" in some way; every believer could be a "patron" in his or her church. In theory, at least, this meant that churches had no reason to favor the rich over the poor. Not only were members of the two groups equal in God's sight, but each could benefit the church in some way, regardless of their standing in Roman society.

Deprived of any special status in the church, patrons should use their "gifts" in the same way as every other believer: they should glorify God, and not themselves. This meant the end of lawsuits as a means of attaining status or power; litigants were now to abide by the church's decision (1 Cor. 6:1-11). Agape feasts were no longer to be treated as banquets; communicants were now to eat at home if they wanted something more than the church's regular fare (11:33, 34). And patrons were not to look down on members who refused their support; in working with his own hands, after all, Paul had only meant to help the church in Corinth (2 Cor. 11:7-11; 3:13-17).

The case of Philemon and Onesimus is a good example of how the patron-client relationship should work out in practice. Though their relationship was one of master and slave, the bonds of status and power that connected them were similar to those of Roman patrons and their clients. As a slave-owner, Philemon had a right to the service of Onesimus. But as a Christian, Philemon should treat Onesimus as a "beloved brother" (Phil. 16). Likewise, as a runaway slave, Onesimus had every reason to fear Philemon and seek to avoid any contact with him. Yet as a Christian, Onesimus was to go back to Philemon, and continue his service.

Despite their disparate status in Roman society, Paul urged Philemon and Onesimus to love and serve each other as brothers in Christ. In the same way, all relationships in the church should be marked by this kind of mutual regard. "As many of you as were baptized into Christ have clothed yourselves with Christ. There is no longer Jew or Greek, there is no longer slave or free, there is no longer male and female; for all of you are one in Christ Jesus" (Gal. 3:27, 28).

And to this might well have been added the fact that in Christ "there is no more patron or client."

The enduring role of patron

In theory, it would seem that patrons and clients could worship as equals in the early church. Going back to our earlier example, we might expect the freed Cornelius to follow the example of his patron Flavius and become a Christian; as with Lydia, patrons would try to lead their families into the church. Cornelius would probably continue to serve Flavius as a client, and Flavius would continue to serve Cornelius as patron. As church members, however, Cornelius and Flavius would meet in the condition of equals. Flavius might own the building in which the church met, but Cornelius could become its bishop!

In reality, however, patrons did not give up power that easily indeed, as time went on, their struggle for power became even more intense. Peter Brown comments: What "is clearly demonstrated [in the fourth-century church] is the tension caused by the way in which the demands of a new elite of well-to-do Christian laywomen and laymen were met by the determination of an equally new elite of bishops, who often came from the same class, that they and they alone should be the patroni of the publicly established Christian communities."5

One way to defuse this struggle was to combine the role of patron and bishop. For instance, by the fourth century many believers assumed that civic benefactors would make good church leaders even if these patrons had not been baptized! Ambrose of Milan, for example, was baptized after he had been made bishop; his fame as an orator and his office as imperial governor was enough to secure his election by popular acclaim.

As Robin Fox explains: "In civic life, electors paid great attention to the candidate's willingness to promise gifts and perform civic services at their own expense. The laity could not be expected to abandon this familiar pattern whenever they met.

The Church, too, needed money and service, and if Christians saw a rich candidate, they would anticipate charity for themselves and their community. By the later fourth century, the preferment of upper-class candidates was attracting widespread polemic."6

One of the most enduring legacies of the patronage system, however, was the cult of the saints. As a part of his family, clients were supposed to meet on a regular basis at the tomb of the "father" of the family for the appropriate commemorative rites. Christians quickly transferred this practice to the tombs of martyrs and other saints. As Brown notes, by the fourth century, the figure of the saint "... had taken on all the features of a late-Roman patronus. The saint was the good patronus: he was the patronus whose intercessions were successful, whose wealth was at the disposal of all, whose potential was exercised without violence and to whom loyalty could be shown with out restraint."7

Today churches still struggle with the problems caused by inequities of wealth within the community of faith. In theory, every church should be governed by the rule of the gospel that all are one in Christ.

This New Testament study is offered with the hope that it will be discerned to be strikingly parallel to and suggestive of principles and applications which may be helpful in pastoring the congregations and church structures of the contemporary scene.

* All Scripture passages in this article are from the New Revised Standard Version.

1 James Jeffers, The Greco-Roman World of the New Testament: Exploring the Background of Christianity (Downers Grove: InterVarsity Press, 1999), 180-188.

2 Paul Veyne, "The Household and Its Freed Slaves," in A History of Private Life: From Pagan Rome to Byzantium, ed. Phillippe Aries and Georges Duby, trans. Arthur Goldhammer (Cambridge, Mass.: TheBelknap Press of Harvard University Press, 1987), 90.

3 Jeffers, 45.

4 Craig Keener, The 1VP Bible Background Commentary: New Testament (Downers Grove, 111.: 1993), 492.

5 Peter Brown, The Cult of the Saints: Its Rise and Function in Latin Christianity (Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 1981), 32, 33.

6 Robin Fox, Pagans and Christians (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1987), 509, 510.

7 Brown, 41.

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Greg Brothers, Ph.D., pastors the Lincoln City Seventh-day Adventist Church in Lincoln City, Oregon.

July 2002

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