Patronage and Reciprocity in Paul’s Metaphor of Adoption

Adoption (huiothesia, υιοθεσία) is an important Pauline metaphor describing the believer’s connection with God the Father (as well as the Son and the Holy Spirit) (Ephesians 1:5; Romans 8:23; Galatians 4:5). The concept of patronage and reciprocity affects one’s understanding of this metaphor.

Garner states that spiritual adoption shows the patronage of the Heavenly Father by the grace He has shown. DeSilva demonstrates how patronage and reciprocity are important in understanding New Testament culture. Burke incorporates honor as part of his understanding of Christian adoption. Based on the honor ascribed by the Father, a new name is given to those adopted, incorporating them into one family.

However, in both sociological adoption and its spiritual counterpart, the preceding authors have not explored the interplay between the act of adoption and the social construct of patronage (with corresponding reciprocity), and this relationship needs to be developed. Huiothesia was the Roman practice of adoption, resulting in honor being ascribed to the adopted son. The adoptee was expected to reciprocate the grace of the father by not only bringing honor back to the family name, but also caring for the parents in their later years. Patronage and reciprocity were an act/response interaction, involving the benevolence of a father and his adopted son. Reciprocity was not “hero worship” or giving an encomium. Reciprocity might fail to be expressed due to ingratitude or difficulties with cross-cultural adaptation.

The corresponding spiritual metaphor of adoption is marked by God’s patronage and grace to His adopted children. Patronage reflects both the transcendence and immanence of God, revealing the consequences of their adoption (which His children could not do for themselves). The ultimate gift of patronage is the inheritance of eternal life which the Father promises to His children as an unmerited gift (Ephesians 1:11). Reciprocity is manifested in praise, worship, and honoring God’s name, which serve to increase one’s faith (far exceeding the expectations of “filial loyalty”). As adoptees, God’s children should proclaim His grace as witnesses (Acts 1:8). They are also to extend beneficence to their fellow humans (Matthew 18:21-35) as they come to understand the significance of functioning as a member of God’s family. Spiritual adoption should also lead to imitating God’s character, as His children are called to love, show mercy, and be holy. Negatively, God’s adoptees may desire the honor of men over the honor of God (John 12:43) or even show ingratitude. They may also think one can earn God’s favor through one’s own actions. When one seeks fulfillment apart from God, one engages in disloyalty and idolatry.

When parents in culture adopt children as their own, they show patronage through the beneficence of love toward them. They do for their children what the children cannot do. Both sociological and spiritual adoption require the empowerment of the Holy Spirit. An understanding of the correlates between sociological and spiritual adoption contributes to flourishing faith.