This installment of Friend Requests is brought to you by the letter “D”. Honestly, I’m not even sure where to begin. Today’s topic is something of a niche topic. I’ve been asked to write about the “D” word. What is the “D” word? Well, it’s probably not what you think, so I’ll just cut to the chase. This weeks’ episode is about Dispensationalism.
Now in prep for this, one of the very first things I did was simply ask random people if they knew what that word meant. In a way it kind of let me know how much the average person may or may not know about the topic. What I found is that almost no one under the age of thirty knows what it means. From thirty to forty only a few were familiar with the term. Most of the people who knew what it meant were forty and over. But even in that older demographic, not many knew.
So what we have here is a topic that probably many of my readers don’t know anything about. However, the thing about Dispensationalism is that although many people don’t know what it is, you have been affected by it. Let’s start with a basic definition.
Dispensationalism is a Christian belief. It’s a belief that God has dispensed his grace by different administrations (or dispensations) throughout history. You can visit here for a fuller explanation from the Christian Apologetics and Research Ministry (CARM). Dispensational thought typically divides human history into seven dispensations.
- Innocence (Genesis 1-3), Adam and Eve before they sinned
- Conscience (Genesis 3-8), First sin to the flood
- Civil Government (Genesis 9-11), After the flood, government
- Promise (Genesis 12-Ex. 19), Abraham to Moses, the Law is given
- Law (Exodus 20-Acts 2:4), Moses to the cross
- Grace (Acts 2:4-Revelation 20:3), Cross to the millennial kingdom
- Millennial Kingdom (Rev. 20:4-6), The rule of Christ on earth in the millennial kingdom
There are different flavors of Dispensationalism, but for the most part they all adhere to these distinct dispensations. What do they mean? For the sake of brevity, I won’t do a point-by-point explanation of each dispensation. What I’m going to focus on is the major defining characteristic of this movement, and how it affects you and me, and everyone else in America.
Look at point six. According to dispensationalists, we are currently living in the dispensation of Grace, or more commonly called, the Church Age. Dispensationalists believe that God deals with the people of Israel and the Church as separate peoples. At the cross, God suspended his dealings with Israel and began saving for himself a people from the Gentiles. In doing this, there remains unfinished, unfulfilled promises for Israel that God has yet to fulfill. The way dispensationalists deal with these unfulfilled promises is to believe that God will finish his dealings with Israel during the Great Tribulation after he removes the Church in a pre-tribulation rapture. Thus they believe that the physical descendants of Israel, even today, are still God’s chosen people, and consequently that today’s Israeli nation is a precursor to the greater and final fulfillment of the remainder of God’s promises to Abraham.
I know that might have been a lot to process. Trust me, everything I just laid out in one paragraph has had volumes of pages written by Christians over the years. I’m cramming it in to get to the larger issue. Because Dispensational Christianity believes as it does about Israel, Christians who adhere to this understanding hold modern Israel in a special reverence. Some sects of Dispensationalists even believe that modern Israel is the most important nation on the face of the earth. They take very literally the words of God to Abraham, “I will bless those who bless you and curse those who curse you.” (Genesis 12:3) Therefore, there is a deep seated belief among Dispensationalists that if the United States becomes unsupportive of Israel, that God will remove his hand of blessing from the U.S.
This has far reaching ramifications. Dispensationalism began spreading among American evangelical churches in the nineteenth century, but literally exploded with the publishing of the popular Scofield Reference Bible in 1909. Scofield’s Dispensational beliefs, which he outlined in commentary of his Bible, seemed prophetic after the 1948 creation of modern Israel, and Dispensational theology became a staple of fundamentalist Christianity in the United States.
Once it became established, Dispensationalists began voting for politicians who cast their support toward modern Israel. This provided fertile soil for the eventual Religious Right movement in American politics. Even today, one of the marks of the Religious Right is their staunch support for the nation of Israel, no matter what. Along with this came an enormous growth of the single-issue-voter phenomenon. Many fundamentalist Christian voters will vote for a candidate based solely on his or her stance regarding Israel because they believe the blessing of God depends on a friendly posture toward Israel.
Dispensationalism has stoked the fires of war in the Middle East for over half a century. Prominent Dispensational Christians in the United States, such as John Hagee, have vociferously advocated preemptive military action against any nation in the Middle East which threatens the existence of Israel. They advocate actions which would certainly spark a religious-ethnic war between Israelis and Muslims, such as the rebuilding of the Jewish Temple on the Temple Mount, where currently a Muslim holy site exists.
Dispensationalism has affected every American citizen for over a half century by influencing her foreign policy. The politicians elected by the Religious Right take a very pro-Israel stand, and it is reflected in every Presidential administration since Eisenhower. It would be wrong to say that the United State’s sole reason for supporting Israel is religious, but it would also be wrong to say that conservative, religious, Dispensational voters had nothing to do with our unflinching support for Israel over the last sixty-eight years.
But enough of politics. How does Dispensationalism affect individual believers? Perhaps the most damaging effect it has is it seems to violate one of the most simple declarations that God makes about himself. In Malachi 3:6 God says, “I the Lord do not change,” but even a casual look into Dispensational theology reveals that God has changed his approach several times. It has led many believers to view the Old and New Testaments as separate and distinct administrations of God, when it truth, God has always offered his grace to mankind through one administration: faith. The Old and New Testaments are one story (read my post Old vs. New) that reveals how God is redeeming for himself one people out of fallen mankind. From fallen Adam, all the way to the present, grace has been offered through faith. This is called the Covenant of Grace, and each smaller covenant given – Noah, Abraham, Moses, David – were progressively fuller revelations of God’s grace being extended to man, culminating in Jesus Christ. All anyone has ever needed to do is receive that grace through faith in what God has revealed.
Dispensationalism breaks the story of Redemption into incongruent stand-alone volumes where salvation came through different means. Why conscience, then government, then promise, etc.? The means of salvation in the different dispensations have no apparent relationship. Whereas, if you view God’s dealings with humanity in terms of covenant, then you have a consistent story. This is called Covenant Theology, but that is for another post.
As I close this long-winded article, let me lay out my cards. I used to be a full blown Dispensationalist, but today I consider myself more of a Covenant theologian. I have great respect for Dispensationalism because of its dedication to interpret the Scripture as literally as possible, however I feel like it presents too many inconsistencies within the nature and character of God. I love Israel, I always will, but I don’t believe Israel is infallible. I’m not always supportive of their decisions. I believe the U.S. should deal with them as a faithful ally, not for any religious reasons.
I also don’t believe that God blesses geo-political nations in the way that he once blessed ancient Israel. God blesses his Church, and any nation where she happens to be can be blessed by her presence if she is allowed to freely worship. I believe that God will one day save ethnic Israel en mass and bring them into his Church. I don’t believe there are separate plans for Israel and the Church. But I do believe that the formation of the nation of Israel in 1948 is one of the final mile markers to let us know that the return of Christ may be near. But here’s the deal that we all must embrace. When it comes down to trying to figure out the end, we all have to throw our hands in the air at some point and say, “Only God knows for sure.” None of us can have absolute certainty.
In the end, I guess I’m a Covenant theologian with some hangovers from Dispensationalism. The “D” word still has some influence in my thinking. But nobody’s perfect. I love my Dispensational brothers and sisters, we’ll just have to disagree on a few things. Dispensationalism needs an overhaul, and in fairness some of its more recent advocates have been making adjustments to how they interpret Scripture. The Lord has a colorful, vastly diverse Bride, but we’re all unified in the belief that Jesus is coming to get us. We only need to be faithful to watch for him.