2 Timothy 2:15 Be diligent to present yourself approved to God, a worker who does not need to be ashamed, rightly dividing the word of truth.  


What does "dispensationalism" mean?     by HA Ironside - public domain


The word "dispensation" is found several times in the pages of our English Bible and is a translation of the Greek word "oikonomia." This word, strictly speaking, means "house order." It might be translated "administration," "order," or "stewardship." In each successive age, God gives to men of faith a certain stewardship, or makes known to them a certain order or administration, in accordance with which they are responsible to behave.

One may illustrate a dispensation in a very simple way, remembering that the word really means "house order," and I might add, the Greek word has been Anglicized, and we know it as "economy."


Let us suppose a young woman whom we will call Mary, is going out into service to work in someone's home (think of her as a servant or as a "maid").  She obtains a position in a home belonging to a good family of the middle/upper working class. There are certain rules governing that home which she must learn to observe. All perhaps is not plain to her at once, but as time goes on, she learns more and more fully the desires of her employer.


For example, she is to rise at five every morning and begin to prepare the breakfast and make up the lunches for those who go out to work. At six she is to ring the wake-up bell; at half-past six the family are supposed to be at the breakfast-table; and at seven they leave for work. Dinner of course is at a certain hour at night, and in the meantime she has her different duties to perform in keeping the house clean and in order. She learns quite thoroughly the patterns and ways of this particular home and becomes a well-qualified household servant/employee.


Now let us suppose that later on she hears about another job opportunity, and finds that a cook and housekeeper is needed for the large mansion on the hill. She applies for the new job and is accepted. Moving in, her new employer begins to instruct her in the economy/ways of the new home, but Mary says, "You need not give me any instructions, Ma'am, I know exactly how a house should be run. just leave it to me and everything will be attended to properly. I have had some years of experience in housekeeping and I would not have asked for the position if I did not know what was required." Her mistress is annoyed, but, for the time being, lets it go.

The next morning, the waking-bell sounds at six o'clock. The family, who are accustomed to sleeping in because of keeping very late hours at night, are astonished and chagrined at being awakened so early. The mistress calls down to the housekeeper, "What does this mean?" and learns that breakfast will be on the table in half-an-hour.

"But Mary," she exclaims; "we never breakfast here until half-past eight."

"But the breakfast is hot and the lunches are all ready, Ma'am." says Mary

"No one takes their lunchbox with them in this home-they eat at a restaurant. You see, Mary, you do not understand the arrangement here. I shall have to instruct you carefully today." And poor bewildered Mary learns the importance of dispensational truth!  The order of this house differs from the previous one.


And likewise, Israel under law is a very different thing, than the church under grace.

The illustration, I know, is crude, but I think any one will see the point. God had one order for the house of Israel. There is another order for the Church of the living God today. There will be a different order in the millennial age, and there have been varying orders in the past.



What does "dispensationalism" mean?     adapted somewhat from William MacDonald


As Augustine said, "distinguish the ages, and all scripture harmonizes."  While we would not agree that a dispensation is a time period, we would agree that the unchanging God does change His methods, working in different ways at different times. Those different ways are termed "dispensations" from the Greek work "oikonomia" which speaks to an administration or an order of a house (see above HA Ironside). It is difficult for us to think of such a thing without thinking of "time." This may help: We may speak of the Bush or Reagan or Clinton presidential administration, and that would tell us of the way in which governments administered their powers.  But more important than the TIME aspect was the POLICIES of that era, and that would tell us of their "dispensation."  


God's dispensational dealings may be compared to the article above by HA Ironside as to how a home is run.  How many dispensations they are is not agreed upon, but a basic illustration of two will be helpful:

  1. The dispensation of Israel under law
  2. The dispensation of the Church under grace.

It is helpful for us to see in this illustration that all scripture is profitable for us, but that scriptures written to Israel may not apply to the church. A good example is that the church is not called upon to conquer the land of Canaan and kills its inhabitants.  So if we distinguish between Israel under law, and the Church dispensation, we make a note of things that differ, and are benefited in our understanding thereby. It helps individuals be rightly oriented to the world in which they live, and the governments thereof, and their own hopes as Christians (Our hope is not the promised land nor an earthly kingdom- like it is for Israel, for example.  Our hope is the coming of the Lord for us to snatch us away to be with Himself.)


Another example is how a new order or dispensation came into being after the cross and the formation of the new thing, the church/body of Christ (Acts 2).  The hopes and promises of the church differ very much from promises made to Abraham and Israel.


Paul goes a step further and speaks of the present age versus the age to come, showing further the types of things which distinguish a dispensation, and that we aren't in the final one.


There are few things as helpful to believers as to understand TO WHOM a scripture was written, OF WHOM it was written, and WHERE, and HOW, and WHEN...and this affirmation of the need to distinguish differences, is what dispensationalism is all about. Nothing more, nothing less despite much that is hurled our direction by opponents. And with that we will now look at: 




False arguments against dispensationalism:

  • That it is new. The Covenant Theologian says dispensational teaching is recent and originated with John Nelson Darby. The charge of recency might equally apply to the TULIP acronym, or the five Sola's of Reformed thinking. Rome accused the Reformers of teaching something "new." The appeals must be to scripture, not to history or majority opinion. The Magisterium of Rome has no more authority to us than the Magisterium of the Protestant Reformers. We study their writings but our consciences are captive to the word of God rather than men. The truth of the matter is the dispensational thinking is as old as the gospel, for everyone who distinguishes between man under law versus under grace is dispensational. And those who see a difference between Israel and the Church, are thinking dispensationally without using the terminology.
  • That we are antinomian (lawless). This charge has a twofold emphasis. 1. Many dispensationalists (rightly) recognize that the believer is no longer under the Mosaic law and the assertion against them is that men therefore become lawless in behavior and outlook. In other words, they "need" the law to control behavior, even as believers. We would refer the reader to our blog article about the scriptural teaching about walking in the spirit vs. being under the law at http://www.wheatlandbiblechapel.org/blog/P-alignleftCommandments-for-Christians-51672   2. That dispensationalists relegate passages like the Sermon on the Mount to Israel and give it no place in the church economy. To this we refer the read to our blog at  http://www.wheatlandbiblechapel.org/blog/P-alignleftSermon-on-the-Mount-50217   This charge of antinomianism also relates to mans sinful nature. The dispensational evangelist is assumed by the Calvinist to teach that a man doesn't need to change his behavior after salvation. We would disagree with that straw man, we merely see two natures in a believer after conversion, and that the old nature never improves (see Romans 7 and Paul's struggle under law) and is not expected to. But we affirm fully that the new believer is the partaker of the divine nature (a new nature), and there should and must be movement towards godliness in a believer's life, we just don't believe the law of Moses is the vehicle for that.
  • That it is divisive. To this we must remember that truth divides men, not error. The Reformation divided men, the cross divides men, Calvinism divides men. the question isn't whether there is division, the question is what is the truth? Careless men rarely are divided when error is tolerated, but the truth does make for division, this is true.
  • That it teaches two ways of salvation.  The goes back to a single poorly worded section in the Scofield Reference Bible notes. Honestly, the same type wording can be found in Reformed circle writings as well.  Those who rightly divide the word of truth have ever been careful to affirm that salvation was and is by grace alone through faith alone in Christ alone. Before the cross salvation by faith anticipated the cross, and we look back in faith today to that finished work.  We would state though that the law was presented as a way of salvation in one sense, and that is that if man could be perfect from birth, and never sin, and be 100% obedient to God, he could theoretically be saved. But the problem is that man is a sinner by nature and practice and the law exposes this, leaving grace as the only means of salvation. 
  • That it teaches fatalism.  Both liberal humanists and Covenant theologians make this charge. The former due to things like hearing foolish "conservative" politicians who disregard the environment due to "end times thinking" that it "doesn't matter" if we destroy the earth. The latter, in not understand the distinctions between Israel and the Church, apply Israel passages & principles to the Church and seek to make the Church triumphant in this age, which is a false dream. So in that regard the dispensationalist would seem defeatist. We affirm an end of the age church apostasy, that wicked men will wax worse and worse, and that the mystery of iniquity ever seeks to bring the man of sin to the forefront - but cannot until the Rapture and removal of the Restrainer.  We affirm that man is lost, and undone and cannot solve his problems and needs help outside of himself. But with this in mind, the work of the dispensational missionary has ever tended to be on the forefront (along with the gospel priority) of bringing justice, schools, hospitals, water wells, women's rights, and such, to previously dark pagan cultures. The proof is in the pudding, as they say, regarding this "fatalism." It is a true and false accusation at the same time. If you seek to make this world a better place as your goal and to conquer evil, poverty, and war, dispensational thinking will disappoint. If you seek to be a biblical believer, ever doing good in your sphere where God places you, you will not looking to re-arrange the chairs on the Titanic. Instead you seek the lifeboat for yourself and others, and ever are looking up for His coming for you. And you won't destroy the Titanic while it is sinking.
  • It teaches a secret rapture.  All Christians believe in the rapture, they disagree on the timing of it - and what to call it. Even the Covenant Theologian must admit he believes in a resurrection of the dead and the translation of the living. They may look at the cheapening of this doctrine by such things as the Left Behind series and some of the weird prophecy mongers out there, but in the end we must return to scripture and recognize we all believe this event is coming, we merely disagree on when. So let us set aside this straw man of criticizing a "secret rapture."


In closing we would add this suggestion from M.Stanford: A dispensation is from God's viewpoint an economy; from man's, a responsibility; and in relation to progressive revelation, a stage in it.


And from Ryrie: Dispensationalism is based on the three following characteristics: (1) a clear distinction between Israel and the church; (2) literal hermeneutics in all areas including prophecy; and (3) A view which sees the glory of God as the underlying purpose of God in the world, not merely salvation as the central thing.


From A. Wood:  Dispensationalism did not originate from forcing a theological grid upon the biblical text. Rather it arose when interpreters became committed to a consistent use of the literal, grammatical, historical hermeneutic. For example, if the same literal, grammatical, historical hermeneutic that is used to interpret other sections of Scripture is applied to Biblical prophecy, then the interpreter will naturally see a distinction between Israel and the church.


See also http://www.biblecentre.org/topics/ccr_2_dispensationalism.htm

See also http://www.pembrokebiblechapel.com/pdf/WhatisaDispensationRyrie.pdf

See also http://www.wheatlandbiblechapel.org/blog/Acts-2---Church-Birthday-52396

See also:  http://www.middletownbiblechurch.org/reformed/reformed.htm  (be discerning- be a Berean)