What is “Dispensationalism”?

Before looking at the merits or demerits of Dispensationalism per se, we want to define the term and establish our general goals in approaching this complex and challenging field.

Dispensationalism is a systematic theology that recognizes distinct “economies” in the outworking of God’s purposes on earth. [1] That is, it recognizes that God relates to mankind in different ways at different times. This understanding is in part based upon the Greek word oikonomia, which is often translated “dispensation” in the KJV. [2] Oikonomia means “managing or administering the affairs of a household.” God, therefore, is the householder, and entrusts stewardship or administrational responsibilities to men throughout the various “ages.” Man’s failure to uphold these responsibilities has caused God to keep revising His relationship with mankind, and adjusting what He has required of him.

Dispensationalism is grounded in the biblical truth that there are only three distinct groups of human beings on earth today—Jew, Gentile and the Church of God, a.k.a “the Body of Christ” or “Christians” (1 Cor. 10:32)—and recognizes God’s various ways of dealing with each.

“Dispensationalism,” as we understand and teach it, holds that the Christian Church began on the Day of Pentecost, inaugurated by the giving of holy spirit. At that time, God suspended His program of salvation for Israel as instituted via the Covenants (including the Abrahamic, Mosaic, Davidic and the still future “New Covenant”) and instituted a new program of salvation and sanctification for the Church of the Body of Christ. According to 1 Corinthians 12:13, the beginning of this Body was whenever the gift of holy spirit was given, which we know was on the Day of Pentecost as recorded in Acts 2. From this dispensational perspective, the book of Acts is a transitional period for the Church, which at first was exclusively made up of former Jews. However, as these Jews grew in the faith, they gradually began to realize what had actually transpired on the Day of Pentecost and “got with the program” by admitting Gentiles into the congregation (Acts 10), letting go of water baptism (Acts 18:25ff), ceasing to require circumcision, etc, etc. With a change of “administration” came a change of requirements for salvation and behavior.

Endnotes

[1] “Systematic theology” is the attempt to bring religious truth into an organized system. Many theologians have written “systematic theologies,” and, of course, while they are alike in some respects, they vary somewhat depending on the particular beliefs of the author. Nevertheless, the Bible is true and thus there is a genuine systematic theology, even if men disagree on what that is.
[2] Oikonomia is translated “dispensation” in the KJV in 1 Corinthians 9:17, Colossians 1:25, Ephesians 1:10 and 3:2. It is translated “fellowship” in Ephesians 3:9 in the KJV, but “dispensation” in the American Revised Version, which recognizes that oikonomia is the correct reading in the Greek text.

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