Another doctrine that I was taught is known in some circles as Dispensational Theology, or Dispensationalism. There are a number of versions of this doctrine, but what they have in common is the idea that throughout the Bible, and indeed throughout history, God has dealt with man in a variety of different ways depending on prevailing circumstances. There is a succession of dispensations or administrations, characterized by differences in what God expects of man. In the original paradise all was perfect, but after man fell things were different, but there was no law of God to govern mankind. With the giving of the Law of Moses, a standard of behavior was set (at least for Israel), and when Christ came, another new administration began, because Jesus Christ fulfilled the Law.
On the surface, this is a reasonable understanding of the Scriptures, but there are some difficulties with the logical outcome of this system of theology. There is no question that there are different standards we are to maintain as Christians than there were for Israel under the Mosaic Law. Paul discussed this at length in Galatians and several other sections of his epistles. The difficulty comes about when we try to divide all of Scripture into administrations and then interpret parts of the Bible as if they did not apply to us. It was said that much of the Bible, particularly the Old Testament and the Gospels, were written "for our learning" but only the Church Epistles were written specifically to us. They used the following verse as proof:
The trouble with this is that, first of all, the verse does not say, "for our learning only." Secondly, the Greek word for "learning" here is didaskalia which means "doctrine" or right believing. There is nothing in this verse that says the Old Testament or Gospels are not addressed to us.
The version of Dispensationalism that I was taught stated that the Kingdom of Heaven had entirely to do with Israel, and that during this present period of time when it was "held in abeyance" there was a new and radically different message and plan that was first given by revelation to the Apostle Paul. It was called the administration of The Mystery, because Paul writes of the Great Mystery that was kept secret since before the world began but was now revealed (Romans 16:25; I Corinthians 2:7; Ephesians 1:9; 3:3; Colossians 1:27). Clearly something that had been a mystery was revealed to Paul, but is it referring to an entirely new plan of salvation, an entirely new gospel message, different from that which Jesus Christ preached?
This is in fact the most tragic result of Dispensationalism, because while we profess to be Christians, we put relatively little emphasis on his words. I was taught, and it is still widely stated by many preachers, that the deeds of Jesus Christ, more than his words, are what was important. His words, they say, were addressed to the children of Israel at that time, but it was the epistles of Paul that contained the relevant words addressed to us. But think about this. If the teachings of Jesus Christ were only addressed to his followers at the time, and would shortly be replaced by a whole new administration with a whole new plan, why were his words so carefully and diligently preserved in the four Gospels, which were written after the epistles and the revelation of the Mystery? Furthermore, if his words were to be replaced by a new revelation and become obsolete, why would he have made the following statement?
If the holy spirit would bring to remembrance whatsoever he had said, surely his words are important to the Christian Church, and not just to Israel. Contrary to what I was taught, the New Testament tells us that it is the words of Jesus Christ, as much as his deeds, which are to be the focus of Christianity.
It should be pointed out that the word "dispensation" in the Bible is the Greek word oikonomia. It only occurs seven times and only one of them says anything about a period of time, and that refers to the future "fullness of time" when Christ returns (Ephesians 1:10). To divide the Scriptures based on a perceived difference in administrations has the result of fragmenting the Scriptures, and thus fragmenting God's plan. We end up with two different plans of salvation, one for Old Testament believers, and one for Christians. We get two different messages in the Scriptures, one addressed to us, and one for our learning addressed to Israel. I was also taught that there were two means of salvation (by the Law in the Old Testament, and by grace in the New). There were two groups who were the "people of God" (Israel and the Church), two different hopes for those two groups (resurrection for Israel, and a "secret rapture" for the Church), and even two different inheritances-- the Church had a home in heaven, with all the best promises, while Israel had the lesser inheritance on earth, with relatively inferior promises. The fact is, however, if we read the Bible from beginning to end, without the preconceived dispensational viewpoint, we find that God's plan is and always has been one plan.
The first century church knew nothing of Dispensationalism, for it is a relatively new system of Biblical study and belief. It has its roots in the work of James Nelson Darby and a group in England called the Plymouth Brethren in the early 1800's. It was more fully developed as a systematic means of study by the American theologian C. I. Scofield, who put his views in the marginal notes of the now well-known Scofield Reference Bible. In England, E. W. Bullinger developed a system of interpretation which built on these ideas and has even been called "ultra-Dispensationalism." (Bullinger's writings, including the notes in his Companion Bible had a great deal of influence on the teachings of V. P. Wierwille. Subsequently his followers, myself included, learned to interpret the Bible in this way.) The doctrine caught on and became firmly rooted in Christian thinking primarily through two institutions in the United States: Dallas Theological Seminary (founded by Lewis Sperry Chafer) and Chicago's Moody Bible Institute (founded by Dwight Lyman Moody). Both of these schools have produced many pastors, theologians and Christian writers who have subsequently influenced the most recent generations in this approach to the Scriptures.
As God's purpose unfolds in His Word, we do see different ways in which He deals with people based on the time in which they lived and the revealed truth available at the time. However, God had one plan from the very beginning to save all of mankind. If a person's salvation were different, or somehow "less" than that of another, simply because they weren't "born at the right time," God would be unjust, and a respecter of persons. But God has not changed His plan since the first promise made in Genesis 3:15.