To begin with, I am a dispensationalist. I have clearly stated this in many of my writings, I have mentioned it in connection with a variety of topics and passages, and it has determined how I have interpreted many things regarding Scripture. The idea of right division is a guiding principle in how I view, interpret, and apply the Scriptures. It seems necessary, then, for me to set forth what exactly it is that I believe regarding dispensationalism, why I believe as I do, and how it affects my beliefs and handling of the Bible. Therefore, in this series of messages, I will take up this issue and deal with this very complicated topic. I do not believe that dispensationalism is a terribly hard thing to understand, but it is a deep subject, and will require a number of studies to set forth. In some ways I might just be going through the basics of dispensationalism, but if we don’t have a good grasp of the basic principles of a thing, we will never grow in it to the point of good and useful understanding. This study will not be comprehensive, and is one that I will no doubt continue in many segments and for many years to come in my studies that I write in “Precepts.”

Some time ago I was talking with a gentleman in a group of believers at the University. He told me he was reading a book that was talking about dispensationalism. He admitted he’d never heard of dispensationalism before, and hadn’t really finished studying up on it yet. Then, he proceeded to say that he didn’t believe in dispensationalism, and that he was a “covenant” theologian himself. He said he didn’t think that, “God has all these different dispensations that He splits all of history into.”

Being a dispensationalist myself, I was rather amused at his quick judgment of our position. From what I was hearing him say, though, it sounded to me as if he perceived dispensations as time periods more than anything else. So I asked him what he thought a dispensation is? He must have viewed my question as irrelevant, however, as he never answered me. Apparently he was more interested in revealing what he knew about a subject which he admitted having barely studied than in listening to anything I had to say. I therefore decided not to press the matter. I figured he was more interested in showing how clever he was than in hearing anything I could offer on the topic.

But those of us who are dispensationalists must not brush off such a basic question so easily. Indeed, many of the errors which dispensationalists, and all believers for that matter, fall into stem in large part from making assumptions about basic things which have never been properly examined. To start off any discussion on dispensations, we must first establish what a dispensation is.

To begin with, I do not believe that a dispensation is a time period, as the gentleman with whom I was discussing the subject at the University did. All things in life cover a period of time, and yet that does not mean that a period of time is their basic definition. The United States Presidency, for example, covers a period of four years, and yet I could not say that I went to high school “for a United States Presidency.” A Presidency does cover a period of four years, but it is far more than just a four year period of time. In the same way, a dispensation covers a time period, but that is not its definition, or what makes it a dispensation.

So what is a dispensation? In English, the word “dispensation” comes from our English word “dispense,” which means to deal out, but also to administer. defines a dispensation as “a certain order, system, or arrangement; administration or management.” Basically, it has to do with the carrying out or enacting of a management.

Many Bible students who are dispensationalists have divided all of time into dispensations. In fact, this is often set forth as the most basic teaching of dispensationalism. The most common is a set of seven dispensations.

1. The Dispensation of Innocence from the creation of man to the Fall.
2. The Dispensation of Conscience from the Fall to the flood.
3. The Dispensation of Human Government from the flood to the call of Abraham.
4. The Dispensation of Promise from Abraham’s call to Mount Sinai.
5. The Dispensation of Law from Moses at Mount Sinai to after Christ’s death.
6. The Dispensation of Grace from Pentecost to the Millennium (today).
7. The Dispensation of the Millennium from Christ’s return to the end of the world.

These are all the dispensations that are believed to take place on this earth. It is believed by many, though, that after this earth is burned up by fire, an eighth and final dispensation takes place, that goes beyond this earth.

8. The Dispensation of the New Heavens and New Earth to eternity.

You will notice that there are seven dispensations listed for this earth (not including the New Heavens and New Earth.) This is a characteristic of most dispensational schemes, as seven is a “perfect number,” and is used repeatedly by God in things relating to His plan. (see E.W. Bullinger’s “Number in Scripture” or Appendix 10 in his Companion Bible.) This idea of seven dispensations has sometimes been connected with the Seven Millenniums Theory, which states that there are seven millenniums of time for this creation. Some dispensationalists will try to correlate this to the seven dispensations, although some most certainly were either longer or shorter than 1,000 years. Those who believed this theory often stated that we were nearing the end of the sixth millennium as we approached the year 2000, so that sometime around the year 2000 Christ must return. Such predictions have become much more infrequent since the year 2000 has come and gone. Yet interestingly, not all men have given up on the “Seven Millennium Theory.” It is probably past time for all to admit that this was simply a bad idea.

I find this view of the dispensations interesting, but I think anyone who has read much of my material or is familiar with my beliefs will know that I do not totally agree with this dispensational scheme. Several problems come to mind from examining it. First of all, human conscience, human government, and God’s promise to Abraham have not come to an end. Men still have a conscience, we still have human governments, and God’s promise to Abraham remains unfulfilled, awaiting Him to keep His word in the coming day when His government is established in the earth. No one can doubt that men were responsible before God for the leading of their conscience after the fall. Yet we know little about that time, and I am not certain that we can prove that this was all that God was using to govern. There is also no doubt that the right of men to governmentally take the life of a murderer began when God set this forth to Noah and his family in Genesis 9:6.

6. “Whoever sheds man’s blood,
By man his blood shall be shed;
For in the image of God
He made man.”

Yet this right was not rescinded when God gave His promise to Abraham, any more than the conscience was rescinded when God gave this instruction to Noah. It would seem that this dispensational scheme, then, defines a dispensation as being when God brings something new into the mix to govern the human race. It doesn’t mean He gets rid of what was there before, but that He adds something new on top of it. For example, He added government to conscience, then He added promise to government, and then He added law to promise. Yet from this viewpoint, the next logical step would be that He added grace to law, which would promote the idea that law-keeping is still necessary today. Is this really the case? I do not believe so. Moreover, law was not new at Sinai, nor was grace new at Pentecost. This way of looking at God’s work leaves much to be desired.

I cannot help but remember a conversation I had with a man who was the leader of the Unification Church (a group begun by Sun Myung Moon and identified by many as a cult). He had a neat little system which he had worked out which explained how the history of the church paralleled the history of ancient Israel. For example, the crowning of Constantine as emperor of the Church corresponded with the crowning of King David in the Old Testament. He used this system of correspondences between church history and the history of Israel to make the claim that the Messiah returned sometime from 1920 to 1950! In other words, he was using his parallel history scheme to try to suggest that Sun Myung Moon is the Messiah. I immediately looked on his argument as ridiculous. I couldn’t help but think, though, that there are many cases where even fundamental Bible believers can try to lay schemes much like this one over the pages of Scripture.

It might be compared to taking a sheet of paper and laying it over a page of your Bible. Then, you taking a scissors, you cut out little squares on the paper, measuring them so that the right letters on the page would be visible through the holes once you lay the paper over it. Then, when you finish, you place the paper back over the page of the Bible, and act quite amazed and excited that the letters that show through the holes spell out the very message you had been hoping they would, and you confidently proclaim that this must be a message from God. But of course the letters spell out a message. You cut the paper so that they would! So, perhaps, making little historical schemes out of the records of the Bible is no more than cutting history to fit the message you were already planning on having that history convey. This is always the danger when we try to define and categorize Scripture. In other words, we must be careful that we are pulling teaching out of the Bible, not forcing it in.

So is dispensationalism useless, then? Is it merely a make-believe system that Bible scholars have cooked up? Does it have any real relevance in the world, or to believers? I think it does, very much. I will discuss this further in future messages. I do not believe that dispensationalism is just a made-up scheme, in spite of the fact that I do not agree with what most would look at as the standard chart of dispensations. I still am a dispensationalist, and will always be so, no doubt. One reason this is so, is because “dispensation” is not just an English word, but also is the translation of a word in the Bible, a word which I believe has great significance. We must find out what this word means, for that is even more important than the meaning of the English word “dispensation.”

So what is a dispensation? In Greek, the word for “dispensation” is oikonomia. We can recognize in this word the origins of our English word “economy.” This word comes from two nouns in Greek, oikos which means “house,” and nomos which means “law.” Put together we have oikonomia or “house-law.”

I have often given the illustration that, every time I enter a “house” for the first time, one of the first things I do is seek to learn its “law” about wearing shoes or not in the house. In some houses, the rule is that there will be no shoes worn in the house, and I would be in trouble if I tried to do so. In other houses, shoes are worn in the house, and the owners would almost be insulted if I did not keep them on. Of course, besides this there are many other laws in any house: who takes out the trash, who does the laundry, do you pray before meals, and so forth.

Therefore, from its basic definition, a dispensation would be the way one who is in charge of a house rules over that house. Yet I believe, as we examine this word in Scripture, we will find that this definition is too restrictive. We learn from studying the word “dispenser” or steward that the word does not just apply to houses, but also to managing of anything else. The word for “steward” is oikonomos, and is closely related to oikonomia, as can be clearly seen. This word is used of household rulers, but it is used in a very different way in Romans 16:23b.

Erastus, the treasurer of the city, greets you, and Quartus, a brother.

Here, the word “treasurer” in the New King James Version is a translation of the Greek word oikonomos. Here, the man Erastus is called the “oikonomos of the city.” This clearly shows that the oikonomos was not just a house ruler, but also could be a ruler over a much larger group of people. Applying this lesson to the word oikonomia, we can conclude that the word “dispensation” can be applied to rule over others in many different contexts, not just that of a household. To limit it to rule over one’s own house, as some have done, does not fit with the facts.

So I believe that when we speak of a dispensation we are speaking of the way a group of people (such as a household, but not limited to a household,) are ruled or managed. As we have already discussed, the English word “dispensation” is extremely similar to “management,” and speaks of the working out of a management, a “managing,” or a method of dealing with people. When we speak of dispensations in a Biblical sense, we are usually talking about dispensations of God, although the word is not used exclusively for God’s dispensations in the pages of Scripture.

Now that we have studied out the meanings of both the word “dispensation” in English and the word oikonomia in the Greek Bible, it is time to move on to the pages of Scripture, and examine what it has to say about dispensations. Only from God’s Word can we learn the truth that God would have for us regarding dispensational things. We will commence a study of the word oikonomia in Scripture in our next lesson.