Does Dispensationalism Hurt the Church?
Not too long ago while I was on social media I stumbled across a quote by a Christian cultural apologist who said, “Wherever dispensationalism has gained ground, Christian culture has lost ground.” Although the claim that dispensationalism has hurt the church is not new, it was interesting to see how much agreement the post garnered in the comments. Some commenters labeled dispensationalism as the worst heresy the church has seen. Others said dispensationalism is a damnable heresy which has single-handedly lost the American culture war. In this post I would like to analyze the argument that dispensationalism itself is dangerous and responsible for the cultural loss we see in Western culture today.
What is Dispensationalism?
As I have written elsewhere, it is unfortunately common for people to wrongly attribute heretical beliefs to dispensationalism which are not inherently a part of the system. Dispensationalism should simply be viewed as a set of doctrinal beliefs that deal with hermeneutics, ecclesiology, and eschatology. More specifically, a dispensationalist believes:
- that the Old Testament must be interpreted within its own context.
- there is a distinction between Israel and the Church.
- there is a future for ethnic Israel.
- that the promises made to ethnic Israel will have a literal, future fulfillment in the Millennial Kingdom.
These core beliefs are what I would identify as the essential beliefs of the dispensationalist (see here for other similar lists of dispensational distinctives). Which of these elements is viewed as causing harm to the culture?
The Hurt Caused by Dispensational Eschatology
When most people talk how dispensationalism hurts the church, they are referring to the dispensational eschatological expectation that the world will get worse and worse, with the church being removed before the end. It is true that many dispensationalists believe in a pretribulational rapture, meaning that the church will be raptured out of the world while God judges the world during a seven year tribulation. It should be noted that although the belief in a pretribulational rapture (the removal of the church prior to the tribulation) is held by most dispenationalists, there are those who identify as dispensational who do not believe in the pretribulational rapture. Yet, dispensationalism and a pretribulational rapture are often equated.
Dispensationalists are accused of having an “escapist” outlook on life, and a pessimistic view of the future. Because dispensationalists “know” the world is going to get worse anyway, they are said to embrace shallow Christianity, only focusing on “getting people saved” without seeing any need for growth or fortitude. According to this characterization, depth of conviction and discipleship have little value to the dispensationalist since the church will be removed from the world soon.
Thus, dispensationalists either don’t care about the culture, or else are motivated to focus elsewhere because they believe they are fighting an unwinnable war. According to Doug Wilson and Gary DeMar, for example, the short-term thinking of dispensationalism is itself responsible for the acceptance of gay marriage and abortion.
The Issue of Consistency in Evaluating the Cultures
Setting aside exegetical and interpretive arguments about Scripture for a moment, how would one prove or disprove the above argumentation? Perhaps we could look at other countries, like the UK or Germany, which have very limited dispensational influence, and compare them to America. Both the UK and Germany have robust Christian histories, yet both have secularized dramatically without the alleged dastardly influence of dispensational theology.
Rather than comparing dispensational and non-dispensational countries, we could just analyze the moral shifts in America itself. Everyone acknowledges that there has been a dispensational resurgence in the religious landscape of America, thanks to the Left Behind book series, which first came into publication in 1995. Although I am not a fan of the book series, and know of no serious dispensationalist which holds to the exact theology found in those books, one cannot deny they are popular and influential! Therefore, one could argue that it is this rise of dispensationalism in the 1990s and 200s which has contributed to the rise in pro-life support. In fact the current young generation is labeled by some as the “most pro-life generation ever.”
Of course, I would not be so foolhardy to attribute this pro-life resurgence to the resurgence of dispensationalism. But that is because I recognize there are multiple cultural influences at work. But, in the same sense, why lay the blame of gay marriage or any other cultural problem at the feet of the supposed-faulty eschatology of dispensationalism? By that logic, dispensationalism might be responsible for the improvement of culture in some areas, but it is not. It is very difficult (probably impossible) to prove that dispensationalism itself is responsible for cultural shifts, either positively or negatively.
The Question of Motivation for the Dispensationalist
The entire argument seems to rest on a misunderstanding of the motivation of a dispensationalist. Detractors would say that the imminent return of Christ demotivates a dispensationalist. The dispensationalist is not future-oriented because he believes Jesus will come back and wipe out everything he has been doing. I suppose it is possible there may be churches that teach that. There have been churches that have participated in communion with skittles and ice tea after all, so anything is possible!
I will certainly admit the logical possibility that individual dispensationalists (or even whole churches) could shirk their duty of obedience. But, every dispensational church I have been a part of has focused on being obedient to Christ because we will be accountable to Him when He returns. For example, in the Parable of the Talents (Matt 25:14-30) the Master goes on a journey and upon His return, He either rewards or punishes His servants on the basis of their faithfulness. The dispensationalist is extremely motivated to serve and obey the commands of Christ because the Master could come back at any time. There is no time to slack!
Additionally, every dispensationalist that I know holds to the applicability of 2 Thessalonians 3:6-15 which clearly teaches the necessity of hard work and faithfulness to the Lord. The motivation for the dispensationalist is not to create a legacy or be a part of some great historical movement, but to be faithful to the Lord and hear the words, “Well done, good and faithful servant…. Enter into the joy of your Master.”
The Analogy of Baptism
This argument—namely, that dispensationalism hurts the church by dampening motivation and causing Christians to focus only on salvation—has an analogy in the issue of paedobaptism. Many have argued against Reformed paedobaptism because they claim it provides a false assurance to children that they are right with God, when, apart from a profession of faith, they will spend eternity in hell. Now, it is certainly true that a child may take false assurance from their baptism. However, we would be foolhardy indeed to argue that it is a logical necessity for the practice of Reformed paedobaptism to result in false assurance for children. A godly church and godly parents would take great pains to prohibit that from happening. Yet children do grow up with false assurances of salvation. Not because of baptism per se, but because of liberal, nominal Christianity which is rampant in not just Presbyterian denominations, but all denominations.
There are many non-believers both attending and pastoring churches today. This includes dispensational churches! If dispensationalism is one of the most popular beliefs of American Christianity, then the presence of false believers within dispensationalism would surprise no one. The larger the pool of people you are drawing from, the more often false believers will be mixed in with believers. But, one needs to be careful drawing a connection between dispensationalism as a system, and those who claim to be dispensationalists. A belief in dispensationalism does not logically necessitate nominal, weak Christianity. We usually rightly shy away from making these false comparisons on other theological issues, like paedobaptism. We normally recognize that there is a complexity of factors which influences a situation. One would hope the same curtesy would be given to dispensationalism.
The Problem is Nominal (Cultural) Christianity, not Dispensationalism
To portray dispensationalism as the reason there is cultural decline is a bit bizarre. There are so many other verifiable reasons for the demise of Western culture which have explanatory power beyond dispensational camps and outside of American borders. For example, Ligonier Ministries and LifeWay research have some intriguing statistics about what Christians belief at their State of Theology website. As an example of the pitiful state of “Christianity” (in reality, pseudo-Christianity) in America, you may be surprised to find out that 62% of Christians (across all denominations) believe Jesus is the first and greatest created being! Even Evangelicals don’t fare much better, with 56% believing the same thing! So, the majority of Christians believe Jesus is a created being! Clearly American Christianity has deeper problems than dispensationalism.
In the video I cited earlier, where Wilson and DeMar say the eschatological expectation inherent in dispensationalism is responsible for the short-term living, there is a major inconsistency. Later in the video (~15m), Wilson says that many people do the right thing even with wrong eschatology. He then goes on to explain that having the right eschatology simply has to do with having better morale and being more optimistic. So, according to Wilson, at the end of the day a dispensationalist, a postmillennialist, and an amillenialist will actually all do the same thing—it is just they believe in a different future and outcome of their actions. Well, that brings us full circle! That is what the whole debate is about—what will happen in the future! We can and should debate about that as we work through hermeneutical issues and specific texts. But let’s stop arguing that dispensationalism hurts the church by promoting less than full obedience to Christ. It is an unproveable and unhelpful assertion.
Good article. One significant positive of Dispensationalism is the adherence to Biblical inerrancy despite the almost co-incidental rise in liberalism. From a purely personal POV, they also seem to most consistently create healthy and effective church bodies and mission efforts. Was has hurt their witness has been their eschatology. I agree that ethnic Israel still have a place in God’s plans, but the very specific plan popularized by Hal Lindsey is without a sound historical, chronological, or biblical foundation. The supporting chronological foundation provided by Dr. Hoehner is deeply flawed and contrived. And Dr. Hoehner’s translation/meaning of John 2:20 is not to be found in any Bible translation. When is this going to be corrected?
Wow! Dispensationalism is the only correct view and in association with premillennialism, Christian Zionism, and fundamentalism are what God desires us to be. After all, He is the Head of all those positions and His word teaches all those truths as He established and ordained them. So sad that supposed believers could think that any of the views is damnable. That is in opposition to the Scriptures and negates God’s word.
Good article. While I hold to the core 4 points a Dispensationalist believes, Christians through the ages, including me, have held to these beliefs with out claiming D. Which point questions the need for another synthetic system at all. In some ways it seems D. was a reaction to the inorganic system of Covenant Theology. Why didn’t those who saw C. errors just address those failings instead of devising the equally synthetic system of D. as a rival? Why place another artificial grid upon the bible when it seems hardly necessary? To me there are better and more organic understandings of the big picture of the bible than either of those overly complicated systems. Basic organic understandings which leaves some latitude in places of questionable points seems better.
Good points. I think myself and other dispensationalists would try to arrive at our conclusions working from the text rather than using dispensationalism as a grid or framework through which we interpret other passages. Admittedly though, everyone is influenced by their prior understandings of other passages when they come to new passages. That’s why frameworks are almost inescapable. Yet, the problem with many dispensationalists is exactly that–trying to use a systematic framework to answer and account for every text rather than working from the text and assessing it on its own merits. I definitely applaud those who are able to keep themselves largely outside of systems of interpretation!
Typo on email
Thanks Peter. Well written