Pastor Michael W. Harding (M.Div., Th.M.)
In part 1 we looked at how dispensationalism best dealt with Biblical truth. We turn now to how dispensationalism protects against deviations from the true gospel.
6. Dispensationalism presents the best defense against heresy because of its consistent, literal-normal use of hermeneutics.
Covenant systems regularly resort to allegorization, sensus plenior, or figurative interpretation of prophetic literature to uphold the generic church, i.e., the one people of God in the outworking of the one covenant of grace (Gen 3:15). Where a consistent, literal-normal hermeneutic is employed heresy is prevented. No true dispensationalist can be a liberal in theology. Spiritualizing or explaining away the original meaning of Scripture is the foundation for liberal, neo-orthodox thinking. The false implications of Covenant Theology are that the Church must go through the Tribulation (i.e., “The one people of God”), that there is no necessary future for Israel nationally, the Church in some sense is still under the Mosaic Law, and that the mission of the Church includes elements of Reconstructionism.
7. Dispensationalism best protects the spirituality of the NT Church.
This was the primary historical impetus for the rise of dispensationalism. The Church is not a political body or a mechanism for social justice. It is an institution created by God to declare the whole truth of God as revealed in His Word and to compel its members to profess and obey His Word. Certainly, the Church should remind its members of their civic duties to government, their neighbors, employees and employers. The Church should identify and condemn public vice and promote civic virtue (Gal 6:10). Church members are not barred from serving in government, the military, or other civic offices, since they are also citizens of the state. The Church is not bound to be silent in the civil arena. Nevertheless, spiritual matters are the proper purview of the Church. As members of the Church we have spiritual and theological responsibilities; as members of the State we have civic responsibilities which are informed by our spiritual values.
Dispensationalists keep these arenas in separate categories. Unlike OT Israel we render unto Caesar the things that are Caesar’s and unto God the things that are God’s (Matt 22:21; Mk 12:17). The Church is not a new administration of the one people of God. It is a people of God distinct in identity from national Israel with unique origins, purposes, and destinies (Rom 11; Eph 2).
Dispensationalism helps to protect both the constituency of the Church and its mission in the world. Evangelist J. Nelson Darby in 1826 broke with the corrupt Anglican Church of England when his superior ordered all of Darby’s converts to make oaths of allegiance to the British Crown as a prerequisite for membership in the state church. This was a betrayal of the church’s spiritual mission and constituency. James Hall Brookes, the father of American dispensationalism and Presbyterian pastor of a “border church” during the Civil War, resisted the loyalty oaths or “Test Oath” demanding allegiance to the Union as a prerequisite for preaching and teaching. This historical atmosphere provided the incubation for the growth of American dispensationalism in the decades ahead.
8. Dispensationalism provides the best antidote to the social gospel.
A dispensational view of the Kingdom of God prevents those social, political elements of the mediatorial Kingdom from becoming part of the mission of the Church. God always rules over His Universal Kingdom. Nevertheless, His Universal Kingdom is not the same as the Mediatorial Kingdom. Nor is the Church the mediatorial Kingdom. The confusion of these entities confounds the mission of the Church and opens the door to the social gospel.
In Modernism the Church does not exist to secure converts per se with the gospel, but to materially facilitate the Kingdom of God and redeem all of creation. The Church’s role in Modernism was to promote utopia through philanthropy, charity, public education, social justice, economic development, ecological preservation, end of oppression, and civil equality as the essence of salvation. Resistance to Walter Rauschenbusch’s golden age of utopian liberalism came from dispensational fundamentalism which distinguished the universal, eternal Kingdom from the mediatorial Kingdom and then distinguished both concepts of the Kingdom from the NT Church.
Later on, the new-evangelicalism endeavored to broaden the dispensational mission of the NT Church. Carl Henry called for middle-ground between the “kingdom now” error of liberalism and the “kingdom then” mantra of dispensational fundamentalism. Henry accused the dispensational fundamentalists of making Christianity uncompassionate, irrelevant, and hollow (Uneasy Conscience of Modern Fundamentalism, pp. 53, 57). He did so by suggesting that the mediatorial Kingdom is both “here” and “not here” in order to justify social action by the Church and make the Church relevant again. George E. Ladd made the case for Henry in his 1959 work The Gospel of the Kingdom (answered brilliantly by Alva McClain’s lifetime work The Greatness of the Kingdom). Ladd’s “already, not yet” motif of the mediatorial Kingdom supplied the theological basis for expanding the Church’s mission beyond the explicit instructions given to it by Christ and the NT apostles (cf. a thorough treatment of this subject in Mark Snoeberger’s, “A Tale of Two Kingdoms,” DBSJ 19 : 53–71; Benjamin G. Edwards’ “Being Jesus, Missio Dei, and Kingdom Work: An Analysis, Critique, and Proposal
for Modern Approaches to Holistic Ministry,” DBSJ 19 : 73–94). The result of diluting the mission of the church by including all sorts of non-spiritual matters is to “compromise the purity of Christ’s church with an endless pursuit of cultural relevancy and social acceptance” (Ibid., p. 71).
The mission of Christ was ultimately to seek and to save that which was lost—Redemption (Jn 3:16-17; 6:53-58; 10:10; 17:2). Thus, the mission of the NT Church is narrow and does not equate with all things that only God himself can do (Acts 1:8; cf. Isa 46:9-11; James 4:13-16; Col 1:17). When Jesus comes to set up His mediatorial Kingdom on earth and rule on the throne of David from Jerusalem, He will do so with a rod of iron (Rev 2:27; 19:5). Christ’s mediatorial Kingdom rule is not the paradigm for church ministry. In the synoptics when Christ offered the Kingdom (as defined by the OT prophets) to national Israel, He demonstrated through all His miracles the physical, social, political, ecclesiastical, and spiritual aspects of the KOG. Those miracles were never intended to be a model for church ministry. They were miraculous signs of power pointing to the sovereign authority of the King (Matt 12:28; Jn 10:37-38). Only God could do them. On the other hand, the NT Church is to focus on the explicit commands given to it such as worship, evangelism, discipleship, and fellowship. This is not secondary work for the Church; it is its central work for the Church and God’s central work today.
In part 3 we will consider what dispensationalism teaches concerning national Israel.
Mike Harding is the pastor of First Baptist Church of Troy, Troy, Michigan. This article is used by permission.