The English word "dispensation" is not used in modern speech or writing, but for one context: a small minority of conservative Protestant churches, where it is used to nullify broad portions of Scripture. It is the noun form of the verb "dispense" which according to the Oxford English Dictionary means to distribute by weight, or more generally to distribute from a common stock, first in 1374. The verb is used in modern American speech only to refer to the distribution of controlled pharmaceutical substances in stores licensed for that purpose. Around the time the King James Version of the Bible (KJV) was originally translated, it also had a secondary meaning as a synonym of "suspense," a state of uncertainty, which may or may not have figured in its use in the Bible at that time.

The word occurs only in its noun form, and only four times in the KJV, in three Pauline epistles, where it always translates the Greek word 'oikonomia' which is the primary activity of an 'oikonomos' (steward or butler) in the performance of his duties. The same Greek noun occurs a total of seven times in the Bible, the other three in the Luke 16 parable of the Dishonest Steward, and the KJV correctly translates it there as "stewardship." I do not know of any modern English translation where the word "dispensation" is used, probably because the translators -- every one of them -- knows what the English word means in a conservative Protestant church context, and there is no Greek or Hebrew word or phrase that has that meaning. They mostly use a modern English word like "management" or "administration" (or the slightly archaic "stewardship") to translate 'oikonomia.' I found one (unsigned) website (compellingtruth.org) apparently accepting the idea of dispensations as authoritative, but admits

Dispensationalism is not a biblical concept, nor is it found anywhere in the Bible. It is a theological system of organizing and understanding God's work, but it is not itself Scripture.

The theological definition of the word came from the teachings of J.N. (for John Nelson) Darby, an Anglican priest who broke away some two centuries ago to found the Plymouth Bretheren denomination (but like many of his contemporaneous colleagues founding other sects, he rejected the notion of denominations, see the note in my book review "Muscle and a Shovel"). One description I saw seemed to suggest that Darby thought of his dispensations as defined periods of time when God distributed His revelation and salvation to different groups of people and in different manners, but that's not how its adherents use the word today. When I hear the word today -- and I heard it several times last week -- it always is used as a device to nullify the plain teaching of Scripture, as in "that's a different dispensation, so it's not applicable to us today." Jesus had rather harsh words [Mark 7:13] for the Pharisees who did that kind of thing in his day, and I don't want to be a party to it.

I do not deny that there are parts of Scripture written to and for people other than myself, and therefore not relevant to me today. There is a large body of text in the Torah dealing with the ceremonies and sacrifices associated with Temple worship. It was written for the Jewish people at a time when they had a temple or tabernacle to do it in. Jesus and Paul and the early Apostolic church leadership all tell us clearly that those are not applicable to us Gentiles, nor even to Jews after the Resurrection. But that does not encompass everything in the Torah or Old Testament, nor even most of it. What God told Noah obviously applies to all his descendants, including us Gentiles in the Church, as the letter from the Apostles in Jerusalem made clear in Acts 15:29 when they reconfirmed it. Some of what God told Noah cancelled what looks like an assumption since the days of Adam, about eating meat, but He insisted that blood is not to be included, and the Apostolic letter in Acts reconfirmed that. I know of no dispensationalist who preserves that Apostolic prohibition; perhaps they further subdivide the Church Age so as to exempt us from that rule.

It is pretty clear that the Apostle Paul distinguishes the Jewish ceremonial laws from the moral laws of the Torah. The ceremonial laws -- circumcision, special holy days, kosher dietary rules and the like -- he "nailed to the cross" [Col.2:14] but then in the same context he goes on to list a whole bunch of rules (pretty much all of it restating rules in the Old Testament) that are still expected of all Christians everywhere. He does the same thing in his letter to Galatia, but most preachers stop at 5:12 when they preach against the Law, and neglect to mention in that context the immediately following lists of Do's and Don'ts as coming from that same Law of Moses, yet not at all disparaged by the Apostle.

A Pharisee came to Jesus and asked how to be saved. Jesus did not tell him to pray a magical sequence of words or walk down the sawdust aisle at a revival meeting, but rather Jesus gave him a pair of Commandments, direct quotations from the Torah, one of which we now know as the Golden Rule (GR). He gave his Disciples "a new commandment," which was nothing more than a strengthening of the GR he had already quoted to the Pharisee. When Paul told the Galatians that the Law of Moses was a "schoolmaster," he clearly meant that it taught us what we should already know from the GR, so that we therefore do not need a long list of rules to do The Right Thing. But in case you still need long lists, here they are again. Only the ceremonial parts of the Law were cancelled. They are (were) for Jews, not us (Gentile) Christians.

It's not particular periods of time as the Dispensationalists want us to believe, but rather that the sacrificial stuff is there to help us understand how important holiness is to God, while the rest of the Law is still the only way people can operate in the presence of, and under the authority of God, and it won't change, not even in Heaven. If you were to mistreat people (violate the GR)  in Heaven, it wouldn't be Heaven for them, would it? And God still gets First Place in Heaven, as He should be getting here on earth, it's His right and due as Creator today as in the time of Moses and the time of Adam alike. That includes the atheists, but as in the parable, for those who say "we will not have this man to rule over us" [Luke 19:14], God has lovingly prepared a place where He does not rule over them. The words were slightly different when Jesus told about it, but I think that is the sense there.

Yes, there are differences between the time before Pentecost and the time after, where (as Jesus tells us) "the least in the Kingdom is greater than John the Baptist" who was the greatest in the pre-Kingdom. But I think that difference affects how we work with the Commandments -- specifically the GR -- but the Commandments themselves have not changed. God saved by grace throughout all time: "Noah found grace in the eyes of the LORD," and "Abraham believed in the LORD and it was accounted to him for righteousness." The mechanism of salvation has not changed, only that we look backward to the Cross, while they (implicitly) looked forward to what they did not yet understand. We, the Christians after Pentecost, have more help to live the same righteous life that was and is properly expected of all people everywhere and in all time.

The bottom line is that "All Scripture is God-breathed and is useful for teaching, rebuking, correcting and training in righteousness, so that the man of God may be thoroughly equipped for every good work." There are no large chunks of it that are totally worthless except as answers usable only in a trivia contest. Jesus and Paul never said nor implied nor exemplified in their own lives and teaching, that history and/or Scripture is or can be divided up into periods of time or "dispensations" all but one of which are largely irrelevant to us as to how we should live our lives. Some parts are not written to me today -- like the Jewish ceremonial law, like Revelation (which was written to a church under persecution, and is mostly unintelligible to us at peace in America), even the instructions about the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil, which tree does not exist here on earth at this time -- but that does not mean (for example) that the command given to Adam to "fill the earth and subdue it" does not continue to be generally relevant to us as stewards over God's property, as if for no other reason than it happened to be given before the Fall and before the Resurrection. God does not change over time, and using other words to say He does, does not make it so.

The Four KJV Verses

I think it reasonable, perhaps even helpful, to look specifically at the four verses where J.N.Darby found the word "dispensation" in his Bible, and to see if there is any way they can be reasonably stretched to encompass his teaching about that word. Here they are in the NIV, which is a pretty good translation, using modern words in their modern sense, so the text really means what it looks like it means, and I underlined the words that effectively translate the sense of the Greek word Darby saw as "dispensation":

1Co.9:17 If I preach voluntarily, I have a reward; if not voluntarily, I am simply discharging the trust committed to me.

There is nothing here about dividing time up into periods mostly not relevant to our lives. Paul has been given a job to do, and he's happy to work on it, not only because God said to, but also because it's a good thing to do.
[Eph.1:9 And he made known to us the mystery of his will according to his good pleasure, which he purposed in Christ,]
Eph.1:10 to be put into effect when the times will have reached their fulfillment--to bring all things in heaven and on earth together under one head, even Christ.
OK, this one offers a particular time in the future when Jesus will take over his prophesied role as King of the Universe, and that time isn't yet, so maybe there's a division and a difference between now and after that future glorious event, but there is nothing here in support of finding other such divisions in the past.
Eph.3:2 Surely you have heard about the administration of God's grace that was given to me for you,
[Eph.3:3 that is, the mystery made known to me by revelation, as I have already written briefly.]
Perhaps a pious Anglican priest like Darby might see the "administration of God's grace" as something like the "dispensing of the Sacraments" in a high-church Anglican mass, or (I think more likely) he already saw what Paul did in preaching the gospel and writing letters to the churches in various cities as a particular ministry given to Paul, but I do not see how he could have confused that with a period of time starting some time after the birth of Jesus in Bethlehem and ending with his second (or third) coming as suggested by the "Dispensation of Grace" phrase lifted by his followers from the KJV translation of this verse, of which the Greek text offers not the slightest hint.
Col.1:25 I have become its servant by the commission God gave me to present to you the word of God in its fullness--
[Col.1:26 the mystery that has been kept hidden for ages and generations, but is now disclosed to the saints.]
There are a lot of parallel passages between the letter to the Colossians and the similar letter traditionally associated with the Ephesian church (but probably originally intended to be read in all the churches Tychicus visited on his way from Rome to Colossae with the runaway slave Onesimus being returned to his owner Philemon, compare Eph.6:21 to Col.4:8,9,16), and this is one of them. God has given Paul a particular job to do, explaining to all believers the recent teachings of God that make sense only after the Resurrection. That divides the past from the present, not so much to disallow reading and accepting as binding the teachings of the past (as Paul clearly repudiates elsewhere), but rather to acknowledge that we also have new teachings, which God's people in former times would not have understood, so those teachings weren't given then. Paul admits here to having been given the job of explaining these new teachings.

Is there anything here or anywhere else in Scripture about history -- or specifically Scripture as a record of what was taught in historical times -- being divided into temporal segments so that we can and should subdivide our reading of Scripture into "relevant, applies to our dispensation" and "some other dispensation, irrelevant to us today"? I know of none. I knew of none more than 60 years ago, when as a teenager I first began to realize that the denomination I grew up in was teaching traditions I did not see in Scripture; and I never saw any reason to believe otherwise in the course of my life as a result of more than a dozen readings through Scripture; and now today, after careful study, I still cannot find any such evidence. But if I ever did find that evidence (with or without the help of other persons), I would need to switch sides. I do that, but less and less often over the years as I continually adjust my belief system to conform to the better understanding of Scripture each time.

So what can I do about this problem, this teaching doctrines of men as if they were the revealed Word of God? God did not give me the task of reforming His Church, so I need to find -- as indeed I can find, in this very pluralistic country I live in -- some place to worship where the disconnect is minimal. By God's grace, I have been able to do that, often more through Providence than intentional searching. If the pastor here gets it into his head that it is his responsibility to preach against that heretic Tom (rather than continuing to preach only what he reads in Scripture, as he has from the pulpit these last not-quite three years) then I might find it necessary to take that as his invitation to find some other place of Christian fellowship. I will not fight a pastor in his own church, no matter how wrong his theology. The necessity to move to another church in the same area has happened more than once in my life, and I hope not again, but those choices are mostly forced on me by other people and I accept that.

The preaching in this church rotates between the pastor and three of his deacons. The pastor and two of his deacons preach the text in front of them, and I think that's wonderful; the other guy preaches what he knows to be true, even if it's not in the text he has chosen to have read to us. That runs the risk that it's not in any part of Scripture (like when he preaches Relationshipism, which he does from time to time), and I can tune out the one Sunday out of three or six or ten when it happens. God be praised! It's not often. The pastor's teaching to the men on Saturdays is more like that third deacon's preaching, what he knows to be true, often without even opening his Bible. I don't need to go to these Saturday men's meetings, and for a long time I didn't. But perhaps they noticed and arranged for a regular men's chorus rehearsal to follow immediately, so to sucker me in. I like to sing God's praise, and that happens less in this church's Sunday services (see my blog posts on CCM) than in other churches I have been in, but that's not why I'm here.

Tom Pittman
2019 October 28,31