What is the Dispensational Berean?
In Acts chapter 17, the apostle Paul escapes from the unbelieving Jews in Thessalonica, and is taken by night into Berea. Afterwards, he enters a synagogue of the Jews in Berea. The Bible states that these Bereans were “more noble” than the Jews of Thessalonica, since they “searched the scriptures daily”…
These were more noble than those in Thessalonica, in that they received the word with all readiness of mind, and searched the scriptures daily, whether those things were so. – Acts 17:11
A Berean, then, is simply a Christian who searches the scriptures to verify whether the things he has been taught are scriptural. Sad to say, though, many Christians are not Bereans, since many of them will swallow any doctrine that is taught by their Church – even if there is no scriptural support for that particular doctrine. Certain “Covenant Theologians”, for example, have claimed that water baptism has replaced circumcision as the “seal” of the New Covenant. A Berean, though, will soon discover (from searching the scriptures) that such a teaching has absolutely no scriptural foundation whatsoever. So a Berean, in view of Acts 17:11, is simply a Christian who allows the scriptures alone to be the final authority. A true Berean will not accept any teaching that has no scriptural foundation.
And just what is Dispensationalism?
In a nutshell, Dispensationalism is based upon a separation between Israel and the church – scriptures which were written exclusively to Israel do not apply to the church today, and scriptures written to the church do not apply to Israel. The church today is not “spiritual Israel”, and cannot claim promises which the Lord made to Israel alone (such as His promise to give Israel an earthly kingdom; see Mt. 5:5, in which the Lord quoted from Psalms 37:11; see also Deut. 28:1 and Zech. 14:17). Even though non-Dispensationalists also admit that certain Old Testament commandments no longer apply to believers today (such as the Old Testament sacrifices and dietary laws), these non-Dispensationalists do not go so far as to separate the church today from Israel.
Take, for example, the belief in a pre-trib “rapture”. This is a Dispensational concept, because it is based upon a distinction between Israel and the church. This teaching, based on 1 Thessalonians 4:13 through 5:10, states that there will come a time when believers who are alive will be “caught up together” with “the dead in Christ” to meet the Lord in the air, prior to the “day of the Lord”. That future day of the Lord is the same “day” that was prophesied to be a day of “destruction from the Almighty” in the Old Testament scriptures, as in Joel 1:15 –
Alas for the day! for the day of the LORD is at hand, and as a destruction from the Almighty shall it come.
According to 1 Thess. 4:15 through 5:3, it is only after we are all “caught up together…in the clouds, to meet the Lord in the air” that “they” (i.e., anyone who is left, including those of Israel referred to in Joel 1:15) shall say, “Peace and safety”, and the “destruction” of Joel 1:15 shall suddenly come upon “them”, “as travail upon a woman with child; and they shall not escape” (1 Thessalonials 5:3). Here is the entire passage of 1 Thessalonians 4:13 through 5:10 –
13: But I would not have you to be ignorant, brethren, concerning them which are asleep, that ye sorrow not, even as others which have no hope. 14: For if we believe that Jesus died and rose again, even so them also which sleep in Jesus will God bring with him. 15: For this we say unto you by the word of the Lord, that we which are alive and remain unto the coming of the Lord shall not prevent them which are asleep. 16: For the Lord himself shall descend from heaven with a shout, with the voice of the archangel, and with the trump of God: and the dead in Christ shall rise first: 17: Then we which are alive and remain shall be caught up together with them in the clouds, to meet the Lord in the air: and so shall we ever be with the Lord. 18: Wherefore comfort one another with these words.
1: But of the times and the seasons, brethren, ye have no need that I write unto you. 2: For yourselves know perfectly that the day of the Lord so cometh as a thief in the night. 3: For when they shall say, Peace and safety; then sudden destruction cometh upon them, as travail upon a woman with child; and they shall not escape. 4: But ye, brethren, are not in darkness, that that day should overtake you as a thief. 5: Ye are all the children of light, and the children of the day: we are not of the night, nor of darkness. 6: Therefore let us not sleep, as do others; but let us watch and be sober. 7: For they that sleep sleep in the night; and they that be drunken are drunken in the night. 8: But let us, who are of the day, be sober, putting on the breastplate of faith and love; and for an helmet, the hope of salvation. 9: For God hath not appointed us to wrath, but to obtain salvation by our Lord Jesus Christ, 10: Who died for us, that, whether we wake or sleep, we should live together with him.
Dispensationalists believe the above events are in chronological order: after “we which are alive and remain” are caught up (“raptured”) with the dead in Christ to meet the Lord in the air, the “day of the Lord” of 1 Thess. 5:2 will occur, along with the sudden destruction” of verse 3, which matches the “destruction from the Almighty” that occurs during the “day of the LORD” in Joel 1:15.
And yet, even though a belief in a pre-trib “rapture” is a Dispensational concept, this belief is also shared by some who would otherwise ascribe to “Covenant Theology”. Indeed, there are many individuals who actually mix Dispensational Theology with Covenant Theology. For example, the Lutheran Church and the Presbyterian Church both ascribe to Covenant Theology (they believe the church in the New Testament can claim the promises made to Israel in the Old Testament), and neither Church officially endorses a pre-trib “rapture”. Yet many members of those Churches still believe in the Dispensational concept of a pre-trib “rapture”, regardless of what their Churches “officially” teach. And most of these members probably don’t even realize this is a Dispensational concept!
So there is more to Dispensationalism than just recognizing the distinction between Israel and the church, as illustrated by the fact that many non-Dispensationalists also believe in a pre-trib “rapture”. A direct consequence of recognizing this distinction is the Dispensational practice of dividing the scriptures into different periods of time, or dispensations. Earlier scriptures that were written to Israel (such as our Old Testament) are viewed as “Jewish” scriptures, and certain Greek (New Testament) scriptures that were written later are viewed as “Church” scriptures.
Plus, since many Old Testament prophecies concerning Israel have not yet been fulfilled, a further division is made in these “Jewish” scriptures between fulfilled scripture and unfulfilled prophecy, with scriptures concerning the present-day church being placed between the two. The point in the book of Acts when the present church began will correspond with the same point in time when scriptures concerning Israel temporarily ceased to be fulfilled. For example, those who believe the church began in Acts chapter 2 would be considered “Acts 2 Dispensationalists”, because they believe those scriptures concerning Israel temporarily ceased to be fulfilled in Acts chapter 2, when the Lord began the present church. Likewise, “mid-Acts Dispensationalists” believe those scriptures which applied to Israel continued to be fulfilled up until some point in the mid-Acts period, at which point they ceased and the present church began. And “Acts 28 Dispensationalists” believe those scriptures which applied to Israel continued to be fulfilled all the way up until Acts 28 (or shortly thereafter), when the present church began.
Yet all of the above-mentioned Dispensationalists generally agree that once the church is “raptured”, prophecy concerning Israel will again begin to be fulfilled.
Recognizing a distinction between Israel and the church also results in a tendency for many Dispensationalists (and even non-Dispensationalists) to view a dispensation as a specific period of time; although that is more of a “broad” definition. But all Dispensationalists do tend to take a more literal view of the scriptures (especially concerning prophecies which pertain to Israel), while Covenant Theologians tend to spiritualize these Old Testament promises (one direct result of Covenant Theology is the denial that the Kingdom will be established at the second coming of Christ).
Although the most accurate definition of a Dispensationalist is a Christian who makes a distinction between Israel and the present-day church, the term “Dispensationalist” has taken on a negative connotation in some Christian circles, due to various misrepresentations of what it is that we actually believe. As a result, even some Dispensationalists do not apply the term to themselves, either out of ignorance over what constitutes a “true” Dispensationalist, or out of embarrassment from the negative connotations associated with the word (or out of both ignorance and embarrassment).
So, even though there are varying degrees of dispensationalism, and numerous opinions as to what constitutes a “true” dispensationalist, our common doctrine centers around the belief that the church is not “Spiritual Israel”. Therefore, even many diverse groups such as Methodists and Baptists contain Dispensationalists, since neither denomination requires its member churches to teach that the church is “Spiritual Israel”. Likewise, there are numerous Pentecostal churches that are dispensational, as well.
And Dispensationalism is indeed a scriptural concept – the apostle Paul stated that a dispensation of the gospel was committed unto him in 1 Cor. 9:17; he stated that the dispensation of the grace of God was given to him in Eph. 3:2, and he stated that the dispensation of God was given to him in Col. 1:25. And because Paul makes a distinction between Israel and the church in numerous passages, Dispensationalists realize Israel and the church are two separate entities.
To summarize, opinions differ widely among Dispensationalists as to when the church actually began, so we often distinguish ourselves from other dispensationalists, who hold to a different starting point for the church. The most common method for doing so is to label ourselves according to the chapter of the book of Acts in which we believe the modern church (the body of Christ) began:
1. “Traditional” Dispensationalists: Christians who believe the body of Christ began some time between the birth of Christ and Acts chapter 2 (on the day of Pentecost) are generally referred to as Traditional Dispensationalists, among whom there are also several subcategories. Acts 2 Dispensationalists, for example, believe the church started in Acts chapter 2, on the Day of Pentecost. The Baptist, Methodist, and Pentecostal organizations all contain Traditional Dispensational churches.
2. Mid Acts Dispensationalists: Christians who believe the body of Christ did not begin until Paul was saved are referred to as Mid Acts Dispensationalists. Since Paul was saved in Acts chapter 9 (considered to be the Mid Acts Period), and his first recorded sermon is in Acts chapter 13 (which is still in the Mid Acts period), these brethren may differ among themselves as to exactly when the body of Christ began (some believe it began in Acts chapter 9; some believe it began in Acts chapter 11; some believe it began in Acts chapter 13). However, Mid Acts Dispensationalists generally believe that Paul was the first member of the body of Christ. As a result, they associate the present body of Christ with the dispensation of grace which was given to the apostle Paul (Eph.3:2; Col.1:25).
So Mid Acts Dispensationalists, in general, also teach that the body of Christ could not have been in existence before this dispensation of grace began (although this is not a required belief). Men such as Charles F. Baker and C. R. Stam are examples of Mid Acts Dispensationalists.
3. Acts 28 Dispensationalists: Christians who believe the present church did not begin until after Paul wrote his Acts epistles (Romans, 1&2 Corinthians, Galatians, and 1&2 Thessalonians) are referred to as Acts 28 Dispensationalists. Like most Mid Acts Dispensationalists, the Acts 28 Dispensationalists also believe that Paul was the first member of the body of Christ. Consequently, Acts 28 Dispensationalists will also associate the present body of Christ with the dispensation of grace, which was given to the apostle Paul (Eph.3:2; Col.1:25).
However, not only do the Acts 28 Dispensationalists teach that the body of Christ could not have existed before Paul was saved; they also believe that much of Paul’s early doctrine (which is found in his Acts epistles) is different from the later doctrine found in his Prison epistles (Ephesians, Philippians, and Colossians). Consequently, these brethren also believe that Paul’s early doctrine was different from the doctrine contained in his Pastoral epistles (1&2 Timothy, Titus, and Philemon).
Like the Mid Acts Dispensationalists, then, the Acts 28 Dispensationalists also believe the body of Christ could not have begun before the present dispensation of grace. The Acts 28 dispensationalists, though, believe Paul was a minister of the New Covenant during the Acts period, when he wrote his epistles to the Romans, Corinthians, Galatians, and Thessalonians. Based upon this belief, they teach that those Gentiles who believed during the Acts period stand to receive the New Covenant promises of Israel, when she comes into her own inheritance.
Plus, Acts 28 Dispensationalists also teach that the heavenly inheritance of the present church was not revealed until after Paul wrote his Acts epistles. Based upon this teaching, they believe that once the Acts period ended, anyone who believed Paul’s revelation stood to receive a heavenly inheritance, even if they were saved during the Acts dispensation. They base this teaching upon their belief that one’s calling dictates one’s inheritance. Men such as E. W. Bullinger (famous for his Companion Bible) and Charles H. Welch are examples of Acts 28 Dispensationalists.
Although many dispensationalists are stereotyped by our rejection of such practices as water baptism and speaking in tongues, this stereotype is not true of every dispensationalist. Baptists and Methodists, for example, still practice water baptism, and numerous Pentecostals practice both speaking in tongues and water baptism. But within this wide range of believers, those who are dispensational do not believe the church is “Spiritual Israel”. However, most Christians who belong to one of these groups (or denominations) would not consider themselves to be dispensationalists. Instead, they would consider themselves to be Baptists, Methodists, etc.
Why, then, are most dispensationalists stereotyped by our rejection of water baptism and speaking in tongues? Usually, this is a distinction that we ascribe to ourselves, since the term “dispensational” most accurately describes our own theological approach to the scriptures. Therefore, not every dispensationalist is going to agree with every statement on this Web Site. However, those who recognize Paul’s distinct apostleship to the Gentiles will agree with most of the points we do set forth here.
In addition, there are other distinctions that dispensationalists make among themselves, as well:
4. Pauline Dispensationalists focus upon the heavenly inheritance of the church.
10/4/09 Update: It has been brought to my attention that an eariler statement I made here was inaccurate, and I would like to correct it at this point: I had previously stated that Pauline Dispensationalists “all” agree the body of Christ began with the apostle Paul. That statement was incorrect. There is also a group of Acts 2 Dispensationalists who recognize the heavenly inheritance of the believer in this present dispensation. For example, one well-known Pauline Dispensationalist was the Late Acts 2 Dispensationalist Miles Stanford. His web site has a page on Pauline Dispensationalism, at withchrist.org, where he states that “…the Church that Paul presents is heavenly—her Source is in heaven, although her birth took place on earth on the Day of Pentecost.” So, I will amend my earlier statement to say that both the mid-Acts and Acts 28 camps are also Pauline Dispensationalists; these groups simply disagree among themselves as to exactly when the church began. (Please Note: This does not mean that the Lord Jesus could not be a member of His Own body, as certain opponents have wrongly concluded. Such an allegation is nothing more than a misrepresentation of Pauline beliefs. Paul himself states that he “laid the foundation”, Which is none other than the Lord Jesus Christ [1 Cor. 3:10-11]; and others built upon that foundation. Likewise, he states that the Lord Himself is the chief corner stone, being “the foundation of the apostles and prophets” [Eph. 2:20]. This does not mean that Christ was not a member of His Own body; rather, it simply means that the body of Christ – which is a spiritual body [1 Cor. 12:13; Eph. 4:4) – could not have existed before Paul laid the foundation.) In any case, Pauline Dispensationalists also associate the present body of Christ with the dispensation of grace which was given to the apostle Paul (Eph.3:2; Col.1:25).
5. Berean Dispensationalists, including the originator of this Web Site, endorse certain aspects contained in all of the above positions. My theology would be considered Mid Acts dispensational in nature, since I still believe that Paul alone is the apostle of the Gentiles, and I also believe that Paul was the first earthly member of the body of Christ.
Yet the Bible never actually states that Paul was the first member of the body of Christ, which is one doctrine that is firmly professed by those who ascribe to the Pauline, Mid Acts, and Acts 28 positions. As a result, while I still ascribe to the Mid-Acts position, I must also allow for the possibility that Peter, James, and John could have also become members of the body of Christ (this is known as the “12 in/out debate”). Indeed, since the scriptures themselves never specifically exclude these believers from the body of Christ, then neither should I.
Now, there has been some confusion as to exactly what I believe; so for the record, I would like to clarify my position:
It is my own personal opinion that the body of Christ actually began with Paul. After all, the Bible clearly states that the dispensation of grace was given to Paul (Eph.3:2, compare 1Cor.9:17; Col.1:25); and he was the only apostle who was ever referred to as “THE” apostle of the Gentiles (Ro.11:11-13; Ro.15:16; Eph.3:1-2; etc., compare Gal.2:7-9). However, none of this actually proves that Paul was the first member of the body of Christ. Rather, this is simply my opinion, based upon my own understanding of the scriptures.
Therefore, even though I realize the dispensation of the grace of God was given to Paul alone, and he was the one in whom Christ first shewed forth “all longsuffering” (1 Tim. 1:16), I also allow for the possibility that the body of Christ could have existed before this dispensation of grace began. Again, the scriptures never actually exclude such a possibility. And if the scriptures never specifically associate the body of Christ with the dispensation of grace, then I see no need to do so, either (especially since my position does not exclude any other Mid Acts Dispensational beliefs). After all, even though Christ first shewed forth all longsuffering in Paul, that does not automatically make him the first member of the body of Christ.
Some of the earlier members of the body of Christ, then, might have an earthly inheritance (such as Peter, James, and John), while other members (beginning with the apostle Paul, and including all believers today) would have a heavenly inheritance. This difference of opinion, although minor from my viewpoint, is still necessary, since the scriptures never specify exactly when the church (the body of Christ) began.
As a result, even though I allow for the possibility that the body of Christ may have begun before Paul was saved, that does not mean I believe that it did. I do, however, wholeheartedly agree with the following quotation, which is taken from Mr. C. R. Stam’s Commentary on Galatians, Copyright 1998, by BEREAN BIBLE SOCIETY, Pages 301-302.
“We believe that when God ushered in the dispensation of grace and began to form the Body of Christ all believers were included in it, just as all the children of Israel came under the dispensation of law when the law was given at Sinai, even though they had previously lived under another dispensation. God’s dispensations are not dependent upon degrees of human understanding, but upon His own sovereign will.
Nevertheless, the truth of ‘the mystery’ was gradually revealed to and through the Apostle Paul (Acts 26:16; II Cor. 12:1) so that there was a gradual transition from the old program to the new. The old program did not immediately disappear, to be replaced by the new…”
Thus, I am a Dispensational Berean. As a Berean, I have “searched the scriptures” (Acts 17:11) from a dispensational standpoint, in order to ascertain whether or not they state that Paul was the first member of the body of Christ. Having done so, I have found that the scriptures never exclude Peter, James, John, or Jude from the body of Christ. And because the scriptures never exclude them, then I have no reason to exclude them, either.
So with the exception of the Traditional Dispensational category, all of the above dispensationalists believe that the Four Gospels, as well as the epistles written by James, Peter, Jude, and John (some also include the epistle to the Hebrews), all contain certain doctrines that were intended for the nation of Israel alone. Since Paul alone proclaimed himself to be “the apostle of the Gentiles” (Ro. 11:13), as well as “the minister of Jesus Christ to the Gentiles” (Ro. 15:16), we all believe that only Paul’s epistles are written to the church today. Although we firmly believe that “all scripture is given by inspiration of God” (2 Tim. 3:16), we cannot claim doctrines that were not written to us today.
Yet some people will still misunderstand my definition of a dispensation, since their church used to grant its members a “dispensation” (special permission) to disobey some of its rules. Such a definition, though, is not a scriptural definition; nor is it based upon the scriptural use of the term. From my viewpoint, a dispensation is characterized by the manner in which the Lord looks upon those whom He has chosen. For example, this dispensation of grace is characterized by “the gospel of the grace of God” (Acts 20:24).
– Benjamin Webb, Original Founder of the Dispensational Berean