An administration, ministry, or stewardship for which a person has responsibility in God's administration of salvation. In certain interpretations of Scripture, a period of time during which people are tested in respect to their obedience to a specific revelation of God's will. “Dispensation” appears four times in the King James Version (1 Corinthians 9:17;
Colossians 1:25). Each time it translates the Greek oikonomia, which normally refers to an office and the management functions related to the office. See
Luke 16:2-4. In
Ephesians 3:9 KJV translates the term, “fellowship,” and in
1 Timothy 1:4, “edifying.” Modern translations differ in translating oikonomia in the four basic passages.
The New American Standard translates oikonohymia as “stewardship” in all but the
Ephesians 1:10 passage which translates it “administration.” New Revised Standard Version translates it “commission” except for
Ephesians 1:10 for which the translation is “plan.” The New International Version translates oikonomia differently in each passage:
1 Corinthians 9:17, “trust”;
Ephesians 1:10, “put in effect”;
Ephesians 3:2, “administration”;
Colossians 1:25, “commission.”
The New Testament thus uses oikonomia to refer either to Paul's ministry in his apostolic office or God's administration of the world and of His plan of salvation for it. Paul thus had a part in working out God's eternal plan of salvation.
Modern Technical Usage The word “dispensation” became prominent in biblical studies in a recent eschatological movement which dates back to 1830 in Scotland. This movement called “dispensationalism” can be traced back to the visions of Margaret McDonald, a member of the Plymouth Brethren Church. She believed that the return of Christ would be in two distinct stages. The believer would be caught up to the Lord in the air before the days of the antichrist. Then there would be a final revelation of Christ at the end of the age.
The Role of J.N. Darby This two-stage return of the Lord, unheard of before 1830, became the platform for a movement called “dispensationalism.” Miss McDonald's pastor J. N. Darby (1800-1882) picked up on her idea and began to make use of it in his sermons. Darby was responsible for developing the two-stage coming of Christ into a fully developed eschatology or theology. He had been an Anglican clergyman until 1827 when he left the church to join the Plymouth Brethren.
Darby set forth the idea that God has set up seven time periods called dispensations for His work among human beings. The seventh or last dispensation will be the millennial reign of Christ (Revelation 20:1). In each dispensation, people are tested in reference to the obedience of God's will according to a specific revelation of that will.
The Role of C. I. Scofield Darby visited the United States on several occasions and won many advocates to his theology. However, C. I. Scofield popularized the dispensational system in his study Bible of 1909. He set forth seven dispensations in God's dealing with human beings.
1. Innocency (Genesis 1:28) This is the period of time in the Garden of Eden.
2. Conscience (Genesis 3:23) This is the awakening of human conscience and the expulsion from the garden.
3. Human Government (Genesis 8:20) This is the new covenant made with Noah, bringing about human government.
4. Promise (Genesis 12:1) This is the new covenant made with Abraham.
5. Law (Exodus 19:8) This is the period of acceptance of the Jewish law.
6. Grace (John 1:17) This dispensation begins with the death and resurrection of Jesus.
7. Kingdom (Ephesians 1:10) This constitutes the final rule of Christ.
Program of Eschatology Beyond the seven dispensations, the Darby movement had a definite program of eschatology in five steps.
1. A two-stage coming of Christ—rapture and parousia.
2. Seven years of tribulation on earth for those not raptured. The last three and a half years will be the time of the antichrist. One hundred forty-four thousand Jews will accept Christ and become evangelists.
3. Christ will return with the church, conclude the battle of Armageddon, and rule for a thousand years.
4. Belief in an unconditional covenant with Israel. Thus God is working through Israel and the church. In the millennium, national Israel will be restored.
5. All Old Testament prophecy will be fulfilled literally.
Some of the more popular advocates of dispensationalism have been C. H. MacKintosh, W. E. Blackstone, H. A. Ironside, A. C. Gaebelein. More recently Hal Lindsey has made the system a best seller in The Late Great Planet Earth. The Book of Revelation has become a key book in the dispensational approach. Dispensationalists see the rapture taking place in
Revelation 4:1 and the rest of the book (Revelation 4-18) dealing with the seven years of tribulation. Thus the book has very little significance for Christians who will not be on earth during that time. See Revelation 4-18; Revelation 4-18.
James L. Blevins