A Brief Critique of Dispensationalism

This short article by Richard Jones reviews the historical connection between the Plymouth Brethren denomination and dispensationalism and of the strong influence on both by J. N. Darby. The joint errors of both theories in eschatology and of the place of God’s moral/civil law in the lives of individuals, in the Church and in culture have had serious negative societal consequences in the20th and this century. It’s posted to further equip the saints in their labors to advance Christ’s Kingdom. Deo Vindice!

Christians should be re-thinking the troubling theory of dispensationalism.  From its beginning in 1830, to the Scofield Bible in 1909, to the present – the belief in the coming defeat of the Church in history has been a thorn in the flesh to the Church in its duty to be an obedient source of salt and light, and to “teach the people to obey all things I have commanded,” Mt 28:20. U.S. meltdown in culture has not stemmed from an evil federal government, from the God-denying, govt.-imposed public schools, from liberal media or from immoral mind infestation by Hollywood and TV. These and more took root and flourished because the 19th century Church in America began to minimize God’s moral and civic laws as well as becoming fatally attracted to a fatal theory of eschatology. Though perhaps personally comforting, this pessimism-driven end times expectancy of Church retreat amid a spiritual battle of global proportions needs to be replaced with the Bible’s vibrant message of victory in history and culture. A look at Plymouth Brethrenism is necessary in order to better grasp dispensationalism’s foundations.

Facts about Plymouth Brethrenism:  

1. The U.K’s John Nelson Darby and several friends launched the Plymouth Brethren movement in 1820 – 1830. Aspects of Brethrenism clearly appear to have eventually found their way into Darby’s novel dispensational theory.

2. French Enlightenment spiritual-moral rebellion was still in full force in Darby’s day. God was in the hostile crosshairs of a materialistic, man-centered adversary dedicated to relegating Christianity to myth and superstition status. When deceptive enlightenment substitutes of reason, logic and science began supplanting God as the font of human thinking and morality – major Christian denominations retreated into pietistic hands-off mode relative to previous, customary triumphs in culture.

3. Such disorder opened the door for titillating new sects, eager to offset mainline church failure to counter enlightenment heresy.  The sect craze brought with it Plymouth Brethrenism along with revolutionary “gospels” of Adventism, Mormonism and others. The U.S. Civil War loaded an additional burden of long-range consequence on the tragedy of church weakness when 600,000 of its best men and Christian leaders-to-be were killed. Even more ended up crippled for life. It’s not unreasonable to ponder to what extent, or even if, the Union was truly “saved.”

4. Some of the early Plymouth Brethren heresies include: 1) Denial of the existence of the Church in the Old Testament even though the O.T. of Christ’s day, the Septuagint, translates the Hebrew qahal (assembly or congregation) into Greek 137 times as ecclesia (the “called out ones,” i.e., the church. ) Nor are the 15 O.T. heroes and prophets of Hebrews 11 considered to be of the Church. 2) God’s moral and civil laws are no longer valid for Christians for personal conduct in spite of Matthew 5:18-20; Romans 7:12, 14, 22; 13: 8-10 and many others. 3) There are no assigned positions of minister-leader. Adult male Brethren members speak with equal authority in spite of ordination commands in Timothy and Titus for bishops, presbyters and deacons.

Darby’s major dispensational theories:

1. There are seven separate ages or dispensations:  The ages of Adam, Noah, Abraham, Moses, David, the New Testament or Church Age and then a final restoration of the chosen people, the Jews, to the land.

2. God deals with His people differently in each dispensation regarding covenants. After Adam’s fall, man came under a “covenant of works” whereby hard work was to be his lot. Old Testament Israelites were under the full law (moral, civil, dietary, sacrificial and ceremonial) for personal conduct (and, some imply, for salvation as well.) However, in the New Testament or Church Age, Christians, being under grace for salvation not law (no dispute there) are supposedly not under law for personal conduct either. But, this raises the question of what man-made alternative moral standard now governs sinners instead? Dispensationalism’s answers tend to be vague and unhelpful.

3. For 1800 years prior to Darby, and contra dispensationalism, there was agreement that the Church existed in the Old Testament. After all, the main and unifying theme from Genesis to Revelation is Christ’s repentance-inducing, obedience-inducing and worship-inducing sacrifice for redemption and the advancement of His bride, the Church prior to His final return. Some AD century ancients believed in a literal return and earthly reign and some didn’t, but the Church was always the focus, not national Israel. In dispensationalism this all changes: Darby goes beyond the centrality of redemption and elevates his novel preoccupation with national physical Israel, past and future, to nearly equal status. The Church is “not present” in the O.T., appearing instead for the first time in Acts 2:4 as temporary only and sandwiched between dispensations number 5 and 7. “Raptured to heaven” as the result of some potential global crisis (stretching now, in potential, even into the 21st century) the Church gives way to national Israel, restored to the land and again under some or all of the O.T. law.

4. Some dispensationalists believe when Christ returns to reign from a rebuilt temple that animal sacrifices will be reinstated “as memorials.”

5. Five major pillars of dispensationalism are: A conjoint tribulation-rapture event. A rebuilt temple. (Actually, two temples; the 3rd, destroyed in “the tribulation” and the 4th, built to replace it.) Christ’s literal return to rule on earth. Appearance of an “antichrist” in Revelation, and, number 5, the return of the Jewish people to the land. “Pillars” as theoretically and prophetically important as these should appear in the New Testament in great abundance, yet they are not found there at all, including any literal return of Christ to rule and reign physically on earth. As best we know, His final return will duplicate his combined literal/figurative AD70 return in Mt 24:30, and be as described in Paul’s lengthy discourse in 1 Corinthians 15. Christ reigns now, has always reigned, and will continue to reign eternally from heaven.

Just as evolution, self-servingly, needs the earth to be millions of years old for “fish to evolve into monkeys and men,” so, too, does Darby’s theory demand that Revelation be written after AD70’s apocalyptic events in Israel and Jerusalem. This is in order to make John’s book not only future for his day but still future for us in AD2012 (!) This necessitates a complicatedly-devised, post-AD70 date of around AD95. But, for centuries prior to 1830, Church consensus was that Revelation was written before AD70. That same consensus also held that election by a sovereign God was basic to salvation, but, in Darby, Arminianism rules. This view rejects the “L” in TULIP (of Calvinistic-Covenantal import) where atonement is “L-imited” to the elect. Instead, dispensationalism says that (what must be a saddened) Christ died for every person ever born, not just the elect.

Dispensationalists tend to relish, privately, the sense of relief and escapism offered by the “soon end” of the political, social and economic chaos of “this present evil age.” This, in dramatic contrast to eras when Christians shone as inspirers and leaders in dealing with the tough challenges continually faced by any culture. As related to the “soon coming apocalypse,” it’s now stated that culture has to deteriorate in order to be on schedule for God’s plan to work. This mindset of resignation has led to weak sermons and to the absence of difference-making leaders needed in a salvageable culture.

Two parallels between Darby’s dispensationalism and his Plymouth Brethrenism.

1. That members are independent of duly chosen and sworn authority figures in the church leads directly to the inroads made by enlightenment man-centeredness. This is seen in the thousands of needless Protestant denominations (and church splits) over the past 150 years, and the person-centeredness within independent house churches. It’s also noted in the “it’s all about me” attitudes in Western culture; even inside the Church.

2. That the Church was “not present” in the Old Testament is ill-advised support for the notion that God’s O.T. moral laws are unimportant or canceled outright in the “Church Age” for personal, church and community moral conduct. 21st century moral collapse may be largely attributed to this moral ambiguity and to the weakened spiritual fiber of a Church that “knows,” per Darby, that “it’s on its last legs.” Institutionalized pessimism and a strategy of retreat have not helped Christians to stay steadfast in the knowledge that the gates of Hell will not prevail against the Church. Satanic humanism’s 150 year old occupation of culture has done a very effective job of exposing this tacit surrender.

21st century Christians should carefully re-think dispensationalism especially as to humanism’s supposed “inevitable” takeover of culture. Outstanding openings for kingdom advancement have been needlessly frittered away because of an unwarranted end times theory. Accordingly, less time is now available to restore a God-honoring culture and to build that fabled shining city on a hill that remains  eminently buildable. It’s not too late for the awakened to act, but only if Darby’s notion is swiftly consigned to the graveyard of all well-intentioned but mistaken theories.

For Further Study:





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