This blog is the conclusion to my discussion on dispensationalism and why I believe it employs a faulty hermeneutic and thus comes to a number of faulty conclusions. I do not intend to revisit any of these kinds of things here. My purpose in this last blog is to answer a simple question — what do we do with dispensationalists? Or to put it differently, what do we do with people who disagree with us regarding the end times? Let me assure you of something, then share my personal conviction before I begin to answer this question. First, this is not a response to any one individual with whom I have interacted over these issues. Second, though I think dispensationalists are wrong I also believe that the dispensationalists I have spoken with and read all love Jesus, their priority is the gospel, and they desire the unity of the church in truth. This means that I am unwilling to break fellowship with dispensationalists, despite our theological disagreements, and am more than willing to continue in dialogue. So back to our question — what do we do with people who disagree with us regarding the end times?
[I wanted to make mention of an article that came across my inbox that speaks to many of the issues dealt with here, though in a broader manner. It is definitely worth the read.]
We must remember that the world is watching
Let me quote Jesus’ prayer in John 17:21,
I do not ask for these only, but also for those who will believe in me through their word, that they may all be one, just as you, Father, are in me, and I in you, that they also may be in us, so that the world may believe that you have sent me.
Paul has the same priorities for the church which he writes about in Ephesians 4:11-16,
And he gave the apostles, the prophets, the evangelists, the shepherds and teachers, to equip the saints for the work of ministry, for building up the body of Christ, until we all attain to the unity of the faith and of the knowledge of the Son of God, to mature manhood, to the measure of the stature of the fullness of Christ, so that we may no longer be children, tossed to and fro by the waves and carried about by every wind of doctrine, by human cunning, by craftiness in deceitful schemes. Rather, speaking the truth in love, we are to grow up in every way into him who is the head, into Christ, from whom the whole body, joined and held together by every joint with which it is equipped, when each part is working properly, makes the body grow so that it builds itself up in love.
The unity of the church is a major way in which we do two things – reflect God and witness to the world. We must never forget this. When we disagree or break fellowship with other believers we are saying something to the church and to the world about the gospel we confess and the God whom we claim to serve. Thus great care and consideration must be taken before we engage in either of these things. This leads me to my next point.
We must be very careful about breaking fellowship with those who disagree with us.
We need the fellowship of the church in order to survive as a Christian. This unity is developed and maintained by believers who are willing to work at it. Notice what Paul says in verse 13 of the passage from Ephesians I cited above – “until we all attain to the unity of the faith and of the knowledge of the Son of God.” (italics mine) Jesus prays for the unity of the church. Paul admits by using the word “until” that unity is a process and is going to take some time to attain. When we desire unity and fellowship with others we must show much grace, patience and love as we strive for it. At times we must be willing to overlook things and/or be quiet on some things; at other times we must be willing to identify error and/or speak up. But at no time should our silence or speech be filled with anything but grace, patience, love and truth. We must always seek, in both circumstances, to reflect God properly and to witness to the gospel clearly. I have always been encouraged by the following passage by Paul in 1 Timothy 1,
As I urged you when I was going to Macedonia, remain at Ephesus so that you may charge certain persons not to teach any different doctrine, or to devote themselves to myths and endless genealogies, which promote speculations rather than the stewardship from God that is by faith. The aim of our charge is love that issues from a pure heart and a good conscience and a sincere faith.
What encourages me here is that Paul is telling Timothy that he must confront sinful, deviant belief, BUT he must also do so in a way that reflects a “pure heart and a good conscience and a sincere faith.” When we do this fellowship is possible, the truth is protected and the gospel is proclaimed.
We must remember what is of first importance and what is of secondary (or tertiary, etc.) importance.
Put simply, not every belief is primary, ultimate, worth dying for. There are many beliefs that fall outside of the centre. Sadly, the issues of the days of creation and the schedule of end times events have become part of many peoples definition of orthodoxy. They have become the boundary markers of orthodoxy for many people. Yet, they have never been treated this way throughout church history. I have experienced this personally both in the classroom and the pastorate. In my previous pastorate, I was told by my denominational leaders that I was “outside the tent” (meaning I could not be ordained or represent the denomination) because I was not a dispensationalist. Though we agreed on the central tenets of the Christian faith and the vast majority of other doctrines, I was “outside the tent.” What they were saying, essentially, is that Augustine, John Calvin, B.B. Warfield, Martin Luther, Charles Spurgeon, John Knox, John Piper, Mark Dever, R.C. Sproul, James Montgomery Boice, Jonathan Edwards, A.W. Pink, Alistair Begg, Sinclair Ferguson, Tim Keller, J.I. Packer, James White, Philip Ryken, F.F. Bruce, (and on and on I could go) would be disqualified for ordination on account of their eschatological views. Wow!
It is distressing to me that Christians who hold to the same gospel, have the same priorities for gospel-centered ministry, and who desire the discipleship of the church and world are so quick to put those who disagree with them about end times “outside the tent.”
We must enter into patient discourse in the text of Scripture
This point stems from the previous ones — if unity is a process that takes time, it also involves discourse in the text of Scripture – patient, grace-filled, loving, gospel-centered discourse. Scripture is always the arbiter of truth. But without proper disagreement and discussion, we will never attain its truth. I agree with the perspective of Vern Poythress (Understanding Dispensationalists) on this issue. I think if people on both sides would have this kind of irenic spirit, the church would greatly benefit.
Of course, in the dispute between dispensationalism and covenant theology, not everyone can be right. It might be that one position is right and the other wrong. It might also be that one position is mostly right, but has something to learn from a few points on which the other position has some valuable things to say. So it will be important to try to listen seriously to more than one point of view, in order to make sure that we have not missed something.
Suppose after our investigation we conclude that people in one camp are basically mistaken. That still does not mean that every aspect or concern of their theology is mistaken. Still less does it mean that we cannot learn from the people involved. People are important in other ways than simply as representatives of a theological “position.” More is at stake than simply making up our minds. We ought also to struggle with the question of how best to communicate with those who disagree with us and to sympathize with them where we genuinely can.
We must put the gospel at the forefront because it is of primary importance
Paul puts it this way,
And I, when I came to you, brothers, did not come proclaiming to you the testimony of God with lofty speech or wisdom. For I decided to know nothing among you except Jesus Christ and him crucified. And I was with you in weakness and in fear and much trembling, and my speech and my message were not in plausible words of wisdom, but in demonstration of the Spirit and of power, so that your faith might not rest in the wisdom of men but in the power of God. (1 Corinthians 2:1-5)
Now I would remind you, brothers, of the gospel I preached to you, which you received, in which you stand, and by which you are being saved, if you hold fast to the word I preached to you—unless you believed in vain. For I delivered to you as of first importance what I also received: that Christ died for our sins in accordance with the Scriptures, that he was buried, that he was raised on the third day in accordance with the Scriptures, and that he appeared to Cephas, then to the twelve. (1 Corinthians 15:1-5)
This does not mean that we can accept any and all belief as long as a person confesses the same gospel that Paul proclaimed. But it does mean that when we are debating issues of eschatology we are having an intramural debate among fellow believers. Ultimately, we are all on the same team!!!
I did not expand my answers too much as I will address these types of issues in greater detail in future blog posts dealing with the question of hermeneutics and if we can find meaning in the text of Scripture. These will be available on my website in the near future.
My prayer for all of us as we leave this issue and engage in the ministry to which we are called are the words of Augustine,
“In essentials unity; in non-essentials liberty. In all things love.”
If you have any questions about what you have read in this or previous blogs, don’t hesitate to contact me via email. I would love to chat with you!
Soli Deo Gloria