Dispensation: What does this term mean?
We find this word used several times in the writings of the apostle Paul. In each of those cases it is translated from the Greek word OIKODOMIA. This is a compound noun which is derived from OIKOS, meaning house, and NOMOS, meaning law. Therefore, OIKONOMIA means, literally, the law of a household, or we could say the economic principles by which a home is governed.
Our word economy is a transliteration of the word OIKONOMIA. Webster defines economy as “the management, regulation, and government of a household; especially the management of the pecuniary [money] concerns of a household.” When this word is used in the four Gospels of the Bible, it is concerned with the pecuniary or material management of a literal household. But when the apostle Paul uses this word, he relates it to God’s management of His spiritual household of believers. Hence, the Doctrine of Dispensations is to do with His management of His household of believers from the beginning of human history to eternity future. The Doctrine of Dispensations deals with the fact that though God has always had a spiritual household, He has changed His rules or laws for managing it on numerous occasions.
An example of this would be God’s instructions as found in the Bible concerning the food He wants His people to consume. Compare the following passages.
29 And God said, Behold, I have given you every herb bearing seed, which is upon the face of all the earth, and every tree, in the which is the fruit of a tree yielding seed; to you it shall be for meat [food]. [Emphasis added]
Please note that at the time this was put in place, man was to eat only fruits and vegetables. But notice what God says to mankind many centuries later.
3 Every moving thing that liveth shall be meat for you; even as the green herb have I given you all things. [Emphasis added]
2 Speak unto the children of Israel, saying, These are the beasts which ye shall eat among all the beasts that are on the earth.
3 Whatsoever parteth the hoof, and is clovenfooted, and cheweth the cud, among the beasts, that shall ye eat.
4 Nevertheless these shall ye not eat of them that chew the cud, or of them that divide the hoof: as the camel, because he cheweth the cud, but divideth not the hoof; he is unclean unto you. [Emphasis added]
I Timothy 4:4-5
4 For every creature of God is good, and nothing to be refused, if it be received with thanksgiving:
5 For it is sanctified by the word of God and prayer. [Emphasis added]
20 Wherefore if ye be dead with Christ from the rudiments of the world, why, as though living in the world, are ye subject to ordinances,
21 (Touch not; taste not; handle not; [Emphasis added]
At first glance the commands of Scripture concerning food appear to be contradictory. However, when each of these is perceived in their own dispensational setting, the meaning and application of each becomes clear. The first of these commands [Genesis 1:29] was given in a time that is often called the Dispensation of Innocence [or Perfection]; the second [Genesis 9:3] in the Dispensation of Law; and the last two [I Timothy 4:4-5 and Colossians 2:20-21] in the Dispensation of Grace. Though God Himself has never changed, His policy regarding His spiritual household has changed several times over the span of human history. The Doctrine of Dispensations helps us to become oriented to these different divine administrations God has instituted.
The word dispensation means the act of dispensing or dealing out, or that which is dispensed or dealt out. A dispensation is NOT a period of time. For instance, a medical dispensary may put out medicines between certain hours of the day, but this does not mean that the dispensation of the medicines is a period of time. The dispensations of God occur in frames of time, but a dispensation itself is not a frame of time. A dispensation is God’s system of administration over believers within a frame of time.
In each dispensation [or administration], God administers [or dispenses] His policy and each dispensation has its own distinctions making it somewhat different from what went before. Therefore, when we see the term dispensation we should think of God’s administration [dispensing] of His policy for His people in that time frame. In our time we are especially responsible for understanding and functioning within the policy of this administration which the apostle Paul called the Dispensation of the Grace of God.
2 If ye have heard of the dispensation of the grace of God which is given me to you-ward: [Emphasis added]
In another passage Paul calls it “the fellowship of the mystery.”
9 And to make all men see what is the fellowship of the mystery, which from the beginning of the world hath been hid in God, who created all things by Jesus Christ: [Emphasis added]
There are those who claim they are not “dispensational” in their beliefs. But the reality is that there’s no such thing as a believer who is not “dispensational” in some ways. For instance, I don’t know of any believers today who are somehow involved in the offering of animal sacrifices as a part of their worship practices. But there was a day when God required it. Obviously, that’s a policy God has changed. The controversy today is over which of God’s policies have changed and which ones have not. In other words, the division comes when there’s disagreement over which of God’s policies given in the Bible are for us today. Sorting these things out is called “the right division of Scripture.”
II Timothy 2:15
15 Study to shew thyself approved unto God, a workman that needeth not to be ashamed, rightly dividing the word of truth.
This verse is telling us we are to be diligent in sorting these differences out so that that we’re fully aware of God’s expectations of us. That relates to everything from how to be saved to become one of God’s people to the whole subject of where we’ll spend eternity. Therefore, the Doctrine of Dispensations is a subject you need to master.
Some who are reading this may have noticed that the word dispensation isn’t even in your Bible. If that’s the case with you, it is because of the Bible translation you’re using. There are those in denominational circles who so despise this subject of dispensations that they don’t want it in the Bible. Some of those people became Bible translators and they took it upon themselves to eliminate the use of the word. That’s sad to see, but it’s a reality. So don’t think that your Bible is a better translation just because it is newer. If the translators omitted the use of this word, they made a terrible mistake.
The word dispensation should be found at least four times in your Bible translation—1 Corinthians 9:17, Ephesians 1:10, Ephesians 3:2, and Colossians 1:25. Probably well over half of the church-going people today have no idea what this word means. Many more don’t even know the word is in the Bible. Therefore, it is no wonder that people are so confused about what God expects of them. All too often, they assume that surely their church must be the right one with the right teachings. This is by no means a subject you want to fluff off as not all that important. It is because people don’t understand this subject that so many don’t even know how to be sure they’re heaven-bound, let alone things pertaining to the Christian life and beyond.
We live today in what is called the Dispensation of the Grace of God [Ephesians 3:2]. God’s policies concerning us were given through the writings of the apostle Paul. All the dispensations come complete with instructions on how to have a right standing with God and what is expected of them in that particular time frame. Obviously, what’s most important for you is to have a clear understanding of God’s policies for you now. God is giving you time right now to learn and believe those things. I assure you that learning about these things and believing them is the best thing you can be doing with a generous portion of your time.