First published on Christian Controverser
Our reckoning of dispensationalism as a predominantly American school of theological thought is mostly supported by anecdotal knowledge rather than research. Nevertheless, Stephen Sizer (writing in Donaldson, 2011) draws particular attention to the predominance of dispensationalist belief and practice upon the US church. As he notes, “[many] evangelical, charismatic and Pentecostal leaders, seminary professors and television evangelists…together [are] promoting a deeply pessimistic, confrontational and destructive view of America’s present and future role in the world, and in the Middle East in particular”. And “For a century or more, the dominant eschatological view held by Christians in America has been dispensationalism…this has led many Christians to believe that their responsibility is to take sides and support or “bless” Israel to ensure God’s continuing blessing of America.”
Our estimation of the influence of dispensationalism worldwide is that large churches adhering to it are for the most part based in the US. Outside America, it is widely rejected in major denominations and tends to be supported only in smaller churches, notably those of an anti-clericalist or anti-educationalist bent. For example, the latter is a key characteristic of the Plymouth Brethren and indeed their founder Darby who was the earliest proponent of dispensationalist belief. The influence of the Scofield Reference Bible in the US is also believed to be significant in its establishment in the US, but in particular, its widespread following in Pentecostal circles is again most probably anti-clericalist or anti-educationalist in origin; Dr Gordon Fee, former professor of Regent School of Theology noted in particular how rare it once was for Pentecostal ministry leaders to hold any form of degree level education. Hence the widespread disavowance of dispensationalism in scholarly theological circles may, in fact, in the eyes of many American Pentecostals, be seen as a clericalist or educationalist conspiracy, and thus lend legitimacy to it.
We are familiar with large churches particularly in Australia where it is noteworthy that Hillsong Church has recently commenced a new theological teaching series broadcast free to air worldwide on Hillsong Channel, in the “Cafe Theology” programme, disavowing dispensationalism, and that similar views have been expressed recently by the head of C3 church in Sydney, Australia, Pastor Phil Pringle. A close observation of the teachings of Planetshakers Church of Melbourne, Australia, has evidenced no direct evidence of dispensationalist influence. Therefore it may be noted that there is considerable support for the supposition that Australia’s three largest Pentecostal churches (by a considerable margin) are anti-dispensationalist. Our observation of mainline churches in Australia and New Zealand suggests that the teachings and beliefs of dispensationalism are widely rejected in these countries, and probably in most Commonwealth countries. Thus, the strongest level of following is invariably found in the US, where it has permeated into all manner of large churches and respectable major denominations such as the Southern Baptists.
The widespread support for and predominance of dispensationalism in the US can be considered as being influenced by a number of factors:
- Its anti-clericalist / anti-educationalist origins would appeal to some church movements such as Pentecostalism which are similarly predisposed.
- The main bible college promoting it worldwide has been homegrown, in the form of Dallas Theological Seminary, Texas. Hal Lindsey (1929-), author of the apocalyptic work “The Late Great Planet Earth” is a DTS alumni, as are numerous prominent members of the “Christian Right”.
- Its support for the re-establishment of the State of Israel ties in well with US government strategical alliances within the Middle East. This is being accomplished by a Christian-secular alliance with the US government, which is a key technique used by the Christian Right in America to gain political power. However, this strategy has not found much favour with American Jews, the greater majority of whom generally vote Democrat.
- A suggested desire by America to dominate the Church worldwide (as in secular spheres). Dominionist theology which is considered to be a particular characteristic of US churches and ministries, alludes to a desire for pre-eminence of a US Christian government during the millenium.
- A suggested desire by America to insert itself prominently into Church and Israel history due to some sort of inferiority complex accruing from the relative youth of the US State and lack of historical connection to the first coming of Jesus.
- Dispensationalists claim to be able to interpret the Bible in keeping with modern day events and to be able to predict the future based on Biblical statements.
Dispensationalist theology is so divisive within the church that it is not a surprise to find it less widely adopted worldwide, notwithstanding that American pastors and ministry leaders continue to be enthusiastic proponents of its teachings and many ministries expound these beliefs on the major Christian TV networks established there. The key problem that so many US churches fail to recognise is a difference in treatment of Palestinian Christians and those living in Israel and elsewhere in the world. This distinction often leads to sharp conflicts or divides between Christian ministries operating in the Middle East. Notwithstanding that a state of Israel has been re-established with US military backing within the Palestinian territory, there is considerable theological doubt that this was ever foretold or intended in the Bible.
The widespread support for dispensationalism within the “Christian Right” in the US, whilst seen as valid in their eyes, outside of this establishment is seen as one of the many ways in which the objectives of the US government, church and society are out of step with worldwide norms, therefore anathema to many Christians.