|Q334 : How To Untangle the Teaching of Mid-Acts Dispensationalism?|
I'm a youth ministry intern at a church in Michigan.
I was dead in my sins until three years ago. I was saved by God's grace and now love serving Him and learning about Him, which is all His work in me. But, before I was saved, I had a Christian friend that I would constantly hangout with. Once I got saved, we were friends for a while, but then his family left my church. Since then, his father started his own home-church teaching Mid-acts dispensationalism.
Now, our church is regular dispensationalist, I guess you could call it. After learning about Mid-Acts, I've done a lot of studying, including reading Ryrie's book Dispensationalism and his chapter on Mid-Acts. I recently read your article online about it, and it was really helpful. I'm wondering if you could correspond with my friend in debate format. Perhaps by email? Or, if you are too busy or think that this would not be profitable, which is totally understandable, could you point me to some more resources?
|A334 : by Tony Garland |
I’m encouraged to learn you’ve read Dr. Charles Ryrie’s book titled Dispensationalism and what he has to say about Ultradispensationalism. When it comes to Dispensationalism, it is difficult to find a more knowledgeable and authoritative reference than the late Dr. Ryrie.
Mid-Acts dispensationalism seems to really get-a-hold of some people and they get caught up in minute distinctions and miss the big picture. At its core the issue revolves around how to handle continuities and discontinuities in Scripture. Scripture describes things which remain the same over time (continuities) and things which change over time (discontinuities): both according to the outworking of God's plan in history.
All Christians recognize there are many continuities in Scripture — things which remain the same throughout Bible history. For example, salvation has always been by grace through faith and God’s moral standards have remained the same, as embodied in the Law (Matthew 5).
All Christians also recognize that some things have changed over time, these are discontinuities. For example, unlike the theocracy of Israel, the Church doesn’t stone children when they curse (Lev. 24:10-16). Nor do we bring animals to church to sacrifice on an altar. Neither do we make a distinction between clean and unclean foods—according to God’s new instructions given to Peter at the house of Simon, the tanner (Acts 10:9-15).
This issue of handling continuity and discontinuity—as they occur within the pages of Scripture as history progresses—is important to grasp and handle carefully. Two common mistakes are made here: 1) failing to recognized discontinuities—changes in God’s plan with time—where they occur; and 2) inserting discontinuities where they don’t occur.
Some interpreters don't pay enough attention to the discontinuities. An example would be Covenant Theology which doesn't pay enough attention to the Scriptural distinctions between the various covenants or to the peoples with whom they were made (e.g., Israel vs. the Church, David vs. the Levites).
Other interpreters pay too much attention to perceived discontinuities—which is where Mid-Acts dispensationalism goes astray. Concluding that portions of Scripture are not of importance to the Church. For example: the gospels are not of importance to the Church (but see Matthew 28:20), or that only the letters of Paul apply to Christians today.
This is one reason why Mid-Acts dispensationalism is also referred to as ultradispensationalism. Like dispensationalism, ultradispensationalism recognizes discontinuities in God’s plan through history. But ultradispensationalists create distinctions where they are not intended by God.
Perhaps the key aspect where Mid-Acts dispensationalism differs from traditional dispensationalism is over when the Church began in history and how the Church is defined. As Dr. Ryrie identifies in his chapter on Ultradispensationalism,
The primary . . . difference [with Dispensationalism] is . . . when the church, the body of Christ, began historically. Dispensationalists say the church began on Pentecost, while ultradispensationalists believe it began with Paul sometime later.1
Mid-Acts dispensationalism connects the beginning of the Church with what was known or taught about the doctrine of the Church by Peter or Paul. In their view, the Church begins when Peter or Paul first understands or teaches aspects of the doctrine of the Church,
What the ultradispensationalist fails to recognizes is that the distinguishableness of a dispensation is related to what God is doing, not necessarily to what He reveals at the time, and least of all to what man understands of His purposes.2
The key, in this case, is to understand the Scriptural definition of the Church—the body of Christ. When we do, we find that the body of Christ is made up of all who have been Spirit-baptized (1 Corinthians 12:13; Eph. 1:22-23 ; Col. 1:18 ).
But first, we need to recognize that the term Church, ἐκκλησία [ekklēsia], is not a technical term: its meaning can vary with the context within which it appears. The term ἐκκλησία [ekklēsia] can refer to Israel, for example the congregation (ἐκκλησία [ekklēsia]) in the wilderness (Acts 7:38) or a gathering of non-believers such as the assembled crowd in Ephesus (Acts 19:32).
The technical phrase which always describes the Church is, the body of Christ.
To determine when the Church began historically, we need to answer when did the body of Christ begin in history? Scripture indicates that believers are placed into the body of Christ by Spirit-baptism.
- 18 And He [Jesus] is the head of the body, the church, who is the beginning, the firstborn from the dead, that in all things He may have the preeminence (Colossians 1:18).
- 22 And He put all things under His feet, and gave Him [Jesus] to be head over all things to the church, 23 which is His body, the fullness of Him who fills all in all (Eph. 1:22-23)
The question of when the Church began then becomes, when did Spirit-baptism first occur?
- 13 For by one Spirit we were all baptized into one body—whether Jews or Greeks, whether slaves or free—and have all been made to drink into one Spirit (1Cor. 12:13).
The Church is not defined by human agency—what someone happened to know or teach at any given time. Instead, it is defined by the sovereign initiative of God Who gave the Spirit in a historically new ministry which never occurred prior to the Day of Pentecost (John 7:38-39; 14:16; 16:7). So it is God who defines the boundary between the Church and believers of other ages. During this age, the age of the Church, the boundaries are defined by the baptizing work of Christ through the ministry of the Spirit stretching from the Day of Pentecost to the Rapture.
We also see that Scripture defines Spirit baptism as beginning in Acts 2 on the Day of Pentecost. We have two very clear markers to establish the Day of Pentecost as the birthday of the Church. Prior to the Day of Pentecost, Jesus predicts the apostles will be Spirit-baptized, not many days from now (Acts 1:5). Some time later, Peter recounts his experience when the Gentiles at the house of Cornelius were baptized with the Spirit. In doing so, he points back to the Day of Pentecost when God first Spirit-baptized the Jewish disciples and refers to it as a beginning (Acts 11:15).
The logic of the situation becomes very clear: THE CHURCH == THE BODY OF CHRIST == THOSE BAPTIZED BY THE SPIRIT → BEGINNING ON THE DAY OF PENTECOST
The Church, the body of Christ, did not exist in history prior to Pentecost. In the same way, the Church cannot be said to begin later than the Day of Pentecost—which directly contradicts the claims of Mid-Acts dispensationalism.
Understanding the historical context of the Day of Pentecost is very important. It brings clarity to a number of confusing teachings concerning the significance of what took place in Acts 2.
As for debating Mid-Acts dispensationalists: I'm not willing to get involved because I consider it a poor use of time. There are two reasons I say this: 1) from prior experience debating these folks; 2) if a person is unwilling to see the clear definition of the Church set forth in Scripture, who am I to convince them?
- It does away with the teaching of Mid-Acts dispensationalism that the Church began at some arbitrary point after the Day of Pentecost.
- It avoids confusion concerning the identity of the Church. The Church did not exist in the Old Testament (or in the gospels), but only since the Day of Pentecost. Therefore, Israel and the Church are distinct—the Church is not a “new Israel.”
- It avoids confusion about Spirit-baptism. Should the manifestations of the Spirit experienced by the disciples on the Day of Pentecost in Acts 2 still be sought, thousands of years later, by believers today? Do believers need to tarry for the Spirit? Is speaking in tongues today a sign of Spirit-baptism? Or, if we seek these things, are we yanking Acts 2 out of its historical context—and ignoring the progress of what God is doing in history, to our own detriment?
- Most importantly, it clarifies the uniqueness of the Church. Since the Day of Pentecost, believers live in a unique age: the Church Age. Unlike believers in other ages in history, believers since Acts 2 continuing down to our day, form the body of Christ—believers who lived and died prior to the Day of Pentecost were never part of the body of Christ. Since the Church had a definite beginning (the Day of Pentecost) it also makes sense that the Church could have a definite end (the Rapture).
In cases like this, we aren't called to debate, but to patiently and graciously explain and then move on. There will always be some who prefer to wrangle endlessly—and we would be smart and recognize this and focus our efforts where they can be more productively received.
Regarding additional resources, I would caution against getting involved wrangling over secondary subtleties and going on a long chase for everything that might have been written on the subject. This is exactly what the Mid-Acts people would like you to do. The key is to focus on how Scripture defines the Church and then don’t budge from that position: all the other secondary details are a moot point once this truth becomes clear.
|Ref-0056||Charles C. Ryrie, Dispensationalism (Chicago: Moody Press, 1995).|