Dispensational Difficulties

by Athol Walter

question mark headache


  • Cutting Up the Bible
  • Based on one verse only?
  • The Bride of Christ

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Anyone who tries to interest others in Dispensational Truth quickly finds out that not only is there a great wall of resistance, but that certain objections keep cropping up. I believe that there are a number of fairly common objections that can be expected and if they catch you unawares, you may find yourself in an awkward situation. And like many objections raised in debate, they can seem to carry a lot of weight. Sometimes, they can be quite hard to answer, especially for someone who has not been rightly dividing the Word for very long.

When I came up against some of these difficult verses or passages, I found answers, and believe it could be helpful to others to pass them on. I well realise that you may not have any problems with these passages, and that there could be others that present problems to you. These, however, are the ones that I have come up against the most often.

Cutting Up The Bible

Our basic text is 2 Timothy 2:15, and as we would expect, this is often attacked. “Study to shew thyself approved unto God, a workman that needeth not to be ashamed, rightly dividing the word of truth.”

The objection raised goes something like this. “This verse does not mean that we must actually cut up or divide the Word of God. The better meaning is something like ‘rightly handling the Word of Truth’, and that is very different to what you Dispensationalists do when you chop the Bible to pieces.”

This does seem to have some basis when modern versions are consulted, and we find ‘rightly handling’ (RSV), and ‘correctly handling’ (NIV). But what saith the Scriptures?

The Greek word that is translated ‘rightly dividing’ in the A.V. is orthotomeo. This word should not frighten us, as it is made up of two words that we use quite casually in English. Orthos means right, upright or straight, and we use it in orthodox, orthography, orthodondist. If you need to look any of those up, do it now. Temnos means to cut, and comes into many of our medical words describing surgical operations such as appendectomy. It is basically the word “atom”, which means the uncuttable or indivisible. A real misnomer now, of course.

Galatians 2:7-9 gives us another use of the word. Paul talks about circumcision, which from Latin, means ‘to cut around’. The Greek word Paul used is peritome.

But when Timothy read the letter from Paul which contains our verse, he would have no trouble with the term ‘rightly dividing’, because he would be familiar with the term. We know he had been reared on the Hebrew Scriptures from childhood. We also know that the version he would have been taught to read was the Septuagint (LXX), the Greek translation of the Hebrew Bible for Greek-speaking Jews, and every time he read Proverbs 3:6, he would read this word, orthotomeo.

“In all thy ways acknowledge him, and he shall direct (orthotomeo) thy paths.”

Break the word di-rect up and you get the same thing – to apportion rightly. ‘Di’ is in our words meaning to divide in some way, and ‘rect’ is an old way of saying right. (Example: rectitude). I won’t labour the point any more, but in spite of what opponents of Right Division may say, orthotomeo does mean to rightly cut. The A.V. translation of this word is an accurate one.

Even if someone insists on “rightly or correctly handling”, it really doesn’t change anything. If the Word is to be handled aright, then due attention must be paid to different dispensations and circumstances.

Based on one verse only?

The second problem I want to deal with is the point made by some objectors who say, “your whole theory of dividing the Bible up as you do, is based on one lonely verse of Scripture. You haven’t got anything else to buttress your fanciful ideas with, have you?”

Now this seems at first to be a serious objection. We would agree wholeheartedly that doctrines must not be built on solitary verses. Danger and error lie that way. The simple truth is, however, that we do not build our teaching on one verse, and this argument carries weight only with those who are intent on proving us wrong.

There are four points to be made in answering this charge:  1. There is another specific verse that states the same truth – and it occurs in the mystery epistles.  2. There are examples in Scripture of right division.  3. Most objectors themselves happily divide the Scriptures to the extent to which it suits them. They only object if they don’t like the way or the extent to which other people divide the Word.  4. All believers practise right division in many ways, and are generally unaware of what they are doing.

I will take each of the above points in turn.

1. Test Things Differing.  The other verse which is the “second witness” to the principle of right division is Phil.1:10. Please read at least verses 8-11 of that chapter. Verse 10 reads:

“That ye may approve things that are excellent; that ye may be sincere and without offence till the day of Christ.”

Any good Bible with marginal references will give an alternate rendering for “approve the things that are excellent”. You should find something like “try the things that differ”. Many of the words in these verses demand our attention, for they are saying more than we often understand them to say. For example, the word ‘try’ means to ‘attempt’ to our modern minds, yet when we hear of a case being tried in the courts, we automatically know what that means. The real meaning of try is to test, or to prove. (Prove is also misused nowadays. It really is a synonym for try or test.) So, we can insert the word ‘test’ for ‘try’.

Did you notice the words ‘knowledge’ and ‘discernment’ when you read verse 9? We can let those two stand as they are. ‘Sincere’ in v.10 is pure Latin, and comes from the pottery trade. It means to be pure, unmixed or unadulterated. It was the practice apparently, for less scrupulous potters to mix the best clays or glazes with something cheaper, and while it would look good when new, and could be sold as something very valuable, it would eventually show minute cracks and then the impurity would be revealed.

Let us put all this together and see what Paul is saying to us .

Philippians 1:9-10: “I pray that your love may continually grow in knowledge and discernment. This will enable you to test different doctrines and ideas, and so accept and approve only those things that are the best, in order that you may be without anything false or impure in the day of Christ.”

To give approval to the most excellent thing, we must necessarily collate and compare the things of God, reject some as inapplicable and accept others as right for us. In other words, we must rightly divide.

2. The Lord’s Example.  Two examples from the words of the Lord Himself will be sufficient for this point. In Luke 4, the Lord reads from Isaiah 61. Have you ever compared the two passages? Remember, He was about to say to those in the synagogue at Nazareth, “This day is this Scripture fulfilled in your ears.” He could say that of “the acceptable year of the Lord”, but not of “the year of vengeance of our God”, so He tried the differing things, and did something that was unheard of in the synagogue. He not only cut the appointed reading short, but he stopped halfway through a sentence, and shut the book. No wonder every eye in the place was fixed on Him.

The second instance is in Matthew 15:21-29. Here a Gentile woman calls on the Lord as the Son of David for healing:  Matt. 15:23 “But he answered her not a word. And his disciples came and besought him, saying, Send her away; for she crieth after us.”

“But He answered her not a word.” Note well the Lord’s words in this verse:  Matt. 15:24 “But he answered and said, I am not sent but unto the lost sheep of the house of Israel.”

The woman, however, was not to be denied and she apparently understood what many Christians today do not, viz., that as a Gentile she was outside the pale. She changes the title she uses and calls Him “Lord.” Even then, she had to acknowledge that what she received was but a crumb from Israel’s table.

3. & 4. Most Christians Already Divide.  We can deal with points 3 and 4 together.

All Christians, even those who emphasise the Law of Moses, accept the division of the Old and New Testaments. Many Christians readily agree with us that there is a difference between Kingdom and Church. Many fine Christian people ignore the rules of Jehovah concerning the Sabbath (Saturday) without any pangs of conscience, and without any of the punishments demanded in the O.T. Even those who do observe Saturday as the Sabbath still practise right division in a very important way. They bring none of the sacrifices demanded by the Law of Moses, because they acknowledge that since the Cross, things have been different! In my 45 years as a Christian, I have yet to find anyone who puts every precept of the Sermon on the Mount into practice, and they don’t even feel condemned. So even though many SAY they do not accept the principle of right division, what they do shows that they do accept it, yet often unawares.

The Bride of Christ

One verse that is sometimes held up as a difficulty is found in Eph. 5:25; “Husbands, love your wives, even as Christ also loved the church, and gave himself for it.”

Critics of Dispensational Truth who know their Bibles well, have pointed out to me that, in the Greek, this verse reads, “… and gave himself for her.” This, they say, destroys our argument that the Church which is His Body is a new calling, distinct from the church being built up in Acts. And as far as the Church in Ephesians being a man, if the Lord gave Himself for her, then surely Paul is not talking about something new in Ephesians, but the same church as in Acts, the Bride of Christ. I have even heard it said once or twice that the church is “the Body and Bride of Christ”.

Let’s clear up that last point first. There is no such term in Scripture as the Bride of Christ. The Scriptural term is the Bride of the Lamb, and while I am well aware that the Lord Jesus Christ is the Lamb of God who takes away the sins of the world, I also believe that it does not help our understanding or exposition of Scripture to be inaccurate in the terms and figures of speech from the Bible.

It certainly is true that the Greek of Ephesians 5:25 does say that the Lord gave Himself for her, the church, but this certainly does not mean that the Church which is His Body in Ephesians is a female, even as a figure of speech. The difficulty is of the critic’s own making, and the answer lies in the peculiar little twists of language. Any reader who has studied some language other than English will not need a detailed explanation, but if English is your only language, the point may seem a little strange at first.

Let’s take the French language as an example. The French words for ‘the table’ are la table. But ‘the book’ is le livre. Those little words la and le both mean ‘the’, so why are they different? Simple. Unlike most English nouns, French nouns have gender. They are either feminine or masculine. There is also the neuter gender, but that does not affect us at the moment.

La is the feminine definite article which must be used with a feminine noun, and le is the masculine definite article which must be used with masculine nouns. This means that the two words I used above as examples, table and book, have to be accompanied by the correct forms of the definite article. That is la in the case a table, a feminine noun, and le in the case of book, a masculine word.

Now we come to the part that makes learning any of these languages difficult for English speakers. The rule is that pronouns, adjectives and adverbs must agree in form, that is, in gender, with their noun, which means that a feminine word must have a feminine pronoun. Likewise with a masculine word. So a Frenchman would refer to a table as ‘her’ and a book as ‘him’. Do not imagine, however, that a Frenchman would mistake a table for a woman. The gender refers to the word, not the object.

To translate a French sentence into English correctly, however, a table must be called ‘it’, because in English, ‘table’ is a neuter word. This is exactly what must be done in Ephesians 5:25, and, of course, in many other places in the Scriptures. ‘Church’ in Greek is a feminine word, and rightly has the feminine pronoun ‘her’. But remember, the gender applies to the word, not the object. When, however, we translate from Greek into English, ‘church’ is a neuter word so must be called ‘it’, not ‘her’.

As I said, this so-called difficulty rests with the critics, and we must remember that Paul definitely tells us that this new Church called the Church which is His Body, is a new man (Ephesians 2:15), and its goal is to grow up into a perfect (that is, complete or mature) man (Ephesians 4:13). These phrases and words, including the Bride of the Lamb, while being titles, are also something of figures of speech, and as I said earlier, if God does not mix His metaphors, neither should we.

One further comment on this. If the critic’s point is right, i.e. that the word ‘her’ for church in the Greek means that the Church of Ephesians is the Bride, then it proves too much. For example, in Ephesians 1:22, we read that Christ is the Head. ‘Head’, in Greek is a feminine word, and if we apply the critic’s rule, this would mean that Christ is woman! Absurd, of course. The same applies to other titles or figures that the Lord used of Himself. The words ‘vine’ and ‘door’ are both feminine words in Greek. Just as it is silly to say that this proves that Christ as the Head, Door or Vine is a female, it is as silly to say that the Greek pronoun ‘her’ in Ephesians 5:25 proves that the Church which is His Body is a female.

4 Responses to “Dispensational Difficulties”

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  1. michaelm says:

    may I say this is a beautiful and beneficial exposition. Not knowing the technicalities of the bible language, I raised the matter in a fellowship discussion as to how the Church could be both Body of Christ and Bride and the reply was it could be both . But as is mentioned , the reply may be general throughout much of Christendom. .

    • admin says:

      Thanks Michael. We’ll let Athol know that you appreciated his article. Feel free to pass a link to this article on to any friends who may be interested.

      David Tavender

  2. michaelm says:

    I forgot to say the discussion was in a mid-week meeting at a local baptist church which does not know dispensational thought and to some extent ,resists it .:)

  3. michaelm says:

    A great teaching article Athol . A Baptist Pastor did say that the Church was both the Body of Christ and Bride of Christ. But if Christians resist,oppose and do not accept the Dispensational teaching of the Bible , they may be forced into thinking and teaching that and other doctrines that do not rest well with dispensational views . . Perhaps the continued witness by Christians who love the secret hid in God and revealed to Paul and published after Acts 28 may , by God’s grace , convince some if not all to a more accurate and satisfying understanding of God’s own word ?.

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