What Is a Dispensation?
The Greek word oikonomia is where we get the English word economy. It is a compound word meaning household law, or law of the household. Its main idea is that of house dispensing or house managing. Luke 16 uses the word in a parable. It is translated management or stewardship in Luke 16:1-4. The one that dispenses is called a manager or steward. Notice that the setup involves at least two parties. First, party #1 is the owner of the household. Party number #2 is the manager of the household. Every dispensational relationship involves two elements: First, the owner (Party #1) gives the manager (Party #2) responsibility; in response the manager (Party #2) now must give accountability to the owner (Party #1). As a result the manager is subordinate to the owner. The owner sets the rules or laws that the manager must abide by. Sometimes the word is translated “stewardship” referring to the responsibility of the manager or steward. The manager is a steward (or dispenser) of the owner’s household and his rules or laws. These rules are used in the running of the household. Dispensational theology is a “particular way of God’s administering His rule over the world as He progressively works out His purpose for world history.” A dispensation is not a period of time or an age, although it must of necessity cover a period of time in the outworking of its tenure. However, that tenure may cover a long or short period of time. A dispensation is a particular and identifiable administration of God’s rule over man in a historical tenure.
A dispensational view has three characteristics: (1) It views the ultimate goal of history as God centered, making the glory of God as the goal of historical purpose. (2) It maintains a literal or customary interpretation of Scripture. This is especially true of its view of prophecy. (3) It holds to a clear distinction between
Israel and the
church, the body of Christ. The church did not replace the nation of Israel
in the plans of God. Israel
will have a future renewal and awaking after the church age, in order to
complete the prophecy of its glorious future.
Therefore, the study of the Bible dispensationally is to distinguish these household rules, when and how they were applied, and identify the changes of the rules. Clearly the Bible itself shows the changes of the household rule. Romans 5:13-14 denotes that from Adam to Moses, there was no law for 2500 years. Galatians 3:17 declares that the Law was added, thus marking a change in the standards over the household. Again there was a change through Christ where the grace of God abounds to the many (Rom. 5:14). Paul reveals that we now live under the dispensation of the mystery, which in the past had been hidden (Eph. 3:9 cf. Col. 1:25-26). Each dispensation must involve four things: (1) It must identify the way of God’s administering His rule during the dispensation. (2) It involves specific responsibilities for man. (3) It must be characterized by new revelation to man, and in many cases a new administrator though which the revelation is revealed. Ryrie reminds us however, that “a dispensation does not have to be composed entirely of completely new features.” Some things may carry over from dispensation to dispensation. We call these things inter-dispensational principles or rules. (4) A dispensation ends with some type of judgmental action by God. We must distinguish these administrations or dispensations if we are to understand the unfolding drama of the purposes of God. We are instructed to “study to show thyself approved unto God, a workman that needeth not to be ashamed rightly dividing the word of truth” (2 Timothy 2:15 KJV).
 S. Graig MacDonald, UNDERSTANDING YOUR BIBLE, (Grace Bible College, Grand Rapids MI, 1995), 15.
 Renald E. Showers, THERE REALLY IS A DIFFERENCE!, (Friends of Israel Gospel Ministry, Bellmawr NJ, 1990), 30.
 Ibid, 30.
 Charles C. Ryrie, DISPENSATIONALISM, Revised and Expanded, (Moody Publishers, Chicago, 2007), 40.