I recently spent two days at a weekend Bible Conference teaching and defending mid-Acts dispensationalism. I was invited by an old friend, whom I call Polly, the same one that sparked the debate I blogged about in 2013. I will call the teachers Jack and Dan. Dan said we should refer any questions to Jack, who seemed to be the senior teacher.
The mid-Acts dispensational doctrine holds that Paul was such a distinctive apostle that his epistles are written distinctively “to” modern believers, the body of Christ. All of the Bible may be “for” us to learn from, but we need not and should not be directly concerned about passages like John 15:6 (“remain in me and I will remain in you”), or 2 Peter 3:13 (“looking forward to a new heaven and a new earth, where righteousness dwells”), or James 2:26 (“faith without deeds is dead”). They nickname their doctrine “right division,” citing 2 Tim 2:15 KJV (“rightly dividing the word of truth”) in support of their elaborate system of distinctions. They even displayed a large chart behind the teachers, measuring about 4 feet tall by 8 feet wide and displaying their view of world history – past, present, and future – correlated to books of the Bible from Genesis to Revelation. There was a large yellow highlighted zone between Malachi and Hebrews which they called the “dispensation of grace.” One could also call it the “body of Christ” zone, or the “Paul zone.”
I expected to attend the conference Friday evening through Saturday evening and planned to keep a low profile during my stay there, mostly listening and making sure to understand their teachings and then choosing which of their points, if any, had the greatest need to be questioned further for clarity or criticism.
At the conclusion of the Friday teachings, I asked each teacher a few minor questions privately, which they were happy to answer. Though many of their answers seemed to beg further questions, it did not seem important to pursue such answers, and would have taken too long anyway, so I let them go. I will note, however, that I asked Dan about Galatians 5:19-21 (“acts of the flesh are obvious…those who live like this will not inherit the kingdom”). I asked who is receiving his warning – the body of Christ (as we would expect in Galatians), or Israel (since it has “kingdom” and “inherit” in it). He said it was for the body of Christ (modern believers). So I followed up and asked whether “inherit the kingdom” meant “get to heaven” or “get rewards,” and he chose “get to heaven.” I then pointed out that their eternal security doctrine holds that works are completely irrelevant to people getting to heaven. So he concluded that the passage is just talking about the believers’ fleshly behavior, whereas the believers, themselves, would still get to heaven. I let him go at that point.
On Saturday morning I thought of two minor questions in response to what the first teacher (Jack) taught. However, as soon as the second teacher (Dan) began to teach, I heard him say that in Galatians there were “two gospels,” one for Paul and one for Peter. I had never heard even a rumor of a Christian saying such a thing before, and it seemed very odd when considering that the previous teacher had preached so emphatically from Galatians 1:6-9 that there is only one gospel, that any other gospel is no gospel at all, and that it is super important to get the gospel right. It became clear to me that I had a question that justified and even necessitated a critical inquiry – or perhaps inquisition – about this matter during Q&A time, where everyone could hear it. Fortunately the group Q&A was coming up in about three hours. So I set aside my two lesser questions and focused on asking the right question and follow-up questions.
When Q&A time came I asked Jack something like this: “Alright, so this morning we heard from Galatians 1 that there is one gospel and that there are curses for those who preach another gospel; and Galatians 2 says that even Peter needed to be rebuked for not keeping in line with the gospel. But then this morning I heard something that kinda rocked my world. The other teacher (Dan), if heard him right, said that there were ‘two gospels.’ I’m wondering if you could clear that up.” Jack, the primary teacher and Q&A responder, said something like, “Well that was Dan’s comment, so,” and looking at Dan in the front row, added, “maybe you’d like to answer that one.” As I remember it, Dan, without hesitation, started talking about a “gospel of the circumcision and a gospel of the uncircumcision,” phrases which are, in fact, found in Galatians. At some point – perhaps with some help from Jack (I can’t remember) – Dan finished by saying something like, “Nowadays there is only one gospel” (presumably since the other gospel allegedly died off with the alleged “little flock” of believing Israel that began believing before Paul – a doctrine hardly convincing to me, but unworthy of debating under the circumstances). So I followed up with, “But what about in the days in which Galatians was written? Was there one gospel or two back then?” Jack (the senior teacher) immediately interjected his own answer of “No,” apparently disallowing Dan to give a predictable “Yes” answer. So Jack proceeded to give a fine-sounding affirmation that there was one gospel in a way as to affirm my observations and apparently to keep Dan from committing verbal heresy. I had no further questions. Interestingly, a seemingly loyal mid-Acts audience member followed up with, “I’m confused,” and I think he proceeded to explain that he thought the other teacher (Dan) had already established a two-gospel doctrine in support of “right division,” and now this two-gospel doctrine was apparently being retracted by the senior teacher. Perhaps he was afraid that this senior teacher was starting to sacrifice “right division” on the altar of right exegesis, and that the theologians might be right after all.
Actually, I did previously sneak in a less important question to follow up on Jack’s assertion during Q&A that the “day of Christ” in 2 Thess 2:2 is good for believers, while the “day of the Lord” in 1 Thess 5:2 is bad for unbelievers and is chronologically distinct from the “day of Christ” in 2 Thess 2:2. I asked something to the effect that, “If 2 Thess 2:1-2 seems to explain the timing of the ‘coming of the Lord’ to the ‘brethren’ by referring to the ‘day of Christ,’ and if 1 Thess 4:15 – 2 Thess 2:2 likewise seems to explain the timing of the ‘coming of the Lord’ to the ‘brethren’ by referring to ‘the day of the Lord,’ doesn’t the ‘the day of the Lord’ thus appear not only to parallel ‘day of Christ,’ but also to serve the same function?” (It wasn’t that exquisite, but close enough). His answer managed to completely miss the point of my question and my exegesis. He basically answered by restating his chart doctrine, even turning around and putting two hands on the chart about 6 inches apart to indicate that the “coming of the Lord” in 1 Thess 4:15 is separate from the “day of the Lord” in 1 Thess 5:2.
This reminds me of a couple things: (1) Jack did acknowledge at some point that there are some mid-Acts teachers who (in agreement with me) take 2 Thess 2:2 to mean the “day of the Lord,” even though Jack personally insists that modern versions “change” it to say that (even though it’s actually more a matter of Greek manuscripts than versions); and (2) Brian, from the 2013 debate below (Debating Mid-Acts Dispensationalism 4, January 8 at 11:39pm), seems to be just such a mid-Acts teacher, considering the “day of the Lord” references from both 1 Thess 5:2 and 2 Thess 2:2 to be the same thing – “earthly sphere (wrath of God/tribulation).” Apparently there is a lot of disagreement between mid-Acts teachers on numerous key points like this. Such disagreement suggests that their system of distinctions cannot withstand biblical scrutiny. In another example, Dan said Romans 8:1 is about a rewards-type of “no condemnation” for those in Christ “who walk not after the flesh, but after the Spirit” (KJV), whereas other mid-Acts teachers take that last half (who walk…after the Spirit) out of there (in keeping with other manuscripts) and take “no condemnation” to refer to simply getting to heaven regardless of behavior. In yet another example, Dan answered a private question about what the Judaizers of Galatians were trying to accomplish. Dan said it was sanctification, while admitting that others said it was justification. Here and elsewhere I sense that Dan (rather than Jack) tends to be more eager to teach “right division” consistently than to keep things biblical, because “justification” clearly seems to be what Paul considered to be the Judaizers’ objective (5:4; as well as 2:16-17; 3:8, 11, 24).
After the Q&A the conference took a break from about 3pm to 7pm, but I decided I had heard enough, so I went home. I decided that the “right division” teaching seemed to be creating more problems than it solved.
I am persuaded that the “right division” doctrine has outgrown its foundation.
First of all, there is nothing in 2 Tim 2:15, even in the King James, to promote their mid-Acts teaching. The verse might at best allow for some kind of division between scripture passages, but only if such division is done rightly. And even then I think the theologians are right for taking it to mean “dealing rightly and accurately with,” because the Greek word “orthotomeo” means “right cutting” or “straight cutting,” like someone cutting a piece of paper in two equal halves, for fair and equal distribution of paper; one best achieves this by cutting the paper in a straight line, right down the middle, not with curved, angled, or otherwise complicated cuts.
Second, the mid-Acts doctrine never adequately gets off the ground in a biblically reasoned fashion. It does have a commendable start. It even taught me something new and interesting about some common terms between Genesis 12 and Matthew 25, namely “blessing” and “cursing.” The doctrine has a few verses that help its cause, as does every other doctrinal system out there. Yet none of their verses or combinations of verses come right out and clarify or prove mid-Acts dispensationalism. This doctrinal system is extensively detailed and thus needs to have equally detailed clarity and proof in the Bible.
Third, and most importantly, when the mid-Acts doctrine is tested against the rest of the Bible for compatibility, it may fit well enough into much of the Bible without problems, as any other belief system can manage. What really matters, however, is how well the doctrine weathers the most difficult and challenging passages. The doctrine must either pass the test biblically or be rejected. Given the above examples of mid-Acts teachers frequently contradicting each other, it is apparently very difficult for them to do justice to the Bible while seeking to uphold their mid-Acts doctrine. And I still think they murder Matthew 24 by trying to separate it from much of the Thessalonian epistles, despite up to 17 connections I have found between them, including: tribulation; the appearing of Christ along with a trumpet sound; the gathering of the righteous; and the destruction of the wicked, which comes like a thief, so people need to be ready for it. A doctrinal system must never become so elevated that it becomes an unquestionable guide to interpreting the Bible.
Fourth, mid-Acts teachers make numerous other arguments and appeals as well:
(1) Mid-Acts teachers cite the absence of the term “body of Christ” outside Paul as evidence of his mid-Acts distinctiveness, thus making a plain, simple argument from silence. Shouldn’t we be more concerned about arguments from what is actually said? Terms like “Christian” and “church” are present inside and outside of Paul’s epistles. What if these terms were absent outside Paul, just like “body of Christ”? Is there any doubt that the mid-Acts teachers would have used this new absence as further evidence for Paul’s distinctiveness? But because these terms do appear elsewhere, these teachers become conveniently silent as to the commonality of these two terms in Paul and other apostles (Acts 26:28; 1 Pet 4:16; 1 Cor 1:2; Heb 12:23). (They were not so silent about the commonality of “blessed” and “cursed” in Gen 12 and Matt 25). If pressed about these common terms, the mid-Acts teachers declare them to be generic terms that can be present in both places without consequence, and I get that! But why then do they not likewise dismiss their own argument about the “body of Christ” on the same basis – that it, too, can be considered equally generic and inconsequential, and that its absence outside Paul is likewise inconsequential? I mean, did it never occur to them that “body of Christ” is a phrase that Paul just happens to use more because it suits his unique style? The other apostles have unique styles as well, which can be enumerated if need be.
(2) Mid-Acts defenders take the order of appearance of Biblical books as divinely inspired and instructive. Thus the “right division” chart may begin to emerge, because before Paul’s books we see Genesis to Malachi, and after Paul’s books we see Hebrews, James, Peter, John, etc. The problem with this reasoning is that there is no authority for teaching a doctrine based on the order in which books are assembled any more than there is for interpreting scripture based on the placements chapter and verse numbers in the text.
(3) The mid-Acts doctrine is also promoted based on its alleged ability to help believers resolve contradictions they couldn’t resolve before. Romans 4:2-5 vs. James 2:21-24? Just admit that it would be a contradiction if written to the same audience, and then reconcile the passages by declaring that they are for different audiences and do so based entirely on the “right division” doctrine. My fear is that “right division” believers may thus prematurely feel authorized and even obligated to conclude that such passages are, in fact, irreconcilable contradictions apart from their “right division” doctrine. Perhaps God intended for us to synthesize faith and works a little more, like Philippians 2:12-13 (“work out your salvation…for it is God who works in you”), or maybe interpret “justification” differently between Paul and James. I fear that resolving the problem of contradiction by appealing to the mid-Acts solution is like trying to eliminate the problem of small racist militias in America by calling in large U.N. armies to help us eliminate them. The solution may prove worse than the problem. Likewise, declaring contradictions* between certain passages (*if the passages were meant for the same kind of believers) may thus be worse than simply persisting in trying to reconcile them. We may find ourselves inadequately concerned with having a faith that works, not to mention being on record declaring contingent contradictions in God’s Word.
(4) As a follow-up to the previous point, there is also a conveniently self-serving aspect to the mid-Acts emphasis on Paul (not that that makes it wrong). Not only do modern Christians get to accept the free grace of Romans while disregarding the burdens of James, but they also get to believe more confidently in eternal security, because now they can simply disregard scary warnings like Matthew 25:41-46; John 15:4-6; Hebrews 10:29-31; and 2 Peter 2:20-21, while focusing on Rom 8:38-39 and Phil 1:6. This, of course, dismisses possible support for eternal security offered by John 5:24; 1 Pet 1:23, while downplaying possible difficulties for eternal security in Gal 5:19-21; Col 1:21-23. Plus, as before, the solution may be worse than the problem in that we may find ourselves abusing grace in ways salvation was never meant to cover (Jude 1:4).
(5) Jack even argued that Saul blasphemed the Holy Spirit by virtue of once “being a blasphemer” (1 Tim 1:13) who opposed Christians who had the Holy Spirit in them (Acts 9:1). He then argued that Saul must have subsequently transitioned into a new dispensation of grace because he could never have been forgiven for such blasphemy under the previous system (Mark 3:29). If one is going to claim that blasphemy of the Holy Spirit is now forgivable, one either better hope one is right or better play it extra safe and avoid such blasphemy, lest one lose their salvation.
(6) One or more teachers said something to the effect that people just can’t understand the gospel correctly without the mid-Acts teaching. How serious is this problem? Can nobody be saved nowadays if they have only John’s Gospel? Isn’t John’s Gospel notorious for leading more people to faith in Jesus than any other book of the Bible, perhaps even more than all others put together? Jack repeatedly insisted that “your eternal destiny” depends on Paul’s gospel not only being right, but being right in a way distinct from the message of Peter, James, and John.
(7) Mid-Acts teachers often ridicule most theologians for never grasping the “right division” doctrine while they also commend those who do accept it for doing so by “simple faith.” I think this “simple faith,” however, is really just simple make-believe. I’m sorry, but there is still no complete authority for their “right division” doctrine, whether from clear scriptural teaching or even from any claim to personal, divine revelation. The “right division” teachers make some fine Bible observations and begin to build arguments, but then supplement their case by appealing to benefits of their “dispensation of grace,” plus maybe a little preaching of fear to those who doubt “right division,” insinuating that failure to accept the doctrine might mean they are still being legalistic and may not even be saved yet, even though I thought past salvation was not to be questioned based on present doctrinal matters as long as one’s gospel was originally believed in accordance with certain “right division” favorite verses, like Eph 2:8; Rom 5:8, etc. These were some of my favorite faith verses when I learned them as a youth at a Presbyterian Church, and the Church of the Nazarene which I now attend totally uses these verses to teach simple faith and present assurance of salvation, just like what I heard at mid-Acts conference. Beyond that, why worry?
Having said all that is above, I realize that God has mysterious ways and that it is conceivable that the “right division” doctrine be right after all. I may simply be too much of an armchair theologian, while their people may be mysteriously blessed with a simple faith which I am simply denied. Even so, I don’t feel the need to join their church, because I accept the same gospel they preach when it comes to getting saved, so by their standards I should be saved, period. If God raptures me before the tribulation, I’ll get off easier than I thought. God’s in charge of how he deals with Israel, Jews, Gentiles, and believers of all kinds. What I believe about them won’t make much difference to me. I do know that I dislike how the mid-Acts teachers advised folks to “separate” from churches that reject “right division.” Honestly, the safer thing to do, in my opinion, would be to separate from the “right division” churches, because their doctrines are self-serving to the point of endangering their souls, as I argued above. They, more than almost any other group I’ve come across – even more than JW’s – have fallen into the persuasion that they know something special when they really don’t (1 Cor 8:2). And if one can pardon the punch line: They didn’t have an idol at that conference; but if they did it would be that “right division” chart to which they referred frequently in response to Bible difficulties.