The wedge issue has always been Dispensational eschatology.
I came to full religious awareness while living in Anchorage, Alaska. It was about the time I turned twelve years old. My family was attending a particular Baptist church where the pastor wasn’t pushy about anything at all. Internal church politics kept him in place because he was just a figurehead; he didn’t interfere with those who had influence and an agenda. It was a relatively large church, so it was ripe for strong figures who wanted to spread their propaganda. They didn’t just show up randomly; I know for certain some of those big shots had influenced other movers and shakers to move their membership there.
One of those strong figures was a doctrinaire Scandinavian import who more than once got the church to allow him to set up displays in the fellowship hall. It was on particular evenings when the membership gathered for a fellowship meal or other festive occasion. One of those evenings he placed a large collection of posters, banners and printed pamphlets about Dispensationalism. That term wasn’t what stuck in my mind at the time; it was the phrase “End Times.”
This was the late 1960s when stuff like that was news to a lot of Baptists. I distinctly recall the initial mixed reception among the adults with whom I had any social contact. Among those with a positive reaction, it was very positive, urging me to take a copy of the most graphically illustrated pamphlet and study it. The whole thing became an on-going discussion among church members kicked off by that display.
I wasn’t aware of national politics, much less international relations, until later in high school when I was at risk for the Vietnam War draft. I don’t recall at all any kind of connection between that talk of End Times at church and the issue of Israel, but somehow I got the message. I was a full blown supporter of Zionism, insofar as I knew anything at all about it. Yet it remained in my mind two separate things for the longest time. Thus, I slowly moved away from Dispensationalism long before I realized it meant I had no reason to favor Israel politically.
Eventually, having moved a safe distance away from all of that, I was exposed to a critical review of the religious literature that promoted this stuff. I recall devouring Hal Lindsey’s Late Great Planet Earth along with a couple of later books in that series. I recall how it all seemed so real. I knew nothing of the author and his shenanigans until much later. Virtually nothing in his books ever came true, and it was part of a longstanding genre of similar literature that rested entirely on trying to fit current events into some wild speculative doctrines. It wasn’t a question of whether Lindsey believed any of that stuff; I was disturbed by the underlying cynicism of hooking my generation so he could become a millionaire. Maybe it was just instinct for him, but it remains one of the best examples of marketing manipulation in American history.
Having studied the roots of this whole Dispensational nonsense, I am struck by one consistent factor across the entire range of major figures promoting it: Every one of them had an ulterior motive. There was not a single “true believer” willing to sacrifice for the sake of conviction, except at the lower levels. The leadership of this thing have always had their eye on something else, and this was their big tool.
Worse, there has always been a background of secret dealings behind Dispensational theology. During those years when I was seriously trying to break into the pastoral ministry, particularly among Baptists, there remained a strong conspiratorial element of things I was warned not to discuss with average members of the flock. This particular ethic was consistently stronger around the issue of Dispensationalism. We cultivated influential volunteers to spout the orthodox line, tossing out brief lectures at every Bible study or class meeting, but it was never more critical than with the orthodoxy of Dispensational belief. That’s because it was so fragile and so easily countered. It had to be maintained at all cost, and that cost was quite high.
Dispenational theology is not a reflection of genuine faith conviction. It doesn’t feed you in quiet moments and keep you strong. It presumes an adversarial stance because the resistance is so natural. Not natural from our fallen nature, but a natural resistance because it’s so freaking insane in the first place. There’s no room for “live and let live” on this issue; it doesn’t sell itself. But it can provoke a ravenous hunger once it is pushed just a little ways among less mature souls. Dispensationalist doctrine remains one of the single biggest draws in youth ministry. Teenagers, or those who tend to operate on a juvenile level of enthusiasm, eat this up. It’s been that way since I can recall. It’s cool secret stuff that beckons with a promise of answering everything logically. It does not lend itself to calm reflection; it’s always attached to energetic urges to “do something.”
This is what keeps so many churches from contemplative religious experience.