Disclaimer: I am still very early in this but here are my current nebulous thoughts on why my approach to Eschatology can impact how I practice Christianity.
Like almost everyone in the Baptist Churches in my area I grew up a premillennial dispensationalist but was never completely satisfied with it. In fairness the main reason I was dissatisfied had nothing to do with a thorough study on my part, but rather had more to do with what I considered weak arguments from fellow laymen about how God would never allow Christians go through so much suffering during a seven-year tribulation. That mindset was a symptom of being poor students of Church history in my opinion when you consider the first three centuries of the Church sprinkled with a western mindset that was unfamiliar with real hardship amongst white Americans in the 1970 and ’80s.
I have recently become more interested because I am beginning to understand that one’s position on eschatology can and does impact how one views the Church, its purpose and methods in missions and evangelism, and how one relates to the world we live in.
If I held to Preterism, Covenant theology or amillennialism the Church and its physical presence, practice and ministry on earth matters a great deal. The Church becomes the primary vehicle by which we, through the power and leading of the Holy Spirit, are allowed to participate in helping establish and spread the Kingdom on earth through preaching the gospel and building institutions to support that work. Reforming the Church and “doing Church right” becomes very important.
As an example, I was recently reading that the Puritan missionaries of the early 1800s in India, Africa, China and other pagan countries were as concerned with building the organizations and schools that trained indigenous preachers and supported indigenous churches and church leaders as they were with winning individual souls. Maybe more so because they saw foreign missions as a long-term endeavor with an earnest expectation that God would complete His work in His time with the Church participating in God’s redemptive work on earth even if they didn’t personally reap the great harvest. That did not dampen their missionary zeal, it fueled it.
The earlier dispensationalist were criticized by their Puritan contemporaries for having a low regard for church as an institution. The early premillennialists such as the Plymouth Brethren saw the institutional church as it too corrupt (to be kind) and not capable of being reformed. The church as an organized entity was seen to have no real utility to the early dispensationalist because Christ would soon return and have no need for the churches of the day, whether they be Anglican, Reformed, English Separatists, Methodist, Roman Catholic and so on. Christ would establish his Kingdom upon His return and the old churches would be entirely done away with. Thus the emphasis in missions and evangelism among the premillennial dispensationalist in the early to mid 1800s, and to an extent even well into my early days in the Church, was to save souls as quick as possible with less concern for setting up support institutions or training indigenous ministers. What was the point since Christ’s return was imminent and no existing human institutions would be saved? Convert as many to Christ as quickly as possible was all that mattered.
I don’t see that extreme among most dispensationalist today. In fact many dispensational missionary organizations today are not that much different in approach than the Puritans of two hundred years ago. But how we view Church as an institution in this dispensation and the next can be impacted and I believe you can make a case that the impact is an echo to the early days of dispensationalism and to some extent a misapplication of soul competency and priesthood of the believer (both of which I firmly hold to) by which as E Y Mullins said, “was to make every man’s hat his own church.”
At least among Evangelical laity there has been an inclination to question the real significance of our ordinances and the assembling ourselves together. We do those things out of obedience to scripture but we aren’t sure why. That makes it easy to devalue church attendance, the Lord’s Supper, Baptism and the Churches role as a redemptive influence in our world and community beyond soul winning. An example of the redemptive role of the institutional Church in addition to evangelism and missions might be more in a “general grace” way where God blesses our communities and nation because we are faithful to God and faithfully present in our communities.
In fact I would say that the idea that the Church might have a general redemptive role to play is a relatively new concept to many white evangelicals, though I do believe that idea is on the rise. African-American churches certainly recognize that role for the Church but more with regard to social justice in the political arena. I remember a few decades back we often criticized the humanitarian efforts of mainline protestant churches because they should have been feeding the souls of the poor with the sinners prayer rather than worrying about feeding their stomachs. After all with the formation of the geopolitical state of Israel the second coming was imminent. I think the more correct answer is we should feed both the body and soul where we can , but I am 52 now rather than 22 and I hope I have matured just a little. 🙂
I have no idea where I am along the eschatological spectrum. I suspect I represent a mixed stew of the various millennial views seasoned with small parts of covenant theology and some skepticism toward a pre-trib rapture, yet not dogmatic about it. As little as a year ago I didn’t give it much thought since it will all pan out in the end just as God has ordained. My understanding of it will not affect the outcome one bit. Jesus Christ wins and that’s that! But I am seeing it does, or at least can, have some impact on how I relate to my Church and her work in our community, and how we approach foreign and domestic missions, and that is important.
I am sure that theologically what I just wrote is a mess. I clearly have a lot to learn on the subject and I am just beginning to look at this area of theology a little deeper