I believe that the controversy surrounding dispensationalism is one created almost entirely by the choice of words employed by those that are dispensationalist. There are other doctrines associated with dispensationalists such as the millennium which are certainly more controversial. However the fundamental basis of dispensationalism; that God has revealed Himself progressively and that the deal or covenant He has offered man over time has changed is completely incontrovertible. The aim of this essay therefore is to present the traditional dispensationalist position but then to translate into a language which hopefully renders the position clearer and less controversial.
The first thing to notice is that dispensation actually is a biblical word; it occurs in 1Co 9:17, Eph 1:10, 3:2 and Col 1:25. Each time we get a dispensation of something; the gospel, the fullness of times, the grace and God respectively. Following through to look at the Greek word 'oikonomia' behind the translation we find that really the word means 'administration'. Therefore we should view the term dispensation in the same way we would administration in the political context. Thus we get the 'Reagan Administration' or the 'Bush Administration' which could be 'Reagan Dispensation' or 'Bush Dispensation'. It should also be noted that whilst an administration does typically take place over a period of time the dispensation primarily refers to the nature of the administration not the era.
In distinguishing the different dispensations we should therefore be looking for divine statements that alter or change the nature of the responsibilities of man and promised response of God towards those responsibilities. Regrettably we will find that whilst these dispensations are clearly delineated they are not named; and the naming of them can be more provocative that the underlying facts. Further the revelation of God has been progressive over thousands of years; there have been subtle changes to the exact details of God's interaction with men throughout the pages of scripture. There is thus a degree of subjectivity involved in choosing when to name a new dispensation and when to note a modification of the existing one. However the most influential writer on this subject is Scofield and I will thus outline the seven dispensations that he defines.
I believe that if the preceding seven administrations are stripped of their titles and simply looked at as different deals that were offered then there really can not be an argument as to whether they exist in scripture. It must be remembered that each deal was essentially the same: believe and obey the revelation of Myself that I have given to you thus far. The basis of salvation was the same: Christ's death.
In conclusion: I have essentially attempted to present dispensationalism stripped of its' theological cloak. I noted that a dispensation is really an administration or set of promises, rewards and punishments delineated by the self revelations and covenants that God has afforded mankind. I then discussed the seven most widely accepted dispensations and noted that there was an underlying method that covered them all. I hope that even is this subject is still as controversial the reader will now find it to be a little clearer than before.