The idea of dissent as a virtue—whether a Baptist virtue or otherwise—is among the most nonsensical theories promulgated among mankind. Dissent is neither a virtue nor a vice, so far as its intrinsic properties go. Dissenting to pay your taxes is generally a vice. Dissenting to participate in a plot to assassinate the President is generally a virtue. The act of dissenting, in and of itself, is neither noble nor vile—'tis all in the subject matter of one's dissent. Dissent is a part of the Baptist story, but dissent is not a distinctive of Baptist identity (or if it is, it has often been a part of the darker side of our identity). Where dissent is laudatory in Baptist life, it is because Baptists were willing to take unflinching stands on matters that other people saw differently or deemed tertiary. Although dissent is not a Baptist distinctive, religious liberty is. Baptists are a people committed to religious liberty for all people. What is religious liberty? It is important to know, for false versions of this principle are seemingly omnipresent. Religious liberty is the conviction that the temporal sword ought not to be employed in strictly spiritual matters. So, unless it has to do with policemen, armed troops, vigilante mobs, judicial rulings, or legislative dictates, it has absolutely nothing whatsoever to do with the Baptist principle of religious liberty. Indeed, it was the conviction of our Baptist forebears that churches and associations had the obligation to govern their own affairs according to their doctrinal convictions. It was precisely because they wanted to be more strict WITHIN their own churches that they wanted the government to be less strict—nay, uninvolved altogether—in governing their churches from without. Those who made scruples over baptism and regenerate church membership, believing in a more restrictive purity in church membership, were the Baptist objects of state-sponsored persecution. Religious liberty enabled Baptists to form congregations composed only of those who did not dissent from their pursuit of obedience to Christ's commands. Certainly there is not the slightest scintilla of biblical witness for dissent as virtue. There are, however, volumes of evidence for the idea that the temporal sword ought not to be wielded in spiritual matters. There are two realms, typified by Roger Williams's idea of the "Two Tables of the Law." The Baptist position is not that spiritual matters ought not to be governed, but simply that the state has not the authority to govern them. Rather, that authority belongs solely to the church. The effect of course, is that every individual has liberty—if one differs with the governing decisions of one's church, one can leave it and join with (or even form) another church more to one's liking, and the church cannot invoke the powers of the state to stop it. Our commitment to religious liberty means that we believe it is the obligation of the government not to punish dissent over matters strictly dealing with one's relationship with God. Yet the biblical model is a church strictly and powerfully governed. I almost mentioned this in my earlier post about the death penalty—the early church not only wasn't opposed to the death penalty, but they also executed it themselves. But please note, they did it by exercise of the spiritual sword—the power of God—and not by the power of the government. The church that slays people for discrepancies in their contribution statements bears absolutely no resemblance to these modern-day coffee klatches so careful to tiptoe around matters that God has declared but people have relegated to tertiary status, but it also resembles not at all the church so spiritually weak that it must call upon soldiers or policemen to do its fighting for it. I'm thankful for the Baptist commitment to religious liberty. It reminds the government not to presume to take up authority that belongs to God alone. It reminds the church not to trust in chariots or horses. Let's not mutilate it into yet another postmodern exaltation of "diversity" over substance. We belong neither to pre-modern society, modern society, nor post-modern society. We are citizens of Heaven, and once we arrive there, dissent will be entirely a thing of our past. Thank you, Lord.