Saturday, November 24, 2007

Baptists and Dissent

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.


Big Daddy Weave said...

"Religious liberty enabled Baptists to form congregations composed only of those who did not dissent from their pursuit of obedience to Christ's commands."

Clever phrasing of words...

In other words, religious liberty enabled Baptists to dissent from the company line being touted by community and government leaders and thus keeping the wilderness of the world from engulfing the garden of the church.

Dissent may not be a virtue. But the "right to dissent" is obviously embodied in the principle of religious liberty. Now, after I've exercised my right to dissent as demanded by my conscience - the church may kick my tail to the corner but such is often the consequence of dissenting.

David Stricklin wrote a book about liberal and fundamentalist Baptist dissenters. He entitled his book A Genealogy of Dissent.

So yes, you are definitely correct. Dissent is part of the Baptist story.

Steve Weaver said...

Right on, Dr. Barber!

Bart Barber said...


As I knew you would on this topic, you understand me perfectly.

Bart Barber said...

Good morning, Steve, and blessings to you.

volfan007 said...


i'd like to add my amen, and thanks again for shedding light on us about religious liberty having to do with big bro. govt. trying to get into the churches business. and, it not meaning that people ought to just be able to believe whatever they want and still be considered "baptists," or "christians," or whatever it is that we're trying to define. there are some today who seem to think that they can just believe or do whatever they want, and it should be accepted as ok, and not only ok, but affirmed.

i never thought that i could learn so much from someone from arkansas! :)


Robin Foster said...


Thanks for relating the truth of religious liberty and dissent. I know some want to make dissent an issue of non accountability, but you have articulated the the biblical understanding of dissent.

Thanks again!

Anonymous said...

Bart Barber for president! selahV

Bart Barber said...

...of the Farmersville Rotary Club!

Debbie Kaufman said...

I agree with david in that it doesn't mean that anyone can believe whatever they want to and be considered Baptist, but Bart is there ever a time that dissent would be considered right and good in your opinion? When would it mean that someone would not be considered Baptist. Also I was sincerely wondering if scripture speaks to this at all in your opinion. I hope I'm not creating a rabbit trail, but am hoping I am understanding you correctly.

Bart Barber said...


Dissent, in and of itself, is neither good nor bad. Not ever. It all depends upon the subject matter.

Debbie Kaufman said...

I'm just wondering if we are a people who history is the final word or the Bible and the moving of the Holy Spirit? Especially since our history is rather tainted in more than one instance, in fact the SBC began because of dissent did we not? The SBC not exactly taking the correct Biblical road.

Anonymous said...

'the biblical model is a church strictly and powerfully governed'

I think the evidence for this is a bit thin, though the Pope would like to agree with you, I'm sure.

For a start, we would need to be wary in the extreme of citing Acts 5 as evidence of how churches are governed; no interpreter I have ever read believes that is Luke's purpose.

Once we move into the sounder sources in the epistles it is clear there was gross indiscipline in many cases (notably Corinth). Other churches were troubled by essence-threatening itinerants claiming apostolic authority. The apostolic contentions seem more to be an effort to avoid total anarchy that quell dissent. This hardly equates to our Baptist discussions, current or historical.

Of course the gravest difficulty Baptists have is a non-theology of the apostolic. Without knowing what is apostolic it is difficult to read New Testament texts into our situation in this area.

I do think in a large denomination leading figures FEEL apostolic at times. But that is hardly the same as being recognized as such. This makes the notion of dissent impossible to evaluate.

Are the dissenters the apostolic figures and the leaders Pharisaical? That too is a Biblical model where dissent would be a Christ-like virtue. Who can ever decide? Certainly not a vast concourse of thousands of people only vaguely aware of the men and characters presented before them.

Maybe we should value freedom over strictness for safety's sake.

Bart Barber said...


Did you catch the half of the post speaking about the biblical foundation for these sentiments? I'm not the one posting posts about dissent that argue entirely from history and not from the Bible.

Ray said...

Irrespective of whether or not dissent is a virtue; it has been a major factor in shaping the history and identity of the SBC. Whether it was dissent by Moderates attempting to awaken a social conscience among Southern Baptists, or dissent by Conservatives concerned about a progressive liberalism, the right to dissent is a hallmark of Southern Baptist life.

Unknown said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Unknown said...


Great post. I do not understand the current retreat to Baptist distinctives by other bloggers while they were adamantly against arguing from Baptist distinctives a few months ago. Moreover, the claim to a 'right of dissent' is vacuous, as you point out, when bereft of any moral or biblical foundation. It is not the subject of dissent, but its object.

In Baptist history, it has not been the 'right to dissent' that has preserved Baptist identity, even orthodoxy. Rather, it has been the right to not acquiesce to dissenters' demands within the denominations. Dissenting from Test and Corporations Act and the Thirty-Nine Articles was one thing, but their dissent had a biblical (and often moral/natural law foundation). But dissent within the ranks had a far different agenda and effect. The rigid confessional requirements of the Particular Baptists, in both the Particular Baptist Fund and in inter-denominational cooperation, preserved many Baptists from falling into the rationalism that led to unitarianism in the remainder. Their friends in the New Connexion, as well, became rigid in their confessional requirements, excluding from cooperation men that would not adhere to more strict doctrinal guidelines, and saving themselves from the same fate that befell the General Baptist rationalists. In fact, we have manifested in the 21st century SBC the General Assembly of General Baptists of the 18th century. I will have a series of posts detailing the similarity soon, and I expect your critique.

Debbie Kaufman said...

Bart: What if I told you that I believe this particular dissent to be very scriptural and as necessary as the conservative resurgence.

Anonymous said...

Interesting take on history, Bart. If religious liberty is predominently identified with the relationship between church and state as you seem to suggest and not in ecclesial matters, then why did Baptists not create a hierarchical denomination in the same vein as Presbyterians? Why is the local church autonomous? It seems that dissent is intertwined within the very nature of the founding of the SBC and there has been a great fear of excessive denominational power since the very beginning of Southern Baptist life. This was not dissent against governmental control but rather, it was dissent against an unwieldy denominational power that would move the locus of Christian activity from the local church to the leadership of the denomination. To this day, our entities are autonomous from one another and we have no official centralized power structure that controls Baptist life.

In this environment, dissent is absolutely necessary for the functioning of our churches, associations, conventions, and SBC entities. Without it, how do we hammer out a consensus? We are not even set up to have denominational leaders dictate actions to the churches. We have the CP because we freely cooperate with one another on the basis of an agreed upon consensus statement of faith (BF&M) and a faith in the truth of God's Word.

Did not the leaders of the CR dissent with SBC leadership because they saw an error and believed that it needed to be corrected? I know that you are not saying that dissent in and of itself is wrong, but some would use your words to maintain the status quo at all costs, equating all of the actions of current leadership with right behavior. Their behavior might be right, but we must reserve the right to question the behavior and direction of our leaders, whether in the local church or in the SBC at large.

The proper response is that if we see an error, we should take a position of PRINCIPLED dissent based on the teachings of Scripture, thus emulating the practice of the noble Bereans who judged everything by the Word of God. If this approach is practiced, it most certainly IS a Baptist distinctive and it is the very reason why we have autonomous churches and the doctrine of the priesthood of believers. I see no one arguing for a "believe whatever you want" philosphy as David proclaimed in classic straw man fashion. We should not and cannot be free to dissent from the clear teachings of Scriptures, but we are required to dissent from the tyranny of man when the truth of Scripture is departed from, either from a civic or an ecclesiastical perspective.

Maybe I am ignorant when it comes to our history and the books that I have read and the professors that I have studied under were in grave error, but it sometimes seems that you only state half of the argument from Baptist history when you talk about Baptist distinctives. I think that we need to look at our whole history and not just part of it to form a clear understanding of what our distinctives actually are. And of course, all of that should bow to Scripture alone.

Anonymous said...

Bart -

Is your post a response to Wade Burleson's self perception as a dissenter on the IMB, and the IMB’s subsequent effort to quash his dissention?


Debbie Kaufman said...

Bart, reading the passage you gave in Acts, the church did not kill Ananias and Sapphira, God himself did because they lied and stole from the Holy Spirit.

Bart Barber said...

To all,

Some responses are short enough to be typed on an iPhone; some require a keyboard. I apologize for the delays.

Steve said...

Alan has it right in that principled dissent is vital to our being free to effectively cooperate in missions and our agencies. Someone could read what you carefully wrote as a generalized refutation of dissent. To fear dissent is to say that leaders are never wrong.

I hope I'm wrong about current Baptist distrust of dissenters, but in my experience, every person or entity that wanted to quash dissent was found to be grasping for more worldly power.

Bart Barber said...


I am not asserting Acts 5 as a passage primarily about church governance; however, (1) the narrative does depict the inner workings of a church, and (2) if that ain't governance, I don't know what is. If I understand you, you correctly proceed from the assumption that narrative passages pose special hermeneutical challenges. The root cause of those challenges is that narrative passages depict sinful people sinning, not always delineating precisely for us when they are doing so. The inerrant word accurately tells us what people did, but does not always intend while doing so to endorse the behavior in question for the rest of us. So, we see a different nature in didactic passages (where God says, "Do this!") than in narrative passages (where God says, "Peter did this.").

However, I was drawing from Acts 5 not the actions of sinful people but the actions of a sinless God. If God were trying to establish a church built around the principle of dissent as a virtue, then He was pretty inept at it—killing off people who step out of line tends to make one think carefully before dissenting.

Again, I urge you not to read me as saying that dissent is a vice. Not at all. I am merely saying that it is neither a vice nor a virtue. Williams, not Thoreau.

Bart Barber said...


The right to dissent without the intervention of the temporal sword, yes.

The right to dissent without the intervention of the spiritual sword, no.

Dissent as a virtue, no.

Bart Barber said...


We practice local church autonomy because we believe it to be biblical. My church is autonomous from the church in the next town even if we are in total agreement—if we dissent about nothing at all.

I demur from your suggestion that dissent is necessary in the SBC. Would that we could claim with the Jerusalem church that we are all of one mind, so long as that mind is the mind that God would have us to possess!

Dissent is a function of sin. You and I both believe that we are all sinners. In times of dissent, both parties may be wrong, but both cannot be right. At least one must be in error and in sin. The dissent is not a sin (again, don't put me into the position of saying that dissent is a vice...I'm not saying that), but neither is it a virtue. It all depends upon the content of your dissent. Dissent in favor of the truth and you've done a good thing. Dissent in favor of error and you've done something bad.

But to pat oneself on the back merely over the fact that you've had the courage to be a dissenter is folly. Yes, Martin Luther can lay claim to the category, but so can Joseph Smith.