Tuesday, June 24, 2014

Snake Bit!

Earlier this year a bizarre story surfaced about a Pentecostal preacher famous for handling snakes during Sunday services. Jamie Coots, died after being bitten by a poisonous snake at his Middlesboro, KY church, Full Gospel Tabernacle. Coots was the star of National Geographic's "Snake Salvation" reality series, which followed the peculiar preacher through his daily life and showcased his passion to preserve this radical expression of faith.

Oddly enough, this wasn’t the first time Coots experienced the agony of having snake venom course through his veins. He had been bitten nine times and even lost his finger during a previous bite because he refused medical attention. Coots told ABC News during an interview that he and his followers “believed that God calls upon them to handle venomous serpents and to drink other poisons.” If bitten, Coots and his parishioners refuse medical treatment because they believe that their fate is in God's hands.[1]

Coots and other backwoods churches which practice snake handling throughout rural Appalachia claim they can back up their dangerous custom with Scriptural proof. Citing Mark 16:18 which says, “They will pick up serpents with their hands; and if they drink any deadly poison, it will not hurt them; they will lay their hands on the sick, and they will recover,” these charismatics on the fringes of Christianity claim they are just following the commands of Jesus.

Of course the media would pounce on this story because it sensational and paints Christianity in a negative light. When the lost hear about stupidity such as this it’s easy to characterize Christians as country bumpkins who don’t have enough sense to get out of the rain. When people watch shows like “Snake Salvation” it’s no different than going a carnival to see the bearded woman or the midget performers—it nothing more than a sideshow.  

Chances are the average believer will never run into a snake handler and you couldn’t pay most people enough money to stand six feet from a rattler, much less pick one up. That being the case, most people know intuitively that snake handling isn’t at all what Jesus was speaking about, and here’s why.  

First, it is very important to remember that there are some questions regarding whether Mark chapter 16, verses 9-20 belong in the Bible. There is some evidence that these verses were not originally part of the Gospel of Mark. As a result, it is not wise to use anything from Mark 16:9-20 as the sole basis for a doctrine or practice.

Second, the passage does not contain any imperatives. It does not say, “Go out and handle snakes.” It is describing something that will occur, not commanding that something should occur. An example of this is the Apostle Paul in Acts 28:3-5: “Paul gathered a pile of brushwood and, as he put it on the fire, a viper, driven out by the heat, fastened itself on his hand … But Paul shook the snake off into the fire and suffered no ill effects.” Notice that Paul did not seek out to handle a snake. The snake bit Paul, but God protected Paul from the effects of the snake bite. Mark 16:17-18 is saying that if you are faithfully serving God in the spread of the gospel, He can protect you from anything that may cross your path.

Third, Scripture is also consistent that we are not to put the Lord to the test (Ex. 17:2; Matt. 4:7). Just as Jesus refused to jump off the pinnacle of the temple, even though God would send angels to protect Jesus, so are we to not intentionally put ourselves in situations that require God’s miraculous intervention.

So what can we learn from this strange story of snake bite? In my estimation, it highlights the danger of taking verses out of context, reading into them something that was never intended (also called isogesis) and then building an entire theology from those verses. If we aren’t careful, it’s easy to make the Bible say whatever we want.

The classic example is the fella who was trying to determine God’s will for his life, so he randomly opened his Bible and read the first verse he came to, Matt. 27:4, “And Judas went out and hanged himself.” He scratched his head and thought, “That can’t be right,” so he randomly opened his Bible again and landed on Luke 10:37, “Now you go and do likewise.” He was beginning to really get concerned by now so he decided to try one more time. He flipped open his Bible to John 13:27, “Jesus said, ‘What you are going to do, do quickly.’”

It is always dangerous to base any conclusion on an isolated verse or passage. Scripture must always be interpreted in the light of Scripture. If we do not follow this rule we can conclude almost anything we choose and produce a verse or passage from the Bible to substantiate it. Most of the false cults of our day are based on a fragmentary exposition of the Bible. Their views can often be proved by isolated verses but never by the teaching of the whole Book.

[1] GILLIAN MOHNEY, “’Snake Salvation’ Pastor Dies From Snakebite,” ABC NEWS, 16 February 2014 <http://abcnews.go.com/m/story?id=22542243> 

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