I could never go to a snake-handling church because: 1) I am not a fan of the vile creatures, and 2) I am not sure of the practice is biblical.
The practice has gotten in the news again because Pastor Jamie Coots, a serpent-handling pastor and co-star of the “Snake Salvation” reality television show, died Feb. 15 after suffering a snakebite during a church service. He was 42.
Coots, pastor of the Full Gospel Tabernacle in Jesus Name in Middlesboro, Ky., was found dead at his house around 10 p.m.
Coots had been bitten at the church and passed out there, Middlesboro Police Chief Jeff Sharpe said. Sharpe said emergency workers went to the church and to Coots’ home but his family members refused medical care. The police chief said there were no plans to press any charges in relation to Coots’ death.
I am burdened because here is a man who professes to love Jesus and who has based his ministry on his interpretation of God’s Word, and he has tragically died in that service. I am brokenhearted for his family and his church who are without their pastor today. While much of the world has used this event to poke fun at the practice, it doesn’t change the fact that there are some committed people who are grief-stricken today because someone they loved has passed away.
Is Snake-Handling Biblical?
Some of you would not handle snakes because of my first reason – serpents just creep you out. I want to address the second reason that I believe that snake-handling is not biblical. Even though it is in the Bible, I do not believe it is a biblical command. And the reason why may actual help you out in your journey to understanding the Bible.
The practice comes from Mark 16:15-18:
And he said to them, “Go into all the world and proclaim the gospel to the whole creation. Whoever believes and is baptized will be saved, but whoever does not believe will be condemned. And these signs will accompany those who believe: in my name they will cast out demons; they will speak in new tongues; 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.” -Mark 16:15-18
Two things for you to consider regarding this passage:
1. Mark 16:9-20 may not have been Jesus’ words.
2. Just because it was recorded does not mean it should be repeated.
Let me explain.
Should Mark 16:9-20 Be in the Bible?
If you open your Bible up to Mark 16, you may see something like what I see in mine. Before the passage begins, my Bible contains a publisher’s note saying: “Some of the earliest manuscripts do not include 16:9-20.”
When the Bible was composed, there were no Xerox machines, printing presses, or the copy and paste functionality that we so rely upon today. All copies were made by hand. It took a long time and it was a very careful process. The early Church generations were very careful concerning how they transcribed the messages. One thing that makes the Bible different from other volumes written in that era is the remarkable level at which thousands of hand-written copies are word-for-word accurate compared to one another. That shows how serious they took this process.
That’s the problem. While the vast majority of later Greek manuscripts of Mark contains Mark 16:9-20, some of the oldest and most trusted copies we have access to (the Codex Sinaiticus and Codex Vaticanus) do not contain that passage. The same is true for John 7:53-8:11. These passages do not change the message of the Bible whether they are included or not. Mark’s passage is the final section including his recording of the Great Commission. If you take it out, Mark concludes his gospel without the Great Commission, but highlights the amazement that the disciples experienced which would go along with one of the major themes of Mark (1:22, 27; 2:12; 4:41; 5:15, 33, 42:6:51; 9:6, 15, 32; 10:24, 32; 11:18; 12:17; 16:6).
In addition, these verses sound like someone else took up the pen at this section. The writer uses 18 words that have yet to be used in the entire Gospel of Mark. Even the title “Lord Jesus” (Mark 16:19) is not used at any other time throughout the book.
It’s a speculation, but it is a possibility that hundreds of years later, someone thought that Mark too abruptly ended his Gospel and decided to add a conclusion to it. That conclusion was then transcribed to hundreds of copies allowing for the discrepancy.
The good thing is that in the mass amount of content contained in the Bible, this is such an isolated event. The accurate nature of the majority of the Bible gives great assurance. If anything, I think this discrepancy is a gift to show what a possible error would look like and how the Bible is so tremendously accurate.
What About the Snakes?
Let’s just say that this passage is accurate. Jesus had spoken these words. They are infallible. Even if these are the words of Jesus, it actually never commands anyone to handle snakes. All it says that these disciples will pick up snakes and drink poison and it will not hurt them. These will serve as a sign.
There is a difference in the Bible concerning what is descriptive and what is prescriptive.
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Just because the Bible says something happens does not mean we are supposed to repeat it.
- Gideon tested God by laying out his fleece, but Scripture teaches that we are not supposed to test God (Deut. 6:16).
- Jabez had a prayer that his land would increase (1 Chron. 4:10), but we are not Jabez, we don’t possess land like he did, and that does not mean that God wants every person to be blessed financially.
- Proof of this can be found that most people desire to repeat the positive narratives of the Bible while escaping the negative narratives of the Bible.
Jesus might have been saying that the disciples would go out and their perseverance would serve as a sign to others that the gospel was true. In fact, we do see that in the Bible. 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.”
Here might be proof of this text. Paul was sharing the gospel and was bit by a snake but he did not die or get sick. Here’s the point: Paul did not seek out to grab a snake, the snake grabbed him. Jesus never asked his disciples to go looking for trouble, but if trouble came, he promised to protect them.
If this passage is biblical, Jesus was giving a promise rather than a command. He never said, “go and do this,” instead, he said, “if this happens, I will protect you.” Big difference.
If you think about it, the desire to seek out a serpent to handle is no different from the temptation that Jesus experienced from Satan himself. It is amazing how similar this is with the common practice of snake-handling:
Jesus said to him, “Again it is written, ‘You shall not put the Lord your God to the test.’” -Matt. 4:5-7
So the devil wanted Jesus to test God by putting himself in a dangerous situation, took Scripture out of context to justify his thinking, and then promised him nothing would happen to him so that everyone would marvel at the fact that he was safe.
See any similarities?
For me, the similarities are strikingly close.
Satan loves to twist Scripture. Satan knows the Word better than you do, so you better make sure you are careful how you handle it (2 Tim. 2:15).
Make sure you know the difference between a biblical description and a biblical prescription.
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Travis Agnew serves as the Lead Pastor of Rocky Creek Church in Greenville, SC. His most recent book is Just (About) Married.
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