Snake handlers don't classify as cultists

JEFFERSON CITY, Mo. (BP) -- When the Rev. Jamie Coots, co-star of National Geographic Channel's reality TV show "Snake Salvation" was bitten on the hand by a rattlesnake, he refused medical treatment and died in less than two hours.

 
Coots, who was leading mid-February services at the Full Gospel Tabernacle in Jesus' Name in Middlesboro, Ky., and his followers represent a sect of Christianity that incorporates snake handling into worship, relying heavily on Mark 16:17-18 for support. The beloved pastor, who survived numerous snakebites in the past, is not the first to die in this manner since George Went Hensley introduced snake handling to Appalachian churches in the early 1900s. Coots died the way he lived, faithful to his beliefs.

Some people classify snake handlers like Coots as cultists, but there is a distinction between cults and sects.

A cult is a religious organization whose members claim to be Christians, and who use the Bible and Christian terms, yet who deny the central beliefs of historic, biblical Christianity. More to the point, a cult is based on a counterfeit Christian message.

Our Jehovah's Witness and Mormon friends, for example, belong to movements that deny biblical doctrines inherent to orthodox Christianity.

Jehovah's Witnesses deny the Trinity, the deity of Christ, His atonement on the cross, His physical resurrection, and salvation by grace through faith -- all non-negotiable Christian doctrines.

Mormons, in a similar fashion, hold unbiblical views of God. They teach, for example, that Jesus and Lucifer were brothers born into the spirit world through sexual relations between Elohim and a goddess wife and that "as man is, God once was; as God is, man may become."

Our snake-handling Pentecostal friends, however, embrace the core doctrines of the Christian faith. Therefore, they are not members of a cult, but of a sect, which may be defined as a group that embraces orthodox doctrine but has established its own identity and teachings distinct from the broader Christian community.

Coots truly believed that Mark 16:17-18 is a command: "And these signs will accompany those who believe: In My name they will drive out demons; they will speak in new languages; they will pick up snakes; if they should drink anything deadly, it will never harm them; they will lay hands on the sick, and they will get well."

As Andrew Hamblin, 21, pastor of Tabernacle Church of God in LaFollette, Tenn., told The Tennessean daily newspaper, "To me it's a mandate. You don't have to do it to go to heaven, but you do have to believe it is the word of God to take up serpents." Hamblin begins each service with a warning: "There's death in that box," pointing to snakes in stacked wooden and glass containers.

There are sound reasons to reject the interpretation of Mark 16 that Hamblin and others embrace. First, manuscript evidence indicates broad uncertainty about whether verses 9-20 were part of the original autograph of Mark's Gospel. As the Holman Christian Standard Study Bible explains, "Either Mark ended his Gospel here [verse 8], he never wrote an intended ending, or his original ending has been lost."

A second reason to reject snake handling as normative for the church is that we see no commands for it elsewhere in Scripture, either in the Gospels or the Epistles. Nor do we see it practiced in the early church.

Third, we must distinguish between what the writers of Scripture record and what they command. If this passage truly is canonical, it likely describes God's miraculous preservation of His people under extraordinary circumstances. For example, the apostle Paul was bitten by a viper, yet survived (Acts 28:3-6).

Finally, God does not instruct us to entertain death in a box. We should never tempt God or test His sovereign will. The "spiritual high" described in these worship services may be more of an adrenaline rush than "the closest thing to heaven," as Hamblin describes it.

God may allow us to live to a ripe old age or take us home prematurely in divine discipline (see 1 Corinthians 11:27-32). We do not need to test His sovereignty by claiming snake salvation.

Even so, we should remember that snake-handling Pentecostals are our brothers and sisters in Christ. We should love them and speak well of their passion for God, even if we do not agree with their interpretation of a disputed passage of Scripture.


Rob Phillips is director of communications for the Missouri Baptist Convention with responsibility for leading MBC apologetics ministry in the state. This article first appeared in The Pathway (www.mbcpathway.org), newsjournal of the Missouri Baptist Convention. Phillips also is on the Web at www.oncedelivered.net.