Bob Smietana, “Snake-handling believers find joy in test of faith,” The Tennessean (June 3, 2012):
Andrew Hamblin, 21, serves as the pastor of Tabernacle Church of God in LaFollette, TN. He is, according to this article, “part of a new generation of serpent-handling Christians who are revitalizing a century-old faith tradition in Tennessee. . . . They want to show the beauty and power of their extreme form of spirituality. . . . Their intense faith demands sinless living and rewards them with spiritual ecstasy – the chance to hold life and death in their hands.”
This small group of snake-handling Christians has existed in East Tennessee and the Appalachians since the early 1990s. They base this practice on the King James Version of the Gospel of Mark 16:9-20 (vv. 17-18), which they interpret literally:
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.
Hamblin concludes about this practice, “It is the closest thing to heaven on earth that you could get. You can feel God’s power in the flesh.” One of Hamblin’s boyhood friends, Adam Gibson, had been married by Hamblin this past November. Neither he nor Gibson grew up in the movement but have been “converts.” Shortly after his wedding, Gibson was saved. At a service this past New Years, he handled his first rattler. His conclusion to this experience was the following: “It’s a great feeling to know that God is on your side.” And then in evangelist fashion he says, “I would like to let everyone know if you don’t have a home church, come to the Tabernacle. We believe in the Bible, we believe in the signs – and if you come out we will treat you like family.”
Here are a few thoughts/conclusions.
First, one can appreciate from our brothers and sisters the fact that they take the Bible seriously, all of it. If God says something in the Word, they believe it. They don’t engage in hermeneutical gymnastics (it might be more accurate to state that they don’t’ engage in hermeneutics at all) to determine what it does and does not mean. They believe it. There is something right and healthy about that dependency on the authority of God’s Word. But, there is also something troubling and wrong with it as well.
Second, like often happens in these kinds of circumstances and situations, the movement becomes noted for some unique thing that is tangential to the gospel at best, and it becomes the center point of beliefs and practices. One did not read of a single reference to Jesus Christ or the gospel. Granted this is a secular newspaper, so it may have been stated yet not reported/recorded. But something was off-center. Moreover, inevitably, it fosters a two-tier Christianity, and those who believe and live this way are more godly because they take the Bible literally because they live by greater faith, because . . .
Third, this raises the question about what is part of the original writings. It is the original writings that are inspired, inerrant and authoritative. This, of course, gets into the discipline of textual criticism. For KJV-only proponents, it the KJV that is often considered to be inerrant and authoritative. This creates problems both for belief and behavior because behavior is rooted in belief, and belief finds expression in behavior. It must be stated that there are not many passages besides this text in Mark that would bring to the fore these kinds of aberrations.
Bruce M. Metzger, A Textual Commentary on the Greek New Testament, 2nd ed. (New York: American Bible Society, 1994), 106, comments on the United Bible Societies’ The Greek New Testament, 4th ed:
Thus, on the basis of good external evidence and strong internal considerations it appears that the earliest ascertainable form of the Gospel of Mark ended with 16.8. At the same time, however, out of deference to the evident antiquity of the longer ending and its importance in the textual tradition of the Gospel, the Committee decided to include verses 9-20 as part of the text, but to enclose them within double square brackets in order to indicate that they are the work of an author other than the evangelist.
By the way, the discussion about inerrancy and original writings has been made popular by Bart Ehrman, who does everything he is able to do to undermine doctrine of inerrancy and the Bible’s authority.
Ehrman is an example of a rational and intellectual response to the Scriptures, from the vantage point of one who has an agenda to undermine it. The snake-handlers are an example of an irrational and anti-intellectual response to the Scriptures, from the vantage point of those who undermine it all the while attempting to uphold it. In saying this, one needs to be careful not to sound as if we are the impassioned, distanced, objective interpreters of the Bible who have all this figured out either. That is often the fleshly response when critiquing and assessing other people and views.
Fourth, it brings to mind the oft-quoted statement on the definition/understanding of inerrancy, that we believe in the inerrancy of the Bible when properly interpreted. When we apply that understanding to this situation we could conclude that though they claim the Bible is inerrant and authoritative, they deny those truths through their interpretation/understanding of it. But inerrancy defined/understood in this way is a fallacy. That definition/understanding actually contains two statements that are both true, but not when logically/theologically connected in that way. The inerrancy of the Bible is not dependent on one’s interpretation. The Bible is inerrant, and it is inerrant regardless of one’s interpretation. This gets to the heart of what Paul writes in the proof-text on the inerrancy of Scripture: “All Scripture is breathed out by God [God-breathed]” (2 Tim. 3:16). As an important point of application, it concerns me greatly when inerrancy is determined by or dependent upon one’s own interpretation.
Once we establish this fact, this truth, then we can begin to ask the second question that has to do with interpreting the inerrant Scripture. Paul addresses this in the next part of his statement on the God-breathed Scriptures, where he focuses on the fruit, purpose or goal of these Scriptures: “and profitable for teaching, for reproof, for correction, and for training in righteousness, that the man of God may be complete, equipped for every good work.” Though they are intimately related and organically connected, we must be careful about how we speak of these two truths, and how we prioritize and connect them.
Here is how we have acknowledged these two truths in Evangelical Convictions, Article 2: The Bible (p. 59, brackets mine):
we maintain that though the Bible is without error [the first truth], we can know its truth only when it is properly interpreted in accordance with the purpose for which it is written. . . . the Bible must be understood in its intended sense [the second truth].
Point of Application: This would be an excellent question of application for those pursing credentialing in the EFCA. It would also be a worthwhile discussion among your elders or other leaders.
P.S. If you read this article, you will read of deaths associated with this practice. Would you expect anything differently? I did not include reference to it because of the lengthy post. But since someone asked about it, I thought it important to make reference to it.
Andrew Hamblin, this young pastor, is attending the funeral of Rev. Randy “Mack” Wolford of Bluefield, W.V, his mentor and friend, who had died from a rattle snake bite one week prior to the writing of this article. This was written about in the Washington Post (thanks to the Bill Kynes for the reference). Wolford’s father had also died from a rattle snake bite in 1983. Hamblin’s words of encouragement in the midst of this grief were, “keep on, keep doing the signs of God.”
When things, issues, beliefs, practices, etc., become the center of one’s message and ministry, it means one is left with an empty message. Note that the encouragement is on the basis of the that which is unsure and uncertain as it focuses on the “do” of oneself or the group, i.e. “keep doing the signs of God,” not the “done” of the finished and completed work of Christ. Jesus’ last words from the cross, “It is finished” (Jn. 19:30), and his first words to the gathered disciples post-resurrection, “peace be with you” (Jn. 20:19, 21, 26) fit together – it is only through his completed and final work on the cross that peace with God and one another is accomplished, it is done. This is why (one of many reasons I may add) we are Christocentric in our message, our preaching and our sure and certain hope.