Snakes in Church


If successful snake handling is a sign of God's spiritual favor, then is death from snake handling the sign of a false prophet?

Well, another one bit the dust. More accurately, another one was bitten and went back to the dust. Rev. Jamie Coots of the Full Gospel Tabernacle in Jesus’ Name of Middlesboro, Kentucky, passed away after he was bitten by a poisonous snake during a religious service. He and his father were leaders in a movement of Holiness churches in Appalachia, which believes that God promises Christians today the power to handle poisonous snakes without harm. His family said that he had been bitten various times before but recovered each time. Not this time.

Kentucky, Alabama, and Tennessee have state statutes prohibiting snake handling as a religious practice, and so it usually happens in private homes. However, when it is done in churches no one calls the police unless someone dies. That happens often enough that you would think the practice would die out, but it doesn’t. The most energetic popularizer of the practice, Rev. George Hensley, died of a snakebite in 1955, as did John Wayne Brown in 1998 and Mack Wolford in 2012. I suspect that Rev. Coots’ death will not be the last.

If successful snake handling is a sign from God of spiritual favor, does death from snake handling demonstrate that the deceased is a false prophet?

The Holiness and Pentecostal churches came into existence because of people’s longing for signs, wonders, and miracles to assure people that they were really saved or to authenticate someone’s leadership in the group. They point to Scripture passages like Matthew 10 (the sending of the Twelve), Luke 10 (the sending of the 72), and Mark 16 (Jesus’ post-resurrection commissioning of the Eleven), in which special powers were promised by the Lord: the ability to drive out demons, speak in new tongues, handle venomous snakes without harm, drink deadly poison, heal the sick with a touch, cleanse lepers, and raise the dead.

A casual conclusion from those passages is that Christians should be able to do all those things. A deeper look shows that these were special confirming powers granted to the apostles in the first wave of Christianity, authenticating the speakers when there was yet no written New Testament. Satan has been whispering to believers ever since the Garden of Eden that God’s revealed Word is not enough. People today are endlessly fascinated with the “Gnostic Gospels” and suspect that the “church” suppressed true Scriptures that it didn’t like. All scams from hell. The Word works. Jesus himself cautioned against sign seeking in Matthew 12:39, “A wicked and adulterous generation asks for a miraculous sign!”

The written Word that we have been given is God-breathed, comprehensive, and fully sufficient and able to bring people to salvation in Christ. When you have doubts or fears about your salvation, just listen to the message of God’s grace for you: that he sought you out; sent his Son to live, suffer, die, and rise for you; and brought you to faith through his Spirit. You are saved by his grace through faith, not by any works you have done. The guarantee of your salvation is the cross of Christ, not how successfully you can handle timber rattlers.

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