Recently, Pastor Jamie Coots of Full Gospel Tabernacle in Jesus’ Name Church in Middlesboro, Kentucky, died of a rattlesnake bite, while trusting in the Lord to heal him. He claimed that Mark 16:18 assured him believers could “pick up serpents” without harm. He’d recovered from earlier bites, but this time he didn’t, even as he refused aid from paramedics.
Rubbing salt into the bereaved family’s wound, Fred Phelps, Jr. of the infamous Westboro Baptist Church in Topeka called him a “false prophet,” and Westboro threatened to picket the funeral. By their account, Coots’ main offense was failure to major on their central message, the evils of homosexuality. Furthermore, according to Phelps, “There’s nothing in this day and age that has anything to do with handling snakes. That’s just silliness.”1
But how can it be silliness if it’s in the Bible? But is it? We read in Bruce Metzger’s Textual Commentary on the New Testament, “The last twelve verses of the commonly received text of Mark are absent from the two oldest Greek manuscripts.”2 This is not to fault the translators of the old King James Version, who worked with the best sources they had in 1611. But subsequent discoveries, including one at St. Catherine’s Monastery in the Sinai, have cast doubt on Mark 16:9-20, the longer ending of that Gospel. Since the original handwriting has not survived, we must rely on collections of copies found on papyrus and sheepskin, some in scroll form, some bound in books. And current scholarship makes the snake passage in Mark doubtful.
Not at all doubtful are the opening verses of Romans 13, which tell believers to submit to the government. Here, then, is another problem: The Middlesboro church is located in Kentucky, where snake handling has been illegal for half a century as a matter of court opinion (Lawson v. Commonwealth, 1942) as well as statute.3 To be sure, preachers, such as Peter and John in Acts 4, must continue to proclaim the resurrection power of Christ even if forbidden. But there is no comparable mandate to keep handling snakes when the state tells you to stop.
It’s useful to note that there is, indeed, a New Testament story of deliverance from snakebite. It’s found in Acts 28:1-6, where Paul, having survived a shipwreck, is helping to build up a fire on shore. A viper comes out of the bundle of sticks he’s gathered and latches on to his hand. When he shakes it off into the fire, the natives are so astonished that they declare him a god.4 By extension, there is no good reason not to believe that such things are possible in our era for Christian missionaries and other believers. Miracles still happen when they suit God’s purposes.
Nevertheless, Fred Junior has a point if the question is one of “handling snakes” in worship services. Paul wasn’t engaged in some sort of test when the snake attacked him on Malta. The bite came as a surprise. Of course, it was no surprise to God, but Paul was not putting himself in peril to make a point or gain some sort of spiritual high.
In Coots’ case, we’re drawn to Jesus’ words in Matthew 4:5-7. There, Satan urged Him to jump off the Temple heights to demonstrate the truth of Scripture that angels could intercept Him before He hit the ground (Psalm 91:12). Jesus came right back with a quotation from Deuteronomy 6:16, one that warned against concocting tests for God. So even if the “long ending” of Mark is legitimate Scripture, Pastor Coots had no business putting himself in danger to manipulate God into performing a miracle of rescue. As lamentable as the pastor’s death truly was, his perilous behavior was presumptuous, sub-biblical, and a failure at stewardship of both health and witness.
1 “The Big One 106.3 fm interview with Fred Phelps Jr. of Westboro Baptist,” February 18, 2014. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=KaZpnpRIGZg (accessed March 6, 2014).
2 Bruce M. Metzger, A Textual Commentary on the Greek New Testament, second edition (Stuttgart: United Bible Societies, 1971, 1994), 102.
3 “Snake Handlers and the Law,” http://yeltsin.tripod.com/law/law.htm (accessed March 6, 2014).
4 While Paul killed his snake, Jamie Coots’ son said they planned to keep the one that killed his father for use in another service. Gina Meeks, “Snake That Killed Pastor Jamie Coots Will Be in Church Again Saturday, His Son Says,” Charisma, February 19, 2014, http://www.charismanews.com/us/42852-snake-that-killed-pastor-jamie-coots-will-be-in-church-again-saturday-his-son-says (accessed March 6, 2014).