There are some who think that faith in Christ demands that they handle snakes as part of their worship services. These individuals believe that if they just have enough faith, snake venom won’t hurt them. Upon occasion one reads stories of a snake handler being bit and dying.
The problem with snake handlers is not the sincerity of those who engage in the practice. Rather, the problem is that believe something that is not actually so.
Jesus, in giving His apostles the Great Commission did promise the following: “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 16:17-18; ESV)”
However, this was never a universal statement concerning the abilities of all believers universally as can be ascertained by a consideration of 1 Corinthians 12:29-30: “Are all apostles? Are all prophets? Are all teachers? Do all work miracles? Do all possess gifts of healing? Do all speak with tongues? Do all interpret? (ESV)” We are given seven rhetorical questions, the answer to each of which is no. Just as not every Christian was an apostle or a prophet, so too, not every Christian in the apostolic church worked miracles or spoke in tongues. As it says elsewhere concerning such gifts, they were “distributed according to his will. (Hebrews 2:4b)”
There were some who had the ability to speak in tongues, there were others who did not. In the same way, we are told that upon one occasion the Apostle Paul was bitten by a snake and did not die. This did not give all Christians everywhere the same expectation of snake-defying-powers.
Believing that if you simply have enough faith the Spirit is obligated to protect you from snake-bites is not just wrong but presumptuous. If the Spirit distributed gifts according to His will, then who are we to presume or demand such gifts apart from the will of the Spirit. A little humility is called for.
This line of thinking has some relevance to many believers today apart from a debate concerning the propriety of snake-handling. For example, if a deadly illness is ravaging the land, what of the Christians who trust that if they only have enough faith, they can engage in risky behaviors without fear, because they trust God to keep them from getting ill.
We might note that the same God who promised Israel that He would protect them and care for them if they were faithful to His word, also gave them strict quarantine guidelines regarding certain infectious diseases such as leprosy (cf. Leviticus 14). He also, sometimes allowed His people to face illnesses, sometimes even as a test of their faith (cf. Job 1-2; 1 Corinthians 12:7-9)
Faith in God’s promises is a good thing, as is trusting in God. But we might want to make sure to check what all God has actually promised before we start making foolish decisions which God did not actually command us to make. And when we do allow ourselves to face danger in the name of faith, or so as to fulfill the commands of God, we might entertain the possibility in our minds that while God will likely be pleased in our trust in Him, he might not actually keep us from being harmed. Thus, did Daniel’s three friends confess their faith, “Our God is able to keep us from the fire, but even if He does not, we still will not bow (cf. Daniel 3:17-18).”
God did not ask us to handle snakes, and we don’t actually further His will by insisting that He did. But lest we be too hard on those who insist on letting themselves get bit by vipers, let’s make sure we aren’t falling into the same theological fallacy, albeit with a different mask. Serving God should be about us bending to His will, not insisting that He conform to our desires. Fearless devotion is not the same as reckless folly, but rather understands that the ultimate reward God offers us has very little to do with health or earthly security, but instead an eternal home with Him after this life is over.
The church of Christ invites you to worship and study with us at 234 Chapel Drive, Gallipolis, Ohio, though during this time of uncertainty, we encourage you to call to confirm our meeting times. Or, if you have any questions or comments, we also invite you to share them with us at chapelhillchurchofchrist.org.
Jonathan McAnulty is minister of Chapel Hill Church of Christ. Viewpoints expressed in the article are the work of the author.