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Snake salvation: what is tested?

POSTED: February 27, 2014 5:11 p.m.

Jamie Coots, pastor of a Middlesboro, Ky., church, died recently following a worship service in which he was handling snakes. I’ll give you three guesses on the cause of his death.

The star of National Geographic Channel’s “Snake Salvation,” Coots said he believed a passage in the Bible promises that poisonous snakebites will not harm believers as long as they are anointed by God. The passage in question is Mark 16:17-18, which reads, “The one who believes and is baptized will be saved; but the one who does not believe will be condemned. And these signs will accompany those who believe: by using my name they will cast out demons; they will speak in new tongues; they will pick up snakes in their hands, and if they drink any deadly thing, it will not hurt them; they will lay their hands on the sick, and they will recover” (NRSV).

“Snake Salvation” featured Coots and others in his church handling copperheads, cottonmouths, and rattlers. Coots not only interpreted the passage above literally, which of course is his right, but he also considered the passage a commandment; he believed he must “pick up serpents.”

And he didn’t back down from this conviction that God would protect him from any and all consequences. Coots, 42, would never receive medical treatment when bitten. This time was no different, except of course that he died two hours after a rattler sank his fangs into his right hand.

I would certainly argue about the literal interpretation involved. But more than that, I’m not sure I grasp the rationale behind refusing medical treatment.

There is the story of the faithful man who went to a window of the first floor of his house as flood waters rose around him. A rescuer in a row boat stopped and told him to get in. The man at the window said no, that he had faith in God and would wait for God to save him. The flood waters continued to rise and the man went to a window on the second floor.

Soon, a rescuer in a motor boat came by and told the man to get in. The man in the house said, no, thank you. He had perfect faith in God and would wait for God to save him. The flood waters kept rising, and soon the man had to climb on top of his roof.
A helicopter then came by, lowered a rope and the pilot shouted down in the man in the house to climb up the rope. The man on the roof wouldn’t get in. He told the pilot that he had faith in God and would wait for God to rescue him.

The flood waters kept rising and the man drowned. When he got to heaven, he asked God where he went wrong. He told God that he had perfect faith, but God had let him drown. “What more do you want from me?” asked God. “I sent you two boats and a helicopter.”

The point? God made doctors, too. And nurses, and pharmacists.

Unfortunately, Coots convinced others that refusing care when bitten was the faithful thing to do. Melinda Brown, 28, died years ago after she was bitten by a large rattlesnake. Her husband, John Brown, begged her to go to the hospital, but she refused. She died at Coots’ home.

I suppose if Coots were here, he would tell me that it is his prerogative to refuse treatment. Yes, it is. But it is not his prerogative to break the law. Christians are never called to be law-breakers. Coots was arrested and given probation twice since 2008 for both transporting and keeping venomous snakes.

But his refusal to obtain medical treatment, his influence on others, and his law-breaking are not the main reasons why I question snake-handling in a church. I suppose I just don’t understand what is tested here.

Is the notion that this dangerous practice is testing one’s faith? I hope not.

While Coots believed strongly that he was acting in obedience to scripture, which I respect, we might also benefit from Jesus’ statement, “Again it is written, ‘Do not put the Lord your God to the test’” (NRSV).

The Rev. Dr. Bob LeFavi, installed member of the Society of Ordained Scientists, is pastor at Bethel Lutheran Church, Springfield.

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