Reflecting on Snake Handling & Tests of Faith


By now you may have heard of Mack Wolford, the snake-handling preacher who was killed by a bite of yellow timber rattlesnake. If you read past the headline, you may have experienced the same type of shock that I did upon seeing that his father died the same way back in 1984. If you thought about it afterwards, you may have wondered, what in the world is wrong with these people? And if you are spiteful like me, you might have wondered how can we convince Fred Phelps to take up snake-handling ;)

I want to say a few things here. One especially for those that may across as and are looking from outside the Church – snake-handling is not a normal practice for 99.9999% of Christians. I’m not kidding and I probably don’t have enough nines to the right of the decimal.

Now I know that these news articles mention that this is a 100 year old tradition in places like Tennessee. Such sentences hold no credibility to most of us in light of a 2000 year old history of a the Global Church. In the 5 minutes that I spent Googling, I saw articles implying there are techniques to charm the snakes. I’m sure if I were to spend an hour online, I’d find articles implying that the handlers have been accused of subduing the snakes and/or other measures of protection. While this may not have been true of Mack Wolford, we shouldn’t be what else would be uncovered from this bizarre and quite rare sub-culture.

Second, in thinking about this, I am so saddened for the Wolford family. Losing two men like this is tragic and I can only imagine what’s been going through their minds and hearts this week. So many tragedies are unavoidable and mysterious, and this is not the case here. This is another example of bad theology causing harm and this is regrettable.

Third, I want to say that the idea of snake-handling being a test of faith is a very unBiblical idea. Of course, the few proponents of snake-handling insist they are being obedient to Scripture passages like like Mark 16:17-18. I would echo the many that would state their interpretations is flawed. Further, the passage in question is extremely complicated by the fact that this is not part of the original Gospel of Mark but appears to have been inserted later. (It is generally believed that the original conclusion was lost or destroyed in a fire perhaps and subsequent copies never had the original conclusion).

At the same time I wonder why they are not consistent with their interpretation and venture out of the world of snake-handling and try some of the other faith-led activities that we have in Scripture like walking on water (Mark 6:49) or commanding mountains to jump into the sea (Mark 11:23)? Why not become a storm chaser that silents the storms (Mark 4:35-40) and still the tornadoes (that would be helpful in the Mid West right? Further, please note that all of these passages are far the Gospel of Mark too. Anyway, I’m saying these “tests of faith” would be seriously impressive and consistent with their faulty literal hermeneutic.

Of course, I interpret a passages like to be a hyperbole. And I realize that I may being a little hard but today I just see this as complete nonsense and I’m bothered that people are losing their lives over very bad theology.

But I offer the same reminder others have mentioned not to test God (which works loosely in the big picture, but an often over-used and misinterpreted passage. Because not everything is actually a test from God).

Concerning a different interpretation, a better interoperation of snake-bites, mountains, storms, etc. is this:  Jesus is articulating the idea that God is greater than anything  in/of this world and because of our faith in him, we do not fear anything in/of this world but live a life of reverence and obedience to him.

This doesn’t mean we drive recklessly or jump out of planes without parachutes or commit other dangerous acts as demonstrations of faith. There are no precedents of this in our Scriptures. Even when Paul gets bit by a snake and doesn’t die is not a precedent (Acts 28). He was attacked by the snake, he didn’t run out, catch him, cage him, feed him, and bring him out on Sundays. The danger that the believers in the Scriptures find themselves in is due to their obedience and commitment to God, not their foolish demonstrations of faith.

I think the true tests of faith today are much different. They are more about who/what we identify ourselves with, who/what we serve, who/what we surround ourselves, etc. Ultimately, the tests of faith are we willing to live in the way that God has asked us to? May the Lord give us grace and strength to do this, I tell you, it’s far harder than snake-handling.