A snake bit the Rev. Dwayne Long last Sunday in an Easter snake-handling service in Jonesville, Va., and he died the next day.
I cringed at faith gone askew and biblical misinterpretation as well as the trauma this must have brought to his family and congregation.
Only one verse in the Bible mentions snake-handling as an expression of faith, Mark 16:17-18: “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, and if they drink any deadly thing, it will not hurt them; they will lay their hands on the sick and they will recover.”
Because of this one verse, some sincere seekers interpret snake handling, poison drinking, speaking in tongues and faith healing as the litmus test of whether one has faith.
I consider any who practice snake handling and poison drinking sincere … but sincerely wrong.
Speaking in tongues (meaning “glossalalia,” or the unknown tongue) and anointing with oil are mentioned several other times and are worthy of special, longer consideration.
There are still faith groups of snake handlers. I wish that baffling one-liner could be made clearer to satisfy us all, such as in Acts 28:3 where Paul shakes off the viper hanging on his hand while shipwrecked and picking up sticks for a fire.
My interpretation would mean if, inadvertently and unintentionally, a snake is there, one of faith may survive.
Only once in the Bible, Revelation 20:4,6, is the millennium mentioned, the “thousand years” of peace which will come at the end of history. Christians have split over Premillennialism and Postmillennialism – whether Christ will come before or after the thousand years of peace.
One minister being examined for ordination was asked, “Are you ‘pre’ or ‘post’?” His answer was classic: “I am ‘pan’! I believe God will make everything ‘pan’ out all right!”
I think that heaven grieves over so many arguments, broken fellowships over theological hair-splitting regarding how God created the world or will end this world and as to the intricate details regarding God’s creation or ending of this world.
I’m like the man who stood before Jesus and said, “Lord, I believe … help thou my unbelief (ignorance).” I know God made us and God will finalize and judge us. Oh, how I wish that verse were clarified simply.
In I Cor. 7:26, Paul says, “In view of the impending distress … ” that he wishes folk would not marry. He goes on to say, “The appointed time has grown very short” and advises married people to live as though they were not married (7:29).
Largely on Paul views, the church developed rules for celibacy for priests, monks and nuns, rating celibacy as a higher calling than marriage (100 percent to 70 percent).
The Shakers were so faithful to this concept they died out. Was “the impending distress” the end of the world or severe persecution by the Roman emperor or some terrible epidemic? That one-liner changed history.
The ultimate one-liner may be Matthew 16:17 where Jesus asks his disciples at Caesarea Philippi who men think he is and Peter answered, “Thou art the Christ, the son of the living God.” Jesus answers, “Blessed are you, Simon Bar-Jona … You are Peter, and on this rock I will build my church … I will give you the keys of the kingdom.”
The Catholic Church interprets this to give the authority of the church to and through Peter. The Protestant churches interpret this to give the authority and benefits to whoever makes the profession of faith, “Thou art the Christ.”
It is not ridiculous to say that one-liner splits Christendom.
Whatever the differences in creeds and ancient declarations, I am optimist enough to believe we are closer to a time when all Christians can sing with gusto, “The Church’s one foundation is Jesus Christ, her Lord!”
Bob Cuttino of Beaufort is a retired minister and a university instructor of religion.