You may have heard the tragic news over the weekend that Pastor Jamie Coots, a snake handling pastor who starred in the reality show Snake Salvation, died after he being bitten by a snake while handling it during a recent church service.
The story quickly spread in large part because of our fascination with the odd and the taboo…and you don’t get much more odd or taboo in the church world than handling snakes.
And if my Facebook and Twitter feeds are any indication, the story was also an opportunity for the rest of us to show how superior and sophisticated our theology is by mocking Pastor Coots and his kind across all social media channels for the inevitable result of their redneck ignorance.
But I think there’s an important lesson in the death of Pastor Coots that all of us could stand to learn – or at least be reminded of – even if we already think handling snakes during church is ridiculous.
Bad theology can kill you.
In this case, that was literally true.
Pastor Coots’ blind obedience to an obscure passage of scripture – that tragically doesn’t even appear in the oldest biblical manuscripts – led him to practice bad theology that eventually took his life.
But he’s not alone in that sort of thing.
The history of the church is filled with similar tragic examples of how bad theology can kill.
Muslim were slaughtered in the crusades in the name of God.
Witches were burned at the stake in the name of God.
Native Americans were converted, then eradicated in the name of God.
LGBT folks have been lynched in the name of God.
And that’s just the tip of the iceberg.
But bad theology doesn’t just kill people physically. It can also destroy their souls.
While far too many have been killed in the name of God, far more have had their lives shattered in the name of biblical faithfulness.
The enslavement of untold scores of African and Native men, women, and children was justified by biblical faithfulness.
The destruction of countless indigenous cultures has been justified by biblical faithfulness.
The marginalization of women and minorities as separate, but equal was and continues to be justified by biblical faithfulness.
And, once again, the oppression and exclusion of the LGBT community has been and continues to be justified by biblical faithfulness.
We may not want to admit it, but our lives demonstrate the simple reality that while the Bible may say it, that doesn’t mean we’re supposed to do it. There are countless times when we can and do ignore the Bible (prohibitions against eating bacon and shrimp or the requirement for women to wear hats at church) or other times when we should, in fact, do the complete opposite of what the Bible says (calls to commit genocide or sacrifice children).
That doesn’t make us biblically unfaithful people.
It makes us people who use the Bible in a faithful way that is guided by the wisdom of the Spirit, not blind obedience.
There are real lives are at stake in the things we teach, preach, and practice and because there are, we simply cannot bury our heads in the sands of willful ignorance and hide behind the Bible as if thinking critically for ourselves was an act of blasphemy.
The grey matter floating between our ears is a gift from God and should be used as such.
When we don’t do that and instead dismiss that gift as “man’s reason” in some sort of disingenuous zeal to “simply follow the Bible,” we don’t just end up with bad theology, we destroy lives, deprive people of their humanity, and cripple souls.
Before you act again because you think you’re doing the will of God or because you think you’re doing what scripture plainly tells you to do, remember the lessons of the past and what has happened when others have done the same. Some have only killed themselves by taking up snakes, but others have taken up planes and flown them into buildings, killing thousands, because people believed that they doing the will of God and simply following what scripture plainly told them to do.
So, never forget that the truth of the matter is you’re not simply doing what the Bible says to do.
You’re doing what you think the Bible says to do.
And that’s a really, really important difference.
Because it can kill you.
And destroy the lives of those around you.
Grace and peace,