Bad Theology Can Kill You (Lessons From A Snake Handling Pastor)



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,

Zack Hunt


  • Bradley

    Bravo. Too bad more won’t read this.

  • D Lowrey

    Had the same thing happen when I was driven away from a fundamentalist Southern Baptist church because I was working part-time as a classic rock announcer and sending people to hell for playing whatever was on the playlist. When the person who told me this (from a retired jazz musician in Chicago nightclubs for decades)…when I attempted to tell him Paul was a tent maker and other Biblical figures who help non-religious jobs as well as legally playing nothing illegal with language and such…he would have none of it and quoted me being in the world and not part of it over and over. Even funnier was the pastor knew exactly what I did and had no problem with it…as well as some of the parents whose children I worked with in ministry during the week.

    Don’t blame this pastor for doing whatever he believes…but him and his followers better not tell me this was because of his lack of faith. A snake or any other creature will bite you and can kill you if it does not like what you’re doing…not just because of your lack of faith.

  • Tonance

    One area of Christian life that I think is relevant to this discussion is parenting. Thousands of Christian parents have been taken in by wrongheaded writers such as Michael Pearl, Tedd Tripp, and Gary Ezzo who teach that corporeal punishment of children as young as a few months, preferably using a “rod” such as a stick or spoon handle, is not only theologically okay but a BIBLICAL COMMAND – a view that results from improperly interpreted scripture.

    The long term consequences of this kind of authoritarian parenting by the science community have been well-established. Physical punishment correlates with all kinds of negative outcomes. What is not as clear is what the consequences to a child’s future faith will be when their parent tells them they have to be struck with a stick on their bare-skinned rear end or the backs of their thighs as a punishment for their sins. If the faith is credited with the punishment, how will the child assess the faith in the future?

    Queue the pro-spankers who will accuse me of capitulating to a humanistic, liberal parenting perspective.

    • Carly Gelsinger

      Don’t know who Tedd Tripp is but Pearl and Ezzo scare me. And I have friends and family who practice their “biblical” methods.

      • Tonance

        Thanks for the tip about reading scary Christian parenting books out loud in a dramatic voice – I bet that’s a cathartic experience. :)

        What I find to be most disturbing is that most of the friends and family I know who follow the Pearl/Ezzo approach do so not in spite of, but because of, guidance they received from either their pastor or fellow church members. This isn’t something that is happening on the fringe – it’s an unwritten part of many churches’ doctrine.

        I have family members who, for the slightest infraction, will take their preschool age child into another room, calmly tell the child they have to be punished for being sinful, spank their bare bottom with chopsticks, and then pray with the child for forgiveness. They do so, as Mr. Hunt put it, in the name of God.

        • Alena@TheHomemadeCreative

          And the thing is, there are parents like you just described who spank their children “lovingly” – calm, not from anger, with explanations, and comfort afterwards. I don’t know how to handle these parents, because I believe that striking a child even in those circumstances is still abuse, BUT these parents are anything but abusive in every other way! People that I know and love and respect…except for this. And I know kids (now adults) who grew up like that, and do not in any way feel victimized or abused. (I’m not saying none do, I am a survivor of child abuse and incest, and my “spankings” were mostly beatings, though I do remember a few spankings that I would say were “normal”.) So to call those parents abusive is difficult, because they clearly love their children to pieces, and have been deceived about corporal punishment. It’s a hard bone to pick.

          • Tonance

            I couldn’t agree more. The specific family members I referred to are exactly as you described – loving in every other way. I’m sure there are plenty of examples of people who grew up with that kind of disciplinary practice who turned out fine – the problem is that outcome does not generalize to the whole. The general outcome is negative, even when you separate out clear cases of abuse.

            To circle back to the point of Mr. Hunt’s post, my contention is that the consequences of theological errors aren’t limited to huge abuses such as burning witches and killing Muslims. The same wrongheadedness also leads Christians to cause harm to the relationship that should serve as the best example on Earth of God’s love for us and the grace He gives – that of the parent and child.

          • Alena@TheHomemadeCreative

            Agreed. It paints a strange picture of God. Thing is, most Christians I know who fit the category I described above of wonderful parents who spank “with love” believe it paints the perfect picture of God – that God chastises His children to bring about repentance and growth. He does do that, but I am not certain physical spanking is a good picture of divine chastisement…? Either way, these kids grow up believing that the form of spanking they received from their parents is a perfect picture of how God disciplines us when we fail. So I understand why it happens…I am just not sure I agree with the underlying theology.

          • Tonance

            God chastises and disciplines, but not for every single infraction or act of disobedience (I’d be zapped a few times an hour, at least).

            There is also an underlying assumption that these behavior modification techniques that yield obedience to the parent will one day transfer to obedience to God. The science is clear that kids who experience physical punishment tend to have more behavioral and emotional problems later in life, and I’m afraid attributing the punishment and authoritarianism to the faith will lead to many kids walking away from the faith later in life.

            Sorry to hijack your post, Mr. Hunt!

          • Alena@TheHomemadeCreative

            True. I’m not sure the parents that come to mind for me spank as frequently as what you describe, but I know other families that do (thanks to the Pearls), and I agree with your conclusions. We don’t spank our daughter at all, other than a VERY rare pop on the bottom if she’s throwing a tantrum that’s become violent (rare) if I can’t get her attention another way. It doesn’t hurt in the least, just startles her. And even that, I hate doing, and avoid if at all possible. And you know what? The predictions that she’d be a raging nightmare by 2 without spankings (frequent or otherwise) are not panning out. She’s strong willed, determined, enthusiastic, and often intense, but she is also obedient, loving, considerate, and we only really have problems when she’s learning new things or overly tired (as do all children). I want her to know that God is patient and will do the hard work of teaching and correction without resorting to violence.

  • Paul Murray

    You are correct Zach, bad theology does destroy.
    Scripture gives us a perfect balance of Grace and Truth. We so often want to accentuate one or the other.
    We are called to be Holy, in our thought, attitude, and behaviors.
    Scripture speaks very clearly how we are to treat others in light of Jesus Love and mercy. We are called to speak boldly about cultural sin and mistreatment of another. Scripture is very clear on improper sexual behavior, just as it is on treating the poor.
    Truth and Grace, they go hand in hand.

  • Gene Aptaker

    Bad theology is also wreaking havoc on God’s design and purposes for the Body of Christ.

    We’ve basically departed from walking in the reality of the life, ways and nature of the Lord, Jesus. We accept ‘going to church” and listening to the Pastor’s sermons, not even realizing that true shepherds are to lead as servants, by godly example and bring the people into the fullness of the stature of Christ. It’s become all about words, and nice little activities or projects, but even the unbelievers know certain things:

    1. We don’t love them, or even each other, for that matter.
    2. We’re not united.
    3. We are basically irrelevant in our world.

    Sad realities.

    Anyone interested in delving into these issues, click on my name or photo and go to the website.

    Not that I “have it together”… I don’t… or have all the answers… I don’t. I just believe it’s TIME for God’s people to wake up.

  • James

    Great article!

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  • the Old Adam

    Bad theology is epidemic.

    It’s tough to find even ‘decent’ theology, these days.