Should these Christians be allowed to worship the way they want to?

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It’s the morning of Nov. 7, 2013, and Andrew Hamblin, a 22-year-old pastor with ordinary, boyish looks and extraordinary ambition, is behind the wheel of his family’s black Windstar minivan driving toward his church. It’s 52 degrees, warm for autumn but made to feel colder by a northwesterly wind ruffling fallen oak and maple leaves. Along the road ahead, Cove Lake’s rippling surface reflects the Cumberland Mountains. Heading west on Jacksboro, Hamblin makes a left onto a smaller, tighter road as four game wardens from the Tennessee Wildlife Resources Agency follow him.

Hamblin has led the Tabernacle Church of God in LaFollette, Tenn., since late 2011. The building is squat and brick. Concrete crosses are inlaid in its walls. Across the street, an emphatic WELCOME! is scrawled in red, loopy script on the side of a blue mailbox, which is gently rusting at its hinges. Beside the mailbox, a sign nailed to a juvenile maple reads POSTED: NO TRESPASSING. At the base of a dirt driveway, a slim marquee lists Hamblin’s name under PASTOR, above service times: Friday at 7:30 p.m., and Sunday at 1 p.m. The church sits at the top of the driveway, adjacent to a gravel parking lot, at 345 Longmire Lane.

At 10:31 a.m. Hamblin posts to Facebook from his Android. “Anyone and everyone that will please begin to pray now. 4 game wardens have me at my church now. I don’t know what the out come [sic] will be but Liz” — his wife — “will keep everyone posted. Mark 16:18 is still real.” SOURCE.

Over the weekend, I read an interesting story about Jesus-loving snake handlers. Among Christians, snake-handlers are a fascinating group of people. For my book, Our Great Big American God, I read/researched a good bit about their beginnings, about the people who spearheaded the movement, and about the characters who lead their cause now. While you should read the whole story, because it’s about Christians who play with snakes to showcase their faith in Christ, the pictures tell such a powerful (and insane) tale. Yet, in their defense, these believers are only doing what Jesus said his followers would be able to do: handle poisonous snakes, get bitten, and not die. Yet, despite their love of worshiping Jesus with reptiles, some of these pastors are indeed getting bit and dying. And they’re also breaking the law.

Which is why Pastor Hamblin is fighting for his congregation’s rights to handle snakes.

What do you think? Should Christian snake-handlers be allowed to practice their religion freely, without regulation?

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Comments

  1. MattMcAfee says

    Yeah, of course.
    Do I think they’re nuts? Of course.  Do I think this is what Jesus had in mind? No.  Have I ever had nightmares of attending a snake-handling church? Yes.

    But as long as they are not trapping people in their denomination and causing harm to children, like a cult, then they should be allowed to practice freely without regulation.

  2. Dan_Gross says

    Read the full story.  Noticed that his arraignment was to happen after the story was published and did a search.  I see that now the Grand Jury failed to hand down an indictment, but of course the TWRA was not going to give him the snakes back.  My thought is that the churches should be allowed to apply for a license, like a zoo, and be held to the same standards of care.  Unfortunately, given the financial state of many of these churches, that would be akin to continuing the ban.  But, as the herpetologist said, I don’t see how their treatment of the snakes in captivity is Biblical.  Whatever you think of snakes, they are among God’s creatures so while I support their handling of them I do not support their abuse of them…

  3. EricBoersma says

    “What do you think? Should Christian snake-handlers be allowed to practice their religion freely, without regulation?”

    This is an inaccurate question. Specifically, the people at this church aren’t being denied their right to handle snakes, but rather are being denied the ability to import particular types of very dangerous snakes from other parts of the world. It’s not illegal to handle snakes as part of a worship service and it’s not illegal to handle poisonous snakes as part of a worship service, but it is illegal to import particular snakes from other countries regardless of how you intend to use them.

    So the answer to your final question is yes. And also no.

  4. AndrewImlay says

    I thought about the snakes being mistreated — half of them are dead now. Then I thought about pit bulls and other pets being underfed, sick, or stranded on short chains. But then I thought about having a meth-addicted mother and absent father; the cops on the take; the alcoholism. That is not just poverty, but despair. If my experiences in the mountains of North Carolina are representative, there’s also illiteracy; dropping out of junior high school; getting pregnant as a teen; violence; short lifespans; and generation-to-generation poverty. Like the west side of Chicago.

    There is a drug treatment center in town but nobody picking up the phone today.

    I wish they’d leave the sick/underfed snakes out of it, but anything that lifts people up is needed here. I mostly feel sad.

  5. AndrewImlay says

    P.S. Somebody who’s doing something great about “outsiders”: http://www.nationswell.com/making-house-calls-people-without-homes/

  6. LeanneZeck says

    I hate when we get into the “this is my rights” debates. According to Philippians Christ laid down his right as God to walk humbly among us and sacrificially love us. We are suppose to have the mind of Christ.
    While Jesus talked about his followers handling snakes, this was not a command or a requirement for faith or for salvation. One can worship God without handling snakes.
    In the OT, the Hebrew people were commanded to make sacrifices at different feasts and for the levitical clean/unclean rituals. When the Temple was destroyed, they could no longer make sacrifices–which was a huge requirement for the Hebrew faith. But they adjusted their worship, used what they had–the Law–and continued to seek God. Perhaps, this pastor could better use his resources by following the lead of the Hebrew people.

  7. dats3 says

    EricBoersma
    I live about 40 miles south of La Follette in Knoxville and according to the TWRA (Tennessee Wildlife Resource Administration) in Tennessee it is illegal to handle venomous snakes.  This guy had, among other dangerous snakes, a Copperhead snake which is found all over East TN.  That snake was removed as well.  Now I’ve heard that in certain circumstances you can own venomous snakes with a permit but not in the way this pastor was handling them.  I’m tired of this story.  It’s been all over our local news for months now.

  8. StephenGBremner says

    I think it’s sad when Christians and churches build their theology and identity on ONE verse like this. Do you think there’s more important things these Christians could be doing, like say, going and making disciples or laying hands on the sick and seeing them healed?
    I’m not a Greek scholar, but when I read this passage I never thought of getting snakes to play with. I thought more like how towards the end of Acts when a snake bit Paul, he whipped it into the fire and didn’t die like the onlookers thought he would. 

    Just my 2/100 of a dollar.

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