Last month, the infamous snake-handling preacher, James Coots of Middlesboro, died from a rattlesnake bite received in church. Coots was deeply convicted by what he considered to be a literal translation of Mark 16:16-18. The Lexington Herald Leader published a quote that Coots gave National Geographic regarding this text:
“To me it’s as much a commandment from God when He said ‘They shall take up serpents’ as it was when He said ‘Thou shalt not commit adultery’.”
Close analysis of this passage amalgamated with the Scriptures as a whole, clearly reveals that Mark 16:18 is not a direct command to incorporate venomous serpents into a church service. This gross misinterpretation of Scripture, led to tragic consequences for a spiritually zealous man and his family.
This extreme example reminds us of the importance of the diligent, systematic study of the Bible and a commitment to Biblical TRUTH. Though serpent-handling is not a common practice amongst mainline denominations, Biblical misinterpretation is unfortunately prevalent. Well-meaning believers regularly take passages out-of-context, leading to doctrines and assumptions about God that simply—just are not true. The apostle Paul writes,
“All Scripture is given by inspiration of God, and is profitable for doctrine, for reproof, for correction, for instruction in righteousness, that the man of God may be complete, thoroughly equipped for every good work” (2 Timothy 3:16-17, NKJV).
God has given His Word to encourage and equip us; however, when misused, it can become more of a hindrance than a help. God calls believers to be students of the Word, committed to Biblical truth. With this in mind, I want to offer some practical advice to those interested in the accurate interpretation of the Scriptures.
1.) Always Read Passages in Context
Think of a letter or an email that you have recently received. How did you read it? Did you start in the middle, pull out one sentence, and neglect the rest of the letter? That would be ludicrous! Why would it be okay to read the Bible like that? When we receive a letter, we read the whole thing before jumping to any conclusions. Our canon is comprised of 66 books and is meant to be read and interpreted book-by-book (and as a whole). Chapters and verses were not in the original manuscripts, and the addition of them is not a green light for sentence-by-sentence interpretation. It is fine to refer to certain passages, but first, the book as a whole must be understood. A well-known Bible teacher, David Pawson, often remarks that when a text is taken out-of-context, it becomes a pretext. I couldn’t agree more.
2.) Don’t Believe Everything You are Told
If you believe everything you hear about the Bible, you are sure to be misled. Even many well-meaning pastors and teachers are notorious for spiritualizing text and taking passages out-of- context. Study the Scriptures yourself, and ensure what you hear, lines up with the Bible. Get in a good, Bible-based church, committed to Biblical truth.
3.) Value Truth More Than Heritage
Many Christians have trouble finding Biblical truth because they read the Bible through a subjective, denominational lens. We are products of our upbringing, and often believe theological ideas simply because that is “what we have always been taught.” Many feel guilty for even questioning those deeply seeded traditions; however, if we want the truth, we must be committed to reading the Scriptures objectively.
A commitment to Biblical truth requires diligence. This quest is not always easy, but the payoff is worth it. The Holy Scriptures are a gift from God, and should be handled with great integrity. May we seek the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth, so help us God.