The question the existence of snake handlers raises is this: “Why shouldn’t they handle snakes? For that matter, why don’t all Christians pass around rattlesnakes every week?” It would make for a lively page in the church supply catalogues. Right there next to the thuribles and charcoal and incense might be the “snake page”. Why there would be a whole range of venomous snakes. The best and most exotic would be reserved for the Episcopalians and Anglicans. “We import only the best spitting cobras from India for your snake handling ceremony.” or for the Lutherans, “Baby coral snakes straight from the desert of Arizona! Add a splash of color to your snake handling liturgy.” or for the Presbyterians–“discreet small scorpions for your venom ceremony–they can be handed around on a little tray by the deacons.” For the mega churches: “Does your church shake, rattle and roll? Get your full sized timber rattlesnakes from us!”
But of course snake handling remains an eccentric past time of only a relatively few Christian groups. Sensible people all condemn such dangerous and insane practices. I wish to stand this cruel condemnation of the snake handlers on its head. Why should we condemn the Pentecostal Holiness in the Name of Jesus snake handlers for insane and dangerous practices, but we condone the Episcopalians for having lesbian bishops or making a man who left his wife to marry his boyfriend a bishop? Why do we condemn the Pentecostoal Holiness folks for handling snakes, but do not condemn the Lutherans for practicing witchcraft in their liturgy?
It is arguable that the snake handlers are closer in their religion to the Bible than the other two mentioned Protestant groups (or any other bizarre permutations of Christianity that are out there)
You can see where I am going with this: Who is to say that the snake handlers are wrong and shouldn’t pass rattlesnakes around on a Sunday morning? For that matter, who is to say that the Mormons or Jehovah’s Witnesses are wrong for having extra scriptures that are dictated by angels or prophets or that the Episcopalians are wrong for having gay marriage or that Baptists are wrong for believing in al that weird Dispensationalist rapture stuff, or that Presbyterians are wrong for believing in Calvinism or the Fundamentalists are wrong for believing that the world was created on Tuesday morning, March 22, 4006 BC at 11:37am.
The fact of the matter is without an external, objective, agreed, infallible authority nobody, nowhere, nohow has the authority to say any of these groups–no matter how wacky (or even worse) no matter how respectable–have got it wrong. Without that external, objective, agreed, infallible authority you can do what you like: handle snakes or be a Methodist. The bottom line is that they function on the same theological and philosophical assumptions: that the Bible is the sole authority and I can interpret it the way I “feel led”.
This is where the Holy Father comes in. I mentioned him the headlines not because he likes handling vipers, but because he represents that Apostolic Authority which allows us to interpret the scriptures properly. If you like, he helps us handle the Sacred Scriptures–which (if you think twice) are more dangerous than poisonous snakes anyway. It is the Apostolic teaching authority which not only gave us the initial kernel of preaching, but also gave us the Bible and then gives us the rightful interpretation of the Bible. It is this authority which says you don’t really have to handle snakes, but you should still expect miracles.
It is this authority which guides or reading of the Scriptures, and together with the Sacred Scriptures shows us the way to walk as disciples of the risen and ascended Lord.
Go here for archived articles on the Authority of the Catholic Church. Which Came First is part of my debate with Anglican journalist John Martin on Scripture and Tradition. What is Truth? is a longer article. Available as a digital download, it examines the Protestant doctrine of sola Scriptura. Biblical Support for the Authority of the Pope is a digital download–a longer article which goes into the Biblical support for the papacy.