Recently, at the recommendation of Dr. David Prince, I have been listening to a podcast entitled Alabama Astronaut. The mission of its creators is to capture the hitherto unknown songs of Appalachia that are uniquely tied to serpent handling churches stretching from Alabama to Tennessee, to Kentucky and West Virginia. The website describes the project thusly,
Acclaimed Alabama songwriter Abe Partridge and podcast producer Ferrill Gibbs release an ambitious new podcast named Alabama Astronaut – the search for undocumented songs of the Appalachians. Abe’s quest to captured them brought him face-to-face with the deadly practices of an oft-ridiculed subculture amidst a concerning barrage of American crises that seemed to suggest a nation in decline. Even so, as he pursued this music, genuine relationships across cultures began to spark.
The entire podcast is entertaining not to mention fascinating, and at times, incredibly insightful.
Now, this is not a post on the legitimacy of the snake-handling practice or the “five signs” they argue are laid out in Mark 16. Suffice it to say, I take great theological issues with the practice, but one thing I cannot escape is how the genuineness of the snake-handlers’ beliefs inform their practice. They believe firmly that Mark 16 is the divine revealed will of God, and as such it should and must shape their lives and practice. For them, there is no separation between stated belief and actual practice. If you do not practice it, then you do not believe it. They are willing to literally risk life and limb for what they believe is God’s divinely revealed truth.
Now, there are some who will say (and the podcast even references them) that this snake handling practice is just “smoke and mirrors.” It is a trick. That may be true in some cases, but enough of the practitioners have died to show that most are genuine in their belief and practice. It is impossible to smoke and mirror someone’s death from snake handling.
Again, this is not an apologetic for snake handling as a worship practice. It is actually a foil to demonstrate that stated belief without actual practice reveals one’s true belief, which brings me to Andy Stanley.
Recently, Stanley’s North Point Community Church hosted the Unconditional Conference. It was billed to be:
This two-day premier event is for parents of LGBTQ+ children and for ministry leaders looking to discover ways to support parents and LGBTQ+ children in their churches. You will be equipped, refreshed, and inspired as you hear from leading communicators on topics that speak to your heart, soul, and mind. We deeply desire this time will bring about healing and restoration. No matter what theological stance you hold, we invite you to listen, reflect, and learn as we approach this topic from the quieter middle space.
This conference was the initiative of an organization called Embracing the Journey whose stated mission is to “To build bridges between LGBTQ+ individuals, their families, and the church, not in spite of the bible but because of the bible, drawing parents and children into a deeper relationship with each other and vertically with God.”
North Point hosted the event put on by the Embracing the Journey organization. Much can be said and critiqued about that, and there are others who have. However, what is important to note is what Stanley himself said from the North Point pulpit the Sunday of the conference. He spends a good portion of the message defending the conference and its speakers, particularly two “married” gay men. Stanley says,
This is why Justin and Brian were invited, the two married gay men at the center of all the controversy. And I’m sure that you’ve read all about that. And here’s the thing about Brian and Justin: their stories and their journeys of growing up in church and maintaining their faith in Christ and their commitment to follow Christ all through their high school and college and singles and all up to the time that they were married, their story is so powerful for parents of gay especially kids, that it’s a story gay parents and gay kids need to hear.
As David Prince notes in his post on Stanley’s position, “Clearly, Stanley himself believes that unrepentant practicing homosexuals can be described, without question, as Christians who are ‘maintaining their faith’ and faithfully following Christ, so much so that they are reliable guides to Christians about how to respond to LGBTQ+ issues.”
Oddly, though, Stanley goes on to claim that he and North Point believe, “Every instruction in the Bible regarding marriage references or assumes a husband and a wife, a man or a woman. So biblical marriage, biblical marriage is between a man and a woman. We’ve never shied away from that.” And then he claims that while there may be some homosexuals who practice biblical fidelity through celibacy, for others “…that is not sustainable. So they choose a same-sex marriage. Not because they’re convinced it’s biblical,” rather they “. . . chose to marry for the same reason many of us do. Love, companionship, and family. And in the end, as was the case for all of us, this is the important thing I want you to hear me say—it’s their decision.”
Now, follow the logic. Stanley’s stated belief is that biblical marriage is between one man and one woman. Then, it should be evident that anything other than that is outside of God’s design, and therefore, sin. Yet, his actual practice reveals his actual belief that God’s design is not a sustainable way to live. Hence, sin is an acceptable practice. In other words, sin cannot be overcome. It is not something to repent of and flee. Sin, in this case, is to be embraced in practice.
Let us return to the serpent-handling churches. As odd as we may believe these folks are, there is something they can teach Andy Stanley about his reasoning. With this issue Stanley has divorced his belief and practice, revealing his actual belief. That divorce is not an option for those of the serpent handling persuasion. Why? Because they really believe that the Bible teaches in Mark 16 that “they will pick up serpents with their hands; and if they drink any deadly poison, it will not hurt them; they will lay their hands on the sick, and they will recover.” Their actual practice reveals their actual belief, and so does Stanley’s.
In the end, the real smoke and mirror artist isn’t the snake handlers. It’s Andy Stanley.