On Monday, a same-sex couple entered the county clerk’s office of Rowan County, Kentucky to ask for a marriage license. Kim Davis, the local county clerk, refused, openly defying the recent U.S. Supreme Court decision legalizing same-sex marriage nationwide. When the couple demanded to know under whose authority she could deny them their legal right, Davis appealed not to the high courts, but to a higher power.
“Under God’s authority,” she said defiantly, staring back at the questioner.
The incident was one of the several instances where Davis has declined to issue marriage licenses to same-sex couples, often justifying her position by citing her faith — an action that even conservative think tanks agree is probably illegal. But while the legality of Davis’ actions will likely be resolved at a Thursday court hearing, many have pointed out that Davis’ own life invalidates her claim to spiritual superiority over LGBT people: Davis has reportedly committed adultery and been divorced three times, things that are explicitly prohibited in the Bible. Davis’ detractors argue that if she applied the same righteous fervor to other parts of scripture as she does to her opposition to homosexuality, then she shouldn’t have received licenses for some of her own marriages.
So where does Davis’ seemingly inconsistent theology come from, and how can she justify her actions using scripture? The answer begins with Apostolic Christianity, a tradition she claims to have converted to only four years ago. It’s unclear what specific worship community Davis calls home, but she is likely affiliated with one of two different traditions that nonetheless share similar beliefs on same-sex marriage and divorce — namely, Apostolic Pentecostalism (the most probable option — see the footnote and updates at the bottom of this post) or the Apostolic Christian Church (ACC). The former tradition — often called Oneness Pentecostalism — has a different theological starting point than the ACC, but shares its embrace of strict biblical interpretation, and, like the ACC, faced schisms over divorce and remarriage. In addition, one of the church’s main branches — United Pentecostal Church International — issued a statement following the U.S. Supreme Court ruling legalizing same-sex marriage that condemned the decision but also noted that members “should recognize everyone’s civil rights.”
The ACC, on the other hand, is a small Christian denomination founded in 1830s by Samuel Froehlich, a pastor who was dismissed from the Swiss Reformed Church for refusing to compromise his biblical convictions. While the historical connection to Apostolic pentecostalism is distant at best, it similarly embraces so-called biblical literalism. It is also staunchly anti-hierarchal, with all ministers — ordained “elders” or unordained lay leaders — serving their congregations without pay.
One such lay leader is Mark Hoffman, who identifies as a “servant” of an ACC community in Clarendon, Vermont that claims 6 members and around 20 Sunday worshippers. He explained to ThinkProgress that while the church roots itself in scripture, the denomination does not have lengthy, codified statements on marriage, divorce, or homosexuality. Instead, he said, members usually look to one document for answers.
“We use the King James Bible,” he said, repeating the phrase several times when asked specific theological questions.
Hoffman did hint that issues of both homosexuality and divorce could be grounds for loss of church membership, however, although he insisted such things would be handled on a case-by-case basis and that forgiveness and reconciliation are possible.
“If someone is going to be outside of God’s law or God’s grace, then they are not a member of this church,” said. He later added, “But we can’t prohibit anything — people have a free choice!”
Like apostolic pentecostalism, this fusion of selective biblical interpretation and theological ambiguity permeates the ACC’s short faith statement, which does define marriage as existing solely between a “man and a woman” but describes it as “a lifelong union.” Meanwhile, a “lifestyle” section of the church’s website claims that divorce should be “rare” for ACC members, but leaves the exact details of why up to interpretation.
The hesitant embrace of divorce (which is bluntly condemned by Jesus Christ) while firmly rejecting homosexuality (which is discussed in various parts of the Bible but never mentioned by Jesus) is a relatively recent development within Christianity. For centuries, most Christian denominations have opposed divorce, typically leaving exceptions only in cases of adultery, abandonment, or — in what is called “Pauline privilege” because it is pulled from Paul’s letters — when one member of a couple refuses to be baptized.
But as time wore on and the demand for divorce became increasingly common (including when Henry the VIII created his own Christian denomination largely so he could divorce his wife), many groups began to create more exceptions for divorce. Like most theological issues, the change caused strife: The Southern Baptist Convention (SBC) passed a resolution in 1904 prohibiting pastors from solemnizing the marriages of people divorced for non-scriptural reasons, and one branch of Apostolic Christianity — Christian Apostolic Church — reportedly formed in 1955 in part because they disagreed with the larger denomination’s slow embrace of divorce. Many groups, such as the Reformed Church in America, still officially prohibit divorce in most cases.
Meanwhile, as debates over homosexuality raged in the United States from the mid to late 20th century, some denominations began to articulate denunciations of LGBT relationships, eventually culminating in faith-based campaigns against same-sex marriage. The move altered the way many Christians understood their own faith, and today many conservative Christians are often willing to excuse blatant violations of the biblical 10 Commandments but vehemently oppose marriage equality — all while citing the Bible as inspiration.
The obvious disconnect between these two positions — particularly if one clings to concepts of “biblical literalism” — is sometimes lost on Christians who crusade against marriage equality, as many were raised unaware of their religion’s longstanding opposition to divorce. Those that do engage in the debate will typically explain that divorce is a “forgivable” sin, whereas a same-sex marriage leaves two individuals in a constant state of unrepentant sin. Another Kentucky clerk explained her support for Davis just this way, saying “[Divorce is] something that’s forgivable just like any other sin, but if you continue in it [meaning homosexuality] and live in it, there’s a grave danger in that.”
This interpretation, of course, ignores that an individual who remarries someone else after a divorce — like Davis — would also be in a constant state of sin. Some denominations have tried to rectify the perception of hypocrisy around these issues, as the SBC recently launched an initiative to discourage divorce in their own ranks. But in a country where divorce is common and divorce theology is rarely discussed, cries of hypocrisy are likely to fall flat among Christians who have already accepted divorce as theologically permissible — including groups that largely discourage it.
Davis-style hypocrisy around divorce and same-sex marriage is all too common in many conservative Christian circles, and will likely remain even if it appears self-contradictory. That said, there is another, arguably more prescient hypocrisy at work when Davis — an elected government official — refuses to grant state marriages licenses. Regardless of whether Davis is ACC or Apostolic Pentecostal, both traditions have called for followers to either respect governmental authority and/or the civil rights of others — even if society disagrees with church teaching.
Some readers have pointed out that Davis might not be a member of the ACC, but instead could be part of the Apostolic Pentecostalism, whose followers also call themselves “Apostolic Christians.” This post has been updated with more explicit information about Apostolic Pentecostalism and its relationship to the ACC.
Since publishing this article, several self-identified members of the Apostolic Christian Church have reached out to insist that Davis is not ACC, but Apostolic Pentecostal. When we originally published the piece, we noted that her religious tradition was unclear, and it remains as such: ThinkProgress attempted to contact both Apostolic Pentecostal churches in Morehead to confirm Davis' membership, but one was unreachable and the other did not respond.
Regardless, we have updated to clarify that she is most likely an Apostolic Pentecostal.