(RNS) Kim Davis, the Rowan County, Ky., clerk jailed for five days for refusing to issue marriage licenses to same-sex couples, identifies as an Apostolic Christian and attends Solid Rock Apostolic Church in Morehead, Ky.
But what’s an “Apostolic Christian” and why does the group object to same-sex marriage? Let us ‘Splain:
Q: Who are Apostolic Christians?
A: The term could refer to any one of a few different groups, including the Apostolic Christian Church or the Apostolic Pentecostal movement, also known as Oneness Pentecostalism. Solid Rock’s website was down Wednesday (Sept. 9) and a busy signal greeted anyone trying to reach the church. But it is listed on a worldwide directory of Apostolic Pentecostal churches and ministries.
Q: What is Apostolic Pentecostalism, and what do Apostolic Pentecostals believe?
A: Pentecostalism is a Christian movement that emphasizes a personal experience of God, including the miraculous gifts of the Holy Spirit and speaking in tongues. The movement grew out of the 1906 Azusa Street Revival in California and takes its name from Pentecost, when early Christians first received the gifts of the Holy Spirit, such as the ability to heal and prophesy.
Apostolic Pentecostals then split from the rest of the movement in 1916 over a disagreement about the nature of the Trinity.
Without getting too complicated, Apostolic Pentecostals believe “Father,” “Son” and “Holy Spirit” aren’t three distinct persons, but three different titles for one person: Jesus.
The group also believes you must speak in tongues to be saved, a practice known as glossolalia, which involves uttering a foreign language previously unknown to the speaker.
Vinson Synan, a professor of church history at Regent University in Virginia and an expert on Pentecostalism, estimates there are 15 to 20 million Pentecostals in the United States; of those, maybe 1 million are Apostolic Pentecostals. Apostolic Pentecostals claim to have a total 25 million members worldwide, he said.
Q: What does the “apostolic” in “Apostolic Pentecostal” mean?
A: “Apostolic” refers to the apostles, the earliest followers of Jesus who were sent out to spread the Christian faith. In this case, it comes from Apostolic Pentecostals’ beliefs about baptism. Apostolic Pentecostals baptize believers in the name of Jesus. Other Christians baptize newly converted Christians in the name of the Father, Son and Holy Spirit.
Q: Isn’t this just splitting hairs?
A: All this quibbling about whether the Father, Son and Holy Spirit are three persons or three titles for one person and which ones Christians name-check when they baptize new believers sounds pretty minor, right? But it’s kind of a big deal. The doctrine of the Trinity, Synan said, “goes to the very heart of the Bible and the Christian Gospel — the very idea of the Godhead.”
Q: OK, well, what’s with the long hair and skirts?
A: Apostolic Pentecostals are the strictest of all the Pentecostal groups, according to Synan. Like most Pentecostals, they do not use alcohol or tobacco. They generally don’t watch TV or movies either. Women who are Apostolic Pentecostals also wear long dresses, and they don’t cut their hair or wear makeup. It’s called “external holiness,” he said, and it’s meant to separate its followers from the rest of the world in the way they look and act — although, he noted, men who are Apostolic Pentecostals look “like everybody else.”
Q: So what does all this have to do with same-sex marriage and Kim Davis?
A: The general superintendent of the United Pentecostal Church International, the largest and most influential Apostolic Pentecostal denomination, issued a statement earlier this year in response to the Supreme Court decision recognizing same-sex marriages. In his statement, he defines God’s plan for marriage as “the union of one man and one woman who make a lifelong commitment,” and encourages Christians to “defend the freedoms of speech, press, association, and religion.”
In a statement released Sept. 1, Davis affirmed that definition as “a central teaching of Scripture and of Jesus Himself regarding marriage.”
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