MAITLAND – Rev. Bryan Fulweider is well aware that some people view Christians and the entire Christian faith as one solid, monolithic group, united in a clear concept of spirituality and the meaning of the Bible.
Nothing, he added, could be further from the truth.
Christianity has historically been about splits, he noted – people who could not agree on basic tenets of faith and splintered off into their own sect.
“What is most astonishing about Protestant Christianity to me,” he said, “is how many denominations of Protestant there are. At last estimation, there are somewhere between 35,000 and 38,000 strains. It’s very interesting in reality that in Protestant Christianity, there has been a propensity to split and split and split.”
Often times today, Christianity gets its clearest public image from those members of the faith who are most vocal, particularly on the subject of conversion.
“We often find it’s the most strident voices of Christianity that we hear,” he said. “Most often, that ‘I as a Christian am bound to convert you.’ It’s almost difficult sometimes to have a conversation about the Christian faith, because there is such a strong need to convert you to their concept of Christianity.”
But engaging in a conversation and dialogue about the Christian faith is exactly what Fulweider, the senior minister of the First Congregational Church of Winter Park/United Church of Christ, did on Tuesday before a crowd at the Holocaust Memorial Resource and Education Center in Maitland, as part of its ongoing Religion 101 Series of lectures and talks.
Pastor Jim Kaufman, moderator of the series, noted that within a particular faith, there are often still deep divisions that cannot be overcome.
“Like many of the faith traditions, there are subdivisions within the faith traditions – and subdivisions and subdivisions,” he said.
Fulweider, the president of the Interfaith Council, said this has been true since the very start of the Christian movement after the death of Jesus Christ.
“For the first 300 years, from the period of time that we understand Jesus walked the Earth, for 300 years afterwards there was a great battle going on about what Christianity would look like,” he said. “One of the questions was, would it become a sect of Judaism? What would become clear is there was a new struggle going on.”
That struggle, he said, was between the side that would eventually evolve into the Catholic Church and then later on the Protestant reform movement, and the Gnosticism movement.
“Gnosticism believed there was another twin in place of this Jesus who had been resurrected,” he said. “Gnosticism did not win in the debate that went on in those first 300 years.”
Other debates have also deeply divided the different sects of Christianity, Fulweider said, including the meaning of the Sacraments – baptism, communion, confession, marriage, ordination, and confirmation.
“These became a source of great debate as the 1400s went on,” he said. “Were they just symbolism, or was this actually the body and blood of Christ?”
Today, Christianity is often divided between what Fulweider called an “evangelical, conservative approach” and a “mainline or more liberal tradition to the faith.”
The debate continues, even today, he added.
“There is within the liberal framework within Christianity, that one does not need to conform to a particular type of tradition of belief system,” he said. “In some places, there are some very clear absolutes, and other conversations are more open and broad-based.”
Gus Davies, assistant pastor of congregational services at Northland Church in Longwood, an evangelical church, said even evangelicals are not fully united in their outlook and interpretation of the Bible.
“Evangelical Christians, again there are different strands here,” he said. “It’s not that everything in the Bible we have to believe, because some of those are stories. They are historical accounts. They are not made for doctrine. Some of those accounts we cannot build doctrine around.”
More important, he said, is for individuals to reach out to God and seek the Lord’s guidance and blessing.
“Prayer is talking to God, expressing my wishes,” he said.
That’s the message that churches should be expressing, and not a strident one of conversion, Davies added.
“That is why we share our faith,” he said. “It is only the Holy Spirit that will bring people to faith. We should be able to share our faith lovingly – and respectfully.”
The Holocaust Memorial and Resource Center is at 851 N. Maitland Ave. in Maitland. To learn more about the Religion 101 series, call 407-628-0555 or log on to Holocaust Memorial Center.
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