Watered Down Christianity

I’ve said it before, I say it again. Few writers are as tough on us clergy as Soren Kierkegaard, that melancholy Dane. However, few writers better remind me of the high calling to which we clergy have been summoned.

Kierkegaard, here in his Journals, notes that in his day clergy had moved from being powerful people in their societies to “being controlled” by the surrounding culture. The result was a desperate attempt on the part of the clergy to be useful, to get a hearing, to appear to be relevant to whatever it was that the culture wanted. Thus was Christianity “watered down,” according to Kierkegaard.

The good news is that the situation now calls for clergy who are as tough on our selves as the gospel is tough on humanity. Lacking the former crutches and accolades of the culture, we now must get our courage strictly from the gospel itself. We clergy must begin by applying the gospel to ourselves, before we apply it to others.

“Even then,” says Kierkegaard, “things may go badly”:

As long as the clergy were exalted, sacrosanct in the eyes of men, Christianity continued to be preached in all its severity. For even if the clergy did not take it too strictly, people dared not argue with the clergy, and they could quite well lay on the burden and dare to be severe.

But gradually, as the nimbus faded away, the clergy got into the position of themselves being controlled. So there was nothing to do but to water down Christianity. And so they continued to water it down till in the end they achieved perfect conformity with an ordinary worldly run of ideas – which were proclaimed as Christianity. That is more or less Protestantism as it is now.

The good thing is that it is not longer possible to be severe to others if one is not so towards oneself. Only someone who is really strict with himself can dare nowadays to proclaim Christianity in its severity, and even then things may go badly for him.
–Kierkegaard, Journals [1]

Still, all things being considered, being a pastor is a high vocation, a great way to expend a life. The way of Christ is narrow and demanding, but it is also a great gift, even “in its severity.”

These are my thoughts, thinking with Kierkegaard looking over my shoulder, as I begin this week of ministry.

Will Willimon

6 thoughts on “Watered Down Christianity

  1. I would like to meet you face to face, so I could see your eyes and ask you, ‘Do you love Jesus?’ I mean, do you REALLY love Jesus? Because that’s the real question, isn’t it?


  2. Bishop Willimon,I attended the Oxford Institute and heard your address there. Since then I have been troubled by much of what you said…particularly your implication at the close of your address that issues of addiction and domestic violence can be solved by a faith in a powerful God.What is not in the printed address here on this blog, but said in your address there was that belief in a powerful God gave the woman you quote at the end “the guts to leave her husband.”I am assuming you must not know very much about the cycle of abuse and violence if you suggest that women who are abused simply need “the guts” to leave. Domestic violence is never the fault of the victim for being unable to leave. It is a system of power and abuse that no simple assertion of faith can break. To imply that it was the woman’s fault for not “having guts” was both unethical and ignorant. I pray that you will explore the issues of both addiction and abuse so as never to repeat such painful statements in public again.


  3. Bishop WIliam, I am sure you are not aware of the sexual misconduct by one of your colleagues. His wife brought charges against him but he was sent back to his church because everyone defended his actions. This clergy while going through the process and being married and still having this woman whom we shall call X then started a sexual relationship with his secretary. X did not know about his affair with his secretary. This clergy was preaching every Sunday. He was violent to X and abused her severely. She now suffers with severe post traumatic stress syndrome and other major illnesses. Now that X is his victim, she suffers abuse at the hands of this clergy and his secretary. They threaten her that if she tells anyone, she will die. Are you saying that X should get the guts to run? Where does she run too? This clergy has friends in high places and has threatened X not to tell a soul. This clergy still has his orders. Christianity is watered down and the clergy forgot that Christ came for the poor and the needy and the downtrodden and He came for this lady X, severely traumatized by a clergy but too afraid to tell a soul. She approached the UMC for assistance but they said she was not a member. So is it okay for clergy to abuse a woman, render her useless and still have power to abuse someone else. Is it Ok for the UMC who preach open hearts to close their heart to this woman? Preach about this Bishop WIllimon


  4. I think it's horrible how "Christians " today think that Christianity today is about what we should or shouldn't do, and whether what we already do is moral or not. Christianity is NOT, I repeat NOT, a religion. It is a love story between us and God. We are His people, and we love Him completely. He has died for us so that we may live for Him. If non-Christians can't understand that, and don't accept it, it's because they CAN'T! They don't know Christ like we (I'm assuming we) do, and therefore can't follow Him like we do. You CAN'T water down a relationship. You CAN water down a religion, however. Which do you have? A religion, or a relationship?


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