Tipping Points: loveless marriages & abusive churches

It is the straw that broke the camel’s back. The final straw is small; it barely weighs anything but, added to the burden already carried, it crushes.

When Malcolm Gladwell wrote his book The Tipping Point: how little things can make a big difference, he defined it as ‘the moment of critical mass, the threshold, the boiling point – when everyday things reach epidemic proportions’. Anyone who followed the highly acclaimed television drama Succession will have seen this moment reached in season three. Succession ran away with the awards last year, Emmy’s, BAFTA’s and Critics awards, and looks to add more to its growing arsenal in 2022. I doubt many Christians will have watched it. It comes with warnings about explicit language. The setting is far from everyday, and some viewers report that they couldn’t get beyond episode one as no one was likeable. All the characters are self-serving and capable of abhorrent behaviours. It is best likened to a bleak Shakespearean tragi-comedy. Shakespeare’s plays performed unsanitised are also brutal, crude and sexually explicit. But, like Shakespeare, Jesse Armstrong’s writing uses the absurd to convey the depths of the human condition, pathos, disintegration, family loyalty, love and betrayal. At the centre is a domineering man who wields his power cruelly. It is coarse, but like the best literature, it packs a punch. It is a modern depiction of the abuse of power and communicates how bullies function and why they are allowed to continue.

Anyone who has experienced bullying will know the range of complex reactions it causes. Last year the church seemed to reel from revelations of spiritual abuse. Some cases have had a very high profile – think Mars Hill – but others have occurred in small churches tucked away in ordinary towns. The consequences are the same: lives shattered. Some emerge battered and bruised; others lose their faith altogether. It is heartbreaking. I know, I have been there, and I still meet others in the middle of it.

Hindsight is a wonderful thing. When you emerge, and your vision becomes clearer, a common thought is: ‘Why didn’t I leave sooner?’ For those who look on, it can be perplexing why people got involved in the first place or why those expressing unhappiness stay. There is no single answer, but the tipping point is usually relatively minor. This is important for us to grasp. Looking on from the outside, it is easy to condemn someone for being upset by something that appears to us insignificant, trivial even. Shockingly the tipping point for Mars Hill Church wasn’t the identifying of Mark Driscoll as an abusive pastor, but the accusations of plagiarism – not insignificant, but a final straw.

Succession shows a father who emotionally abuses his children, but in his perverse way, he loves them. His son says: ‘I don’t know what I think about dad, I love him, I hate him, I’m going to outsource it to my therapist.’ It is the mix of positive and negative emotions which is so destructive. This mix of positive and negative feelings makes them stay for more pain – one foot in and one foot out, never sure what to expect, one day in favour another day not – not safe. That takes a considerable toll. Anyone who has experienced a boss who one day has your back and the next day doesn’t, knows this is really stressful. Imagine the horror of experiencing this from a church leader.

The tipping point in Succession comes from a character who has struggled in a loveless marriage: ‘I think a lot of the time when I think about it I’m really pretty unhappy. I love you, I do, but I wonder if the sad I’d be without you would be less than the sad I get from being with you.’

It still takes a season for him to act on this. It is hard to leave. I am heartbroken when I hear Christians describe similar emotions about their church. It is so hard to leave and so easy to be sucked in. I am left with questions. How do we protect Christians from joining unhealthy churches which look so shiny on the outside? And how can we help those struggling believers on the inside?

(First published in Evangelicals Now in January 2022)

© 2023 Karen Soole