Martyn Iles stands tall
The man that many Australians see as the face of Christianity
“Stand tall!” would not be a bad slogan for the Australian Christian Lobby (ACL) – at least, while its Managing Director Martyn Iles runs it. That man is tall. Way tall. So tall that Bible Society’s executive producer, Richard, has to swap chairs in the studio when we settled Iles in to tape an interview. Eternity is surprised to learn he is only 6 foot 7 0r just over 2m.
As Iles arrives, he spots a book in the library that lines the entrance to the Bible Society Australia office, where Eternity is based. “I have read that book” he says gesturing at Louis Berkhof’s “Systematic Theology”.
Berkhof’s tome is not part of our interview but it helps place Iles – it’s a conservative reformed theology book, for many years a pretty standard text for evangelicals. I read Berfkhof too, as a teenager sneaking a look at my sister’s Bible College texts.
“Over time, my eyes have been opened by God’s grace …” – Martyn Iles
He’s named Martyn Lloyd Iles, after the British preacher, Martyn Lloyd-Jones, long influential in the Reformed wing of the British evangelical movement during the 20th century.
So that’s why the ACL’s leader spells his name that way. He grew up in his parents’ open brethren church.
Martyn Lloyd-Jones still occupies three pages of the Koorong online store. His 14-volume commentary on the book of Romans weighs down bookshelves in lots of ministers’ studies. But Iles is not weighed down as he bounds in. He’s a youthful 30, and started at the ACL back in 2014.
“Nobody wakes up in the morning at any stage on their life and says ‘I want to be the Managing Director of ACL when I grow up.’ It wasn’t something that occurred to me.”
But clearly Iles believes it did occur to God. “Moving to Canberra was a most unusual step. But that was simply a response to the prayers that I prayed, and the Lord making it quite clear that the move to Canberra was what I was supposed to do for whatever reason.”
ACL’s first MD was Brigadier Jim Wallace, who had a big career in the Army. His successor, Lyle Shelton, had political experience in the National Party in Queensland. But you can think of Iles as being someone who came of age in the organisation he is now running.
During our lengthy conversation, Iles is coming across as a very conventional Christian. He goes to church in Canberra at an “FIEC Church – the Fellowship of Independent Evangelical Churches, who I hope won’t be too hurt if I call them ‘Sydney Anglicans without bishops’.”
So I ask him a question related to one of the biggest public issues ACL has been involved with this year: “Are you concerned about some of the odd doctrine that Israel Folau has?”
“Ah, no – I think Israel Folau, like all of us, has been on a journey in his faith, and I think his is a miraculous journey. He was a Mormon. He has been through a conversion experience in a Pentecostal church and, across all stages of his walk with the Lord, he’s changed, he’s developed, he’s strengthened.”
“I come from, myself, a small and fairly insular movement. And it was at that stage a good thing in my life – an opportunity really to be isolated with Scripture and to grow more and more.
“Over time my eyes have been opened by God’s grace – I trust in a good way. We are all on that journey.
“I know Israel well enough to believe sincerely that man probably belongs to the Lord. We have had wonderful biblical and theological discussions. I don’t have too many concerns. I think he is on an excellent road.”
It strikes me as an inevitably practised but sincere answer.
Separate to the highly publicised Folau/Rugby Australia case, the most controversial thing ACL has done this year was, arguably, an election flyer. It resembled a report card that listed the issues of importance to Christians as the Lord’s Prayer in Parliament; euthanasia or assisted suicide; abortion funding by the Federal Government; schools programs relating to sexuality; and the freedom for religious schools to be religious schools.
On that election flyer, One Nation and the Australian Conservatives did very well. I put it to Iles that many Christians were shocked they were being told to consider voting for One Nation.
“We had a range of flyers that we were putting out and the effect on the Queensland version of that flyer was that One Nation did very well, on the issues listed,” replies Iles.
“I would say I have grave concerns about some of the policy issues that relate to One Nation; for example, I know Pauline Hanson is in favour of euthanasia. I know she is not solid on the pro-life stuff at all.
“Having said that, One Nation are actually very very good to work with.
“You know One Nation senators’ doors are open. They talk to us. They actually want to know what it is that we have to say, and I find working with them far more pleasant and constructive and leading to good results than working with the vast majority of other cross-benchers in the Senate, and that’s just the way it is.”
Later in the interview, Iles offers a clarification: “I am not a big fan of issues-based voter guides and we didn’t do one that was intended to be a comprehensive guide for Christian voters, because there’s other groups that do that very well.”
“What we were doing was running a campaign that was reaching people who are not necessarily Christians.”
“We have been dealing with those things that are at the fore, in terms of political change.” – Martyn Iles
Eternity went back through the last six months of ACL press releases – which confirmed the 2016 research by Stephanie Judd, that showed ACL focussed on a narrow range of issues.
School sexuality programs, offensive advertising, Folau and religious freedom featured heavily, with none of their press releases on “social justice” issues such as refugees.
We repeated the exercise to test Iles’ own record as Managing Director.
“We have never been silent on issues like refugees,” he responded. “I mean ACL, when I was chief of staff, was a key voice in the creation of the program for a special intake of – I think it was – 12,000 or something, refugees from the Middle East.
“We actually ran a campaign on that. So we do have a history of being involved in a range of things.
“In terms of the present, we have been dealing with those things that are at the fore in terms of political change. So right now in NSW the abortion issue, and in Western Australia and Queensland, you have euthanasia.
“When these issues come up, somebody’s got to address it and ACL is the go-to group on some of these things. With limited budget and limited resources … you know, you are depleted in terms of what you can do.
“We want to to run an anti-human trafficking campaign, that’s our next thing. But it keeps getting deferred because the religious freedom thing won’t go away.”
“Someone’s got to do the job because, if we are silent on issues of gravity and importance, we will be silenced.” – Martyn Iles
We asked him about whether ACL should campaign on issues such as the foreign aid budget, Newstart, or “Homestretch” – a national campaign to raise the age of the cut-off for foster care allowances beyond 18 (which has strong support from Christian welfare agencies such as Anglicare).
“The reality is I am spent in my abilities and capacity to do what we are doing. My staff are spent and we are doing the best [we] can.
“I make absolutely no apology. No apology for focussing on life, for focussing on the gospel, focusing on the issue around LGBT stuff because that is an ideology that is moving actively and viciously against the Christian faith.
“The niche we’ve found ourselves in is one where we talk about a lot of things that other people don’t necessarily want to talk about. They’re the harder subjects and we’re sort of the lightning rod from time to time. Someone’s got to do the job because, if we are silent on issues of gravity and importance, we will be silenced.”
Iles sketches out his approach to politics – he believes that ideology is the real driver.
“The issues really only give you a surface view of what is driving a particular party. You know I would have no hesitation in saying that the Green’s policy platform is opposed to the gospel itself, but they have some issues on which they look very good from a Christian point of view. And you need to be very discerning about what is going on behind the issues.”
But there is one core issue that Iles believes should guide the Christian voter. “I think religious freedom is the great litmus test because it gives you a very clear sense of how these people view the gospel itself – the nature of the truth itself, whether people should be free to say and proclaim it.”
“I hate political labels.” – Martyn Iles
Eternity put it to Iles that one of the unintended consequences of their focus on certain issues is the idea that to be Christian is to be politically conservative.
“Well, I hate political labels,” Iles responds with a smile. “Because I always say Christianity is not politics, and we need to be careful to maintain that.
“Christianity is Christianity and it has a voice in politics. Out motto is ‘truth made public’. [The prophet] Isaiah’s laments – God says through him – that truth has stumbled in the public squares and therefore righteousness cannot enter, and their justice has turned back.” (Quoting Isaiah 59:14)
“I see so much synergy in those descriptions of the days of the prophets with the days we live in now – and we have a role in making sure the truth is heard.”
Iles recounts a story of meeting with a group of people “who used to identify as homosexuals.”
“[A] transgender person actually said ‘I want to say a special thanks to ACL because when I was going through my journey, it was ACL resources that I found. I contacted ACL and someone from your staff came to see me, and that started a journey’ … and through others, he ended up being converted he said.”
“[He said] the miracle for me is not that I’m no longer transgender, it’s that I found Jesus.”
Eternity asked Iles to respond to the idea that division is implied by some Christians working with ACL and similar organisations, while others work on social justice issues.
“I think it’s a reality of the world that you have got this many dollars [and] this many people and God has put you here so, naturally, you will gravitate into something. But that’s not a negative thing in the sense that you say, ‘Well, because we are doing this, we’re divided from the people who are doing that.’
‘In the West, you have a third option. It’s called compromise.’
Iles goes on to tell a story that reflects a view that things will get tougher for Australian Christians, as he reveals his own admiration for Israel Folau.
“I was talking to an archbishop – one of the Eastern bishops in Western Sydney – and he used to be the Archbishop of Mosul. He’s now became the Archbishop of Sydney. He talked about how ISIS came to Mosul and a number of people in his church were killed. He fled – one of the last people out. His church buildings were desecrated.
“At the end of our long meeting, I asked ‘Archbishop, what was better? Mosul or Sydney?’ And he did not even blink. He said ‘Mosul.’
“I said, ‘Why?’
“‘Because in Mosul,’ he said ‘You have two options, live or die; Christ or denial.”
“He added, ‘In the West, you have a third option. It’s called compromise. That’s the way many of you live. And I fear that is the way many of my people will live as times get harder.’
“That captured something for me. We are so culturally imbued with the notion that life should be good. And if we just work hard, get the right results at Uni, rush forward in our careers and put our head down, we will get there.
“What’s there? Well, big house, family and comforts and all the rest of it.
“What if the day comes when you have to make a decision for God that costs all of that?
“And this is why I have such respect for Israel Folau, by the way, because what he did was more out of his own sincere conviction that he had to serve God first.”
“I feel the need to be freed up to be a clear voice … that is Christian.” – Martyn Iles
Despite being head of Australia’s most high-profile Christian political group, Iles insists a number of times that “Christianity is not politics. It’s really peculiarly hard for ACL because we are a political entity.”
But with a new motto – “Truth made public” – Iles is thinking ACL needs to be more than that.
“We’ve just gone through a restructure in head office and I have been able to appoint a Chief Political officer whose job is politics.
“It’s kind of made me a little less affiliated with the mucky aspect of politics.
“I feel the need to be freed up to be a clear voice that is not political but a voice that is Christian.”