I like Martyn Iles, the now-former MD of the Australian Christian Lobby (ACL). I would consider him an ally in the gospel, and increasingly a good acquaintance/friend. Martyn’s services have now been terminated, and it has, apparently, much to do with the direction he was taking the organisation in. If anyone has any secret sauce as to otherwise, other than your own prejudices, feel free to share.
And now that he is gone, I worry that his departure will open the door for a far less Jesus-focussed organisation and far more reactionary one.
Here’s what Martyn said in his resignation letter:
Dear All – I write with significant news that will provoke mixed reactions.
I hasten to add that there is no question of misconduct. Rather, the Board has reviewed ACL’s strategic direction and decided I am not the right person to lead the revised strategy, which focuses more primarily on political tactics, less on the gospel. Having heard this articulated, I absolutely agree with them that I am not the right person for that vision. I have always been a preacher first, a politician second (or third……).
Let me say a couple of things, one about the man, and one about the mission of the ACL (or what I fear it will be reduced to).
First the man. Martyn is a man of godly character who is gentle in his dealing with people, even those who disagree with him. I had coffee with him a few weeks ago in Canberra, and compared sartorial notes (he and I share a penchant for fashion and swapped a few Instagram accounts to follow for Aussie blokes who want to dress in more than just jeans and an untucked shirt).
I don’t agree with everything Martyn has said or has done, and probably the issue around Israel Folau is where we would differ most on aspects of how that went – or should have gone. And it’s interesting that whenever anyone enters any public forum to perhaps agree with something that Martyn has said, they throw up any number of caveats to show how much distance there is between they and he. Just in case.
But, despite disagreements, as a gospel man Martyn has always exhibited the fruit of the Spirit around his opponents. He was never bitter, scornful or derisory, even in the face of such responses from the world and, sadly, many Christians. He has never belittled an opponent or gone for the pile-on.
This compares favourably, extremely favourably actually, with another noted “thought leader” in Australia who I’ve had the unfortunate experience of crossing paths with (though no longer as I’ve blocked him). You see for all his loving, and generally thumbs up to loving progressive attitudes in our culture, he is churlish, nasty, vindictive and self-righteous in his public persona, especially online, and especially to fellow believers (you know those smelly types whom Christ died for). Though to his credit, he’s just the same when he takes the conversation off-line, and I am one of many who has experienced this of him.
The thing is, though, as I said, he’s only like that with fellow believers. He’s as meek as a pussycat when it comes to actually tackling tough subjects in the public square that would get him sent to the naughty corner by the likes of the MSM, especially the ABC in its current iteration.
Martyn, by contrast, has been gentle and respectful online and in the MSM, and especially on the ABC, where he demonstrated the inherent weakness in him that the ACL has a problem with – his commitment to the public sharing of the gospel. His appearance almost two years ago where he actually explained the gospel clearly and humbly (including himself in the list of sinners destined for judgement), was the only time – yep, the only time – I have heard a Christian figure engaged in the theatre (UFC cage?) of public ideas be so clear. The level of obfuscation around the core of the gospel by those who end up on air is astonishing.
There is a sense in which Christian leaders who get a public airing hold off and hold off and hold off, because they know the gospel explanation – the likes of which Martyn gave on QandA, will render them obsolete and on the wrong side of history. Scorn and derision are more feared among middle class public Christian intellectuals than hatred is. Martyn gets his fair share of both, and from Christians too.
Yet here’s the thing, even though I don’t agree with everything Martyn says, if I were being excoriated for being a Christian in the public square, I know who I’d rather have my back. In fact I know who would have my back. Martyn Isles would. And central to the reason he’d have my back is that he doesn’t crave the approval of others. And that, my friends, is a superpower in this current cancel culture in which every tweet, online comment and alternative opinion about the “way it is” is pounced upon.
Let me reiterate, there are any number of Christian thought leaders in Australia who would shy away from having your back if you were being scorched in the public square and behind that is the desire for the approval of others. Not other Christians, and certainly not the approval of God, but the approval of those with significant cultural power. Martyn is not one of those.
I’ve seen too many online Christians who are fast-track bullies (a cricket term). They’re like the Australian team playing at home, all snarly and “honest” towards their fellow believers, but, sadly, like the current Australian cricket team playing away in India; bunnies in the face of hostile spin. I’ve already seen enough churlish comments about Martyn online from people who would wilt should you put a angry emoji on their Facebook post. Either that our they’d block you.
But enough about the man, what about the organisation without him? If it’s the case that it’s Martyn’s zeal for evangelism that is central to the problem and that the board wants a more political edge, then the only thing that the ACL can do is to change its name to the Australian Christendom Lobby, because that’s all that’s left without the gospel – a return to a fabled 1950s time when the Christian culture had the hegemony. If that is their strategic decision then hear this ACL, it is a failed strategy.
I couldn’t have put it better than another fairly public Christian I admire, Anglican minister in Parramatta, David Ould, who made this observation online in response to Martyn’s letter:
It does come across as such a retrograde step. Ditching the gospelling? It was the most effective lobbying that Martyn did – he put the “Christian” back at the heart of the ACL and dragged them away from simply coming across as moralisers. I found the ACL hard to support in the past because I really couldn’t see much gospel at all in their position – just conservative moralism. Martyn changed all of that, showing us how those moral positions flow naturally from the gospel when properly understood. So either I’m missing something significant in all of this or the ACL board have made a terrible mistake.
To which I would utter a hearty “Amen!” What have we got without a gospel vision for the country? Conservative moralism wasn’t all that helpful for those who were being crushed by the culture of the day, nor was it, quite frankly, all that moral. In the same way that Mark Sayers of Melbourne observes that the progressive framework wants “the kingdom without the king” – that is the fruit of 2000 years of gospel culture without the root -, so too the conservative framework wants “Christendom without Christ”. They are, ironically, two wings of the same “Jesus-less” bird.
Moralism cannot help but be shocked by the sins of others (and in denial of its own sin), and hence is always screechy and finger-pointing. In fact that’s what conservative moralism has in common with progressive moralism. Both of these are cul-de-sacs that will go nowhere, but you wouldn’t know it they way they are fighting to the bitter end. I don’t want us to go back to conservative moralism, and I certainly have no intention of dying on that particular hill.
So I feel sad for Martyn (though he is gracious in his public response), but equally sad for ACL if the organisation thinks there is any lasting fruit in pushing what is, as history over the past sixty years has shown, a futile case. You can’t put the hostile post-Christian political genie back into its bottle. Not without the gospel anyway.
And if you don’t like Martyn, and you’re a Christian, and you’re opposed to his views, resist the urge to go all public Schadenfreude on him. He certainly wouldn’t do it to you. And inevitably if you find yourself being out of kilter with the culture and it turns on you (and if it never does then question whether you truly are Christian), then know that it would be the likes of Martyn who’d have your back.
Oh, and for goodness sake if you’re an Aussie bloke reading this in jeans and an untucked shirt then go follow this guy, Damien Broderick, on Instagram and get some dress sense into you.