Meet the new managing director of the Australian Christian Lobby

Eternity caught up with Martyn Iles to find out what makes him tick

Martyn Iles is the new managing director of the Australian Christian Lobby, taking over the reins from Lyle Shelton, who recently resigned to pursue a career in federal politics. Eternity talked with the ACL’s new leader about growing up in Queensland, what he wanted to be when he grew up, and why he originally didn’t want to work for the ACL.

Who is in your family?

I have a big family. There’s five children. I have three older sisters and one older brother, so I am the youngest. Everyone always draws conclusions from that. I don’t know whether they’re accurate or not – I’ll leave you to be the judge! Obviously, there’s my parents as well. And they all live in Brisbane. That’s where I’m from, I’m a Queenslander.

And I’d just like to say that the nation should be more grateful for Queenslanders – we’ve given you Bob Katter, Pauline Hanson, Clive Palmer – we’ve given you all the characters in politics! At least it’s entertaining!

Did you have any favourite childhood pets?

We had so many pets! We lived on an acreage near Brisbane, it was big enough that we could have a lot of animals. When I got this question at school everyone would put down a dog and a budgie, whereas I could fill a whole A4 page. We had a horse – a Shetland pony actually – a couple of cows, a couple of sheep, five geese at one stage. We had ducks, and probably 20-30 Guinea pigs until the neighbour’s cat got in and killed most of them. Three dogs at peak, two aviaries full of birds. A cockatoo. Chooks, lots of chooks.

Favourite childhood memory?

This is a bit cheesy, but Dad’s a doctor and we used to visit this Christian nursing home. Us kids would do things like sing and entertain the old people there. They were lonely and they loved it and they enjoyed us coming to see them, and then Dad would go around and look after the medical needs of all the people there.

But it’s a favourite memory partly cause we got to go to the TV room afterwards and watch Get Smart, and we didn’t grow up with a television, so that was one luxury in my childhood. But the other reason is I found out later in life that there was a whole army of old people who were praying for me every day through school as a result of that, because they took such an interest in my life.

I wonder often how that served me through my life. I’m sure it served me well and I’m very grateful for them.

Did you have a favourite subject at school?

My favourite subject was IT (Information Technology), followed closely by Modern History.

I was a computer geek before everybody else. – Martyn Iles

I was that year level where the internet was turned on at school when I was in Year 1. So, we rode this wave of technology, where we were the first really computer literate year level and so we were ahead of everybody. We got great at tech. I actually started an IT business when I was in Year 11, which went on to become fairly large. That was just purely because I was a computer geek before everybody else. I couldn’t do it today cause there’s too much competition.

What did you want to be when you grew up?

I wanted to be a doctor. I suppose that was Dad’s influence. But also, I read through my end of school year book the other day and I wrote there under ‘Future Ambitions’: “Be rich enough to crash the American Stock Exchange when I die, and to own a Lamborghini collection.” So, I don’t know if my motives were entirely pure!

But now I’m working in Christian ministry so I don’t think that’s likely!

How did you become a Christian?

I’m not sure when; it was a process. My family is very Christian. Church was a very key part of our life. We went to a church where most of the ministry staff were lay pastors and lay ministry people, and Dad was one of those – he was an elder and a Bible teacher. So, I was influenced all the time by that stuff, and became convicted about it very young.

I’m named after Martyn Lloyd Jones, who was a very famous preacher in London in the 1950s, 60s and 70s, and a theologically very robust guy. So, when I was in my early teens I got stuck into Martyn Lloyd Jones, listening to his sermons, and that really lit a fire within me.

To be honest, there’s a number of checkpoints along the way, where I had experiences of repentance, of committing myself to Christ, of wanting to know God. I know that the outcome of all that is that now I am a Christian.

I started doing Biomedical Science on a pathway to Medicine and I hated it. I absolutely hated it. – Martyn Iles

To be a Christian means that because of Christ I have been restored to relationship with God, particularly because of what Christ did on the cross. He paid the price; he undertook the atonement for my sins, and he did away with that thing that kept me at odds with God – and far from God. And then he brings me to enjoy all the blessings and benefits he has for me to live in relationship with God.

What did you study at university?

I started doing Biomedical Science on a pathway to Medicine and I hated it. I absolutely hated it. I wasn’t really engaged with it, I didn’t enjoy it. I was running this IT business at the same time, and I was into business, so I took a few years off.

Then in that time when the business was growing I decided I really wanted to go back to university and get a professional qualification. I didn’t want to do IT for the rest of my life – it didn’t challenge me enough. A mutual friend of the family encouraged me to do law, and I got a placement in a big firm and really enjoyed it. So, I went to the University of Queensland and got my Bachelor’s degree in Law.

What have you been doing since then?

I worked in a big firm up in Brisbane and it was whilst I was there that I actually travelled to Canberra to do an internship. There, I was offered a role with the Australian Christian Lobby as Chief of Staff. I refused that role at first, but after praying about it and seeing circumstances change in a way that made me quite convicted I should take it (even though it wasn’t something I had ever considered doing), I took it.

It turned out to be the right call.

I was Chief of Staff for a couple of years, and then I moved into the Human Rights Law Alliance, which is the legal arm of the ACL – a new initiative where they take on cases where Christians get into trouble with the law for living out their faith. That really gave me a front row seat to what’s going on in the realm of, I call it ‘soft’ persecution of Christians in Australia. And also, it scratched that itch for law.

But recently I got a phone call from Lyle Shelton and the board saying, ‘how about you take my job?’ So here I am. And that again was a process of prayer and really serious consideration about whether I should take it up.

You’re living in Canberra now?

Yes. I do have a secret plan, which is not so secret now, to get back to Queensland. I’ve still got QLD blood in my veins – I don’t think it will ever go away. I love Brisbane! So we’ll see if I ever get back there.

Where do you go to church?

I’m at an independent church in Canberra. It’s evangelical in flavour.

I have found that across the [denominational] spectrum there are sincere, godly Christians scattered almost evenly. – Martyn Iles

But I have been to a number of churches through my life. I was born and grew up in a Brethren church, so I’m a bit of an eclectic mix of things. I now call myself denominationally confused. I definitely have my distinctives.

But what I have learned particularly through my role at ACL is that the true church – as in God’s people – are scattered more widely than perhaps I once would have admitted. And I have found that across the spectrum there are sincere, godly Christians scattered almost evenly. And there’s also people who are not sincere godly Christians, so I don’t have any denominational snobbery.

You’ve been associated with the ACL for some time now. What inspired you to get involved with the ACL?

I initially turned down the Chief of Staff job (several years ago) because I had my eyes set on a particular goal: I wanted to become a barrister. I thought that’s what my talent was and that’s where I was headed. I was really enjoying law and the feedback I was getting at work was that I was doing well.

ACL was one of the organisations that I thought was courageous and demonstrated real conviction in the public square. – Martyn Iles

Then I was offered a job essentially in a Christian organisation; I wasn’t convinced that’s where I should be. I thought we needed good Christian people in the marketplace, that we need really good Christian people across the professions. And so that’s what I thought in my own mind, according to my five-year plan, was where I ought to go.

But when the offer came, it was a significant offer. It was a Chief of Staff role. I was only 24 or 25, there were 20+ staff and it was an organisation that was doing what I believed to be a lot of good. It was one of the organisations that I thought was courageous and demonstrated real conviction in the public square. I definitely believed that was lacking at the time, particularly around key issues. So I thought I should think about it.

I went back to Brisbane and prayed long and hard and circumstances just changed. Opportunities came up in Canberra – even housing and stuff – and it just became clear to me that perhaps I should give it a go.

Since I got there, I’m really glad I did it, because I can see there’s a real change in culture going on in Australia at the moment and across the West. It’s a change in culture that will, I think, substantially serve to extinguish the light of the gospel. I think that truth is not respected and I think that due to postmodern ideology, truth is denigrated and not believed in. As a result of this, I think that people are less convicted and when there’s no conviction, there’s no one standing up. There’s a real opportunity for a group like ACL to stand up and be the vehicle by which other people gain courage and gain conviction.

What do you love about the work the ACL does?

It is a contagious ministry. That is, there’s a lot of people out there, particularly in the church, who believe certain things but lack the courage to speak up. And, often, they lack the opportunity to speak up. Or when they’re criticised for what they believe they start to think it might be so. Jesus said in the Sermon on the Mount that people will revile you and persecute you and utter all kinds of evil against you falsely, and people experience that – you know, ‘bigot’, ‘hater’, these kind of things – and they think it might be true. They need somebody who is, I suppose, a lightning rod to stand up for them and speak.

ACL calls itself a voice for its supporters and I think it serves that function, based on all the feedback that we get. I think it is that rallying voice, that vehicle around which people who know what they believe – but need some empowerment to express it and continue in their convictions – can gather.

Some Christians don’t believe the ACL represents them. What do you want to say to them?

ACL doesn’t purport to speak for all Christians. There’s plenty of people who identify as Christian and disagree with the ACL.

We do ensure that we speak for the church generally. But of course, whenever there’s a generalisation, there’s exceptions. – Martyn Iles

What I would say is that ACL works with all denominations across Australia – Protestant, Catholic and Orthodox. At a leadership level, we’re very very grateful to have wide support and wide engagement. And we often do litmus test the issues that we speak about to make sure that these are issues the church really is concerned about.

Time and again, we find that usually, they are. We do ensure that we speak for the church generally. But of course, whenever there’s a generalisation, there’s exceptions. And we understand that there’s people who fall either side of that. That will always be the case, but so much of what we do, we test it around Orthodox Christianity, classical Christianity and the beliefs and convictions we’ve held for a very long time.

We do talk to the denominations as well.

Were you surprised by Lyle’s resignation?

I was not surprised, because I’ve seen Lyle up close and personal. I’ve seen his peculiar gifts and talents and [they] have always made me think he’d be a great politician. The profile that he has gained, particularly around the marriage campaign and that kind of thing, has been huge.

We’ve always had a conviction at ACL and in many quarters of Christianity who are publicly engaged that we need good solid politicians who know what they believe, who are not afraid, and people of Christian faith. Romans 13 says that these guys [politicians] are ministers and servants of God. I’ve always been of a very strong opinion than who better to be a minister and servant of God – to know what’s good and what’s evil, in the language of Romans 13 – than someone who knows God.

It’s a great thing, it’s a great opportunity for Lyle. He’s gifted and talented for it.

What are the ACL’s priorities over the next 12-24 months?

ACL’s priorities in the next 12-24 months are twofold.

We say we’re a lobby group, so we’ve got a constituency. That’s the church, or a large part of it. And then we have the people we’re lobbying, which is politicians and the parliaments around Australia. So, we have a church-facing side and a political-facing side.

Success will look like a church that is better equipped, more convicted and therefore more courageous. – Martyn Iles

I really am motivated that ACL should work on our church engagement. I am concerned that throughout the church there is a lack of knowledge. There’s a lack of understanding of the beliefs that we have, what scripture actually says about the times we live in, particularly in a way that is well applied and robustly understood. There’s a lack of understanding about the key ideas of things like sin and evil and how bad that is, or the answers that we carry in the gospel, the answers that we have for the world in scripture, the greatness of God and all that kind of thing.

I think conviction around those issues is low, and it’s only when we’re convicted of those issues that we’ll be convicted about the political issues of the day – and we’ll be able to rightly examine the social justice issue of our time, or the political policy issues.

So, I’d like to develop our church engagement, speak to the church, get some ministry work going to equip the church. And an equipped church then can become activists. They can live out their faith by going and speaking the truth. In Isaiah 59 it says that truth is lacking and truth has stumbled in the public squares, and I think we’re probably there. We need to get that truth back into the public square by people speaking up and being courageous.

ACL can be a vehicle to mobilise the grassroots and get people speaking out. If we have this grassroots movement – currently 110,000 supporters; we hope we’ll get a lot more than that in the next 12 months – that can really start to influence politics and policy for good.

I’d like us to become a grassroots campaigning organisation, and I’d like us to do it on the key issues of justice in our time.

What does success look like for ACL in 5 years’ time?

I think success will look like a church that is better equipped, more convicted and therefore more courageous. There’s an old quote that says courage is the flower of conviction, and if the church is better equipped with the knowledge, better inspired to take action, and courageous about those things, there’ll be change. There’ll be a grassroots movement for change.

You’re younger than we expected! What do you think are the main challenges facing Christians who are your age and younger?

I try not to draw attention to my age – I let people guess, and they go ‘he must be older than he looks,’ which I’m fine with!

I think Christians my age have grown up in a rarefied atmosphere. We’ve had very comfortable lives on the whole, and we’ve lived in probably the best of all worlds thus far in human history in the West.

I think the younger generation can be drawn out, when they are equipped and inspired with the fundamentals of what we believe. – Martyn Iles

And I think that comfort has made us numb. Numb to just how serious issues of injustice are. I think it’s made us numb to the need for us to speak up, and I suspect that that numbness is exacerbated by postmodern ideas that surround us. We’ve been educated on quasi-postmodern ideas. There’s a lot of postmodernism – cultural Marxism – out there in the press and in the things we read and imbibe. And that attacks truth. It says that anyone who’s convicted is just out for power. Anyone who believes stuff really sincerely, someone like me, it would say, ‘well you’re a white heteronormative power hungry guy. That’s why your convicted.’

I think the great challenge for young people – particularly Christians – is to learn the fundamentals of our faith and know that they are true, that they are the answer to the world, and to know then, that we can have confidence on those convictions and be courageous to express them.

How are you going to get more younger Christians to support the ACL?

I’ve done a lot of travelling around the country and a lot of speaking. What I’ve noticed is that young people are hungry, they’re really hungry, and I have noticed that when you get up and speak as a young person with that conviction, and you do it in a way that actually equips people with truth, and you’re not ashamed of it, and you’re not upset about it, and you’re not a wilting wallflower about it, but you just say this is what we believe and this is what it means for our times – I find that the young people are so invigorated and so enlivened by that. I suppose it is my view that there’s not enough of that going on.

People will respond differently to the truth. Some people love it, and love you for it, and some people hate it, and hate you for it. – Martyn Iles

I think the younger generation can be drawn out, when they are equipped and inspired with the fundamentals of what we believe.

You’re stepping into a position that can take a lot of heat – how do you personally deal with that?

I’ve been saying throughout this interview that one of the things we need to understand is how the fundamentals of our faith apply to the world as it is today. One of the fundamentals that I know and have known since reading my Bible is that people will respond differently to the truth. Some people love it, and love you for it, and some people hate it, and hate you for it.

I feel the burden to be absolutely blameless in all that I do and say. – Martyn Iles

When I open my mouth I don’t expect everybody to love me, and I think that every Christian needs to be aware of that. And sometimes it’s not because you were unkind, it’s not because you were rude, it’s not because you weren’t winsome – it’s just because of the issue. It’s just because people don’t like what you believe.

And so when I get haters, which has happened and is going to happen even more, part of me goes, well, Jesus told me it would happen. And also, part of me says, well Jesus also said that this is what happened to the greatest in the kingdom. He says, so they persecuted the prophets who were before you (and by persecuted there, he does mean insults, etc). And so, it’s not something to be unexpected.

However, I would say, I feel the burden to be absolutely blameless in all that I do and say. And to hold myself to a very very high standard, because we have to be good witnesses and good examples. That’s a burden, particularly when your every move and word and syllable is being scrutinised.

At the end of the day, some people won’t like it, and that’s the lot that we bear. But there’s a greater purpose in all of this. And if I can go to bed at night and say, ‘look, I did what I absolutely believed was right,’ on that front, I can’t stop.