ACL, fear and grace

James Snare offers a “gentle critique” of the Australian Christian Lobby’s strategy

James Snare offers a “gentle critique” of some of the Australian Christian Lobby’s style of campaigning.

Recently there has been much discussion at Eternity over the way that Christians talk about each other and about different issues. One concern has been for the way that Christians can risk stirring up violence if they are not careful about the way they speak.

Two views of the Australian Christian Lobby

The ACL does not claim to speak for ALL Christians in Australia. But from within a conservative denomination, James Snare – a Presbyterian Minister – offers what he calls  a “gentle critique”. Greg Bondar, an experienced campaigner, explains why he is thankful for the work of the ACL. (The ACL did not respond to a request by Eternity for an article)

I think the ACL and Martyn Iles are operating with a sincere desire to serve Christ and to see him glorified in Australia.

Some good has come from these discussions, but there has been a lot of heat and friction as well. On one level I wonder if it would be good time to step back and talk about something else. However, now might just be the time to hopefully offer a model for how we can publicly but respectfully and gently critique one another. With that in mind, I want to talk about some of the recent rhetoric of the Australian Christian Lobby, the way that fear is being used to motivate Christians, and some scriptural insights that suggest this is not a good idea.

In these times of heated rhetoric, it’s worth noting that I think the ACL and Martyn Iles are operating with a sincere desire to serve Christ and to see him glorified in Australia.

I’ve watched Martyn in his ‘The Truth of It’ updates and listened to interviews he’s given. I really admire the way he passionately argues for the rights of the unborn, protections for the ability to proclaim the gospel, his concern for those influenced by contemporary gender theory, and his ever-willing readiness to be counted as being for Christ and to speak about Jesus.

My concern in this article is not the goals of the ACL, but rather the way that the ACL and Iles seem to be willing to use fear to motivate Christians towards political action. I think this is deeply problematic biblically and stunts the spiritual maturity of the brothers and sisters that Iles speaks to. My hope is that my argument here will cause the ACL to rethink this particular strategy for motivating Christians.

To start, I need to give some specific examples of how the ACL is using fear as a motivator in their messaging. Space will only allow me to offer a couple of quotes. But I believe they are good examples because they are excerpts from messages that are written to a more explicitly Christian space than some of the ACL’s more public work. These quotes come from the regular emails sent to the ACL’s mailing list. I’m making the assumption that those receiving these emails are more likely to be sympathetic and supportive of the ACL generally. These examples obviously do not represent the entirety of Iles and the ACL’s message.

Iles is intelligent and capable of nuance. But the examples to follow give a snapshot of a message that is frequently present in communication by the ACL. The message could be summarised as, ‘Christians are under attack, we should be afraid of what will happen, and we have to act.’

This quote comes from an email Iles sent on December 2 with the subject header “This is it: the moment you feared.”

“I’m not exaggerating: this is it. We’re facing the biggest attack on religious freedom and parental rights we’ve ever seen in Australia. I hope you’re ready.”

This quote is part of a message that was sent out on February 11, again by Iles:

“2021 has barely begun, and already the battle for your religious freedom has hit an alarming new level of urgency. With Victoria passing the Change or Suppression (Conversion) Practices Prohibition Bill 2020, those who want to suppress God’s truth and people of faith have revealed their true agenda: They hate Christians, and they want to silence us.”

Most recently, this was sent out on February 25.

“Right now your religious freedom is under more threat than ever … Unless protections for religious freedom are enshrined in Australian federal law very soon, your life could change dramatically. Those who want to suppress God’s truth and push their own radical agenda are proposing bills to silence people of faith … This is an all-out attack on people like you and me who hold fast to God’s truth. And mark my words: it’s just the tip of the iceberg.”

Now, again, I appreciate this isn’t the entirety of ACL’s message, nor the entirety of their thoughts on every issue. Nor am I arguing against their desire to protect religious freedom. However, it’s significant that their succinct and pointed call to action, to a mostly Christian audience, is something along the lines of ‘We are under attack. Be afraid of what could happen. We have to act.’

… One of the most frequently given commands in all of scripture [is] ‘Do not be afraid!’

The problem with this is approach is twofold. One, this casts those who are human political opponents as enemies who we have to fight. But, for the Christian, “…our struggle is not against flesh and blood, but against the rulers, against the authorities, against the powers of this dark world and against the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly realms.” (Ephesians 6:12) The powers we are to fight against are not humans, but ‘spiritual forces’. Our one true enemy is not any political opponent but the devil (1 Peter 5:8) He and other ‘spiritual forces’ may work through humans, but people are not ordinarily referred to as enemies. Interestingly, in the one rare example of a human opponent being described as an enemy, the call of God is to feed them, not fight them (Romans 12:20) In fact, the political and religious opponents of the Christian arguably best fit into the category of neighbours, not enemies. (Luke 10:25-37) This doesn’t mean we shouldn’t be active in the political sphere, but we should be cautious about casting people as our enemies.

The second problem is that encouraging fear is to do the exact opposite of one of the most frequently given commands in all of scripture, ‘Do not be afraid!’ With Google, you can easily find full lists of the dozens of times this command is given. Here us just a short list of examples to make the point:

  • “Be strong and courageous. Do not be afraid or terrified because of them, for the LORD your God goes with you; he will never leave you nor forsake you.” (Deuteronomy 31:6)
  • “Have I not commanded you? Be strong and courageous. Do not be terrified; do not be discouraged, for the LORD your God will be with you wherever you go.” (Joshua 1:9)
  • “He said: “Listen, King Jehoshaphat and all who live in Judah and Jerusalem! This is what the LORD says to you: ‘Do not be afraid or discouraged because of this vast army. For the battle is not yours, but God’s.” (2 Chronicles 20:15)

In the Old Testament, God’s people had human enemies and were called to fight them, but even then, they were not to do so in fear.

In the New Testament, the idea that God’s people should not be afraid is only strengthened because in Christ, “… God did not give us a spirit of timidity, but a spirit of power, of love and of self-discipline.” (2 Timothy 1:7) Indeed, in Christ, “there is no fear in love. But perfect love drives out fear, because fear has to do with punishment.” (1 John 4:18) Christ has taken our punishment and we no longer have any need for fear because we know the perfect love of Christ.*

A mature Christian, who knows the perfect love of Christ, does not live in fear. To encourage a Christian to fear is to encourage immaturity in them.

I’m not suggesting that Iles wants Christians to live in fear. Far from it.

Yet this is the very thing that the ACL consistently encourages Christians to do. As I’ve said, their strategy seems to be to frame cultural discourse in terms of Christians being attacked, arouse fears in Christians about what is happening and what could happen, and then call them to act based on this fear. But this isn’t a framework encouraged in the teaching of the New Testament. Rather, we are encouraged to not fear, because we know the perfect love of Christ. When we understand this, then that perfect love can motivate us to love our neighbour mercifully and, if need be, feed our enemies. It might be foolishness in the worlds eyes, but it is the wisdom of Christ.

I’m not suggesting that Iles wants Christians to live in fear. Far from it. But what I am saying is that whatever sphere we are operating in, and whatever action we are trying to take, it isn’t good or godly to motivate Christians through fear. Even a fear of what may very well happen. I believe for the ACL to live up to their own high calling and follow God in all things, they need to change their rhetoric from one of seeking to motivate through stirring up fear, and instead move to a call to action based on love. This may be less effective, but it will be more in step with the gospel. It may not generate action in the way that fear can, but it will be better for the spiritual maturity of the people Iles and the ACL are trying to serve. Ultimately I believe it will be more glorifying to God who is love, and his perfect love that drives out fear.

James Snare is a pastor at Gosford Presbyterian Church, on the NSW Central Coast. 

*There are several verses that speak of Christians fearing but they all relate to the fear of God, not human ‘enemies’.