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Escaping Anonymity

Several months ago I was asked to submit an article to Tabletalk Magazine. The editors had read an blog entry I had written dealing with the subject of accountability and asked if I’d be willing to write a condensed version and submit it for publication. I was glad to do so and the result appeared in this month’s Tabletalk. You may have read a version of this article in the past but, if you care to read it again, you can find it now in a condensed and edited edition. It goes like this:

Admiral Lord Nelson once remarked that “every sailor is a bachelor when beyond Gibraltar.” This was a statement about anonymity, a rare concept even just a few short generations ago. Nelson knew that once his sailors moved beyond the bounds of the British Empire, beyond society’s systems of morality and accountability, they underwent a transformation. Every man became a bachelor and sought only and always his own pleasure. Those who have read biographies of John Newton will see there a vivid portrayal of a man who was a gentleman at home but who was vulgar and abusive while away. Given only a measure of anonymity he became a whole new man.

In days past, anonymity was both rare and difficult. People tended to live in close-knit communities where every face was familiar and every action visible to the community. Travel was rare and the majority of people lived a whole lifetime in the same small geographic area. Os Guinness remarks that in the past “those who did right and those who did not do wrong often acted as they did because they knew they were seen by others. Their morality was accountability through visibility.” While anonymity is certainly not a new phenomenon, the degree of anonymity we can and often do enjoy in our society is unparalleled in history.

We need accountability. Left to our own devices, we will soon devise or succumb to all kinds of evil. As Christians we know that we need other believers to hold us accountable to the standards of Scripture. Passages such as Ecclesiastes 4:12 remind us that “a threefold cord is not quickly broken.” The Bible tells us that “iron sharpens iron” (Prov. 27:17) and that we are to “stir up one another to love and good works…encouraging one another” (Heb. 10:24-25). Life is far too difficult and we are far too sinful to live in solitude. We need community. We need accountability. And God has anticipated our need by giving us the local church as the primary means of this accountability.

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