by Tim Challies
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.
Our society values anonymity. There are many who feel that anonymity is a right and one that must be guarded and protected. Technophiles will have noticed the influx of tools designed to protect the anonymity of the Internet user. The latest versions of web browsers come with tools designed to erase, with a single click, all traces of what a person has been watching or reading while browsing the web. They provide anonymity by minimizing accountability. Conversely, the software packages developed by Christians to guard the eyes and the heart do the exact opposite — they make public what a person has done. They provide accountability by minimizing anonymity.
Anonymity extends far beyond technology. It extends to the workplace where we may travel weeks out of every year, living life beyond prying eyes. It extends to the home where we watch television and read books and magazines behind closed doors. It extends to the community where we may not even know our next-door neighbors either by name or by face. We live only yards away from people we may never meet. It extends to the church where the congregations grow larger and relationships grow weaker. We are anonymous, impersonal people in a largely anonymous, impersonal world. We live beyond Gibraltar. Guinness does not exaggerate when he writes: “More of us today are more anonymous in more situations than any generation in human history.”
In former days, morality was accountability through visibility. Today many of us prefer to remain invisible and unaccountable. Not too long ago I was an invisible Internet user who valued my anonymity and an invisible church-goer who cared little for closer relationships. I wrote often and my articles and reviews were read by many people, but all the while I was safely removed from the people I wrote for and wrote about. I began to see the effect of this in my writing. It became increasingly abrasive and showed a lack of godly character. But a couple of years ago God was gracious to me in revealing the necessity of avoiding complete anonymity. He helped me understand that accountability is closely tied to visibility and that personal holiness will come not through anonymity but through deep and personal relationships with my brothers and sisters in the local church. And so I have sought to make myself more visible that I may accept correction and rebuke when it is necessary. At the same time, I have renewed my commitment to the One who is always watching and who knows every word I write and every intent of my heart.
We face unique struggles in our increasingly anonymous world. We must commit to making ourselves accountable through visibility. We must commit to purity of heart and commit to only speaking or writing or reading or watching or doing what is honoring to God. And then we must ensure that there are people who know us, who will watch over us, and who will lovingly exhort and correct us when we fail in this commitment. While the British sailors went beyond Gibraltar and heaped contempt on the Empire they represented, we wish to be Christians who are “the aroma of Christ to God among those who are being saved and among those who are perishing” (2 Cor. 2:15).