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The Age of Accountability
Discerning the Moment of Discernment

Al Maxey

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[Also See Train A Child]

For six years I served as the Minister for the Honolulu Church of Christ (1992-1998), which was located just about a mile from Waikiki Beach. It was a wonderful experience for my family and me, and we formed some lasting relationships with some truly great disciples of Jesus Christ. We have fond memories of that time of ministry in the Islands. One of the families that we grew to love dearly was a young U.S. Navy officer and his wife. We were privileged to be there for them as they welcomed into the world their first child, a precious little girl. That couple is now living in Georgia, and the little girl is maturing rapidly. The other day the wife sent me an email, a portion of which I shall share (for it is the basis of the article which follows):

     Dear Al, Would you address the "age of accountability" issue? When is a child able to become a Christian? Our eldest daughter (whom you knew as an infant) was an early reader and has always been very perceptive. She has begun to ask questions which pertain to being saved and taking the Lord's Supper. Also, with this year's political environment, she wanted to discuss what abortion was and why a candidate would be for it. I think we managed to handle the discussion well, thanks in part to your recent Reflections article. I just hate to use the standard political rhetoric when good logic is available. She is now 7.5 years old and in the second grade. How long do you hold off a child who understands the implications of her decision? How can you do this without taking away the joy of becoming a Christian? Our minister mentioned that in holding off a child you may risk the chance that they would never become a Christian. Thank you for feeding our souls! You did so in Hawaii, and now you do it weekly with your Reflections.

Coincidentally, I received an email from a subscriber in Indiana who stated

    "Al, I continue to enjoy and be challenged by your Reflections. Thank you! I have a question regarding the age of accountability. Any insights you're willing to share would be appreciated. Some say a child (defined as ages 7-12) is too young to make a profession of faith and be baptized. Others say even those who are into their teens may still not have reached the age. Do you have any advice that might be helpful?"

 It is obvious from these two disciples that this is a question that weighs heavily upon the hearts and minds of many, especially those with young children who have begun to ask questions pertaining to their relationship with and responsibilities toward God.

Although we have all probably heard the expression countless times over the years, it might surprise some to learn that the phrase "age of accountability" never appears in the Bible ... not even once. In fact, the concept itself is really not discussed in Scripture, although there are some OT and NT examples that have led to some speculation among scholars as to the specific age of this "magic moment" of discernment. The reality is, however, that physiologically and psychologically there is no such precise "age of accountability" that would apply universally to mankind. Accountability before God is an individual matter, one which varies dramatically with each person, and which ultimately is known only to God.

     Pierce Brown, a noted leader and author within the Churches of Christ from Tennessee, in an article he sent me to aid my research for a previous issue of Reflections, expressed it quite well when he wrote: "Unfortunately, we have coined a phrase -- 'age of accountability' -- which apparently leads some to think there is a specific age at which one becomes accountable for sin. When 'the savage,' 'the American,' or 'the white man' becomes accountable is known only to God, who determines it not in terms of some specific age, but in terms of ability, mentality and opportunity" (T. Pierce Brown, Are The Heathen Lost?).

The reality is this: personal accountability before God is predicated upon one's personal capacity to discern good from evil and right from wrong, and to appreciate the fact that one's choices in these areas are acts of willful rebellion against God and His purpose for one's life.

Infants, for example, are incapable of such depth of awareness. The same holds true for many who have severe mental disabilities. A 35-year-old with Downs Syndrome may never reach that point of true accountability to God, as defined above. Are such persons saved? Yes, I believe they are. God does not hold accountable those who are incapable of appropriate response. To demand of one, upon penalty of eternal destruction, that which one cannot possibly produce, would portray our loving, merciful, gracious Father as a cold, heartless abuser of His children. Such a depiction of deity would be blasphemous.

Dr. Dave Miller, in an insightful article which recently appeared on the web site of Apologetics Press, observed, "This 'age of accountability' is not pinpointed in Scripture as a specific age -- for obvious reasons: it naturally differs from person to person since it depends upon a variety of social and environmental factors. Children mature at different rates and ages as their spirits are fashioned, shaped, and molded by parents, teachers, and life's experiences" (The Age of Accountability). Bro. Louis Rushmore, in an article titled Accountability to God, agrees -- "Age alone is not a suitable benchmark to ascertain when someone is accountable to God as we are all individuals who each develop at our own paces. Persons, irrespective of their chronological ages, who have always been mentally incompetent, are also not accountable to God for their actions" (Gospel Gazette, February, 2003).

Nevertheless, such considerations have not prevented some from attempting to establish a fixed age at which individuals, devoid of obvious mental incapacity, become accountable to their God. Over the years two major theories, both of which appeal to Scripture for their "authority," have emerged. We shall briefly examine the biblical arguments for each.

Pre-Teen Theory = 12-13 Years Old

The first major theory is drawn from an example found in the New Covenant writings. It is the example of Jesus, as found in Luke 2:40-52. To set the context: Joseph and Mary, and their family, were living in the town of Nazareth, in Galilee. Every year, however, as was the custom, they would travel to the city of Jerusalem to observe the Passover. The particular events recorded in the passage before us took place when Jesus was twelve years old (vs. 42). On this particular occasion, the family of Jesus, following the completion of the Passover festivities, began the journey back home as part of a caravan of other worshipers from afar. They actually traveled an entire day's journey before noticing Jesus was nowhere to be found in the caravan. Thus, they returned to Jerusalem to find Him. "And it came about that after three days they found Him in the temple, sitting in the midst of the teachers, both listening to them, and asking them questions. And all who heard Him were amazed at His understanding and His answers" (vs. 46-47). When asked why He had done this, Jesus replied to His earthly parents, "Why did you seek Me? Did you not know that I must be about My Father's business?" (NKJV). [See Section on Jesus]

Jesus was only twelve, but already He was aware of a higher calling in life. Yes, He was deity incarnate, but let's not overlook that He was also fully human. Thus, He grew and developed age appropriately. Verse 40 reads, "And the Child continued to grow and become strong, increasing in wisdom." Later, in verse 52, we read, "And Jesus kept increasing in wisdom and stature." These statements indicate human development. Jesus wasn't born fully mature, either mentally, emotionally or physically. He grew ... He increased ... He developed. And, at the age of twelve, He was aware of a need to "be about His Father's business" (or, as many translations render it: "to be in My Father's house"). This would certainly seem to suggest a sense of accountability to God. Nevertheless, He was also still accountable to Joseph and Mary, thus "He went down with them, and came to Nazareth; and He continued in subjection to them" (vs. 51).

    Some point out that in verse 40, prior to the incident in Jerusalem when Jesus was twelve, we are told that "the grace of God was upon Him" as He continued to develop. However, in verse 52, after the incident in Jerusalem, we are told that He was "in favor with God and men." Some see a significant change in relationship here. Before, Jesus had God's grace "upon Him" ... afterward, He was "in favor/grace." Does this perhaps, as some believe, signify Jesus had somewhere between those two statements arrived at this mysterious "age of accountability"? Did His behavior in Jerusalem that year demonstrate this fact? It is suggested it did, and thus it is inferred by these theorists that the age at which one becomes accountable to God is twelve. At this point, God's grace is no longer merely "upon" us, we are now "in" it. A transition occurs: we become accountable, we respond appropriately, and we are brought into "favor with God."

It is certainly an attractive theory, in the minds of many, and is given additional weight by the maturation customs of Judaism. A boy was considered a man on his 13th birthday, which would be marked by a rite of passage known as Bar Mitzvah ("son of the commandment"). Girls were considered women at twelve; their rite of passage was known as Bat Mitzvah ("daughter of the commandment"). Both were then legally allowed to marry and make religious vows, although both still had to secure parental permission until the age of twenty-one (McClintock and Strong Encyclopedia). Upon turning thirteen boys could now be counted as one of the ten males required to constitute a synagogue (New Manners and Customs of Bible Times).

Under more recent Jewish Law, children are not required to observe the commandments (although they are encouraged to do so to develop a habit of behavior) until completing this transition to adulthood. This ceremony formally marks the assumption of their accountability and obligation to God and His commandments. Thus, twelve seemed to be a significant number for the Jews, and when that twelfth year ended, so did the pre-teen's lack of accountability before God. They were now adults, and they were accountable ... up to a point, of course. They were still under the authority of the parents until twenty-one, which explains why Jesus "continued in subjection to them" (Luke 2:51).

    Reformed Judaism tried for a time to replace the above "coming of age" ceremonies with a confirmation rite at the age of 16 or 18, since they scorned the idea that a 13-year-old was an "adult." They believed them still to be "children." The Bar and Bat Mitzvahs were so popular, however, that they had to retreat from their objection. Even the Talmud agrees with the Reformed Jews on this matter, suggesting that although children become accountable for their actions at 13, they nevertheless are unsuited for other adult activities (marriage, earning a livelihood, etc.) until they reach 16-24 years of age. This is not that different from modern American legal standards, which greatly restrict the "adult" activities of a "minor" (such as marriage, drinking, voting, military service, driving, etc.) until the late teens and early twenties.

This seems to be the most common view of the "age of accountability" in the church today. Most spiritual leaders with whom I have talked agree that somewhere around ages 11 to 13 is when it can be expected to see most young people seriously begin considering their relationship with the Lord, and seeking to take that relationship to the next level. In my own life, for example, I was just a few months short of turning twelve when I accepted Christ and was immersed. My wife, Shelly, also committed to the Lord a couple of months before her twelfth birthday. This is fairly common among those "raised in the church," and it is generally about this time in a child's development that parents begin to seriously seek to motivate their children to make that deeper commitment to God. Most in the church today would consider someone less than eleven to be "too young to know what they were doing," and would regard those fourteen and over with "grave concern for their delay." Thus, almost by default, we find many gravitating toward the Pre-Teen Theory of accountability.

Post-Teen Theory = 20-21 Years Old

The second major theory is drawn from examples found in the Old Covenant writings. This view is not as popular as the previous one, but it is well-known, and it does enjoy some degree of favor among many different religious groups, both Christian and non-Christian. Some have even advanced scientific evidence which they believe tends to justify their perspective. The theory is based on the assumption that one is not fully responsible in either secular or spiritual society -- thus, neither to man nor God -- until they achieve "true adulthood," which is defined as post-teen years (generally around the age of 20 or 21). Indeed, such old expressions as "Free, White and Twenty-one" reflect such perceived independence. Also, it used to be very common for "adult" pleasures and responsibilities to be forbidden to "minors" until they reached the age of 21 (driving, drinking, smoking, voting, etc.). Some of these, of course, have been significantly lowered in certain areas. Thus, the view that a youth finally achieves full accountability at around 21 is not a new concept, although it has not often been associated with spiritual accountability in mainstream Christianity. In more recent years, however, it has gained in popularity.

In the Hebrew language there are several words used to describe the various stages of one's life. One was considered a "child" between the ages of 5 - 20. The word for "infant" applied to those who were under the age of five, and one was considered an "adult" after age 20. They were "aged" from sixty upward. This is all spelled out in Leviticus 27:1-8, a rather interesting passage (and a somewhat puzzling one to some) where the Laws of Valuation with regard to persons and property dedicated unto service to the Lord are given. The Lord said, "Set the value of a male between the ages of twenty and sixty at fifty shekels of silver ... if it is a female, set her value at thirty shekels" (vs. 3-4). "If it is a person between the ages of five and twenty, set the value of a male at twenty shekels and of a female at ten shekels. If it is a person between one month and five years, set the value of a male at five shekels of silver and that of a female at three shekels of silver. If it is a person sixty years old or more, set the value of a male at fifteen shekels and of a female at ten shekels" (vs. 5-7). Prime value was placed on those between ages 20 and 60, which some regard as not only an indication of worth (in the sense of productivity), but also of responsibility and accountability, both socially and spiritually.

A far more important point from the OT writings bearing on the age of accountability, however, has to do with the "cut off" age of those wandering in the wilderness who were either allowed to enter the land of promise or who were condemned to die in the wilderness. At what age was accountability assigned by God in this situation? The answer, of course, is found in Numbers 13-14. Twelve spies were sent into the land of Canaan to spy it out. Ten brought back a negative report; only Joshua and Caleb argued for going up and taking possession of the land as God had directed. The people followed the advice of the ten, however, and for their rebellion they were doomed not to enter the land, but to perish in the wilderness. God told them, "Your corpses shall fall in this wilderness, even all your numbered men, according to your complete number from twenty years old and upward, who have grumbled against Me. Surely you shall not come into the land in which I swore to settle you, except Caleb the son of Jephunneh and Joshua the son of Nun" (Numbers 14:29-30). "None of the men who came up from Egypt, from twenty years old and upward, shall see the land which I swore to Abraham, to Isaac and to Jacob; for they did not follow Me fully, except Caleb ... and Joshua" (Numbers 32:11-12).

Why did our God not regard those younger than 20 as accountable? That is the question that many have pondered over the years. Whatever the solution, and many theories are proffered, the fact remains that those from infancy to age twenty were excluded by God from the punishment of not being allowed to enter the land of promise. Many regard this as a strong indication that perhaps they were still regarded as "children," and thus not fully accountable before God and men. Deut. 1:39, which speaks of this "under-age" group, seems to lend some credibility to this view. After saying that Joshua and Caleb would be allowed to enter, we are then told, "Your little ones who you said would become a prey, and your sons, who this day have no knowledge of good or evil, shall enter there, and I will give it to them, and they shall possess it." These "sons," who were not accountable to their God, were those below the age of twenty. This seems to be a very clear statement with regard to spiritual accountability, at least for those people at that time.

Along the same lines, God's law set the age for military service at twenty! When seeking an army, the people of Israel must choose only from those who were "twenty years old and upward" (Numbers 1:3 and several other verses in this chapter; 26:2). There is also a fascinating passage in the OT writings dealing with "the atonement money taken from the sons of Israel" (Exodus 30:16). This contribution of "atonement money" was to be taken from a select group of the people of Israel --- "Everyone who is numbered, from twenty years old and over, shall give the contribution to the Lord" (vs. 14). Why weren't the pre-teens and teens also required to contribute "atonement money"? Why were they exempt? Some suggest they were exempt from contributing "atonement money" because they had not yet achieved the age of accountability. Thus, there was no need prior to age twenty for them to make a contribution to the Lord for "atonement money."

    Some child development experts have actually come out agreeing with this. They speak of a "cognitive curve" --- From 6 to 10 years of age children are learning facts; soaking up details and information like a sponge. From 10 to 14 they are developing logic, and from 14 to 18 they are developing reason, according to these experts. Thus, until such time as a little boy "grows up" and becomes a man, he continues to reason and respond as a child, even though physically he may more resemble an adult. Size, it is argued, does not necessarily equate to maturity. "According to recent discoveries in medical science it has been shown that the brain of a teenager, no matter how much they may seem to have matured in physical appearance, doesn't completely develop until they are almost twenty years old. This occurs because of the development of the prefrontal lobe of the brain."

This scientific study has brought some interesting information to light that may well explain God's choice with regard to twenty as an age of accountability for the people of Israel during the OT times. Dr. Deborah Yurgelun-Todd, who is Director of Neuropsychology and Cognitive Neuroimaging at McLean Hospital in Belmont, Massachusetts, has done significant study in this area. She writes, "In an adult, the anterior or prefrontal part of the brain carries out a lot of executive functions or what we call more thinking functions: planning, goal-directed behavior, judgment, insight." According to Dr. Yurgelun-Todd's research, as well as that of other medical researchers, those in their teen years are still in the process of developing the prefrontal lobe of the brain, which has a major influence on one's emotions, judgment and decision making. Comparative brain scans of both adults and teens show that "in an adolescent brain, the relative activation of the prefrontal region is less than it is in the adults." This is considered significant in determining maturity and accountability.

    Some, who advocate the pre-teen theory, point to Josiah, who was a righteous king over the people of God. "Josiah was eight years old when he became king, and he reigned thirty-one years in Jerusalem. And he did right in the sight of the Lord, and walked in the ways of his father David and did not turn aside to the right or to the left" (2 Chron. 34:1-2). This suggests, these theorists claim, that here was an eight-year-old boy who was nevertheless walking uprightly before his God. Does this not prove, they contend, early accountability? Yet, we must also, in fairness, note the very next verse --- "For in the eighth year of his reign while he was still a youth, he began to seek the God of his father David; and in the twelfth year he began to purge Judah and Jerusalem of the high places, the Asherim, the carved images, and the molten images" (vs. 3). Thus, Josiah didn't even begin to seek out God until the age of 16, and he didn't begin to act on his growing understanding until the age of 20. Josiah, therefore, provides more support for the post-teen theory, than he does for the pre-teen theory!

Personal Reflections on Accountability

My own personal belief on this matter, for what it may be worth, is that there is no normative number that would universally apply. Individuals develop differently, thus the moment at which one truly becomes accountable for his or her actions will vary from person to person. There are also degrees of accountability. Even a toddler is accountable within certain cognitive limits. Even before developing language skills, they can comprehend the significance of "No, No!" One can also see the "wheels turning" in their minds as they make conscious choices. I've watched toddlers defy a parent's "No, No," and then flinch as they awaited the "swat" for their willful action. They knew this was contrary to the will of the parent, and they acted anyway, fully expecting reprisal. That implies a level of accountability. It is a far cry from the accountability of which we speak in this study, however. Accountability of a child to a parent is significantly different from one's accountability to one's God. Much greater maturity, awareness and spiritual development is required.

It is my view that a person is only truly accountable to the Creator of this universe when they reach that point in their maturation process where they are 1) aware of God's will and purpose for their lives, 2) aware that they are not in compliance with that will and purpose, and 3) recognize that such noncompliance constitutes willful rebellion against God. They have reached the point where they make conscious choices, knowing fully the ramifications of those choices upon themselves, others and God; ramifications not only in the "here and now," but also in the "hereafter." At this point, whenever this point is reached (and only God truly knows), they become accountable to the Lord for their attitudes and actions. They have come to that crossroads where they perceive a clear choice of pathways in life, one which leads to a life lived for Him, the other leading to a life lived for self. When we reach the point where we clearly perceive the choice, and its eternal consequences, I believe we have reached the age where we then become accountable to Him for that choice.

Over the years, I have had parents come to me wondering if their children (usually around 7-10 years of age) were "ready to be baptized." It is my conviction that these children are much too young and immature to fully comprehend the implications of such a decision upon their lives. There may well be exceptions, but if there are, they are very rare. It is the exceptional child that has truly reached full accountability before God at such a tender age. Yes, this is a time in a child's development when they are asking a LOT of questions about God, the church, and a host of other concerns. However, let us be extremely cautious lest we confuse curiosity with conviction. They are not even remotely the same! A young child will most certainly display curiosity about baptism, for example, long before they are convicted in their hearts of the personal need for such a commitment and demonstration of faith in their own lives. If we, as parents and pastors, rush them to the water at the first sign of curiosity, we may well do so before they have developed any real perception of the commitment involved in such an action. Thus, we do them no favors in the long run. This is why, by the way, many who were baptized at a very early age, choose to be immersed again (usually as young adults); once they finally do reach a greater level of maturity, and perceive the implications of the act, they realize they didn't have a clue as to what they were doing as a child. [See Section on Baptism]

My own personal conviction, based on study and observation, is that most people, who are blessed with normal cognitive ability and development, will probably arrive at that "age of accountability" somewhere between the ages promoted by the two popular theories discussed above. In other words, most will likely achieve that magic moment of discernment somewhere between 12-13 and 20-21, with most probably falling closer to the younger end of the scale than the older. Beyond this, I dare not presume. Each child is a unique individual; each child will develop at their own pace. May God help us to be perceptive of these precious young souls, and intimately involved in their lives, so that when they reach that crossroads, we are there to guide them to the pathway leading to LIFE. [Also See Train A Child]

Our Country.. Our Children