What is the Age of Accountability?

This weekend, I am spending some time with folks from my congregation who are preparing for the Sacrament of Confirmation in the church. This phrase alone, “preparing for the Sacrament of Confirmation” is probably worthy of its own series of blog entries, but those will have to wait. For the moment, I’ll simply focus on a single facet of the question, one that I think has a little more potential for ecumenical dialogue.

Several years ago, a friend sent me the following via email: ”

I know that God will accept an un baptized infant into heaven, because babies aren’t responsible for their actions. I wonder at what age that is no longer the case?”

I think what my friend is talking about here is what many Christians think about as the “age of accountability.” This is the age when one must take responsibility for one’s own walk of faith. It is the age when those traditions who don’t practice infant baptism begin to encourage children to be baptized. It is the age when those who do practice infant Baptism usually put some other rite, like Confirmation, as a marker of spiritual maturity.

One the one hand, this discussion can and should not be split from the one about Infant Baptism. Implicit in my friend’s comment is a question of God’s grace and saving work in the life of an individual. But, on the other hand, issues of spiritual marturity are more universal and, I believe, forma a piece of the broader conversation about Baptism, so I’ll try to keep this post focused on maturity.

Biblically speaking, there is no defined time in life when one mystically becomes responsible for one’s own faith walk. St. Paul referees repeatedly to maturity in faith as a goal for neophyte Christians, but he never points to an absolute age. Rather, he seems to suggest that is a relative concept, having much to do with how one has been formed and when in life one first heard the Gospel. The fact that Paul both compliments seemingly young Christians, like Timothy, for their faith and castigates rather older folks (like Philemon) reinforces this notion of age-independent maturity.

What is more likely at the root of our contemporary practices of “adult” baptism and confirmation is the tradition of cultural rites of passage that goes back even deeper into the tradition. The Old Testament, like the New is a little soft on specific ages, but it clearly delineates the responsibilities of “adults” in the community from those of “children.” It is thought that the age-break from this has something to do with the onset of puberty (the potential for one to have children of ones own) but it is ultimately unclear. What we do know, however is that the notion is ultimately ritualized int he more contemporary Jewish traditions of Bar/Bat Mitzah which, frankly, I think may be very root we’re poking for.

Nearly every tradition in the world, whether religious or secular, has some kind of rite-of passage on or near the onset of puberty. The onset of a certain type of physical maturity is invested with equal, and sometimes transcendent, emotional, moral and spiritual maturity as one is welcomed into the “Adult” ranks of community. Thus, there has always been a felt need among Christians, whose religious commitments are traditionally more divorced from prevailing culture (one is not simply born into the faith, one must be ‘born again’), for an equivalent marker. Whether one believes that God formally welcomes all into the faith or holds that only adult can be christians while baby’s get a grace-pass, something in our cultural DNA calls out for a recognition of adulthood and responsibility in the early teen years.

Interestingly, particularly for Christians, this cultural intuition runs exactly counter to the prevailing brain science that suggests that emotional and mental maturity actually begins much earlier (like 4 or 5) and does not come to conclusion until MUCH later (like 20 or 21). So, locating a celebration of adulthood, or accountability or maturity in the early teen years seems a little odd.

I think, at the end of the day, God has little or no opinion about this subject. Rather, he enjoys the fact that such conversations of faith remain so popular even among the nominally religious. No matter what the specific practice, nearly all Christians believe that we serve a God who is full of grace and understanding, who will not hold a lack of maturity or even a failure in maturity against one of the faithful, who forgives the penitent reguardless of their age or stage.

I for one, enjoy very much the work I’m allowed to do with those in my cure that are being prepared to own their own faith walk. They have the best questions.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s