The “Age of Accountability” [Uncertain Inferences Series]

Logic and illogic have a certain symbiotic relationship. Often we think very carefully and long about something, and then act in such a way that is laughably illogical. Yet, when confronted with our illogical behavior, we argue that it was the most logical thing to do that we could possibly imagine.

I think of that conundrum when I ponder one of the most difficult questions a minister is ever asked – how old should a person be before he or she is baptized? I guess I should say this is only a difficult question for a minister who serves a church that rejects infant baptism. A “pedo-baptist” does not have to worry about that question – just bring the infant to the font whenever all the family can be together. But for “credo-baptists” (those who withhold baptism until there is a measure of faith), the question gets significantly more sticky.

The answer for many “credo-baptists” is, “when the person has reached the age of accountability.” That answer, I am becoming more and more convinced, is as clear as mud. It really does not solve any question, and even raises more, at least in my mind.

First, let me say that it does offer some form of assurance – we withhold baptism until a person is “accountable” for either their sins or their confession of faith. But which is it? When does a person become “accountable” for their sin? Or, when does a person really become “accountable” for their confession of faith? If we answer with a specific “age,” then it appears to me that we have answered the question for everyone, for all time and eternity. Let’s just put an age here – say, 12 or 16, or 20 or even 30. Before that age no accountability, after that age, accountability.

But that is not how we work the game. We immediately shift to the person’s (and I suggest here it is usually a young person) state of mind. So, we say age of accountability, but we invariably end up arguing level of maturity. Now here is where it really gets interesting for me.

As a culture we are in the process of raising the age of assumed maturity, while in many churches we are in the process of lowering it – even to the point of virtually erasing it. Consider the following:

  • The age of consent for consensual sex is no lower, and often above, age 16.
  • Most states require drivers to have reached their 16th birthday before unrestricted driving privileges are granted, some even older.
  • The minimum age for voting is 18. This is also the age for a person to volunteer for the armed services without parental permission.
  • The minimum age to legally purchase and consume alcohol in most jurisdictions is 21.
  • Many jurisdictions will not impose the maximum penalty for certain crimes committed by those under 18 because, and underline this, the brain of a juvenile is simply not capable of understanding the consequences of their actions.

And, yet, preachers are routinely baptizing children as young as 8 or 7 or even 6 because “they are just so mature.”

Am I the only one who doesn’t get this?

Would we allow such a “mature” child to make his or her decisions regarding sexual activity? Would we give allow such a child to vote? Would we hand them the keys to our new SUV? Would we give them a $20 bill and tell them to go buy some suds for their birthday party? Would we incarcerate a 10 year old in an adult correctional facility if they had a pound of marijuana they were attempting to sell?

The answer to any of these questions is an incredulous NO! We recognize that an 8 or 7  or 6 year old could never be expected to make such decisions – that is why they are safely protected in our homes by (at least supposedly) mature adults.

But we give a child a Bible and a chart of little arrows or a chain reference of the “gospel plan of salvation” and if they can answer a few perfunctory questions we whisk them off to the church and dunk them in the baptistry as fast as we can (we dare not allow them to die in-between the decision and the dunking!)

Is it possible to teach that we are stressing the importance of baptism when in reality we are doing everything in our power to minimize it?

One of the most difficult conversations I have had the misfortune of having is the one where an adult comes to me and tells me that they do not believe their baptism was “effective.” They were baptized, they know, but have come to recognize that the real motivation for their baptism was peer pressure (girlfriends can be really effective preachers!), parental pressure (dad really wanted to be an elder!) or my favorite – communion pressure (who doesn’t want to have crackers and grape juice at half-time!) It is an agonizing question. Six months or so earlier there was no doubt, but now the questions and the fear are palpable. If I answer, “you need to be baptized” I am invalidating what scores of people would have argued was certifiable rock solid truth – a young person was a baptized believer because he/she answered the questions correctly and said the right words. If I tell the person “no, you have no need to be baptized” I am invalidating their fears and doubts, thus calling into question the very maturity they were supposed to have demonstrated at their baptism. So, I never answer the question – I make them answer it. Almost always the person ends up saying, “In truth I was never baptized because of my faith and to acknowledge my sins, and I want to make that confession now.”

I want to add here that I believe every Christian at some point questions the reason why they were baptized. I know I have – and it troubles me. I have talked to scores of Christians who have confessed the same fear. We cannot always dwell on the peak of Mt. Assurance. My wife taught me a very solid practice to share with those I baptize – immediately go home and write a letter to yourself, detailing what, and why, and when you decided to become a Christian. Then, when these doubts surface, you can read your letter to yourself and decide anew whether the decision was one of faith – or of surrendering to some ghastly emotional blackmail. I wish I had that advice when I made the decision. At my age, it is really hard to crawl back into my struggling, adolescent mind.

Never-the-less, I have come to regard the issue of the “age of accountability” (a profoundly uncertain inference) as a red herring. There just is no such animal in the Bible. A person should be baptized when he or she can act with enough maturity that they, as well as the entire believing community, can be assured that they are aware of the seriousness of the commitment of baptism, and that there are no other illegitimate pressures being placed on their decision.

I must add here that I wish a plague of biblical proportions be inflicted on every summer Bible camp and every minister that views “camp conversions” as anything other than group hysteria. Let’s see – let’s place a bunch of hormonally driven, sleep deprived pre-teens in a remote destination and in an exceedingly artificial situation and then preach the fire of hell so hot it singes their eyebrows and see what happens. What could possibly go wrong?

Answering a few academic questions doesn’t cut it. Being able to draw a little diagram with a few arrows and some squiggly lines doesn’t cut it. Being cut to the heart because of a reality of separation from God does count.  Counting the cost of surrendering our life to Christ does count. We are not told that anyone in the New Testament was baptized for any other reason. We should not be guilty of promoting anything less.

If we teach that the baptism of an infant is without meaning, for heaven’s sake let’s stop baptizing infants!

Author: Paul Smith

Paul Smith was born in Santa Fe, New Mexico. He holds the Bachelor of Science in Youth Ministry, Master of Biblical Studies and Master of Divinity, all from Abilene Christian University; and the Doctor of Ministry from Fuller Theological Seminary in Pasadena, California. Paul's passion is in teaching and preaching the gospel. Beyond the study of the Bible, his main academic interest is in the life and theology of Dietrich Bonhoeffer. He is an unashamed mountain-goat, and longs to spend his time with his feet in a cold trout stream.

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 )

Twitter picture

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

Facebook photo

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

Google+ photo

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

Connecting to %s