The “age of accountability” always tripped me up, growing up in my church. Almost all my friends said they were “saved when they were” 5 or 4 or even 3. But at the same time, we seemed to put such a great value on the “testimony,” from those who wandered and found the truth of the Gospel later in their life. I remember sitting through more than one Sunday or Wednesday evening service, with microphones spread around the auditorium, waiting for someone to step up and tell the story of how they came to Christ.
For me, I felt lost in both worlds. I couldn’t remember not believing in God, knowing that I was a sinner, and wanting to serve Him. But conversely, I couldn’t remember a specific point in time when I “asked Jesus into my heart.” And as I grew, the messages I heard in Sunday school took a bit of a different angle.
When you’re small, you have the flannel-graph Jesus with the loaves and fishes, or blessing the children. That Jesus loves you, regardless, and all you have to do is believe in Him. But as you get older, the Jesus of the primary Sunday school classes becomes the Jesus of the “Thief in the Night” movie. And just believing in Him isn’t enough anymore, there has to be a specific point you can identify as the moment when you became a Christian.
I used to ask about when a kid would have to ask Him to come in by, I mean what’s the last possible age that they could be hit by a car or something and not worry about it. I don’t mean to be disrespectful, but I was honestly concerned. My mom would always explain it with the “age of accountability.”
But what does that mean? And as a good sola Scriptura kid, I tried to find it as I got older, and I never could. What would happen if a person never intellectually reached that age, or if they suffered brain damage or dementia, how does that work?
In the Orthodox Church, we baptize babies. We don’t have an age of accountability. We don’t have confirmation. When you are baptized, you are instantly a member of the body of Christ. There is no trial period, no mysterious age where you are able to understand it or have to have decided.
In Protestant Christianity, children hear that Jesus loves them, this they know, for the Bible tells them so. And they belong to Him. But then, not long after, the message changes, and He becomes a more wrathful God, who will dispatch them to hell, or leave them behind in the rapture.
Please understand me. I am not minimizing the need for a personal understanding and commitment to the faith, a belief that is more than a cognitive assent to an idea about God. However that need to commit does not abate with a decision made once upon a time at vacation Bible school, nor does it go away with baptism or any other sacrament. We all must convert, every day, with every decision and every act of the will.
And who understands His goodness and His love more than a child? Who gets this idea of accepting sacrificial love more than one with a skinned knee? Why do we exclude them from the fullness of the Body of Christ?
We bring them in. We offer them all the sacraments. We teach them about the great gift of Salvation, about the One who came from heaven to earth for them. And right along with them we chose to follow Him, every Sunday when we accept Him and trust Him and follow Him, and every day of the week when we make diligent efforts to put that faith into practice, whether it is on the playground or the boardroom.