Age of Accountability

by David Morstad

Many faith traditions have either an expressed or implied understanding of a so-called “age of accountability”, a point, before which, individuals have a presumed innocence and, after which, are accountable for their actions.

The topic deserves a respectful approach because it goes straight to the heart of a number of faith traditions. Also, there are important questions of tradition and doctrine that, admittedly, lie far outside my own understanding (since the topic rarely comes up in my own denomination).   There is an odd phenomenon at play, though, that I believe begs discussion, if not caution. We may find it perfectly reasonable to accept a concept of two different conditions; that of children, in which, through lack of proper understanding, they are not held accountable for their actions, and that of adults in which, through presumed understanding, they are. Among people of faith, oddly enough, I’ve noticed that the point is almost never argued on theological grounds; rather, it is simply accepted as a matter of developmental truth. In so doing, I wonder if both theology and developmental theory suffer as a result.

Jesus ChildThe subject is an important one in disability ministry because the concept, while intended to account for children, is often stretched to include adults with developmental disabilities. And, for a couple of good reasons, that gets complicated.

First, the “they’re not accountable so we’ll give them a pass” approach assumes that adults with intellectual disabilities may properly be regarded as children (or at least, “child-like”) with respect to their relationship to God, applying the so-called “mental age” theory. While the abstract issues associated with religion may elude many people (with and without disabilities), I know of few people with experience in disability ministry who have not reported hearing or seeing great spiritual insight from people with even very severe disability. Implying that faith is, in any way, a sub-set of intellect seems like dangerous ground.

Second, the approach assumes that developmental elements (e.g., communication, abstract understanding) move through the lifespan in a unified and generalized manner . They don’t. One person with an intellectual disability may struggle with self-care skills, yet have a very sophisticated approach to relationships; another may live a faith life with generosity, mercy, forgiveness and love, yet never grasp any of the scriptural or doctrinal foundation of those characteristics. Developmental disabilities don’t just happen during development, they happen to development. That has the potential to change everything about how people live, learn and grow, and it makes every one of them – like everyone in general – a unique individual.

So, what of the age of accountability? Even within individual denominations, there is considerable ongoing discussion about its meaning for children. My hope is that it remains separate and distinct from any discussion about adults with developmental disabilities, who are, first and foremost, adults.

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