When Does a Person Become an Adult?

by Pastor Matthew Norville, Sr.


According to the Word of God, a person becomes an adult when they reach the age of 20 (twenty). The word “adult,” however, is not found in the Bible. “Adults” are referred to as “men” or “women.” An “adult” is simply defined as “a person who is not a child.”

A person who is under the age of 20 (twenty) is a child. The Bible refers to people from conception through the age of 19 as children. God refers to children in the womb as “children”--not “embryos” (children from conception to 8 weeks), or “fetuses” (children 8 weeks to birth), or “tissue.” God also explains that babies in the womb cannot do good or evil. Romans 9:11 says, “For the children being not yet born, neither having done any good or evil...”

The Bible also uses various words to describe children, some of which differentiate between the ages of them: babes, babies, infants, boys, girls, little ones, young children, children, youths, etc.

A boy is a male under the age of 20. A man is a male age 20 or over. A girl is a female under the age of 20. A woman is a female age 20 or over.

The Israelites in the Wilderness

In Numbers, chapter 14, God pronounced judgment on all the Israelites who were 20 years old or older (except for Joshua and Caleb and their families) because they had refused to believe Him even after all the signs and wonders that He had done in Egypt and the wilderness on their way to the promised land. They were sentenced to wander in the wilderness for 40 years until they dropped dead. Numbers 14:29-30 says:

“Your carcasses shall fall in this wilderness; and all that were numbered of you, according to your whole number, from twenty years old and upward which have murmured against me. Doubtless ye shall not come into the land, concerning which I sware to make you dwell therein, save Caleb the son of Jephunneh, and Joshua the son of Nun.”

The Bible goes on to say in Numbers 14:31-33:

“But your little ones, which ye said should be a prey, them will I bring in, and they shall know the land which ye have despised. But as for you, your carcasses, they shall fall in this wilderness. And your children shall wander in the wilderness forty years, and bear your whoredoms, until your carcasses be wasted in the wilderness.”

We see from this last passage of scripture that “little ones” is used interchangeably with and means the same thing as “children.” God said that all the Israelites would have to spend forty years wandering in the wilderness until all the people who were 20 years old or older--at the time of this pronouncement by God--died. All the people who were not yet 20 years old, who had not yet reached their 20th birthday, the “little ones,” the “children,” would be allowed to live. However, they would have to wander for 40 years in the wilderness before they would be allowed to enter into the promised land.

We see here the difference that God makes between people who are 20 and over, and people who are under 20. Without a doubt, there were numerous teenagers and other children who were just as sinful and murmured and complained just as much as their parents. But God did not sentence them to die, as He did the adults. The reason is that God does not hold children to the same accountability as He does adults. I Corinthians 13:11 says:

“When I was a child, I spake as a child, I understood as a child, I thought as a child: but when I became a man, I put away childish things.”

Children--people 19 years old and younger--think and understand like children. There are a few exceptions. Occasionally you may meet a teenager who is very mature for their age, and by the age of 17, 18, or 19 may seem to act like an adult. But this is very rare, and they probably do not act like an adult in
every way. But because they are children, and they think and act and understand like children, God does not hold them fully accountable for their actions as He does adults. God holds adults--those 20 years of age and older--fully accountable for their own actions. But with children, God holds them accountable on a sliding scale. A baby, of course, has no accountability for his actions. He does not even know what he is doing. But as that baby grows, God begins to hold that child more and more accountable for his actions until the time when he reaches the age of 20 and is fully accountable for his actions. This is why God allowed the children to live and enter the promised land, but He sentenced the adults to die in the wilderness.

Someone may ask, “Why didn’t God just strike all the adults dead on the spot and allow the children to enter the promised land without having to wander 40 years in the wilderness?” The answer is pretty obvious. If all the adults were struck dead by God instantly, there would be no adults left to raise the remaining children. At this time there were approximately 1.2 million adult Israelites. Exodus 12:37 and Numbers 11:21 explain that there were approximately 600,000 men. Figuring approximately the same number of women, you come to about 1,200,000 adults. If you guesstimate how many children there were, you will come to a number far above 2 million children! This number not only would include the teenagers and younger children, but it would also include numerous infants who were being breastfed at the time. God was not about to kill off the parents and leave over 2 million children orphans. However, before Moses interceded for the children of Israel (Numbers 14:13-19), God was going to wipe them all out--including the children (Numbers 14:11-12).

You will also notice in the Bible that whenever God numbered the people, whether it was for a census, for military reasons, or whatever, He counted the people who were 20 years old and older. (Exodus 38:26; Numbers chapter 1; II Chronicles 31:17; Ezra 3:8) This is significant because the age of 20 signifies adulthood. God wanted the adults counted. God did not allow children to enter the military. It is unfortunate that in this country, the United States of America, 18 and 19 year old children are allowed to enter the military. This is something that we, Christians, need to work to change. Our country--as well as all countries of the world--should have laws that prohibit children from being in the military. The military is definitely something that is only for adults.

The Blind Man of John, Chapter 9

Let’s look at John, chapter 9, verses 1-3, paying special attention to the word man, remembering that a man is a male who is 20 years old or older:

“And as Jesus passed by, He saw a man which was blind from his birth. And His disciples asked Him, saying, Master, who did sin, this man, or his parents, that he was born blind? Jesus answered, Neither hath this man sinned, nor his parents...”

The Word of God is telling us here (among other things) that this person had been blind for
at least 20 (twenty) years, because he had been blind from his birth and was now an adult. The story goes on to explain how Jesus healed the man so that he could see. Then in verse 21 the man’s parents said:

“...he is of age; ask him: he shall speak for himself.”

By putting these passages of scripture together, we see that a “man” is a person who is of age and can speak for himself. This would also be true of a “woman.” A “woman” is a person who is of age and can speak for herself. In other words, a person must be 20 years of age to speak for himself or herself. If a person is not yet 20, they are under the authority of their parents, and their parents speak for them.

Parents Disciplining and Children Obeying

Understanding that a person ceases being a child and becomes an adult at age 20 is very important to the Christian. The Word of God commands parents to discipline their children, and commands children to obey their parents in the Lord. (Proverbs 22:6, 15; Ephesians 6:1) If a Christian does not know at what age a person becomes an adult, then how would a parent know when his child is too old to be disciplined? When would a child know that he is no longer a child and does not have to obey his parents any more? Surely, we cannot rely on the heathen governments of the world to tell us! And different governmental bodies set different ages for “adulthood.” So if a person of a particular age is standing within the borders of one government, they would be classified as an “adult.” But if they walk a few steps into the borders of another government, they are then classified as a “child.” Does a person really change from an “adult” into a “child” because they cross over a border into another government’s jurisdiction? And when they walk back within the borders of the former government, does the person then change back into an “adult?”

Some governments, like ours here in the United States, say that at certain ages people are adults in some areas, but yet are still classified as children in others! For instance, our government here in the state of Illinois, says that 18 year olds are adults as far as smoking cigarettes is concerned, but are children as far as drinking alcohol is concerned until they reach the age of 21! Different countries of the world (and different states here in the United States) consider people to be adults at different ages for marriage purposes. Sometimes males are classified as adults at one age and females are classified as adults at another age! Here in Illinois, 18 and 19 year old children are classified as adults for marriage purposes. This is all contrary to the Word of God and is just plain confusion. As Christians, we are to live by the Word of God, and if there is a conflict with the laws of man, “We ought to obey God rather than men.” (Acts 5:29) As a minister of the gospel, I will not marry children. Entering into marriage is only for adults. Children, people under the age of 20, are still under the Biblical injunction to “Obey their parents in the Lord.”

Ephesians 6:1 says:

“Children, obey your parents in the Lord: for this is right.”

This verse refers to children, who are still children--that is, it is referring to children who have not yet reached their 20th birthday. For when they reach their 20th birthday they are no longer children and no longer have to “obey their parents in the Lord.” A person is not obligated to obey his parents for his whole life as long as his parents are still living! That is preposterous!

The Word of God does say, however, that we are to
honor our parents for our whole lives. Exodus 20:12 says:

“Honor thy father and thy mother: that thy days may be long upon the land which the Lord thy God giveth thee.”

Honoring is NOT the same thing as obeying. Honoring one’s parents is giving them the respect that is due them as parents--even if they were and are bad parents. For example, you would NEVER call your parents by their first names! You would NOT get into a shouting match with them. You would calmly disagree, if you disagreed with them, even if they were going off on you. And you may have to walk away, but you would do it respectfully after saying good-bye. It may even be that because your parents are so bad, you cannot see or talk to them--but you still are respectful to them because the Bible says that you must honor them all the days of your life.

Obeying one’s parents means to do whatever your parents tell you to do as long as it does not conflict with what God is telling you to do. Some parents teach their children to steal and lie and to do other immoral acts. As a Christian child, you would not obey your parents if they told you to do things like that. The Bible says to obey them “in the Lord.” This means to obey them as long as it is in line with what the Lord says. However, once you reach the age of 20, “Children, obey your parents in the Lord: for this is right.” no longer applies to you, because you are no longer a child.

By the same token, parents are commanded to bring their children up in the nurture and admonition of the Lord (Ephesians 6:4). They are commanded to train up their children in the way that they should go (Proverbs 22:6). They are commanded to drive foolishness from the hearts of their children (Proverbs 22:15). This only applies to the parents and their children while the children are still children--that is, while the children are under the age of 20. For once a child turns 20, he is no longer a child, but has become an adult.

A Minister’s Children Must be in Subjection.

The Bible says in I Timothy chapter 3, verses 4 through 5, that a minister’s children must be in subjection (I realize that the specific context is pastors, not ministers in general, but the principle, as well as the whole passage of scripture, applies to all ministers.):

“One that ruleth well his own house, having his children in subjection with all gravity; (For if a man know not how to rule his own house, how shall he take care of the church of God?)”

The same principle applies here as it does in Ephesians 6:1, Proverbs 22:6, 15, and similar verses. This verse applies to children while they are still children. Once a child turns 20, this verse no longer applies. In other words, as long as a minister’s children are not yet 20 years old, he (or she) is required to keep them in subjection with all gravity. Titus 1:6 says, in referring to ministers (pastors specifically, but all ministers):

“...having faithful children not accused of riot or unruly.”

Once again, this verse applies to the minister’s children who have not yet reached the age of 20. If a minister has children who are adults, the minister is
not required to keep them in line. How could he? His children are adults. If they act crazy when they become adults, that is on them. It does not disqualify him from the ministry. However, if they act crazy before they reach the age of 20, it does disqualify him from being in the ministry.

It must be pointed out here that these verses in I Timothy and Titus
DO NOT apply to a minister’s wife! The Bible says that the children are to be in subjection-- not the wife! Ministers and Christians misquote these verses all the time and say that the family --including the wife--must be in subjection and not be unruly, etc. This is NOT what the Word of God says. The wife is an adult. The minister has no responsibility to control his wife. The minister is not even supposed to try to control his wife. A minister who attempts to control his wife is guilty of the sin of oppressing a woman.

The 2½ Tribes on the East Side of the Jordan River

When the Israelites were near the end of their 40 years of wandering in the wilderness, and were encamped on the east side of the Jordan River, the men of the tribes of Gad, Reuben, and half the tribe of Manasseh were given their inheritance on the east side of the Jordan River because they requested that they would be allowed to have an inheritance and live on the east side of the Jordan River. (Numbers 32)

The condition of the agreement was that all of the men of the Gadites, the Reubenites, and half the tribe of the Manassites would have to cross westward over the Jordan River and fight along with the other 9½ tribes for their possession of the land of Canaan. Only the women and children (the little ones) of the 2½ tribes would be left behind on the east side of the Jordan River. Once the promised land (the land of Canaan) was subdued by the Israelites, the men of the tribes of Gad, Reuben, and half the tribe of Manasseh could return to their wives and families and inheritance on the east side of the Jordan River. As it turns out, this took a number of years to accomplish.

At first thought, it may seem like the 2½ tribes of women and children that were left behind were left helpless, defenseless, and vulnerable because there were no men among them. But this situation was not as bad as it may seem if you understand that a man is 20 years old or older, and a child is under the age of 20. This means that every boy who had not yet reached his 20th birthday was left to care for and protect the women and other children. There were tens of thousands of teenage boys in these 2½ tribes! Many of them were 19 years old and just days away from turning 20 when the men left to cross over the Jordan River. Plenty of others were 16, 17, or 18. When these boys turned 20, they stayed on the east side of the Jordan River. They DID NOT cross over and join the other men. So in a relatively short period of time, there were thousands of men (boys who had just turned 20) among the 2½ tribes on the east side of the Jordan River. Not to mention the fact that a teenage boy can be very strong and knowledgeable about sowing and reaping crops, raising and caring for cattle, building and repairing houses, and an outstanding fighter, if necessary.

Mary, the Mother of Jesus

There is a religious tradition that says that Mary, the mother of Jesus, was a teenager when God supernaturally impregnated her with Jesus.  This is not true.  The Word of God says in Luke 1:28 that when the angel, Gabriel, appeared to her he said, “Blessed art thou among women.”  The angel of God, therefore, called Mary a woman.  Then, when Mary went to visit her cousin Elizabeth, who was six months pregnant with John the Baptist, in the hill country of Judah, Elizabeth said to her, “Blessed art thou among women.”  (Luke 1:42)  Thus, Elizabeth also called Mary a woman.  This means that Mary was at least 20 years of age because she was a woman, not a girl.

The Bible also says that Joseph was a just (righteous) man who was espoused to Mary.  (Matt. 1:18-9)  A godly man would not be engaged to, and preparing to marry, a teenaged girl.

The Legal System and Adulthood

Since God, who created people, says in His Word that a person becomes an adult at age 20, a person becomes an adult at age 20. To disagree with this is to disagree with Almighty God. In all countries of the world there should be laws that treat children--those who have not yet reached their 20th birthdays--one way, and adults--those who are 20 years old or older--another. To treat a child as an adult is child abuse. Children should NEVER be tried in courts as adults. Children should never be incarcerated with adults. Children should be treated as children until they reach adulthood (20 years of age). If a child acquires a criminal record before the age of 20, it should not be counted against him once he becomes an adult. The Bible says in I Corinthians 13:11 that children--those under the age of 20--speak and understand and think like children. It is not fair to hold a child responsible for something in the same way that an adult is responsible. And even though some older children may be able to comprehend like an adult, we are to follow the example that God left us in His Word in Numbers, chapter 14 and other places. Children are not to be treated the same way adults are.

You have to wonder how and why men in our governments of the world came up with different ages of teenagers for “adulthood” when the Bible is so clear as to when a person becomes an adult. Why did the men in government here in the United States who make the laws choose “18” as the age when a person is called an adult? Could it be that this was a way for these men to “legally” be involved with and “look at” teenage children? And what if 18 and 19 year old children are not enough to “satisfy” these men in the future? Will they then change the laws so that 16 and 17 years olds are also called adults?

In our country here in the United States of America, we have made a little progress in treating children as children and protecting their rights as children. But more progress needs to be made. We haven’t reached it yet.

As far as schooling is concerned, we need to make some minor changes. As Christians, we are not against school. We, the people of God, are the ones that invented it! But the way schooling is set up here in the United States, when a child graduates from high school (grades 9-12, sometimes called “senior high school” or “secondary school”) he is normally 18 years of age. (Some children will turn 18 during the three months of summer following graduation.) The government then turns them out into the workforce declaring that they are adults!
They are not adults! They are still children! Some will go to college, but many will not. Many cannot afford college. What we need to do is offer Junior College (grades 13-14, sometimes called “Community College”) to the 18 and 19 year old children of our country for free (paid for by taxes), like grades 1-12 of public school are free (paid for by taxes). Then, even if they choose not to finish up 4 years of college and get an undergraduate degree, they at least will be adults when they enter the workforce and everyday life and have an Associate of Arts (A.A.), or Associate of Science (A.S.), or Associate of Applied Science (A.A.S.) degree.

This also would alleviate the problem of high schools piling on an excessive amount of work. As it stands presently, the high schools pile on excessive work because many children will not attend school beyond high school. But if it could be almost guaranteed that all high school graduates would attend at least 2 years of college, the high schools could lighten up the excessive amount of work that they have been laying on the students. The high school students could then breathe a little and get some sleep and have a life other than studying every night to the wee hours of the morning.

One Last Thought

In the Word of God, the Bible, the number seven (7) is the number of completeness or perfection. This is also borne out in the definition of the root of the Hebrew word for “seven.” This number represents God because God is complete and perfect.

The number that represents man in the Bible is six (6). The Bible says that man was created “a little lower than God.” (Psalm 8:5) The number “6” is a little lower than “7.”

The Word of God also says in Genesis 6:3 that man is to live a
minimum of 120 years on this earth. (see How Old Can a Christian Live to Be? ) A “score” is 20. Therefore, the minimum number of years that man is to live on this earth is “sixscore,” or 6 (the number that represents man) times 20. The first “score” of a man’s life is his childhood.

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This page last updated January 8, 2014.