February 27, 2012

Kiddies Menu: Children at the Lord’s Supper

by Clint Archer

If you are a young, single, seminoid dude who loves theoretical theological debates on blogs, I’d like to share a tidbit of coaching corner sagacity a mentor of mine graciously offered me: It’s ok to have the topic of pedo-communion on your radar screen, just don’t follow it off course. Focus your energy on completing your education, getting a job, staying pure, and finding a godly lady who will consent to marry you. At some point after that God will give you nine months’ warning to sort out your views on which age children can partake in the Lord’s Supper. Til then, get back to work.

But for parents of precocious pre-pubescent Protestants, your church will expect you to have given this some forethought before letting your kid’s appetite near the Lord’s Table.

Footnote: Protestants call it a table, not an altar, we call it the supper, not the Mass, an ordinance, not a sacrament, and the bread, not the eucharist. Why this distinction? Because we are not re-sacrificing anyone. Anyway, I digress.

First, some churches practice “closed communion” which means that only members can take communion. In this case it is simple: according to the church’s membership process and definition, is the child a member or not? Case closed.

Other churches practice “open communion” which means that anyone who professes to be a believer in good standing with their local church may participate in communion with your church.

Verses used to support this include 1 Corinthians 11:28-29 where Paul adjured each one to examine himself and determine his own worthiness to partake of the Lord’s Supper. Well and good, but when it comes to children, are we really to leave it up to the individual child to determine his/her spiritual fitness?

Godly men differ on the precise way of handling this. Some say we should always encourage our children’s desires to behave as part of God’s family. We tell our children to obey the command to not lie, and the one to honor their parents; so why not the injunction to ‘Do this in memory of me’?

On the other hand, there are commands made to believers exclusively, e.g. the command to support your pastor, feed the poor, appoint elders, and yes, observe communion. These are issued to saints, not mankind in general.

I am not proclaiming a particular view. But I would like to present these guidelines to think through the issue. We need to consider both what children are like, and what communion is about.

1. Kids are odd (pardon…unique).

Children come in non-uniform dimensions, spiritually speaking. Some show emotional or social maturity, others physical or spiritual astuteness, but rarely in any kind of predictable proportion. I don’t think we can enforce a one-size-fits-all-kids rule, like the height requirement on a roller coaster.

One 11-year-old may be prone to peer pressure or have a seared conscience, while their 9-year-old sister shows evidence of conversion, a sensitive conscience, and a conceptual grasp of the symbolism.

At this point we parents need a warning to resist the temptation to think, “My kid is special and has wisdom beyond his years.” Perhaps it would behoove you to get an objective evaluation from a church leader who knows your family.

2. Kids who are young have a tendency to want to please their parents (enjoy it while it lasts!).

A girl sees her mom baking and the next thing she is serving imaginary tea to her infant brother. Then she sees Mom take communion, and she want to be like Mommy. Kids see how happy you are that they show spiritual interest and they crank up the enthusiasm.

This isn’t bad. Your children should want to follow your example in spiritual matters. But you need to tell them there are some aspects that are for grown-ups. Is this a double standard? No. You let your kids play pretend “Wedding-wedding” but never “Honeymoon-honeymoon,” right?

It’s good to mimic some of what mom and dad do in church, like singing, giving, serving, and paying attention. But some access is granted only on the other side of the membership line.

3. Kids want to keep up with the Joneses’ kids.

Peer pressure is a real problem and can play a detrimental part in the issue. From my experience this doesn’t dissipate after childhood. Make sure you, oh grown-up, don’t take communion this week just because everybody else is.

Then there are some factors to consider about the nature of communion itself…

4. Communion is closely related to church discipline.

Is your child ready to face church discipline for their unrepentant sin? If not, teach them to let the elements pass. Why? Because the self-examination of communion is only part of the eligibility of communion. Being in good standing with the church is the other part.

5. Communion is for believers.

If you are not convinced of your child’s conversion, then communion is not for them. More common is the optimistic hope that the child is saved, which breeds leniency for them to take communion.

6. Communion and baptism follow a logical order.

If you are convinced of your child’s conversion, have you shepherded them through the decision to be baptized? This opens a can of eels, doesn’t it? (For a discussion on when to baptize your child, see “Little Splash: When your kid wants to be baptized.”) Indulge me in a syllogism for a moment. If communion is for believers, and baptism is the first step of obedience for believers, then it follows that the latter will precede the former.

I’ve heard it said that communion before baptism is like sex before marriage. As much as I like that, I still take it as hyperbole. The sanctity of sex is explicitly mandated in Scripture, but eligibility for communions is more implicit, and may concede exceptions — like a real case I know of when a person got saved in a Chinese prison where communion was possible, but baptism needed to be delayed. I believe Scripture itself leaves room for such a contingency as communion before baptism which is not a sin, just an inversion of logic.

How about you, what does your church practice?

Clint Archer

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Clint has been the pastor of Hillcrest Baptist Church since 2005. He lives in Durban, South Africa with his wife and four kids.
  • Baptism, much like the Lord’s Supper, is something I’ve observed being abused at my own Baptist church, having seen a little 5-year old partake of both ordinances. Maybe there’s a genuine faith there are a deep loathing of sin nature in that 5 year old, but I doubt it, considering the same child had their video game music accidentally interrupt the sermon one Sunday morning…

    Older I get, the more of a mindset I become of, one must be old enough to drive before they can be old enough to be baptized/partake of the Lord’s supper…

    • Ha! Unfortunately, even the driving age is too relative. In South Africa one has to be 18, not 16. I covered myself with point #1, saying that you can’t have a one-size-fits-all standard. A 4 yr old boy (who could read) once asked me if a believer’s resurrection body was given at death, and if not, what level of consciousness do we have until resurrection considering we don’t have senses. That kid neither partakes in communion, nor has he been baptized, but he illustrates that there are exceptions that break the mold. Thanks for checking in.

  • Michael Delahunt

    Still at the “finish school and stay pure” part haha. Thanks for the insightful post though!

    • At least you recognize that fact! Thanks for reading further.

  • I think your point 6 is the one that (for children/kids) makes the argument for closed communion. If you see membership and baptism as connected (which I do), and you see baptism as having a chronological priority to communion, don’t you end up with a closed communion?

    • Hey J, I’d say the big difference is what you allow adult believers who are visiting your church to do. I am in membership (in good standing) at my church, so would I be able to take communion at yours? That is the question. So I guess my view is more “ajar communion” rather than “open”. If the child were a member in good standing at their home church, I’d be open to allowing them to partake at my church. But I’d be more cautious about someone who is not a member anywhere. Hope that makes sense.

  • Thanks, Clint. Good things to think about.

    I’ve never really understood the argument that you HAVE to be baptised to celebrate communion. Does it make sense? Probably. It is mandated by Scripture? I don’t see it.

    As you mentioned, the decision to partake of communion is up to the individual (“a man must examine himself”). The church should ‘guard the table’ from individuals known to be in sin (under church discipline), but past that, the individual is responsible. In the case of children, the parents are responsible as well.

    The idea of closed communion (to me) unnecessarily excludes people. I’m not talking about people who resist membership, but new families, visitors from out of town, etc. Instead of excluding Christians, we should embrace them, and celebrate communion with them. Will some partake who aren’t saved? Yep! Do some church members partake that aren’t saved? Sadly, yes. Elders instruct, not judge the worthiness of the individual.

    And that’s especially hard with younger kids. But instruction about what the gospel really is (repentance and trust in Christ) goes a long way to understanding if little Johnny is really regenerate, relying on, of course, the discernment of mature parents.

    Dave Dunbar

    • Hi Dave, your insights are helpful, thanks. I think the idea of a believer who was not baptized, and yet functioning in a church enough to take communion, would have been a foreign concept to the NT church. If Jesus says we must be baptized, and person is perpetually unbaptized, how would that be different to being in unrepentant sin? Baptism is mandated in Scripture for all believers, so one who is not obeying that command is not in a position to take communion, right? Remember that I do mention that there could be exceptions to that rule (e.g. the guy in prison scenario), but the logical chronology is a significant factor. i agree with your take on closed communion, but I also respect churches who decide to close the table for the sake of guarding its sanctity and exclusivity (those who they know to be in good standing, versus those who claim to be in good standing). Thanks for joining the discussion.

  • rliles

    When I think of pedo-communion, I usually associate it with pedo-baptism, that is infant baptism not just young children who have made a profession of faith. With that in mind, what would you say regarding the issue of allowing children to partake of the Lord’s Supper if they were baptized as infants, not claiming salvation but “the promise (which) is for you and for your children and for all who are far off?” After reading your blog post “Little Splash,” I think I can correctly assume that you follow a believer’s baptism view vs. pedo-baptism, but also after reading your posts I would think you are open to such a line of discussion and not just merely dismiss the idea on the grounds that infant baptism is just wrong, period. Just curious about your thoughts, not trying to defend or attack pedo-baptism.

    • Great question. While I have high regard for some who sprinkle infants as a sign of being in the covenant community, I do take the view that it is not a valid, baptism. I would not endorse neither an adult nor a child who is an unbeliever taking communion. Hope this clarifies my position somewhat. I do, however understand why pedo-baptists allow children to take communion, as you have said. I humbly disagree with the practice.

  • Timsfox

    I’m very confused about Communion; When the Lord instituted it, wasn’t he simply eating a Passover meal? I’ve often wondered if we should be doing that, in addition to the bread and wine. (And I’m not a “Zion”-type.) If it was the Passover, shouldn’t children, no matter what age be welcome as they were at that meal?
    Also, is the Lords Supper the same meal that Paul later called “Love feasts” in the New Testament?

  • Great observation Timsfox. When Jesus said “Do this in remembrance of me” I believe He was referring to the practice of breaking a piece of bread and sharing it, and then again to the sharing of a cup of wine. I agree that the early church’s practice was more of a meal/feast, than what is often practiced in churches today. But the symbolism of the act was the main point of the remembrance, not the details of the quantity or type. Thus, I take leavened bread to be an adequate manifestation of the symbol, though Jesus used unleavened bread. Likewise grape juice is an adequate manifestation of the blood, though Jesus used wine. Hope this helps.