Child Communion

Much more controversial than the doctrine of paedobaptism today is the doctrine of paedocommunion, or child communion. While welcoming children to partake of the Lord’s Supper is a practice found in the ancient Church, today very few Presbyterian or Reformed churches allow it. However, there are good biblical reasons for allowing covenant children to join the rest of God’s people at His table. But because this practice was not re-established by the Reformers, is rejected in many Reformed denominations today, and would be out of line for someone who subscribes without exception to the Westminster Standards; we ought to be humble in our support of this practice and not schismatic. We must recognize that advocation for paedocommunion would be part of a commitment to semper reformanda, always reforming our life and doctrine. As Reformed Christians we do indeed believe that the work of the Reformation and the subsequent confessional doctrines are part of God’s work in maturing and refining His church. However, we do not believe that the Reformers had the opportunities or the need to address every doctrinal issue, nor were they infallible. Scripture alone must be our highest authority. So now let’s turn to four arguments for welcoming covenant children to partake of the Lord’s Supper.[1]

First, in the Old Testament Jewish children participated in the covenant meals by virtue of their membership in the covenant. “All the congregation of Israel” was to participate in the first Passover meal (Ex. 12:3, 6, 47). When preparing the meal, the Israelites were to acquire a lamb for every household, and if one’s household was too small to eat an entire lamb they were to join together with a neighboring family (Ex. 12:3–4). Households necessarily include any children present, and children indeed are present at the Passover meal, for God says they will ask, “What does this ceremony mean?” and the parents should answer, “It is the sacrifice of the LORD’s Passover, for He passed over the houses of the people of Israel in Egypt, when He struck the Egyptians but spared our houses” (Ex. 12:26). During sacrificial worship, in the presence of God “you and your families shall eat and rejoice in everything…” (Deut. 12:7, see also 12:12, 18). During the Feast of Booths the Israelites were to “rejoice in your feast, you and your son and your daughter…” (16:14) and likewise the same language is used for the Feast of Weeks (16:11). At no point do we read of children being excluded, rather everything points to their inclusion in the covenant meals as members of the covenant people of God.

Second, as we have established earlier with regards to paedobaptism, the theology of covenant and its application in the Old Testament continues in the New Testament. In the Old Testament the inclusion of children in the covenant meals is consistent with the inclusion of the children in the covenant community, as they received the sign and seal of circumcision and participated in the ceremonies of Israel. Therefore if this inclusion of children in the covenant continues in the New Testament, which we believe it does and have demonstrated earlier in our argument for paedobaptism, then it follows that covenant children would continue to receive the covenant meal, which is now the Lord’s Supper.

Third, the common argument against paedocommunion based on St Paul’s call for self-examination in 1 Corinthians 11 fails for two reasons. The first reason is that St Paul’s exhortation is no different than that of the prophets in the Old Testament—a time when children did participate in the covenant meals—who declared to Israel that they were unworthily participating in sacramental worship, calling them to self-examination and repentance (Isa. 1:10–20; Amos 5:18–27; Jer. 7:1–29; Hos. 6:6; Mic. 6:8; 1 Sam. 15:22).[2] These warnings did not (and in the case of 1 Corinthians 11 do not) exclude children from participating because they cannot examine themselves like an adult. To be consistent, if we interpret St Paul’s admonition as barring children from the Lord’s Supper, then we should interpret St Peter’s call to “repent and be baptized” as excluding children from baptism, for we do not expect babies to repent and confess faith prior to being baptized. But this is simply not how we understand covenant children and the sacraments.

The second reason would be an interpretational difference regarding 1 Corinthians 11. The common understanding of St Paul’s exhortation in this chapter is that a Christian should examine himself before eating, discerning rightly Christ’s body in the sacrament, in order to avoid partaking in an unworthy manner. And indeed, these are actions that little children cannot do (nor can the mentally disabled). But when considered in context, St Paul is advocating for something quite different than internal examination of self and doctrinal preciseness regarding Christ’s presence in the Supper.

Instead, St Paul’s warnings in 1 Corinthians 11 should be understood in this way. The whole context of 1 Corinthians is St Paul’s concern for unity in the church: “Because there is one bread, we who are many are one body, for we all partake of the one bread” (1 Cor. 10:17). But the Corinthians were not encouraging unity but disunity in their celebration of the Lord’s Supper: “when you come together as a church, I hear that there are divisions among you” (11:18b). Some are overeating and others are going hungry, they are not paying attention to each other but their own desires (11:21). This display of disunity is St Paul’s main concern regarding the Lord’s Supper, as he ends his exhortation with, “So then, my brothers, when you come together to eat, wait for one another… so that when you come together it will not be for judgment” (1 Cor. 11:33–34).

St Paul’s solution to the Corinthian’s unworthy manner of receiving the sacrament is to exhort the Corinthians to examine themselves and discern the body (1 Cor. 11:28–29). But what exactly does this look like? The Greek word for “examine” here (dokimazō) is often translated as “prove” when used elsewhere by St Paul (1 Cor. 3:13; 1 Thess. 2:4). So we could read the verse as, “Let a man prove himself and so eat of the bread and drink of the cup.” And what does it mean for a man to “prove himself”? The proof is his behavior at the Table with respect to the unity of the body of Christ, the manner in which he eats.[3] How about “discerning” the body? Rather than “body” here referring to Christ’s presence in the bread, in context it refers to the people of God who are “one body” (1 Cor. 10:17). It means “to take cognizance of the whole church that is seated as one body at this meal.”[4] Beyond context we can also be sure that St Paul is not referring to Christ’s presence in the Supper since whenever he refers to the Supper he references both elements, the body and the blood, the bread and the cup.[5] If he wanted to refer to the meal itself, following this pattern he would have said, “discerning the body and blood rightly.” Therefore, discerning the body does not mean having correct sacramental doctrine regarding Christ’s presence in the Supper. Instead, it is to look outward at the unity of God’s people, Christ’s body, as one partakes. To exclude children from the Lord’s Supper is to ironically ignore St Paul’s teaching regarding the unity of Christ’s body in the Supper. It is to perpetuate division among God’s people, excluding those of lesser maturity from partaking.

Fourth and lastly, there is evidence of paedocommunion being practiced in the early church. One example of paedocommunion being mentioned in the early Church comes from St Augustine who wrote,

“Those who say that infancy has nothing in it for Jesus to save, are saying nothing else than that for believing infants—infants, that is, who have been baptized in Christ—Christ the Lord is not Jesus… Yes, they’re infants, but they are His members. They’re infants, but they receive His sacraments. They are infants, but they share in His table, in order to have life in themselves.”[6]

Additional quotations can be gathered from St Cyprian and the Apostolic Constitutions. Of course, the fact that some in the early church practiced paedocommunion does not make it right. But it is helpful to know that it occurs quite early in church history, is not spoken against in earlier materials, and it does not appear to be a controversial practice when spoken of.[7]

Find other posts in this series here.

[1] Summarized from Robert S. Rayburn’s chapter. Gregg Strawbridge, ed., The Case for Covenant Communion (Monroe, LA: Athanasius Press). 
[2] Gregg Strawbridge, ed., The Case for Covenant Communion (Monroe, LA: Athanasius Press), 11.
[3] Ibid. 21.
[4] Ibid. 29.
[5] Ibid. 29.
[6] John E. Rotelle, ed. and Edmund Hill, trans., The Works of Saint Augustine 11 vols. Part 3—Sermons (New Rochelle, New York: New City Press), 5:261.
[7] Gregg Strawbridge, ed., The Case for Covenant Communion (Monroe, LA: Athanasius Press), 13.

1 thought on “Child Communion

  1. Pingback: Lord’s Supper | Glad Tidings of Great Joy

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