Coming as Children to the Table

Synopsis of a Defense of Paedocommunion

Gregg Strawbridge, Ph.D.

Pastor of All Saints’ Presbyterian Church



This article is defend that the Lord’s Supper is for all the Lord's people. Covenant children are therefore invited, even apart from a coming-of-age ritual such as confirmation or profession of faith. Writing in the tradition of Reformed theology or the Calvinist tradition, I will address the warrant for this practice historically, theologically, and exegetically.


I certainly am presupposing views on the other covenantal rite, paedobaptism (see my other works on this topic). Endnote It is my contention that baptized Christians (not censured under church discipline) may celebrate the feast and so commune with Christ in His body, including young children being raised in the discipline and admonition of the Lord.


It is my understand that the Lord's Supper or Eucharist (from the Greek, “to give thanks”) is a blessed sacrament of the New Testament instituted by our Lord as a sign and seal of His redemptive work. By eating the bread and drinking the cup in a worthy manner believers spiritually feed upon Christ, renew their union and communion with Him, acknowledge His redemptive work on their behalf, and renew their thankfulness for His saving work, as well as spiritually commune with other believers (Luke 22:20; Mat. 26:26-28; 1 Cor. 11:23-26; 1 Cor. 10:14-21).


Concerning the Historical Question

Paedocommunion is not the received tradition of Reformed and Presbyterian folks today. I am mindful of holding the minority view within the larger bonds of fellowship of Calvinistic churches. And so we must come to this discussion in the spirit of the proverb, “As iron sharpens iron, so one man sharpens another.”


Being in the minority in our camp, how may we address the historical question? Evangelicals have a short memory of history and at best are recovering the depth of God’s work in time past. At worst, we are blind to the deep river that has ever been flowing before us and are stagnating in a mosquito infested backwater. Just because of our larger cultural aversion to Church history, the historical or traditional reaction to paedocommunion seems the lightest blow. To deny the historicity of it based on the traditions of American quasi-Reformed church tradition is a very shallow rejection. Though this seems most persuasive to so many. Shall we set our few minutes on the Church’s calendar against the previous millennia?


Consider the historical study published in the Westminster Theological Journal which concluded as follows:

 

From the third century until the twelfth and thirteenth century there is overwhelming evidence that the Western Church regularly brought her infants and young children to participate in the Lord's Supper. This is evidenced by several primary sources and substantiated by numerous secondary sources. Before this time, “we have no unambiguous evidence about the practice”of paedocommunion. However, not even the most ardent opponents of infant and young child communion have been able to adequately explain why it “suddenly” became the common and universal practice of the church in the third century. The most logical explanation of the church's third century paedocommunion practice is that it was the same as the church's first and second century paedocommunion practice. Endnote


Not only did the Western Church practice paedocommunion, but the Eastern (Orthodox) Church has not departed from it to this day.


Consider the historical reasoning of the greatest Baptist defender, Paul K. Jewett,

 

To see that this is the case, one need only recall that the earliest express mention of infant baptism is found in Tertullian’s De baptismo (A. D. 200-206), a document in which the author entertains reservations about giving baptism to infants. But Cyprian, on whose shoulders his mantle fell, speaks not only of infant baptism, but also of infant communion as a custom which provoked no scruples. Barely fifty years separates these two witnesses. Obviously, therefore, the initial evidence for infant baptism and infant communion shows a proximity of time (A. D. 205-250) and place (North Africa) which makes it difficult to see why the former usage should be accepted while the latter is rejected. Endnote


Indeed it is difficult to accept paedobaptism as historical while rejecting paedocommunion unhistorical.


Thankfully, there are some recent discussions in conservative American Presbyterianism at the Assembly/denominational level. G.I. Williamson (OPC) and Robert Rayburn (PCA) led study committees and produced substantial defenses of the practice. Endnote Their conclusions to embrace the practice (by the “majority” of the committee of OPC and “minority” in PCA) have been rejected politically by the larger assemblies, but on all accounts, the rejection has not been sustained by argument.



Systematic and Biblical Foundations

Thinking in terms the system of doctrine taught in Scripture, consider the theological conception of inclusion in the covenant. The fall into sin and the imputed guilt extended throughout generations. “For as in Adam all die, even so in Christ all shall be made alive” (1 Cor. 15:22). Or, as the Westminster Confession systematizes it, “They being the root of all mankind, the guilt of this sin was imputed, and the same death in sin and corrupted nature conveyed to all their posterity, descending from them by ordinary generation” (6.3).


In the very same passage (1 Cor. 15:22) we note that redemption is directly analogous to the fall — it is to extended throughout generations. Some might deny the generational conception of “in Christ.” But this would contradict the apostolic explanation:

 

“Therefore remember that you, once Gentiles in the flesh -- who are called Uncircumcision by what is called the Circumcision made in the flesh by hands – that at that time you were without Christ, being aliens from the commonwealth of Israel and strangers from the covenants of promise, having no hope and without God in the world. But now in Christ Jesus you who once were far off have been brought near by the blood of Christ. (Eph. 2:11-13)


In fact, that is the central covenant promise. “Your God, O Zion, to all generations” (Ps. 146:10). God is “to be God to you and your descendants after you” (Gen. 17:7). Covenant theology contains the necessary thought that all of the signs and seals of covenant are to be extended to God’s people without exclusion by age. Just as Mary confessed, “His mercy is on those who fear Him from generation to generation (Lk. 1:50).


Reviewing the Biblical teaching, we find that the covenant with Adam involved all of the children of Adam. “As in Adam all die” (1Cor. 15:22, Rom. 5:12). The covenant with Noah included the “salvation of his household” (Heb. 11:7). The sacrifices of the patriarchs (including Noah, Job, Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob) were for the whole family. Job offered “burnt offerings according to the number of them all” (Job 1:5). Similarly, “Jacob offered a sacrifice on the mountain, and called his kinsmen to the meal” (Gen. 31:54). Circumcision was given to Abraham as a sign of God’s covenant for “you and your descendants after you throughout their generations” (Gen. 17:9). Under Moses the Israelites were commanded to put the blood of the Passover lamb on their doors to preserve the firstborn in the household. Israel was to observe Passover “as an ordinance for you and your children forever” (Ex. 12:24). Even in the promise to David, the Lord said, “I have made a covenant with My chosen; I have sworn to David My servant, I will establish your seed forever, and build up your throne to all generations” (Ps. 89:3-4).


Therefore, the pattern of covenant administration includes a principle of family inclusion and successive generations in both covenant content and covenant recipients of the signs. The visible portrayal of covenant promises in signs and seals is inclusive of children. Those who come into that household by birth or adoption would also have a right to the rite.


Covenant (Administration)

Visible Signs

Descendants Included

Creation/Adamic

Tree of Life

absolutely!

Noahic

Rainbow

absolutely!

Abrahamic

 (Other Patriarchs)

Circumcision

Sacrifices/Meals

absolutely!

absolutely!

Mosaic

Passover (blood, then meal)

absolutely!

Davidic

***

absolutely!

new covenant

Baptism (entrance)

Lord’s Supper (continuance)

absolutely!



No one can deny that the “old covenant” revelation of redemption includes children as recipients. The original promise to Abraham represented the generational inclusion. It should not be overlooked that the tabernacle rituals did not treat children as exempt from any of the laws of purity and exclusion based on ritual uncleanness. And the straight forward text regarding Passover certainly includes children at the Table. The entire Passover plot was to save the “firstborn” (Ex. 12). How odd for a concerted effort of anti-paedocommunion advocates to labor against the inclusion of children in a meal which was, after all, a peace offering to signify deliverance of the first born child! God spared the houses by Passover. “The LORD will pass over the door and not allow the destroyer to come into your houses to strike you” (Ex. 12:23).


Not only do the “old covenant” signs include children, the promises of a coming new covenant expressly include children. In the very first word about the new covenant was in Deuteronomy 30:6: “Moreover the LORD your God will circumcise your heart and the heart of your descendants...” Endnote Jeremiah alludes to the above Deuteronomy passage throughout his prophecy. He emphasizes the inclusion of children in the new covenant promise. Notice that in Jeremiah 31:36, the classic text of the new covenant, the offspring of covenant participants are explicitly included.

 

Jeremiah 31:33-37: “But this is the covenant which I will make with the house of Israel after those days,” declares the LORD, “I will put My law within them, and on their heart I will write it; and I will be their God, and they shall be My people. ....”If this fixed order departs From before Me,” declares the LORD, “ Then the offspring of Israel also shall cease From being a nation before Me forever. “ 37 Thus says the LORD, “If the heavens above can be measured, and the foundations of the earth searched out below, Then I will also cast off all the offspring of Israel for all that they have done,” declares the LORD.”


Even more to the point, the New Testament statements about participation (communion) in Israel included children.

 

Moreover, brethren, I do not want you to be unaware that all our fathers were under the cloud, all passed through the sea, all were baptized into Moses in the cloud and in the sea, all ate the same spiritual food, and all drank the same spiritual drink. For they drank of that spiritual Rock that followed them, and that Rock was Christ. (1 Cor. 10:1-4)


The parallel is precisely that of the new covenant sacraments: baptism and communion. Clearly little children went through the Red Sea and were thus baptized into Moses and ate manna and drank the water from the Rock.


Since there is no explicit basis for how to deal with the children of believers in baptism or communion, the way we address the question must be based on principle and implication. Do we have warrant for the inclusion of children in the covenant rites? There can be no doubt of explicit warrant for the inclusion of believers’ children in the new covenant (Dt. 30:6, Jer. 31:36-37), in the church (Eph. 1:1/6:1-4, Col. 1:2/3:20, 1Cor. 7:14), and the kingdom (Mt. 19:14, Mk. 10:14, Lk. 18:16). All of this implies participation in the covenant signs and seals, the sacraments. Moreover, no one can produce even one verse that explicitly excludes children of believers from baptism or communion.


The Practical Enigmas

Excluding covenant children from the covenant meal certainly seems an inconsistency in the systematic implications of covenant theology. This inconsistency becomes all too obvious in the enforcement of this practice, as is evident in the PCA’s Book of Church Order.


Speaking of covenant children, we read:

 

By virtue of being children of believing parents they are, because of God's covenant ordinance, made members of the Church, but this is not sufficient to make them continue members of the Church. When they have reached the age of discretion, they become subject to obligations of the covenant: faith, repentance and obedience. They then make public confession of their faith in Christ, or become covenant breakers, and subject to the discipline of the Church. (BCO 54-4.j)


So children either “profess faith” or become subject to the discipline of the Church. Would excommunication not be the final and most drastic form of the discipline of the Church (Mt. 18:15-18, 1 Cor. 5:4-8)? Yet, how can those not admitted to “communicant” status be excommunicated? They are in a kind of limbo.


Then, of course, there is a need to create a category for those in limbus BCO-strum:

 

Believers' children within the Visible Church, and especially those dedicated to God in Baptism, are non-communing members under the care of the Church. (BCO 57-1)


“Non-communing member” is a convenient label which upon analysis is completely incoherent. “Member” signifies participation or being part of something, in this case Christ’s body (cf. 1 Cor. 1:9; 7:14). But, “participation in” is conceptually identical to “communion in” — Biblical koinonia. For example, the Liddell-Scott Greek dictionary lists “communion, association, partnership, fellowship” as synonyms for the term koinonia, often translated “fellowship.” So to invent the category of “non-communing member” is to say there is a “non-communing communer,” or a “non-participating participator,” or a “non-member member.”


As in the PCA, the current practice in many anti-paedocommunion churches is that baptized children grow to some level of maturity and then “profess the faith.” Again the Book sayeth,

 

The time when young persons come to understand the Gospel cannot be precisely fixed. This must be left to the prudence of the Session, whose office it is to judge, after careful examination, the qualifications of those who apply for admission to sealing ordinances. (BCO 57-2)


In my experience in the PCA, I found a very divergent sense of what is required in such a “careful examination” of a “profession of faith.” I have heard of “professions” as simple as “Do you love Jesus?” “Yes.” “O.K. You’re in.” I have heard of sessions admitting children with as formal a profession as a recitation of the Apostles’ Creed or Shorter Catechism answers. On the other hand, others require the testimony of a conversion experience, in good New England Puritan fashion. There is everything in between. I also heard of a young boy who was asked by a session in the course of such an examination, “Who do you love the most?” The answer came back from the young boy, “Superman.” (He was also admitted to the Table.)


In the presbytery in which I served I could not find any established practice on pastorally leading covenant children to make such a profession or criteria for the “careful examination.” The church had no specific pattern, but there was a vague sense that a “Communicants Class” would be in order.


Such is the Kingdom

Against the quandaries of this difficult practice, remember Jesus teaching. What would Jesus do, after all? “Let the little children come to Me, and do not forbid them; for of such is the kingdom of God” (Luke 18:16). One clear implication from this is that when children are taken in His arms through the gospel sacraments, we see the kingdom in the clearest manner.


Imagine an adult convert formerly a Satanist priest, no less, standing in the waters of baptism (probably someone’s swimming pool) explaining how they were saved. Baptism is, in such contexts, primarily viewed as a testimony of one's (past) personal experience of salvation. In light of this experientialism, the value of infant baptism is completely dismissed. The infant didn't “decide to follow the Lord in believers' baptism” and stand in the water and tell those enthusiastically on looking that “well I used to be. . .but now I'm saved.” Of what value could the baptism of a helpless, unreasoning, decisionless, born in sin, infant be—an infant in need of grace, but utterly unable to even ask for it or make the smallest contribution to salvation? —Perhaps you can see that infant baptism actually affords a very accurate picture of salvation which is by grace alone. According to the Reformed faith, faith is a response to the prior grace of God, is it not?


This truth is no less marvelous with children at the Table. God’s provision of nurture, sustenance, and life is not by our doing. We earn it not. Our best response is an ever deepening gratitude (“thanksgiving,” eucharist). When children partake, that is a fitting picture of the reality of salvation. Certainly it is more beautiful than when adults think they’ve got it all figured out. Children at the Table show the truth more than when we as the mature think we have our systematic ducks in a row and come quite confident of the proper mode of the presence of Christ, dividing asunder joints and marrow of Zwingli, Luther, Calvin and the Fourth Lateran Council. So much of Reformed communion practice is really gnostic, after all. The quarterly or monthly communion service is conducted as though Jesus is still on the cross. It is the protestant crucifix. But we should “celebrate the feast” (1 Cor. 5:8).


We do not feed God with our intellect by coming to Table. He is feeding us. We are to taste and see that He is good by eating and drinking, not by thinking. It is not “Think this in remembrance of Me.” We do not make ourselves worthy by our understanding. He calls us to come as children. If you will not come as a child, come not at all. Here is the true basis for exclusion from the Table. Here is coming in an “unworthy manner.” Coming as an adult, not as a child.


You will not think that I am urging false beliefs or a denial of a right understanding of what the Word teaches about the Supper. I assure you I am not. But I do deny that the intention of Scripture is to make our capacity to understand it or our doctrinal knowledge of communion the basis for our inclusion. “Such [children] are the kingdom.”


What About 1 Corinthians 11?


Exegetical Considerations

Paul's overall purpose in the passage is to rebuke the Corinthians' sinful divisions and unworthy practice of the Lord's Supper. This is a recurrent theme in the book (1 Cor. 1:10, 3:3, 11:18). Paul addresses the Corinthians in the matter of the Lord’s Supper (11:20) in verses 11:17-34. He refers to the content which he transmits to the Corinthians and which they evidently were familiar with as that which “I received from the Lord” (11:23). Paul has “received” the words of the Supper, just as he “received” the gospel that Christ died and rose according to the Scriptures (15:3).


He addresses the Corinthian abuses of the Supper, namely, “schisms among you” (schismata) (11:18). In restating this severe problem he says, “divisiveness [literally ‘heresies’] among you exists” (hairesies) (11:19). This is illustrated in saying, “For each individually in the supper eats ahead (before others), one is hungry and another drunk”(11:21). Endnote In rebuking these problems Paul says they are to examine (dokimazeto) themselves and so eat and drink in a worthy manner (not unworthily, anazios). By continuing in such sin they would be guilty of “sinning against the body and blood of the Lord” (NIV) (enoxos – worthy of, guilty of, sinning against, caught in, cf. Matt. 26:66) and thus be judged. The stipulations for such judgment are specified: “because of this, among you many are powerless and sickly and a considerable number sleep [are dead]” (11:30).


Their schisms and factions were exceedingly inconsistent with the meaning of the Table. Paul has argued this in the preceding verses. “For we, though many, are one bread and one body; for we all partake of that one bread” (1 Cor. 10:17). The Supper signifies participation in Christ and unity with our brethren. We have a common loaf. He will go on to say we have a common cup (“to drink into one Spirit,” 1 Cor. 12:13). Factions of gross proportion in the celebration of the Table are radically incongruent with the purpose of communion in the body and blood (1 Cor. 10:16). Rather, when you eat and drink, each time you do this, you are to do it with full communion with the body of Christ.


Therefore, since the whole point of the discussion of the Supper shows the unity of the body, how ridiculous is it then to create a new division between “communicant” and “non-communicant” members of the “one body” who are to all “partake of that one bread”? (1 Cor. 10:17). First Corinthians 11 certainly does not explicitly forbid children from partaking. Adults are the ones causing the trouble. There is no explicit mention of children. It is inferred from capacity. To infer that children are excluded because they are not capable is nothing more than the baptistic argument. Only, it is really the Pelagian argument – salvation by ability. The baptistic exclusion of children from baptism is, however, grounded on (a misreading of) many more texts which address adult capacity. The presbyterian exclusion of children from the Table is threadbare with only one strand, 1 Cor. 11:28.


However, a moment’s contextual consideration leads to the view that divisions and schisms are, in fact, that which Paul is rebuking. His point is not to set up standards for coming so as to exclude others. “But let a man examine himself, and so let him eat of the bread and drink of the cup” (11:28). He does not say, let a man examine himself and let him “not eat.” The Supper is a symbol of unity of all the body — not the mature or elite in the body.


Concluding Comments

At least three statements in the context of 1 Cor. 11 irrefutably imply that baptized children are to participate in the supper.


            1. Those baptized into Moses ate and drank (1 Cor. 10:1-4). This is drawn as a parallel to the Corinthian sacraments. Remember too, that aside from Joshua and Caleb, only the children made it out of the wilderness. The adults were judged. Paul uses this to reprove the Corinthians from the spiritual pride, something little children cannot possible be judged for, unlike adult Calvinists. Certainly this implies that children are to partake of baptism and communion.

            2. “For we, though many, are one bread and one body; for we all partake of that one bread” (1 Cor. 10:17). One body, one bread. Those in the body and those that eat of the bread are co-extensive. All that are in the body partake of the bread. If baptized children are in the body, then they may eat of the one bread. Certainly this implies that baptized children partake of communion.

            3. “For by one Spirit we were all baptized into one body — whether Jews or Greeks, whether slaves or free — and have all been made to drink into one Spirit” (1 Cor. 12:13). Those that are baptized, “drink of one Spirit.” This is certainly a reference to drinking of the cup (1 Cor. 11). By the Spirit we were made to drink. Again, there is an “equal sign” (=) between the baptized and the communicant. All that are baptized drink. Certainly this implies that children are to partake of communion.


Finally, historical precedent (in the ancient Church), theological reflection, and exegetical clarity with respect to 1 Corinthians 11 lead me to embrace the covenantal paedocommunion view and practice. I am grateful to serve in a church which practices paedocommunion, while respecting the views of those that remain unconvinced. Moreover, I am thankful to serve in a collegial and presbyterial fellowship with others in CRE who hold varied views on the matter. Endnote





Notes