Since the practice of the Lord’s Supper has regained something of a focused treatment online in recent days, I thought it might be advantageous to focus on another important aspect of the Lord’s Supper–namely, how and when is it appropriate for children to receive communion? In doctrinally serious churches, welcoming the children of believers to the Lord’s Supper is one of the most important elements of the life of the church. It is also one of the most difficult and widely debated matters.
When Is It Appropriated for Children to Receive Communion?
On one side of the debate are those who believe that the children of believers should be well into their teenage years prior to bringing them to the table. On the another side of the debate are those who want to bring their children to the table at infancy or an extremely young age. In between these two extremes are those many churches that have a confirmation class to prepare the children of believers doctrinally and then bring them to the table when they are in their latter adolescence or early teenage years. There are also those churches that encourage the parents to work closely with their children and then to bring them to the elders of the church when they believe that they might be ready to be examined for communing membership in the church. We might call this view the “parent-elder conference” approach. I have personally adopted this latter approach over the years, because every child is at a different spiritual stage. Therefore, parents should work closely with the pastor/elders of the church to determine when each child should be welcomed to the table.
Part of the difficulty we face when approaching this subject is that the Scriptures do not give us an age with which we may reasonably resolve the tension. Rather, the Scriptures give us general principles to which we must adhere–principles that require a great deal of wisdom. For instance, the Apostle Paul–in 1 Corinthians 11:27-32–gives warnings to the members of the church. Each member must be able to examine himself or herself prior to partaking of the bread and the wine. At what point is a child mature enough to examine his or her own heart to see whether or not he or she is discerning the body or not? Certainly, there is absolutely no reason why we would ever assume that an infant could examine his or her own heart with any sort of conscious maturity. This is not to say that an infant cannot be regenerate by the sovereign working of the Holy Spirit. David , Jeremiah and John the Baptist are all examples of those regenerate from the womb (Ps. 22:9; Jer. 1:5; Luke 1:15, 41). We may all agree that a 3 or 4 year old may have a sincere profession of faith in Christ (and may be savingly united to the Redeemer); but, we may disagree about whether or not he or she is mature enough to discern the body in the Supper. We are to be looking for both sincerity and maturity.
In recent years, some have suggested that the Covenant Lord wants us to bring our infants to the table, since they are members of the covenant family of God. The problem with paedocommunion is that it changes the nature of the sacrament and lays aside the clear teaching of 1 Corinthians 11:27-32. Paedocommunion seems to be a simple solution to the problem of knowing when to admit the children to receive communion, but it lacks biblical support, any substantial place in church history and de facto leads to the conclusion that the sacrament works ex opere operato (i.e. that the sacrament works out of itself irrespective of whether or not the infant is examining himself or herself and so exercising faith when they come to partake of the bread and wine). In addition, paedocommunion demands changing the symbolism of the elements (the separation of the bread and the wine symbolizing the separation of the blood of Jesus from the body of Jesus) since an infant cannot chew or swallow bread. Giving infants the Supper demands the unbiblical practice of intinction.
Many churches seek to prepare to bring children to receive communion by carrying out a confirmation class. The upside to a confirmation class is that it can help give our covenant children the biblical and theological instruction to mature them in the faith. The downside of a confirmation class is that it can tend to treat all of the children of the congregation as if they are at the same spiritual stage of development. A confirmation class runs the risk of giving assurance of salvation to unregenerate youth who may have “made it through” a class in which they have merely grown in assent to theological truths. Nevertheless, all churches should, however, be intentional about incorporating biblical teaching–together with memorization of something like the Westminster Shorter Catechism–into the children’s Sunday School classes in order to help prepare them for coming to the table.
Talking to Parents About When It’s Time for Children to Receive Communion
I have, on quite a number of occasions, met with the parents of a very young child about whether or not to bring their child before the elders for examination. I generally ask the child a number of questions about the nature of Christianity:
“Who is God? What is God like? How many persons are there in the Godhead?” Who is Jesus? Is Jesus God or man? How did God make you? What happened to our first parents? What do your sins deserve? What did Jesus do at the cross?” etc.
I frequently find that when I have met with a young child, together with his or her parents, a fairly serious lack of knowledge about basic Christian truth tends to surface. At that point, I have tried to meet with the parents without the child present–in order to encourage them to continue fanning the flame of faith in the heart and life of their child. Then, I tell them to consider meeting with me again in the near future to see whether there is a development of maturity in the mind of the child. Pastors should proceed cautiously before bringing very young children to the elders of the church for examination, since the elders may conclude that a particular child is not mature enough to examine himself or herself in light of the truth of Scripture. When this occurs, we run the risk of potentially doing harm to the child’s assurance of salvation. If they are sincerely regenerate–but simply not mature enough to examine themselves–they may think that we are telling them that they are not regenerate. Great caution is needed in this approach.
One of the ways in which a church may adopt the “parents-elder conference approach” is by having the pastor directly address the children to receive communion. After reading the words of institution from 1 Corinthians 11:23-26, and then giving the warnings in 1 Corinthians 11:27-32, I will sometimes address the children, saying something like, “Children, maybe you haven’t yet made a profession of faith and cannot yet partake of the elements. Still, you can feed on Christ by faith as he has been presented to you in the preaching of the Gospel that you have heard this morning.” A pastor can also use this time to encourage the parents to be talking with their children about the precious truths of the Christian faith in order to help bring them to a place where they will be ready to be admitted to the table. This in turn encourages the parents to be thinking about this matter and coming to the pastor or elders about the right time for the examination of their children.
Nevertheless, when all of the biblical teaching is examined and when all of the practices of church history are considered, we are still left with quite a number of difficulties in pressing forward with an approach that is faithful to Scripture, wisely instituted by the elders and that fits the context of the local church in which we worship and serve. Thankfully, several helpful volumes exist to help pastors and churches make their way through the mire of not knowing how to proceed in respect to this subject. Ligon Duncan and Guy Waters edited a volume titled Chidren and the Lord’s Supper and Cornelius Venema wrote one titled Children and the Lord’s Table in order to tackle some of the difficult questions from a biblical, theological and historical perspective. J.W. Alexander wrote a small volume in order to encourage newly admitted communicants titled Remember Him. I encourage all pastors and parents to work through this important subject as they seek to shepherd the hearts of their children.
*This is a slightly edited version of a post first published at the Christward Collective in October of 2017.
This article about when is it appropriate for children to receive communion originally appeared here.