Paedocommunion, the Gospel, and the Church, I

Paedocommunion, the Gospel, and the Church, I October 27, 2016

Should young children receive the Lord’s Supper? Should we practice paedo-communion?

Before we address the question of paedocommunion, we must specify both what the question is and what sort of question it is. First, what is the question of paedocommunion? It is not in essence a question about the age of admission to the Lord’s table. Some who do not adopt the paedocommunion position would admit toddlers as young as a year-and-a-half. If, hypothetically, some means were invented to gauge the level of “discernment” in infants, and children who registered a “6” were admitted to the table, that practice still would not constitute paedocommunion. Nor is it a question about force-feeding bread and wine to newborns; though some churches give the elements to newly baptized infants, no Reformed advocate of paedocommunion, to my knowledge, has argued for this practice. Most Reformed theologians are content to wait until the child is able to eat solid food before he begins to participate in the Supper.

The specific practical question is, Does baptism initiate the baptized to the Lord’s table, so that all who are baptized have a right to the meal? Paedocommunion advocates, for all their differences, will answer in the affirmative. Nothing more than the rite of water baptism is required for a person to have access to the Lord’s table. Opponents of paedocommunion will answer in the negative. Something more is required—some level of understanding, some degree of spiritual discernment, some sort of conversion experience, and some means for the church to assess these attainments.

Second, and more fundamentally, what sort of question is this? If it is merely a question about the admission requirements to the church’s ritual meal, then the question may be answered by straightforwardly applying a rule. If we narrowly focus on the question of who partakes when, we could admit children without adjusting any other doctrines or practices of the church. If it is only a matter of adding a few names to the guest list, then why is paedocommunion so strindently opposed by some within the Reformed world?

Paedocommunion is not only about admission requirements narrowly considered, but, like paedobaptism, is linked with a whole range of theological and liturgical issues. It is not only about the nature of the Supper, but also about the church, baptism, and, most broadly, the character of the salvation that Christ has achieved in the world. The gospel is not directly at stake in the paedocommunion debate. Opponents of paedocommunion honestly and sincerely proclaim the gospel of grace, and I am grateful to God that they do. Still, the ecclesial and theological shape that the gospel takes correlates significantly with positions on paedocommunion, and the coherence between the gospel and the church’s practice is at the heart of this debate. The stakes are not so high as they were when Luther protested indulgences and the myriad idolatries of the late medieval church. But the stakes are high, very high.

At the risk of oversimplification (and provocation), I will briefly pose the options on these wider issues:

Is the Supper an ordinance of the church (paedocommunion), or is it an ordinance for some segment of the church (antipaedocommunion)?[1]

Is the church the family of God simpliciter (paedocommunion), or is the church divided between those who are full members of the family and those who are partial members or strangers (antipaedocommunion)?

Did Jesus die and rise again to form a new Israel (paedocommunion), or did He die and rise again to form a community with a quite different make-up from Israel (antipaedocommunion)?

Did Jesus die and rise again to form the new human race (paedocommunion), or did He die and rise again to form a fellowship of the spiritually mature (antipaedocommunion)?

Does baptism admit the baptized into the covenant or symbolize his prior inclusion in the covenant (paedocommunion), or does baptism merely express a hope that the baptized one day will enter the covenant in some other fashion (antipaedocommunion)?

Does the covenant have an inherently historical/institutional character (paedocommunion), or is it an invisible reality (antipaedocommunion)?

Does grace restore nature (paedocommunion), or does grace cancel our nature or elevate beyond nature (antipaedocommunion)?

Does faith require conscious and articulable belief (antipaedocommunion) or is faith something of which infants are capable (paedocommunion)?

Like many theological issues, paedocommunion also poses the question of the relative weight of Scripture and tradition. The question is not what the Reformed tradition has taught on this issue; I concede that very few Reformed theologians have advocated paedocommunion. Nor is the question about Jewish custom, which opponents of paedocommunion often cite. (Why should Christians care what the Talmud says?) The issue is what Scripture teaches, and if we find that our tradition is out of accord with Scripture, then we must simply obey God rather than men, even if they are our honored fathers in the faith.

In the following parts of this essay, I focus on the ecclesiological issues raised by paedocommunion, which are simultaneously questions about the nature of the covenant, about the continuity of Old and New, about salvation, and about the gospel. Throughout, I am guided by an underlying assumption that the sacraments manifest the nature of the church. For centuries, sacramental theology in the Reformed and in other traditions has often focused narrowly on the effect of sacraments on individual recipients, and as a result, both the theology and practice of the sacraments have been horribly distorted. We should, in addition and even primarily, consider sacraments in an ecclesial context. The question should not only be what a particular rite does to me, but also what this ritual tells me about the community that celebrates it.

According to Paul’s teaching, the Lord’s Supper embodies the nature of the church as a unified community. Because we partake of one loaf, we are one body (1 Corinthians 10:16), and because partaking of the bread and cup is a communion in Christ, it commits us to avoiding communion with demons and idols. The Lord’s Supper ritually declares that the church is one, and that this united community is separated from the world. This is why, according to Paul, the Corinthians were not actually performing the Lord’s Supper (1 Cointhians. 11:20).

From Paul’s perspective, the Supper and its practice provide a criterion for measuring and judging the church’s faithfulness to her calling and her Lord, and, conversely, the New Testament’s teaching concerning the church provides a criterion for assessing our sacramental life. The Supper is a ritual expression of our confession that the church is One, Holy, Catholic, and Apostolic. We should ask both, “Does the church’s life measure up with what we say about ourselves at the table?” and “Is what we confess about the church manifest at the table?”

Paul’s sacramental reasoning can be extended in many directions. We know, for instance, that the church is a body in which divisions of Jew and Gentile, slave and free, male and female have been dissolved (Galatians 3:28), and Paul severely rebuked Peter when his table fellowship failed to line up with this ecclesial reality (Galatians 2:11–21). A church that refuses bread and wine to blacks, or to whites, or to Asians, is lying about both the church and the Supper. More pointedly: Paul says that the church is a community where the weakest and most unseemly are welcomed (1 Corinthians 12:22–26). Does the Baptist refusal to baptize infants give ritual expression to that kind of church, or does it instead imply that the church welcomes only the smart and the strong?[2]

At the same time, the sacraments must express what the church proclaims in the gospel. This might be approached from various directions. That Jesus broke down the dividing wall between Jews and Gentiles is part of the gospel, and so the Supper expresses the gospel when it welcomes Christians from every tribe and tongue and nation. The gospel announces that God has initiated a new creation in and through Jesus, and our practices and theology of the Supper must express the scope of that announcement. The gospel is about the grace of God to sinners who have no ability to crawl their way back to Him, and the way we think about and perform the Supper must be consistent with that. According to Luther, the Supper is the gospel, for in it our heavenly Father offers His Son to us through the Spirit for our life; the Supper is first and last God’s gift, God’s gift of Himself, to His people. But saying that and enacting that in our table fellowship are two different things.

In short, the Supper and its practice provide a criterion for measuring and judging the church’s faithfulness to the gospel, and, conversely, the New Testament’s teaching concerning the gospel provides a criterion for assessing our sacramental life. Jesus frequently described His preaching as an invitation to a feast, a feast that He Himself celebrated with tax gatherers and sinners throughout His ministry and that He continues to celebrate with sinners in the Eucharist. The gospel thus provides a criterion for judging our admission rules for the table: Is the invitation to the table as wide as the invitation to repent and believe?

We must think about baptism and the Supper in these (overlapping, if not identical) ecclesial and evangelical contexts if we want to grasp what is at stake in the paedocommunion debate. The question is not only who’s in and who’s out, but rather what our decisions about who’s in and who’s out say about the church we are and the gospel we proclaim. What kind of community are we claiming to be if we invite children to the Lord’s table, or, as is more commonly the case, what are we saying about the church when we exclude them? What do our ritual statements about the church say about the church’s relation to Israel and the character of salvation? Put our theologies and our sermons to the side for a moment: What gospel does our meal preach?

An earlier version of this essay was published in Credenda/Agenda, 18:1.

[1] I apologize for the clumsy terminology, but have been unable to come up with anything better. I toyed with the idea of using neutral terms – e.g., call advocates of paedocommunion “Bob” and opponents “Henry.” But that usage would have paid too high a price in clarity, not to mention seriousness.

[2] I am not suggesting that Baptists are unmerciful toward the weak. Many Baptist churches put paedobaptists to shame in this regard. I am asking whether Baptist baptism tells us the truth about the church.

Browse Our Archives