Children at the Lord’s Table?

Frequently I am asked by seminary students or pastors about the question of children and the Lord’s Supper. Several years ago, after some members asked questions about the teaching dubbed “paedocommunion” (the practice of allowing baptized children to come to the Lord’s Table without a necessary profession of faith), I sought to find help from others on the subject.  I encountered an abundance of materials by those promoting paedocommunion, with titles such as Feed My Lambs or the even more emotively-labeled Daddy, Why Was I Excommunicated?  Often those producing and promoting these books and messages were associated with the aberrant teachings of the Auburn Avenue Conferences and Federal Vision Theology.

At the time, all I found on the historic, Reformed practice of requiring profession of faith before admission to the Lord’s Table were a few passing references in the confessions and theological books, and a helpful though somewhat poorly recorded tape series by Kenneth Gentry.  Thankfully, Dr. Cornelius Venema’s scholarly yet accessible work Children at the Lord’s Table? Assessing the Case for Paedocommunion does much to stand in the gap, providing a Biblically-grounded and confession-honoring answer to those who espouse a hyper-covenantal theology that promotes this practice.

In this book Dr. Venema poses and answers this question: “Does membership in the covenant, which is signified and sealed to the children of believing parents through their baptism, constitute a sufficient basis for admitting them to the Table of the Lord?”  He demonstrates through quotes from paedocommunists’ materials how they respond affirmatively based on four main arguments:

1) that the historical practice of the church shows a widespread observation of paedocommunion for many centuries;

2) the inclusion of children in the covenant community through baptism should consist of access to all its benefits, especially the Lord’s Supper;

3) the Passover, forming an Old Testament basis for the Lord’s Supper, included children so the church should allow them at the Lord’s Table as well;

4) the traditional understanding of the instructions in I Corinthians 11, where the requirement for self-examination and worthiness implies sufficient maturity, is incorrect and this passage actually promotes paedocommunion.

In counter to these arguments, Dr. Venema fairly yet thoroughly demonstrates why they do not stand up under close scrutiny.  To whet your appetite for his discerning answers, he shows such things as:

1) how the historical evidence is misapplied by paedocommunists;

2) that the Reformed confessions certainly do not accommodate the paedocommunist view (“The confessions insist that the route from the baptismal font to the Lord’s Table can only be the way of an active response of faith”) and indeed would have to be revised if this became the practice of the Reformed community;

3) that though the Passover does offer some basis for understanding communion, the fact that it is clear in the Old Testament it was not a requirement for children to participate in the Passover (Deuteronomy 16:16 for instance) and that the Lord’s Supper, representing Christ’s atonement, is a fulfillment of far more than the Passover ritual alone would indicate this is a false basis for insisting upon paedocommunion;

4) the exegesis of such typical communion passages as John 6:47-58 and I Corinthians 11:17-34, masterfully done and carefully applied by Dr. Venema, conclusively require faith in order to participate in the sacrament.

In addition to the clear answers Dr. Venema gives on this topic, his Calvinistic explanation of the Lord’s Supper, his discussion on the “intimate conjunction” but “necessary distinction” between the Word and sacraments, and the appendix on “Covenant Theology and Baptism” all make this book excel in the helpfulness it offers on reformed theology and the proper place of the sacraments in the life of the church.

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This review, edited slightly here, first appeared in the Reformed Presbyterian Witness. Used by permission.

12 Comments

  1. Jon Maginn February 1, 2016 at 11:33 am #

    Barry, thank you for writing this up again, and for the recommendation of some good reading material on this subject. This is a subject that I have heard people speaking on much more often in the last year or two. I find this to be a case especially among the newly young and restless Reformed. I have alway found the teaching on paedocommunion to be one that has lacked any real biblical support, and one that has been decisive to the Church. I will be getting the book that you have recommended and giving it a thorough reading.

    • Barry York February 1, 2016 at 12:38 pm #

      Jon,

      Glad it was helpful and you will appreciate Venema’s book.

  2. Shigeru Takiura February 3, 2016 at 10:48 am #

    Since we are facing the issue even in Japan, I appreciate what you wrote, and wish to see more articles
    which come to this direction.

    • Barry York February 5, 2016 at 2:53 pm #

      I’m glad it was helpful, Dr. Takiura. A related post is The Discipleship Growth of…Jesus. If Jesus as a covenant child was prepared for the Old Testament sacrament, should not our new covenant children be as well?

  3. James Hakim February 3, 2016 at 3:40 pm #

    Dear Barry,

    Obviously, you cannot put the entire content of the book in your review, but there is a point about Passover that is strong enough that it might have warranted inclusion your article: that at the Passover, there is the family meal (meat) and the faith meal (meaning).

    Exodus 12:26 says, “And it shall be, when your children say to you, ‘What do YOU mean by this service?'” (NKJV, emphasis mine).

    In other words, it is clear that children partook of the family meal, which is to say that they ate unleavened bread and, if they could chew it, lamb meat. However, there was a stage in which they were still learning to exercise their faith at the Passover, so that the verse says “what do you mean” rather than “what do we mean.”

    When this is carried to 1Cor 11, which specifically commands to have the family meal at home, we find that the only meal at the Lord’s Supper is the faith meal, in which food elements are used but are not themselves the meal. So, upon closer examination, the precedent of Passover is that only those with faith “ate and drank in remembrance.” There is, in fact, not much of a change in this regard from Old Testament to New.

    I just wanted to throw that out there for any of your readers who are interested enough in the topic to read the comments. I may have gotten from Venema’s book, and certainly is not original to me.

    • Barry York February 5, 2016 at 2:48 pm #

      Good thoughts, James. Thanks for sharing!

  4. Laura Cerbus February 11, 2016 at 1:51 pm #

    What about children who *do* profess faith? Typically churches wait until children are around 13 years old to take them through a membership class and allow them to partake in communion, but this bothers me a bit. If a child has professed faith, and is able to make that profession to one of the elders (can’t see many 5-year-olds facing an entire session), why should we keep him or her from the table?

    • Barry York February 11, 2016 at 4:12 pm #

      Laura,

      Good question! Though I won’t be able to give a full answer here, I believe our Lord’s earthly life and pattern is the best answer to this question.

      In Luke 2, we see the Lord in his infancy and childhood interacting with both of the Old Testament sacraments of circumcision and Passover. Regarding the latter, according to Edersheim who wrote The Life and Times of Jesus the Messiah, he went up to Jerusalem at age 12 as was common at that time to be examined for his faith by the elders and leaders at the temple. Upon a proper accounting of his faith, he was welcomed to participate in the Passover the following year. This is actually where the modern practice of the bar mitzvah (“son of the commandment”) came. The elders were seeing that the young person was of sufficient maturity and knowledge to be responsible to live as a true Jew.

      I believe our Lord’s development in his humanity is a good pattern and necessary inference to follow. The outer changes we note in children as they reach adolescence correspond generally to inner abilities to take increasing responsibility for their actions, articulate their beliefs, and understand more fully implications and consequences of their behavior. Just as we recognize certain natural privileges, from driving to marriage, require sufficient maturity for their proper practice, so coming to the Lord’s Table, where severe judgments can occur if practiced wrongly (see I Cor. 11:29-31), likewise requires proper ability to discern the body and blood of the Lord.

      Having said that, we do not deny that young children can truly believe. Rather, they need further discipleship so they can properly come to the table of the Lord.

    • Kyle Borg February 11, 2016 at 5:39 pm #

      I’m about to butt my nose in. Sorry!

      I think Barry’s comment is helpful. But I would also add, while I wouldn’t put any definite age on membership, becoming a member of the church is more than the privilege to take the Lord’s Supper. It includes other things–voting rights, at least some eligibility to serve in office as elder or deacon, and also includes a member’s willingness to submit to the oversight of the elders (see Hebrews 13:17) which may, if necessary, require corrective discipline in matters of faith and life. That’s one thing I try and stress with the parents (and my own children!). When your son or daughter becomes a member they’re now individually responsible to the leadership of the church and they can’t, anymore than other members, hide behind their parents. And parents, in guiding, directing, and encouraging their children to become members will share spiritual oversight of their children with the elders of the church–separately and distinctly. I’m just not sure my 7 year old is ready for that despite what I regard as a profession of faith and love to Jesus Christ.

      Cheers!

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