Dear Church Family,
In our Sunday morning sermon series (“The Church and the Means of Grace”), we are examining the outward and ordinary means whereby Christ communicates to us the benefits of redemption – especially, the word, sacraments, and prayer (Westminster Shorter Catechism 88). The audio recordings of the sermons preached thus far in this series are available online here.
This coming Sunday, we will examine the sacrament of the Lord’s Supper as a place in which we receive the grace of discipline from the Lord (1 Corinthians 11:17-34). As is usually the case, we of course will not be able to address everything that could be said concerning this holy meal, but will simply be focusing on how the Lord uses this sacrament to sanctify His people and grow them in holiness.
One of the things that we will not have time to address is the erroneous practice of paedocommunion. If you’re unfamiliar with this practice, paedocommunion is giving the Lord’s Supper to baptized children before the age of discretion, and apart from being admitted to the Table through giving a credible profession of faith before the elders of the church. Usually, the proponents of paedocommunion would argue that the children of believers ought to be admitted to the Lord’s Supper as soon as they are physically able to eat solid food.
At Providence Presbyterian Church, and in the PCA, we distinguish between communing and non-communing members. The former are members of the church who have been admitted to the Lord’s Supper by the Session, the latter are those members who have not been admitted to the Lord’s Supper by the Session (e.g., the baptized children of adult members). As our denominational Book of Church Order puts it,
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).
Yet, there have been some in the Reformed community, and in our denomination, who hold to and promote the practice of paedocommunion (sometimes, but not always, the doctrine of paedocommunion is connected with a person holding the broader erroneous teaching of “Federal Vision“). Having read and interacted with several people who hold to the practice of paedocommunion, it is my belief that paedocommunion is not only an erroneous practice, but also one that is dangerous. I sympathize with the impulse of Christian parents who want their children to receive the grace of discipline in the Lord’s Supper; however, there are several reasons for which I have arrived at the conclusion that the practice of paedocommunion is both erroneous and dangerous.
Here are the four broad reasons (explained in a bit more detail below): biblical, theological, historical, and practical. [By the way, whenever there is a question about right practice in the Church, I find it helpful to think through the issue – whatever it is – by way of these four categories.]
Biblically and exegetically, there are two things for us to consider with respect to the practice of paedocommunion:
(1) Often, the argument for the practice of paedocommunion follows along these lines: the covenant children in Israel partook of the Passover meal in the Old Covenant, so too ought the covenant children in the Church partake of the Lord’s Supper in the New Covenant. There are a couple of problems with this line of reasoning. First, it is not entirely clear that all the covenant children partook of the Passover meal. There are several strong exegetical clues that speak against this assumption; for instance, Richard Bacon shows how the biblical data indicates that young children were most likely not included in the Passover meal. Second, upon returning from exile, the people of Israel gathered to renew the covenant with God (Nehemiah 8-10). It is instructive to note that those who participated in this covenant renewal ceremony are described as “men, women and all who could listen with understanding” (Nehemiah 8:2). Third, one of the key principles of biblical interpretation is to interpret the Old Testament in light of the New Testament and the fuller revelation which was given through Jesus Christ (2 Corinthians 1:20; Galatians 3:16; Hebrews 1:1-2). The argument for paedocommunion seems to trend in the opposite direction, reading the New Testament in light of the Old Testament.
(2) This last point brings us to the other biblical consideration: the New Testament passage which gives the most clear instructions (outside of the Gospels) concerning the practice of the Lord’s Supper, 1 Corinthians 11:17-34. The clear teaching of this passage is to correct the “unworthy manner” in which some on the church partook of the Lord’s Supper. To come in a “worthy manner” (says Paul), one must “examine himself” (v 28) and “judge (or discern, understand) the body rightly” (v 29). Worthy receiving of the Lord’s Supper, then, requires an ability to examine oneself and judge or discern who Jesus is – an age of discretion. Paedocommunionists typically argue, however, that Paul is not giving universal instruction that applies to all churches, but simply seeking to correct abuses among the adult members of the church in Corinth. If that were so, it seems reasonable to expect that Paul would have provided some caveats to his instruction (e.g., “of course, you understand that I’m only speaking here about adults, this doesn’t apply to the infants who come to partake.”) Yet, we find no statements like this in the passage. Also, verse 32 teaches that one of the purposes of the Lord’s Supper is to be disciplined by the Lord, and so to not be condemned along with the world. And, the Lord’s discipline is reserved for those who trust in Jesus, the author and perfecter of faith (Hebrews 12:1-14).
As I’ve stated before, the various doctrines of theology and the Christian faith are interconnected. Lane Keister has provided a great service by enumerating all of the ways in which the practice of paedocommunion is hostile to the Constitutional Standards of the PCA (the Westminster Confession of Faith, Larger & Shorter Catechisms, and the Book of Church Order). Here, I would simply like to highlight two of these:
(1) First, according to the Westminster Larger Catechism, there is a difference between the sacraments of baptism and the Lord’s Supper:
Q. Wherein do the sacraments of baptism and the Lord’s supper differ?
A. The sacraments of baptism and the Lord’s supper differ, in that baptism is to be administered but once, with water, to be a sign and seal of our regeneration and ingrafting into Christ, and that even to infants; whereas the Lord’s supper is to be administered often, in the elements of bread and wine, to represent and exhibit Christ as spiritual nourishment to the soul, and to confirm our continuance and growth in him, and that only to such as are of years and ability to examine themselves. (WLC 177).
There are similarities between these two sacraments (WLC 176); however they each represent and teach different things. Baptism is a sign and seal of our regeneration and ingrafting into Christ; as such, it is only to be administered once. The Lord’s Supper represents and exhibits Christ as spiritual nourishment to the soul and is to be administered often – and, “only to such as are of years and ability to examine themselves.”
(2) Second, the practice of paedocommunion blurs the biblical and confessional distinction between the visible and invisible church. Simply defined, the visible church “consists of all those throughout the world that profess the true religion and of their children” (WCF 25:2). The invisible church “consists of the whole number of the elect” (WCF 25:1). The practice of paedocommunion removes – or at least, lessens – the distinction between visible and invisible church, non-communing and communing membership. The result of which is a false assurance of salvation based solely on one’s membership in the visible church.
The implication of this blurring of distinctions also often leads to sacerdotalism or sacramentalism, two views which are explicitly refuted in the Westminster Confession of faith (“The grace which is exhibited in or by the sacraments rightly used, is not conferred by any power in them [sacramentalism]; neither doth the efficacy of a sacrament depend upon the piety or intention of him that doth administer it [sacerdotalism]: but upon the work of the Spirit, and the word of institution, which contains, together with a precept authorizing the use thereof, a promise of benefit to worthy receivers” (WCF 27:3).
The practice of paedocommunion in church history may be understood in three broad observations:
(1) The first five centuries. Matthew Winzer delineates in his paper, “The True History of Paedo-Communion” how paedocommunion was not an accepted practice in the Church, at least up to the fifth century.
(2) The fifth to the eleventh centuries. After the fifth century, the practice of paedocommunion became more widespread, at least until the time of the split between the Eastern and Western Church (e.g, the Great Schism of 1054). In the Fourth Lateran Council, Canon 21 (1215), admission to the Lord’s Supper was restricted to those who had reached the age of discretion. Paedocommunion continues to be the practice of Eastern orthodox churches to this day.
(3) The eleventh century to the present. The “Report of the Ad-Interim Committee to Study the Question of Paedocommunion” which was received by the General Assembly of the PCA in 1989 begins with this statement, “Classical Reformed theology has been virtually unanimous in judging that covenant children ought not be brought to the Lord’s Table before the age of discretion.” Interestingly, the minority report which argued for paedocommunion agrees with this statement, yet maintains that “the common opinion of the Reformed church on this matter was and remains ill-considered.”
To these points, I would add two more pastoral and practical reasons for which the practice of paedocommunion is erroneous and dangerous:
(1) In practice, when the minister fences the Table, there is an explicit call for believers to come and partake of the sacrament by examining themselves and discerning the Lord’s body – to look to their own sin and need for Christ, and then to look to Christ and His provision for their sin and need. Fencing the Table is not intended to bar repentant sinners. To the contrary, fencing the Table reminds repentant sinners to come with humble hearts and a confident faith in Christ.
(2) In practice, when the minister fences the Table by warning non-communing covenant children to not partake of the sacrament, there is an implicit (and sometimes explicit) call for them to repent of their sins and trust in Christ. They hear the gospel call and see the gospel on display in the sacrament. Allowing infant children to partake of the Lord’s Supper as soon as they are physically able to consume solid food runs the danger of giving a false assurance of salvation to our children. Barring them from the Table is actually a goad which often brings them to embrace Christ in faith for themselves.
It is a great joy to see the children of believers come to a personal saving faith in the Lord Jesus Christ, and then to give expression to that faith as they come before the elders of the church to be admitted to the Lord’s Supper. Yet, parents bear the responsibility (as they promise at the baptism of their covenant children) to endeavor to set before their children a godly example, pray with and for them, teach them the doctrines of our holy religion, and strive to bring them up in the nurture and admonition of the Lord.
Thus, parents often wonder how to discern whether their child is ready to receive the Lord’s Supper. To help parents to think through these issues, I recommend an article written by PCA minister Andrew Webb, “On Deciding Whether a Child is Ready to Receive the Lord’s Supper.”
The Lord be with you!
- Pastor Peter M. Dietsch