Children at the Lord's Table
A Bit to Read
We hear the term from time to time, and aren’t quite sure what it means. The ‘communion’ part has to do with Lord’s Supper, and the ‘paedo’ part catches the notion of children. So, paedocommunion is the practice of bringing your children to the Lord’s Table. What do we think of that practice?? The question comes up because we hear sounds to the effect that the practice is ongoing in some of our North American sister churches.
According to the confession of the church in Lord’s Day 25, God instituted sacraments “so that by their use He might the more fully declare and seal to us the promise of the gospel.” The Catechism goes on to explain what the promise of the gospel is, namely, “that God graciously grants us forgiveness of sins and everlasting life because of the one sacrifice of Christ accomplished on the cross.” Please note who (according to this Lord’s Day) does the speaking in the sacrament. The sacraments God gave are not about people saying something, but are fundamentally about God saying something. Through the sacrament He impresses upon sinners His good news of the gospel of redemption that He’s prepared for the undeserving. Since the item is so important to our point, we need to consider the evidence.
When the Lord God commanded Abraham to be circumcised, the content and message of that circumcision was not that Abraham was offering himself to God or pledging to serve Him; the content and message of that circumcision was primarily and specifically that God impressed on Abraham His bond of love with him (Genesis 17:7-14). Weak and sinful Abraham should not doubt God’s goodness to him. Similarly, when the Lord had Isaac circumcised on the eighth day of his life, it is manifestly evident that this infant was not in the sacrament of circumcision making a statement (be it to God or to some else) that he committed himself to serve the Lord. Instead, in this circumcision the Lord God was doing the speaking; He through this sacrament laid His claim of love on the child, established with Isaac His covenant of grace, and so made him rich in the coming Christ. Isaac should never doubt God’s kindness to him.
This same emphasis is evident in infant baptism in the New Testament dispensation. The newborn does not come of its own will to the baptismal font, nor does the infant make a statement about his intent to serve God or about the faith that may be present in the heart. Instead, in the sacrament of baptism God does the speaking as He impresses on the child His claim of love.
This is the point that those who advocate adult baptism forget. They interpret a sacrament as a person speaking to God, dedicating his heart and life to God, and promising to serve Him always – something an infant, of course, cannot yet do. But therein the advocates of adult baptism have failed to grasp the fundamental significance of Biblical sacraments: God impresses on sinners His claim of love in Jesus Christ.
Yet the fact that the Lord God is the primary speaker in sacraments does not mean that He is the only speaker. Sacraments signify and seal the promise of the gospel – and that promise is that God establishes His bond of love with sinners so that they receive forgiveness of sins and life eternal. This bond of love is His covenant. Yet God’s promise of forgiveness never comes without obligations; those with whom God establishes His covenant of grace are expected to respond to His promises. If His covenant people do not respond as ought, they shall not receive the goods contained in the promise. An infant cannot respond at infancy to the riches God gives at baptism, but will respond, in one way or the other, as the years go by. The positive response God seeks is known as profession of faith. The baptized child has come over the course of years to know the promises of God and to accept that these promises are true in relation to oneself. Profession of faith is the answer of the sinner to the speaking of God in the sacrament of baptism.
Given what sacraments are, the speaker in Lord’s Supper is also primarily God. In this sacrament He comes to particular sinners with the command to “take, eat”, and gives this explanation: “This is My body, which is broken for you.” The instruction is plain; through the bread and drink the Lord God tells sinners of the promise of the gospel, presses that promise on those sinners with the assurance that God’s good news is true for them. God is the Speaker.
But in the sacrament of Lord’s Supper the response of those whom God addresses in the sacrament must come right away. Notice: in baptism the infant is passive, is carried to the baptismal font to receive God’s gracious promise. In Lord’s Supper the participant is not passive, is not carried to the table and is not force fed a piece of bread or sip of drink. Instead, the Lord’s command is to “take, eat”, and the participant obediently comes forward to do precisely that; he takes of the bread and eats it himself. This action of the participant is his immediate response to God’s promises as they are pressed on him (again) at the Table. It is the response of faith.
Now, shall children be permitted to the table of the Lord (for that’s what the term paedo-communion means) if they have not yet publicly responded to their baptism? We understand: if children have not yet replied to God’s promises given in their infancy in the first sacrament (and we recognize it takes some years to reply), it is simply out of place for them to come to the Lord’s Table – where by their participation they are replying instantly to God’s promises in this second sacrament. That is why reformed churches have historically insisted that young people make profession of faith before they attend the Table of the Lord. They cannot rightly respond to God’s promises captured in the second sacrament if they have not yet responded to God’s promises given in the first sacrament He extended to them.
If profession of faith is necessary before one may attend the table of the Lord, at what age ought one to make profession of faith? One can find in the course of church history instances where the average age for profession of faith was some 10 to 12 years, instances too where the average age was around 22 to 24 years, and instances anywhere in between. In our community today, young people tend to make profession of faith around ages 18 to 20. That’s perhaps understandable, given that our culture gives young people the right to drive, to vote, to drink, to marry, to join the army, etc, in this same age range; they’re now considered mature and independent.
Yet at the end of the day the decisive matter is not the age of the person when he attends the Supper of the Lord; the decisive matter is whether he can respond to this sacrament – and so whether he has responded obediently to the first sacrament. This is a matter for a local consistory to determine, with the assistance of the congregation – and if the youngster is ready to make profession of faith, the consistory needs to permit him to do so, even if the age is younger than we are accustomed to.
As we consider practices in sister churches across North America, then, the vital question is not whether youngsters (perhaps too young by our practice) attend the Lord’s Supper. The vital question is instead whether these youngsters have responded obediently to the wealth God gave them in their baptism. Their consistory (with the congregation) says the answer is Yes.... Are we in a position to argue?
March 13, 2009