On Deciding Whether A Child is Ready to Receive the Lord’s Supper

One of the responsibilities of sessions is determining whether a non-communing child is now ready to receive the Lord’s Supper. Over the years, it has become the custom in many Reformed churches, even Old School Presbyterian (OSP) ones, to assume that member children will be ready to come to the table at around the age of 13, and often it is the case that when they reach that age, they will simply be run through a communicants class and admitted to the table. In those circumstances, the process often becomes more of an age related right-of-passage – a Christian Bar Mitzvah if you will – than a serious inquiry into the actual spiritual condition of the child. And while it is sometimes the case that 13 will indeed be the age when a child comes to the table, the truth is that there is no magical age at which they are suddenly “ready.” Rather, children should be admitted to the table based on their own spiritual development and maturity. Our session, for instance, has interviewed and admitted six year olds whom we judged to be ready, and turned away older children whom we did not feel were ready to come.

Sadly, some children who never own the Covenant for themselves and thus make good their Baptism, will never be qualified for communion due to their lack of saving faith in the Lord Jesus Christ. Others may be considerably delayed, and some will never be able to come to the table because they are not able to meet requirements such as the ability to examine themselves, confess their faith, or discern the Lord’s body (1 Cor. 11:28-29) due to some serious mental impediment.

Elders should make it clear to parents, that while it is very important for their children to close with Christ by faith and come to His table, they should not fret that their children are somehow being “starved of grace” because they are not yet partaking of the Lord’s Supper or that not being admitted to the table was somehow a censure expressing the belief of the elders that their children were definitely not believers. Rather, they should be reminded that the Lord provides abundant grace to our children through His other means: prayer, the preaching and reading of the Word, and baptism. A Christian marooned on a desert island would not be “starved of grace” because he no longer had access to the sacraments. Even if that Christian did not have a bible with him, he still would have access to God and His strengthening grace via prayer.

Instead, elders should remind parents of their duty to see that their children are growing in grace and the knowledge of the Lord, and being prepared for the Lord’s table by regularly praying with them, teaching them the doctrines of the faith, and including them in daily sessions of family worship. Parents should also recognize that there are certain requirements for coming the table other than faith in Christ. It is possible for a child to be a regenerate believer, but not yet cognitively equipped or self-aware enough to come to the table.

We remember that the table is designed to be the covenant meal of the professing members of the church. It is not like Baptism, which, like the Old Testament sacrament of circumcision, is to be applied to the infant children of all believers. There are certain requirements for coming to the table:

  1. The party coming to the table must be a Baptized member of the visible church in good standing. This is the communion meal of the members of the Church (1 Cor. 11:18ff), and we do not admit people into the church without baptizing them. Neither do we admit those who have been suspended from the sacraments or excommunicated to the table.

  2. The person must be truly trusting in Jesus Christ alone for their salvation. What this means in the case of a child, will be discussed later. They must also be able to profess their faith (1 Cor. 11:26).

  3. The person must be capable of self-control in coming to the table (1 Cor. 11:21-22).

  4. The person must be able to “discern the Lord’s body” in the elements (1 Cor. 11:29). The elements should be more than an ordinary snack of bread and wine, rather the person should be capable of understanding that they represent the body and blood of the Lord and that they who partake of the Lord’s Supper in faith spiritually feed on Christ.

  5. The person must be capable of self-examination (1 Cor. 11:28). They must be able to analyze themselves and determine that they are true believers in Christ and thus worthy partakers.

Obviously, a child will not understand these concepts to the same degree as an adult, and even adults grow in their understanding as they progress in the faith. For instance, the faith of child need not be as doctrinally developed or sophisticated as the faith of an adult in order to be sincere. Neither will a child usually be able to articulate their faith in anything but a simple manner. But just because their faith is simple does not mean that it is not sincere. What qualities then should a session be looking for in the faith of a child?

As a bare minimum the following qualities will need to be present in the faith of any child for it to be true:

  • A Belief in the Triune God of the Bible (God the Father, Jesus the Son, and the Holy Spirit)

  • A Belief in Heaven and Hell

  • Loving the Lord Jesus and Trusting in Him Alone for Salvation

  • Believing that Jesus was crucified for their Sins and that God raised Him from the Dead

Once a session is satisfied that a non-communing child sincerely believes, can articulate their faith, has a basic understanding of the Lord’s Supper, and is capable of the self-control and basic self-examination called for, then regardless of their age, they should admitted to the table.

While coming to the table is something that every believing child should eventually do as soon as they are ready, parents should not be encouraged to bring them to the table before they are ready, and no session should ever admit a child to the Lord’s Supper for any reason other than the sincere belief that they are qualified. The Lord’s Supper is always either a blessing or a curse to those who partake of it. We should not give the supper to a child before they are qualified lest it be a curse to them. We should heed the warning of Calvin when he writes:

“If they cannot partake worthily without being able duly to discern the sanctity of the Lord’s body, why should we stretch out poison to our young children instead of vivifying food?”1

Brothers, please be aware that you will often find yourself under immense pressure to admit a child you do not believe is qualified. Often parents will be strongly offended that their child has been turned away, and humiliated that the children of other members of the church were admitted. Often it is the officers of the church themselves who will be guilty of desiring to see their children brought to the table without being qualified, an argument could be made that they are under more pressure than ordinary members to having communing children. Do all that you can to avoid allowing these pressures to color your decision. If you do not believe that a child is qualified, be willing to say “no” even if the likely result is the family leaving the church in a huff. Remember that at the Final Judgment, which James tells us will be stricter for you than others (James 3:1) you will never be rebuked by your Master for having failed to please men or for not bowing to pressure and going against your conscience.

If you truly love Christ and His little lambs, you will put the spiritual nurture and wellbeing of the flock first and even when it brings the reproach of men.

 


1John Calvin, Institutes of the Christian Religion, BOOK IV CHAPTER 16 SECTION 30

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About Andrew Webb

Andrew James Webb, Pastor Providence PCA, Fayetteville NC. Born: July 29, 1969 Rochford, Essex England Education: MA Modern History, St. Andrews University, Fife, Scotland, 1991 M.Div., Westminster Theological Seminary, Glenside, PA, 2001 Personal Details: Husband of Joy Webb, Father of Margaret (6), Victor (5), Graham (3) and Isabel (10 Mos.) Secular Work History: Upon graduation from University, I returned to the United States and worked for two Madison Ave Advertising Firms in copy writing and advertising space sales. After moving to Northern Virginia, I went into computing. I worked as a Systems Administrator in Washington D.C. for both the Bureau of National Affairs (BNA) (a legal publishing firm,) and the International Republican Institute. Experience: Licensed by Potomac Presbytery, May 1997 and Philadelphia Presbytery in 1999. From 1998 to 2001 I did a three year apprentice/internship under Dr. Mark Herzer while working with the Christ Covenant church plant in Hatboro, PA. Ordained as an RE at Christ Covenant PCA in 2000 and as a TE by Central Carolina in 2001 when I was called to be the Organizing Pastor for Providence PCA Mission, Cross Creek PCA's church plant in Fayetteville, NC (home to Ft. Bragg and Pope Airforce Base). In 2005 when the Providence PCA Particularized I was blessed to be called by the congregation to be their Pastor. Presbytery Committees: Assistance and Membership (Philadelphia), Candidates (Central Carolina), Nominations (Central Carolina) GA Committees: Bills and Overtures, Covenant Theological Seminary Other: I have had a number of my essays on theological topics published including What is the Reformed Doctrine of Divorce? and Five Reasons Not To Go See The Passion of the Christ Why I Don't Have an English Accent: I don't have an English accent because my parents moved to New Jersey when I was six!
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8 Responses to On Deciding Whether A Child is Ready to Receive the Lord’s Supper

  1. Tim Bailey says:

    Thanks for this article which is timely for me as my daughter recently asked to meet with the elders to seek admission to the table.

  2. Interesting. Thanks for the post.

  3. Jim Vellenga says:

    Thank-you for this article. I have one question, how would you deal with believers who are mentally challenged (ie downs syndrome or other things such as that)?

  4. Andrew Webb says:

    Hi Jim,

    Just a quick response. It seems to me that there is no blanket approach to these cases, but rather if the session believes that the mentally handicapped individual is regenerate and can understand the supper, no matter how simple that understanding, then that individual should be admitted to the table. Please believe me that this is not merely a hypothetical subject, we have special needs kids in our congregation, and in one case at least it is probably doubtful that the individual will ever be able to come to the table. But as I stated, parents need to understand that their children’s salvation does not hinge on their being admitted to the Lord’s Supper.

    We confess as Presbyterians in chapter 10 of the WCF that God can and does regenerate “elect persons who are incapable of being outwardly called by the ministry of the Word.” and this includes severely handicapped individuals who may never be able to cognitively process the gospel.

    At the same time, it would be wrong to simply admit all the mentally handicapped to the table by default for all the same reasons that we would not simply admit all the children of the church to the table.

  5. john k says:

    Did the PCUS substantially alter the Directory for Worship from the PCUSA version? From 1788 to 1907 the PCUSA Directory said that qualified children should be informed of their duty (as well as their privilege) to come to the Lord’s Supper. According to that directory, baptized children are to be taught “to read and repeat the catechism, the Apostles’ creed, and the Lord’s Prayer [and] “to pray, to abhor sin, to fear God, and to obey the Lord Jesus Christ.” Then, “when they come to years of discretion, if they be free from scandal, appear sober and steady, and to have sufficient knowledge to discern the Lord’s body, they ought to be informed it is their duty and their privilege to come to the Lord’s Supper.” There is also to be examination “as to their knowledge and piety.” (Of the Admission of Persons to Sealing Ordinances)

    There is an expectation here that the normal training in the faith will qualify children to partake of the Supper as believers, and also a recognition that some will be qualified who are not seeking entrance, and need to be encouraged to do so.

  6. Thanks to Andy for letting me join this thread. I’m the director of the PCA Historical Center and have been working on the history of the BCO.

    It was 1894 before the PCUS approved their own edition of the Directory for Worship. They did make changes to the PCUSA text, in the last sentence of that first paragraph in the chapter on admission to sealing ordinances. If you click the web link under my name you can see those changes laid out by the various editions. I won’t eat up the limited space of a com box detailing those changes, but you can see them easily when the texts are compared.

    The PCA text adopted in 1973 was that of PCUS 1933. Then in 1981, chapters 56, 57, and 58 were amended, such that we have the current text as it now reads. Even the current text though still retains strong echoes of the 1789 PCUSA text.

    Again, those antecedent texts are at http://www.pcahistory.org/bco/dfw/57/01.html

    I hope that provides answers to your question, John, but if not, please do say so.

    Lastly, as the parent of a profoundly handicapped child, I would underscore Andy’s response to Jim. It really is a case-by-case basis. My own son will never (in this life) understand his need of our Savior, but it is enough that he was baptized and is a non-communicant member of the covenant community. I take great comfort in WCF 10.3 at this point–the Holy Spirit sovereignly works as He will.

  7. Andrew Webb says:

    Hi Wayne,

    Thanks for the references, interesting stuff. I do prefer the more specific instructions of the PCUS edition (1894 on) including the positive statement of the question, i.e. the session admits them because the appear to be Christians, not the session admits them because they don’t appear to be scandalous or unbelieving.

    Morton Smith, in his commentary on BCO 57-1 notes: “The opening sentences of this paragraph speak of the fact that baptized children of the covenant are non-communing members of the church visible. They are to be taught the faith. We are not to presume on the salvation of such, but are to press the covenant child for his own commitment to the Lord Jesus. There is a double claim on the covenant child to accept Christ.”

    Which reminds me of what Guthrie wrote 300 years earlier in his Christians Great Interest

    it will not suffice for a man’s safety and relief, that he is in covenant with God as a born member of the visible church, by virtue of the parent’s subjection to God’s ordinances: neither will it suffice that the person had the initiating seal of baptism added, and that he then virtually engaged to seek salvation by Christ’s blood, as all infants do: neither does it suffice that men are come of believing parents; their faith will not instate their children into a right to the spiritual blessings of the covenant; neither will it suffice that parents did, in some respects, engage for their children, and give them away unto God: all these things do not avail. The children of the kingdom and of godly predecessors are cast out. Unless a man in his own person have faith in Christ Jesus, and with his own heart approve and acquiesce in that device of saving sinners, he cannot be saved. I grant, this faith is given unto him by Christ; but certain it is, that it must be personal.

    As BM Palmer noted regarding Covenant Children or “minors in the ecclesiastical commonwealth” (as several of the Southern Presbyterian Theologians termed them):

    “In the church, this ecclesiastical minority terminates only when the man is born again of the Spirit of God, it being known that a new and divine life is indispensable to fulfill the obligations of a Christian.”

    I would simply comment that we must not admit anyone to the table, until we are reasonable certain that they are regenerate and thus able to partake of it worthily. This is not only to protect the purity of the table, it is for that person’s own safety (1 Cor. 11:27-30)

  8. Pingback: Arguments Against Paedocommunion

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