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