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June 11th, 2008 at 6:24 pm

Children and Communion

My wife Susan became a Christian when she was six years old. She remembers the time and place very vividly. She was at Pioneer Camp in Ontario, Canada, talking to her camp counselor about God and sin and salvation and heaven and hell. Susan quickly realized she wanted nothing to do with hell. Understanding what Jesus had done for her, she decided to commit her life to Him. From that moment forward she has professed faith in and followed Christ.

Given her experience, Susan is naturally a big believer in child evangelism. Children often are particularly receptive to spiritual things, and there is much value in finding ways to teach them about Christ early on.

This belief is consistent with the approach and understanding that many of us have who affirm covenant theology. We believe that God is disposed to work in the hearts of covenant children such that, as they are taught the gospel and the truths of God from the earliest age, they can and will, due to His regenerative power, truly and really believe. And, since they will not have grown up amidst pagan mindsets and beliefs, of necessity they may well not have what we might call a conscious “conversion experience.” Many Christians look back and cannot remember a time when they were not professing and practicing Christians. Oh that it would be that way for all!

This past Sunday we had communion at Covenant Fellowship. I had the privilege of offering a short meditation on the fact that what united us gathered in the room was not ethnicity, not age, not social class, not country of origin, not political party, not gender, and not denominational affiliation, but our common faith and trust in the Lord Jesus Christ. And furthermore, what more truly symbolized the truth of the gospel of Jesus Christ than the bread and the drink before us? There we see clearly signified the broken body and shed blood, that is, the death of the Lord Jesus, a death we have warrant to believe was and is “for us” and “for our sins.”

The Lord’s table, I explained, was the great equalizer. Before it we were laid flat, all just sinners needing a Savior, needing the Lord Jesus, needing to trust in and follow him. And so I invited all who trusted in the Lord Jesus as Lord and Savior to come and participate in the Lord’s Supper together.

Now let’s imagine that six-year-old Susan had been there, and imagine that she had heard that message and that invitation. Should she come forward and partake? Should she not? By what warrant can she be refused? By what warrant can she be received?

When it comes to believing children and communion there are within our Standards certain tensions that are hard to resolve. Many Presbyterian bodies who do not accept a consistent paedo-communion position still are trying to clarify or resolve the tensions that remain, and in many cases are even looking into rewriting their own standards.

Here is the problem. On the one hand, communion isn’t just an act of obedience, something we do; it is a means of grace, something God does, or something through which God does something. We believe that God works in and through communion to build both faith and repentance. But isn’t faith and repentance the very thing that is required as a condition for taking communion? Exactly. God uses communion to bring about in the heart the very conditions required for receiving communion. (I think that’s cool!) As we partake of communion, the faith and repentance that the Holy Spirit worked within us when we first came to Christ are more and more increased.

No matter how hard we try we cannot fully explain this reality, that is, how exactly it is that God is present and at work during the communion meal. But we believe that He is. We believe therefore that communion is a “means of grace,” a means God uses to extend or grow His grace in us.

Thus, communion is something that we need, something that helps us and builds us up in our faith. Coming to Jesus includes coming to Jesus in the communion elements which represent him and his work. In a way that is mysterious, and which we can not fully understand or explain, communion is a “means of grace.”

Our own Book of Worship tells us that communion is to be extended to everyone who believes, to “all who confess their faith in Jesus Christ as Lord and Savior.” Just as it is my obligation as a Christian minister to call all men, women, and children to repent and believe in the Lord Jesus, it is also my duty and obligation as a Christian minister to invite and encourage all who do repent and believe in Jesus to partake of communion.

This duty is pressed upon me by the Scriptures, and by our own Book of Worship. It is my earnest personal belief that I should do just this.

This invitation goes out to all who believe in the Lord Jesus, including children.

If a child believes in Jesus, he or she will hear my invitation to all who believe in Jesus to come to the communion table, and he or she will want to partake. It is my deepest desire as a Christian pastor, as a parent, and as one who has vowed to help in the raising of all covenant children, to see children believe in Jesus, and to see them respond in that belief by wanting to partake of the Lord’s Supper. Not only is this the right desire for the believing child to have, but participation in communion actually helps them grow in this desire, and grow in their faith and repentance.

At the same time, we have a distinction within our Form of Government between “communicant” and “non-communicant” members. The former are those who have joined the church in their own right, through profession of faith, and through assent to the membership questions. This “status” of communicant membership gives them full voting privileges, and also grants them access to the communion table.

To many Presbyterians, granting full voting privileges to a young believing child is unwise. After all, the child cannot vote for president; he or she cannot sign his or her own name on a legal contract and cannot give consent to his or her own medical care. Yet we would have them be able to elect and choose officers in the church, or approve a church budget, before we allow them to participate in communion. This means that we are saying, in effect, that unless a child can read an Excel spreadsheet, make wise financial decisions, know and understand the Scriptures and other people well enough to make informed decisions about potential elders, deacons, and pastors, that they cannot also have credible professions of faith and participate in communion. To many, and to me, this is an untenable approach.

So you can see that one is left with difficulty either way one turns, either denying access to the sacraments to one whom you have just invited to partake of it (that is, a child who believes in Jesus as Lord and Savior), or naming such a child a full “communicant member,” even though the child may be clearly too young for everything that involves.

Many if not most other evangelical Presbyterian bodies, in order to get around the dilemma, and choosing what seems to be the lesser of two evils (I agree), are granting full membership to children at younger and younger ages, such that five or six or seven year old children are becoming full “communicant” members entitled to vote in all congregational meetings. I think that’s just silly, but perhaps a necessary silliness.

As a wiser way out of the dilemma, some Presbyterian bodies have created a third status of membership, a communicant but non-voting membership. To me this approach makes eminently good sense. It relieves us of the greater sin of denying the sacraments to a believing child, and of the lesser sin of doing something silly and unwise.

Our Confession of Faith (I.VII) teaches, “All things in Scripture are not alike plain in themselves, nor alike clear unto all; yet those things which are necessary to be known, believed, and observed (like making diligent use of the means of grace?) for salvation, are so clearly propounded and opened in some place of Scripture or other, that not only the learned, but the unlearned, in a due use of the ordinary means, may attain unto a sufficient understanding of them.” It seems reasonable to suppose that knowing how to apply I Tim. 3:1-13 in a congregational election might be a bit more difficult than understanding and believing John 3:16.

I look forward to the day when I can invite all who believe, including children, to come and partake of the Lord’s Supper, without these dilemmas of conscience nipping at my heels.

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