Children at the Lord's Table

I know of quite a few Reformed people who advocate paedocommunion (infant communion) as they believe this is part of God's covenant promise with His children. They use many different examples but one of the major ones that is taken is an analogy drawn from our Reformed belief in paedobaptism. It is also argued that paedocommunion is possible, despite Paul's admonishment to examine oneself, because Paul was primarily concerned with addressing adults in that passage. Is this correct? Is paedocommunion, like paedobaptism, a practice that Reformed people should observe? If so, why? If no, then why not?
Actually, I agree with the minority position favoring paedocommunion (though this is not Third Millennium Ministries' official position), not so much as an argument from paedobaptism, but rather as another conclusion from the same arguments that produce the paedobaptism stance. Covenant (Reformed) theology holds that the children of believers are in covenant with God, and therefore that they are offered the same promises and blessings as their parents. Reformed theology also holds that the "means of grace" (i.e. the Word, sacraments and prayer) are covenant blessings, and are not entirely restricted to believers (e.g. we baptize infants, and we preach the Word to all sorts of unbelievers). Thus, we have no preliminary bias against offering the sacrament of the Lord's Supper to unbelieving children. It is typically withheld from children because they are not able to "discern the body" or to "examine" themselves, as Paul instructs in 1 Corinthians 11:28-29.

With this initial bias in favor of paedocommunion, I note that children participated in the Old Testament covenant meals (Passover), and that the communion meal in 1 Corinthians 11 appears not to have been a simple ceremony, but the actual means of sustenance for the poor. It would not make sense to make poor children go hungry simply because the church was celebrating communion.

Regarding 1 Corinthians 11 more specifically, the nature of the examination was that the Corinthians (who were the only ones in Scripture to have received this command -- it was not part of the sacrament as instituted by Jesus) were to examine themselves to make sure they weren't sinning against their brethren (shaming the poor, etc.). Their self-examination was to be specifically others-oriented, not self-oriented (as is the normal practice). Moreover, the symbolism of communion, as stated in 1 Corinthians 10:17, relates not just to Jesus, but to the church (the many who are one body as represented by the one loaf). The supper is to point us not only to Christ, but also to our union with each other in Christ. It was the neglect of this second aspect that brought Paul's rebuke and disqualified the Corinthian celebration from being the Lord's Supper.

The corrective to discern the body did not refer to Christ's presence in the elements because:
  • The problem was not that they were failing to recognize Christ's presence, it was that they were mistreating fellow Christians. Discerning was meant to correct this problem.
  • The correctives included not only discerning, but also eating at home and waiting for one another. Neither of these last two can be intelligibly applied to a failure to discern Christ's presence in the elements.
  • God does not tend to strike people dead for misunderstanding the nature of Christ's presence in the elements (plenty of people with divergent views of the Supper live to practice it everyday: Roman Catholic, Lutheran, Baptist, Presbyterian, Eastern Orthodox, etc.). However, God does sometimes strike people dead when they abuse his people (Pharaoh's army, etc.). Some in Corinth had died for failing to celebrate the Supper properly. (In this regard, note that the abusers were Christians, so that the abuse falls outside the bounds of suffering for the gospel.)
Also, since the corrective was given only to the Corinthians, and only in response to particular abuses in that church, it would seem that the requirement of self-examination is not a universal prerequisite, but rather a corrective addressed only to those who are violating basic Christian principles as they partake. Notice also that nowhere does Paul say that anyone should not partake. Rather, he tells them what to do in order to partake properly, and then instructs them to partake (1 Cor. 11:28). As long as children (or adults for that matter) are not violating basic Christian principles in this manner, there is no need for them to examine themselves.

Since covenant theology implies paedobaptism, since Jesus did not institute the sacrament with any language that required self-examination, since the normal Jewish expectation would have been to include the children in the meal, and since the New Testament does not speak against the practice or require self-examination as a prerequisite for all who partake, I personally conclude that paedocommunion should be practiced.

The Reformed tradition at large has not embraced this view yet, but then this controversy was not a big issue at the time of the Reformation, and has not been since then. The Reformers didn't finish the Reformation, they only started it. Further, their stances on the Supper were widely varied, so there is no unified tradition from the Reformation on the subject. All the Reformers were quite radical in denying transubstantiation, but all started with the same assumptions as Aquinas (Christ's literal bodily presence in the Supper), and simply modified those assumptions. By that technique, it would have been very difficult for them to have supported paedocommunion. It is much easier to come to a paedocommunion position by starting farther back in church history, pealing back the centuries of error to the point when speculation regarding the nature of the Supper began.

Answer by Ra McLaughlin

Ra McLaughlin is Vice President of Finance and Administration at Third Millennium Ministries.