Salem Reformed Church
Salem Reformed Church

Children and the Lord's Supper

Part 1

The children of believers by virtue of their membership in God's covenant, are to be given the sacrament of covenant reconciliation. Under the Old Covenant this sign was circumcision. All the members of the household of a believer were to be given the sign and seal of God's covenant. Thus, not only the children, but also the servants who were purchased by the believer were considered to be part of the household of faith and therefore to receive the sign of God's ownership. The same holds true under the New Covenant. All the members of a believer's household are members of the covenant by virtue of God's sovereign claim and as such, should be given the covenant sign of baptism to indicate this glorious reality.

 

But what are we to say about the second sacrament, the sacrament of communion, the Lord's supper? Both the Lord's supper and baptism signify and seal to us the benefits and blessings of God's covenant.

 

Presbyterians have historically insisted this in regard to baptism. The children of believing parents are given the sign and seal of God's covenant upon their birth and are joined to the living God in covenant union. This union is an objective reality. By virtue of God's covenant, they are joined to Him like branches to a vine. There is a real, vital union -- one which ought to produce fruit and one in which the members may be judged if they are barren. By virtue of God's gracious covenant, men not only have a covenantal union with Christ, but enjoy covenantal communion with Him.

 

It is because of this reality, that God's people are not only given the sign and seal of covenant union (circumcision/baptism) but are also given the sign and seal of covenant communion (Passover/Lord's Supper). If children are members of God's covenant, then should they not be given the signs and seals of that covenant? If being in covenant means being in covenant union with Christ, then is it not proper to give the sign and seal of that covenant union to all who are in covenant with Christ? This is why we give baptism to our children.

 

But, is it not also true that covenant union implies covenant communion? How can there be one without the other? Any branch in union with the vine enjoys communion with that vine. If there is no communion, there is no union. This is the principle followed in our church discipline. What is the last step in Church discipline? Excommunication -- the cutting off from the communion table of the Lord. Communion is the unmistakable mark of union. Where communion is cut off, there is no union with the body. If we are to give our children the sign of covenant union, then should not we also give the sign and seal of covenant communion? It seems to me increasingly clear that such is the Bible's teaching.

 

Now, here we run into a problem. The historic Reformation creeds and confessions acknowledge the legitimacy of covenant baptism but deny the legitimacy of covenant communion. Should we dare to differ with revered confessions?

 

I am well aware of the seriousness of disagreeing with any confession of faith that has received the approbation of the Christian Church. To disagree with a historic creed is no small thing. But the men who wrote the confessions and creeds also acknowledged the primacy of the Scriptures. The Westminster Confession of Faith (for example) begins with a chapter on the Scriptures. There the framers acknowledge that it is not the pronouncements of men or of Churches which are the rule of faith, but the word of God only. We dare not ignore the wisdom of the Church -- but neither may we ignore the scriptures, if we believe them to contradict our confessions of faith.

 

The reader should understand at the outset that the position I advocate was the nearly unanimous position of the Church for the first twelve centuries. This view has been held throughout history by one branch of God's Church or another and is still the view of the Eastern branch of the Church today. It was acknowledged as the orthodox position by the council of Macon in 585, at the council of Toledo in 675, and by the Gelasian Sacramentary of 425. You must realize that this position is not novel or unusual in the history of the church though it has not always been held by the majority of the Church (at least since the twelfth century to the present).

 

History however, is not our rule of faith and practice. The issue always is, "What saith Scripture?" I answer by giving two basic lines of argument: 1. Children were admitted to the sacramental meals of the Old Covenant (including Passover). and 2. Children are no where excluded from participating in the sacramental meal of the New Covenant (the Lord's Supper). Let's begin a consideration of the first in this chapter:

 

Children were Admitted to the Sacramental Meals of the Old Covenant on the Basis of Their Membership in the Covenant Congregation.

There were numerous covenant feasts under the Old Covenant. Preeminent among them however was the Passover which was the meal that signified the deliverance from the slavery of sin that would be accomplished by God's Son (the Lamb) and the judgment which would fall on all the impenitent and unbelieving. All who trusted in God for salvation would be delivered and made victorious over the consequences of sin and disobedience.

 

Without the atoning sacrifice for their sins (the shedding of the blood of the Lamb) they would suffer the condemnation that was about to fall on God's enemies. One can easily see the analogy between the Passover and the Lord's Supper:

  • The Passover pointed to the fact that God would provide a substitute (the Passover lamb) to suffer and die for His people to deliver them from the curse of their sins.
  • The Lord's Supper points to the Lamb of God (Jesus, who is called by Paul "Christ, our Passover") who shed His blood for His people to deliver them from the curse due to them for their sins.

In both cases, the eating of the lamb and drinking the wine or the eating of the bread and drinking the wine signifies the trust in the Savior for life and salvation. If children are not to be allowed to the Lord's Supper, we should expect them to be excluded from the Passover. The question thus becomes, who was allowed to eat the Passover? If we see how the sacrament was administered under the Old Covenant, we may see how it ought to be administered under the New Covenant.

 

The teaching of the Scriptures is that the children of believers were admitted to the first Passover (if they were physically capable of eating solid food) by virtue of their covenant membership.

 

1. The lamb chosen was to be eaten by everyone in the house or family ( Exodus 12:3-4). All who were physically capable of eating were commanded to eat the Passover. Verse 4 is even more emphatic when translated literally, "every one according to the mouth of his eating." The lamb was to be enough for every mouth present to eat. You were to have enough for everyone present (everyone who had a mouth with which to eat) to have a portion. Someone may object, "But the command only has reference to the adult males of the household!"

 

This phrase is used only in one other chapter in Scripture () which concerns the gathering of manna by the children of Israel in the wilderness. Exodus 16:16 reads, "This is the thing which the Lord has commanded: "Let every man gather it according to each one's need." Here the phrase clearly refers to every member of the covenant congregation. Obviously, here children were included since there was nothing else to eat but manna. If only the adult males ate the manna, all would have perished of starvation.

 

Christian Keidel (in his article, "Is the Lord's Supper for Children?" The Westminster Theological Journal, vol. XXXVII, Spring, 1975, Number 3) asks a most important question at this point, "Why should not the same phrase, by the same writer, referring to the same action not mean the same the same thing?" The only prerequisites for participation are membership in the covenant and the ability to eat.

 

2. Note also : The whole congregation was commanded to eat the Passover. Now that naturally leads us to ask, "Who was considered to be part of the congregation of Israel?" Again, the scriptures are clear ( Deuteronomy 29:10-12). The congregation consisted not only of men and women who had "come to years of discernment" but of "infants and children" (see also Joel 2:16). Thus, when God commands the congregation to eat the Passover, He is commanding all the children of the congregation if they are physically capable of eating to eat.

 

3. Some would object by pointing to Exodus 12:26-27. The youngest child present was to ask the question of the father, "What do you mean by this service?" Those who object to this teaching say that this implies some ability to understand the significance of the ceremony, an ability to discern the Lord's body in all this, if you will. Until the child could "discern" the significance of the Passover, he was not allowed to eat or so they contend.

 

The question must be asked in response: "Was this a requirement for participation, some sort of rite of admission, or was God simply commanding His people to take advantage of the Passover as an opportunity to give faithful instruction to their children?" It seems plain that the latter was the case. Notice:

 

Nothing indicates that children were not allowed to participate until they could ask this question or understand the answer. In fact the Talmud instructed the son (or the youngest child) to make the inquiry; and if the child was too young or incapable, the father was to do it for him. [Edersheim, The Temple, p. 240].

 

What we have here is analogous to God's directives in Deuteronomy 6:20-25. Are we to think that the statutes and judgments of the Lord were not enforced until the children could understand the reason for them? Can the language here possibly imply that the law did not apply to children until they were of "years of discernment"? Were they not allowed to participate in the times of instruction until they were old enough to ask this question? Of course they were! Deuteronomy 6:6-7 implies that these things were taught and enforced from earliest infancy. Children enjoyed the covenant privilege of instruction in God's law long before they understood the full significance of it. These privileges were not withheld from them but given them freely by virtue of God's covenant relationship with them and the covenant obligation God enjoined upon the parents.

 

The understanding and discernment of the child was not an excuse for withholding this covenant privilege. Thus, when they got older, they would be asking about the things they had participated in all their lives.

We do the same thing today don't we? Christian parents teach their children to pray, to obey, and to worship and love the Lord long before they have any indication that their children know or understand the full significance of these things. On what do we base our actions?

 

Do you not know that the prayers of the wicked are an abomination? Do you not realize that unbelievers cannot obey God acceptably? Are you not aware that the worship of the ungodly is an offense to God? You are? How then can you teach your children to do these things before you see in them evidences of true repentance and faith?

 

You do it because you know that the basis for teaching, training, and the admission to these covenant privileges is not this child's intellectual development, or his ability to discern the full implications of all that you do, but the fact of God's covenant promise. We know that our children have an obligation by virtue of their covenant union with God to repent of their sins and believe in His Son, to love, worship, and obey. We know that we have a covenant obligation to them to teach them and train them up in His ways and that they will best learn these things by practicing them and participating in them.

 

It was no different in regard to the Passover. The privilege of eating the covenant meal was the children's by virtue of God's sovereign promise and claim and not their ability to understand. As they grew, they would grow in their understanding of the significance of the ceremony.

 

Thus the question which God commands to be asked, was an opportunity to explain the glorious significance of the ceremony, not a ritual of admission to the ceremony. That this is the case is illustrated further by the fact that even pagan slaves who had been purchased by God's people were to be circumcised and admitted to covenant privileges by virtue of being members of the covenant household ( Exodus 12:43-45). Note that this was done at God's command without the consent of the slave ( Genesis 17:13). Conceivably some of these would not even have known the language much less understood the covenant promises (see James B. Jordan, "Theses on Paedocommunion," The Geneva Papers, special edition, 1982). The basis for their admission was not their knowledge and discernment, but their membership in the covenant signified by their circumcision ( Exodus 12:48).

 

The ignorant slave who had been purchased in his ignorance and brought into covenant with God was admitted to the covenant privileges. In this sense the child is like the slave as Paul notes in Galatians 4:1: "Now I say {that} the heir, as long as he is a child, does not differ at all from a slave, though he is master of all." Ignorance was no ground for exclusion though rebellion and disobedience were, for these would constitute covenant-breaking. Thus, the man who neglected the Passover was excommunicated from the covenant congregation ( Numbers 9:13: "But the man who {is} clean and is not on a journey, and ceases to keep the Passover, that same person shall be cut off from among his people, because he did not bring the offering of the Lord at its appointed time; that man shall bear his sin."). The one who forsook the Passover, was turning his back on the covenant itself.

 

To say that children ought to be admitted to the covenant meal by virtue of their membership in the covenant rather than their knowledge, is not to say that we should be unconcerned about their knowledge and understanding of God's dealings and His covenant mercy. In fact, the understanding of the children is encouraged and nourished by their participation. The significance of the sacrament is much more easily grasped that it would be otherwise.

 

Their inclusion in the covenant meal indicates the realities of God's mercy toward them. They are claimed by God apart from who they are and what they have done. They have been nourished by the Lord long before they knew Him. He was their life even in their ignorance. This is a wonderful picture of God's grace in the covenant.

 

The fact that children were included in the congregation and enjoyed the privileges and blessings of the congregation because of God's covenant has tremendous significance according to Paul ( I Corinthians 10:1-5). The people were in covenant with God, united together in Moses, under the glory cloud, ate the holy meals and drank the holy drink. When they ate the manna and drank from the rock, they were communing with Christ. They all ate and drank of Christ, even though most of them later proved to be unbelieving covenant breakers (v. 5).

 

The fact that our children may later prove to be covenant breakers does not annul the reality of their covenant membership now. They are in covenant with God by virtue of His sovereign claim. We have no grounds to withhold the sacrament which signifies covenant communion until they "prove" they are worthy. They have nothing to prove! They are in covenant with God and shall remain in covenant with Him until they renounce Him. This reality is indicated in Genesis 17:14: "And the uncircumcised male child, who is not circumcised in the flesh of his foreskin, that person shall be cut off from his people; he has broken My covenant." The child who is not circumcised is cut off from the congregation because "he broke the covenant" -- clearly implying the covenant relationship prior to circumcision.

 

To withhold either of the sacraments from our children is in effect, to annul the reality of the covenant itself. How can we give our children the sign of union and withhold the sign that confirms and demonstrates the reality of that union? How can we call them members of the body and withhold the covenant meal God gives to the body? As members of the Church, our children are nourished by Christ ( Ephesians 5:29). As members of the covenant they are blessed by Him ( Mark 10:16). They are branches in the vine! Does the Church have the right to withhold the sign and seal of such covenant nurture and blessing?


Go to Part 2 of this article.

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