Rite Reasons, Studies in Worship, No. 21
Copyright (c) 1992 by Biblical Horizons
Several years ago I wrote an essay, “Theses on Paedocommunion,” in which I argued that allowing all baptized and non-excommunicated persons to the table of the Lord was Biblical and desirable. (A copy of this essay is available for a donation from Biblical Horizons .) During the past several years I have been among a community of Christians that practices paedocommunion and weekly communion. I have also been in contact with a variety of people around the country who desire paedocommunion but cannot have it. Additionally, I have received responses to my original theses.
Thus, I write as someone who believes in paedocommunion, and who has had an opportunity to observe it in practice for several years. Out of this experience I have several observations to make, that I believe can be of use to churches considering paedocommunion.
First, it seems to me that part of the paedocommunion argument is that the Lord’s Supper is just that, a supper, a meal. It signifies all of the gospel, and reveals Christ, so it is as profound as infinity, but it is also extremely simple. It shows that all life comes from God, and is a gift of God apart from our works.
Thus, the trappings of the Supper should only be those of an enhanced meal. Do we put a tablecloth on our table at home when we have a formal meal? Then put a tablecloth on the table in church. Do we put flowers on our table? Then put flowers on the church’s table. Do we put candles on our table? Then put candles on the church’s table. Do we read the Bible at our table? Then read the Bible from the church’s table. Do we put a covering on the food on our table to keep it warm and keep the flies off? Then put a covering on the food on the church’s table until time to serve it. Do we put our table against the wall and bow down at it? No? Then don’t do that in church either. Do we make the sign of the cross over our food at home? No? Then don’t do that in church either. Do we eat our food at home kneeling? No? Then don’t do that in church either.
The Lord’s Supper is an enhanced meal, but still a meal. It is as profound as the gospel, but as simple as “dinner with Jesus.” If our children eat at our table at home, they belong at Christ’s New Table also. Admission is by baptism.
I believe that any departure from the above considerations leads toward sacramentalism and superstition. On the one hand, medieval-type churches tend to destroy the Supper by surrounding it with artificial rituals that have nothing to do with a meal. It becomes something weird and special. In such churches, the bread and wine are held up to be gazed at, for instance. Do we hold up our food at home and gaze at it? Along these lines it is interesting to note that in the Eastern churches the meal is prepared behind closed doors (the iconostasis) so that nothing is seen. This is because the food is to be eaten, not gazed at. Also, the Eastern churches insisted on using common daily bread, since Christ became a true man, and refused to use artificial wafers. I am not trying to defend all aspects of the Eastern rite here, but I do think they have preserved the simplicity of the meal at these points.
On the other hand, the Reformation churches have tended to negate the meal-character of the Supper. When we use flowers and candles at home, but reject them in church, we are making the Supper into something strange. When we use infinitesimally small bits of rock-hard crackers, we make the Supper into something weird. When we refuse to eat the meal except four times a year, we make it into something arcane. After all, the Lord’s Supper clearly belongs with the Lord’s Day. Shall we visit Christ, and not stay for dinner when He invites us to? Thus, reacting against the mystical nonsense of the medieval tradition, Reformed churches have often gone to the opposite extreme, and have also undermined the simplicity of the meal.
Now, I believe that if we refuse to let our baptized covenant children come to the Lord’s Table, we are subtly but effectively communicating to them that they need to do some kind of works before they will be entitled to participate in this mysterious event. When we do this, the Supper is no longer a meal, but something else. It is a mystical ritual that just happens to be kind of like a meal, but it is not a meal. Also, we communicate the idea that participation in this mystical ritual is an attainment, not a gift. But away with such notions! If our children are entitled to sit at table at home, then they belong at the Table in church also.
At the same time, in the church I served in Tyler, Texas, for several years, we had people who would put crumbs of bread into the mouths of infants, and dip their fingers in the wine and let the infant suck it off. This also is an error, if an innocent one. It is completely unnatural. After all, is this how we feed infants at home? No? Then don’t do it in church either.
The same observations apply here. If we “force-feed” infants, we are saying that the Lord’s Supper is not really a meal but some kind of mystical rite that is kind of like a meal. We move subtly but surely in the direction of sacramentalism and mysticism. What we need, then is normal-meal paedocommunion. When the child begins to drink from the cup at home, he should be given a cup at church. When he begins to chew teething biscuits at home, he can be given bread at church. Not before. Not later on.
Some have called for “weaned child communion.” I am not sure what this means in every case. If it means what I said in the paragraph above, I agree with it. If it means that the child should not commune until he is fully weaned, then I must disagree. Children begin to eat and drink at the table at home before they are fully weaned from breast and bottle. They should begin to eat and drink in church when they begin to eat and drink at home.
Communion is simply dinner in heaven with Jesus. The glorification of this meal needs to be at every point a glorification of a normal meal, not a series of peculiar exceptions. The tablecloth may be more elaborate than a home tablecloth. The candles may be larger. The substance of the meal may be simpler (only bread and wine). But nothing adventitious to a meal should be introduced. No bowing down to the bread and wine. No holding them up to be gazed at. No forcing them on infants.
Should Fathers Serve Their Children?
Let me now turn to a second problem I have seen in the practice of paedocommunion. It is the belief that the elders should give the bread and wine to the heads of the households, and that fathers must serve their own families. Now, for the sake of good order, and to keep the grubby paws of children off the bread as it was passed, we in Tyler asked parents to serve their small children. There was no heavy theological reason for this. It was merely an aspect of “natural meal” communion. We serve small children at home, lest they slop the food on the table. So, let parents help their children in church.
After a while, however, some parents came to think that it was their “priestly privilege” to serve their own children. Some men decided it was their “priestly privilege” to serve their own wives. Such a belief is a distortion of the nature of worship and communion. This belief arose in the Tyler church because of the influence of the ideas of R. J. Rushdoony and of “California Reconstructionism.” Rushdoony’s thought is highly familistic, and at some points quite anti-ecclesiastical. In the early years of the Tyler church, we had people who were influenced by these ideas, and who viewed the family as virtually autonomous.
Reconstructionism aside, however, I believe that familism is a pervasive error in American Christianity. By and large, people who are anti-statist tend to be familists. It is understandable that this ethos should infect the churches. Many people who want their children at the Lord’s Table have arrived at this conclusion out of notions of family solidarity and not out of theological and ecclesiological considerations. The influence of Mary Pride and of the home school movement also tends in this direction.
In heaven, however, the family is not the nuclear, biological family. Jesus said that the natural family, not the state, would be the greatest enemy of His kingdom (Matt. 10:16-23, 34-37; Luke 14:26). The new family is the church. The parents are not the biological parents, but the elders of the church, who act for Christ. The natural, biological family is dead in Adam, and its children are born dead. We do not baptize children because they are born into the Church of Christian parents. Rather, we baptize them because they are born dead in trespasses and sins, and their only hope is to be transferred and adopted into the new heavenly family. After baptism, biological parents are mere stewards of Christ. They have no ownership rights. In the presbyterian ritual, all the members of the congregation take vows and become God-parents to the child.
Weekly worship affirms this truth. The heavenly family takes priority over the natural family. In heaven, children do not need to be fed by their earthly fathers, but by Christ. In heaven, wives do not need to be fed by their earthly husbands, but by the heavenly Bridegroom. Only in this way can the new heavenly family restore the natural family.
In my previous essay, I stated that parents can separate their children from the Table for a given Sunday if the child is in impenitent sin. I wish to modify this assertion. Since the elders are the parents in the Church, it is really they and they alone who can admit or restrain from the Table. Practically speaking, this means that parents should briefly confer with elders before church if they believe that this week their child should not communicate. The elders can give their okay, or else encourage the parent to relent. In this way, the table-fencing authority of the elders is preserved.
I do not believe that weekly communion and paedocommunion are of the essence of the Church. I do not believe that these two considerations need to be first and foremost in our minds as we consider what church to affiliate with. I do indeed believe that restoration of these two practices is very important, but it will take time, and cannot be rushed. I offer the following considerations.
For one thing, the form that historic, orthodox, catholic, Biblical Christianity has taken in the United States is Baptist. Virtually all American protestants are baptists, one way or another. To say that the “true” catholic churches are those that have “apostolic succession” or some other historical claim, is in my opinion nonsense. It is a failure to recognize the church, the people of God, where they presently are. Presently, in the U. S., they are largely in baptist or quasi-baptist communities. The baptistic ethos of individualism, anti-sacramentalism, decisionism, etc., pervades all of American protestantism.
This was the point of the first volume of Christianity and Civilization, which I edited under the title The Failure of the American Baptist Culture. The point of these essays was not that baptists are bad Christians, but that all of mainstream American Christianity, good and bad, is “bapti_ed.” Such is the nature of American Christianity.
Many if not most presbyterians and Reformed people who sprinkle their babies view this as little more than a dedication. For this reason, they have no instinct to admit their children to the Table. Their instincts are the same as those of their baptist brethren: to hold off such privileges until the child has made some kind of intellectual profession of faith.
The baptist form of the faith cannot endure much longer because it does not have the depth to confront and deal with modern problems. In my opinion, no other heritage by itself has such a depth either. The church of the 21st century will be a “new garment,” coming out of the current ferment. This being the case, I believe, there is no “group” that we need to join up with, because no “group” has the answers. All the conservative separated churches in America today are basically in holding patterns.
All this is to say that if we are true sons of Issachar, we need to know the times in which we live (1 Chron. 12:32). We need to work realistically and charitably with the form of historic Christianity that exists in our culture, and not become isolated from it. That does not mean we all need to go join baptist churches. It does mean that our attitude toward our majority brethren needs to be one of inclusion, not one of antipathy.
Now this is all preparatory to saying that we find God’s people in communities that are not theologically self-conscious, and that are not where we wish them to be. As long as these communities have the three marks of the Church (a genuine community, sacraments, and the Bible), they are true churches. As far as I personally am concerned, my first desire is for a community of godly, prayerful people, not for a certain ritual, or great theological precision, or weekly communion, or paedocommunion, welcome as these would be. I had rather be in a godly community that has communion monthly, than be in a cold church that has it weekly.
Thus my advice to persons who don’t have weekly communion or paedocommunion is this: Don’t run this up so high on your list of priorities that you acquire a distorted perspective. For centuries baptized children have been wrongfully separated from Christ’s table. Yet these were not ages of monumental ungodliness, because the communities were often sound. A good Christian community will do far more for your children than will weekly paedocommunion, if you have to choose between them. After all, during these same centuries, adult Christians were separated from Christ’s table except for four times a year. For the most part they were separated from the wine of communion, either not being given the cup at all, or being given a grape-juice substitute. All of these distortions need to be healed, but in spite of them, these were still true churches.
I also advise Christian parents not to act autonomously or in a revolutionary fashion, for the same reason. Giving your children communion, in defiance of your church, will do far more harm than good. You thereby teach your children to be rebellious and defiant, like you. Far better to teach them to respect the godliness of the community, and their elders, while letting them know that you think there could be some improvements.