Children at the Table of Communion

Cornelius Hanko is an emeritus minister in the Protestant Reformed Churches.

Recently a reader of the Standard Beaver asked some questions regarding children partaking of the Lord’s Supper. When I answered him, I informed him that if he was not fully satisfied, he was welcome to come again. He now writes:

“Thank you for answering my questions concerning children and the Lord’s Supper. I do appreciate your explanation of our churches’ position on this question. I have some further questions on this matter.”

I will treat these questions in the order given.

“1. I Cor. 11:28, 29 may be interpreted either as (a) barring from the Lord’s table those who cannot examine themselves as can an adult, or (b) requiring a self examination according to one’s capability (Luke 12:48). On what Scriptural basis do we choose the first interpretation over the other?”

First of all, let me state that the word that is used in the original for examining one’s self means “to test, to try, to prove, as metal is tested, with the expectation that the good will appear.” One must be able to discern between the bread at communion and ordinary bread, and must recognize the bread at the supper as signifying the body of Christ, which is broken as a complete atonement for all of our sins. This implies an awareness of sin and guilt, a need for pardon, and a confidence that we have the forgiveness of sins in the death of Christ.

In the second place, (a) does not entirely eliminate (b). It will always remain true, that whoever examines himself will do so according to his capacity. The question really centers on whether or not a person is capable of some degree of honest and sincere self-examination that is trustworthy and dependable. A child is actually still too immature to make a sound judgment of himself, and still too unstable to make his judgment dependable.

“2. Your answer states ‘From this it must become evident that our children cannot participate in the Lord’s Supper until they come to years of discretion, for the simple reason that they cannot give expression to their conscious faith in the measure required by the self-examination.’ Does this mean that our elders must bar from the Lord’s table all those who do not or will never have this ability, whether by reason of immaturity, mental retardation, senility, or other disease?”

This question can best be answered by referring to one who has long been considered an authority on Reformed Church Polity, Dr. F.L. Rutgers, who writes in his “Kerkelijke Adviezen” (Ecclesiastical Advice), volume II, page 150: (translated)

You ask me whether a consistory may grant permission to partake of the Lord’s Supper to one who is a member of the congregation and desires to partake of Communion, but is retarded, yet is said to be “faithful in church attendance,” receives a blessing from the worship service, and gives a good testimony at family visitation. 

My answer is that I do not fully understand what objection the consistory can have to grant this permission. Naturally, I am not acquainted with the person involved, but from your information it is clearly evident, that this person is not so seriously handicapped, that he would disturb the service with foolish remarks or actions. You also give evidence that he has some knowledge of the fundamental truths, which apply to the Lords Supper, [sin, deliverance and thankfulness), and even has some idea of self examination. If that is the case, I would say that the consistory cannot refuse him. It has always been maintained in our churches, and properly so, that a member of the congregation can be a child of God, even though he is mentally or poorly developed, so that the rule has always been applied that in cases where it proves impossible to memorize questions and answers, or to give an answer to a specific question, no more is required than a mere “yes” or “no” to the questions pertaining to the admittance to the Table of the Lord.

The next question is:

“3. W. Walker, in his book, History of the Christian Churches, writes on p. 99, ‘The sense of the life-giving quality of the Supper led, also, to the custom of infant communion, of which Cyprian is’ a witness.’ On p. 274 he writes, ‘The abandonment of the cup was rather a layman’s practice due to fear of dishonoring the sacrament by misuse of the wine Similar considerations led to the general abandonment by the Western Church, in the twelfth and thirteenth centuries of the practice of infant communion, which had been universal, and continues in the Greek Church to the-present.’ Would you please comment on this?”

This author obviously sees a “life-giving quality in the Supper,” which operates apart from faith. I question whether he regards the sacrament as a sign and seal, but rather as a power in itself. The benefit is derived from a mere eating and drinking. In that case no understanding of the holy supper and no self examination are required. Our Reformed church fathers had their own reasons for barring children from the Lord’s Supper, as is evident from “The Church Order Commentary” by Idzard Van Dellen and Martin Monsma, from which I quote the following:

Already at the Convention of Wezel, 1568, the question arose: Who are to be admitted to Holy Communion? The Convention answered: No one shall be admitted to the Lord’s Table unless he first shall have made profession of faith and shall have submitted himself to the discipline of the Church. This ruling was reaffirmed by the Synod of 1578 (Dordrecht) in slightly different words, and rewritten by the Middelburg Synod of 1581 in the wording as we still have it in article 61 today. 

From the foregoing it becomes evident that the Reformed Churches from the Reformation era on have held that attendance to the Lord’s Supper is not free to all. It is not a matter to be left to the judgment of the individuals. The office bearers are guardians over the Lord’s Table. They must only admit those whom they believe to be worthy. Erastus and the Remonstrants—those defending the tenets of Arminiansim—held that the attendance or non-attendance should be left to the individual conscience. Some adhering to the Reformed faith seem to hold to this theory . . . . 

Yet not all baptized members of the Church were permitted to go to the Lord’s Table. If all baptized children would be true to their baptism and manifest true faith in Christ and loyalty to His Word in conduct, then as soon as children would come to years of understanding they might approach unto the Lord’s Supper without first securing permission to do so. But conditions are never ideal. There is always some chaff mixed with the wheat. There are Esaus among the covenant-keeping young people of every Church. And so Voetius (another recognized authority on Church Polity—C.H.) in answer to the question whether not all baptized individuals should be considered as entitled to partake of the Lord’s Table, answered “No”. Said he in substance: Faith may be present potentially without having yet developed into actual faith. And actual faith is necessary for the proper celebration of the Lord’s Supper. The essence of faith may be present by regeneration, but the fruit of regeneration, conversion, must be present.

And a final question:

“4. Since our covenant children are not allowed to come to the Lord’s Table, would you please explain the significance of Communion for them?”

Children are the silent observers at the Table of Communion.

Their presence at the Communion service helps them to understand that the sacrament is a means of grace, added to the preaching of the Word to strengthen the faith of the believers. This, along with the instruction in the catechism and in the home, helps them to have a better insight into the signs, which are also seals of God’s promises. Their inquisitive minds will raise questions already at an early age, opening the way for the parents to prepare them for the time when they, too, can participate.

Moreover, they are also taught the importance of the Lord’s Supper and its proper observance. This takes place already during the preparatory week in the home. I can well remember that when we were children our parents impressed on us that preparatory week meant that we also should examine our walk of life, and were reminded of this when we stepped out of bounds. The celebration itself must make a lasting impression on the child of God, even though still very young.

Finally, and most important of all, there is the operation of the Holy Spirit present in the heart of the child even at that early age. Just as a child receives a blessing from the preaching of the Word, which he hears, he can also receive a blessing from what he sees, even though in a very small way. The Holy Spirit does certainly create in that young heart, as it comes to maturity, a growing desire to become an active partaker of the Holy Supper.

I hope that this may be of some help to you.